Bright future: Louise Gray
Louise Gray's technicolour shows are a high point of London Fashion Week. Rebecca Gonsalves meets the maverick Scottish designer
Monday 12 September 2011
In London, there is currently a vogue for the work of young Scottish fashion designers – with Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Louise Gray leading the charge. However, if you want a reason behind it, don't ask Gray.
"People ask me that all the time," she tells me at her studio in Hackney. "Because I went to Saint Martins with Christopher Kane and one of the reasons I wanted to go in the first place was Jonathan Saunders.
"There is a Scottish thing, but I don't know what it is. Maybe it's that we dream more, or know we have to come to London to do it."
This season Gray will show her eighth collection at London Fashion Week, which kicks off on Friday and, though her progression as a young designer – moving from presentations at Fashion East to the main schedule – could be considered textbook, her vibrant designs are anything but. Gray's eye-catching use of appliqué, embroidery and bold colour has secured deserved recognition for her eponymous line.
Independent from a young age, Gray left the family home in rural Scotland at 17 to study textiles in Glasgow, before moving onto the prestigious Glasgow School of Art to complete her BA in textile design. "Art school was kind of the cliché," says Gray. "But so fun; it felt very free. It definitely influenced my design style – you had to learn the four disciplines: knit; weave; print and embroidery. I didn't like weaving – I thought it was so boring. I felt like a Victorian child at the back of all these looms. The weaving studio was in the top of this huge tower, so you could see the whole of Glasgow, which was amazing. But I just liked print and embroidery better because it's so much more tactile. With knitting you can't really change as you go along, you have to decide what you want to do right at the very start. I much prefer the idea that everything can change in between."
This, combined with Gray's almost waif-like presence, may give the impression that she is unsure of herself, which couldn't be further from the truth: "Before I graduated from art school I applied [to the MA course at Central Saint Martins] and I thought if I get in I'll go and if I don't I'll decide what to do then. That's the only thing I wanted to do, but it felt like a million miles away from actually being real. I wanted to do fashion, I wanted to do textiles, but by the time I graduated from art school I felt I'd outlived Glasgow. I'd already been there for five years; I thought: 'I want more'."
A nd so, as the age-old story goes, the girl from a small Scottish village moved to London to pursue her fashion-school dream, at the college's Soho campus, an experience that this year's intake of students won't share, as Central Saint Martins' new King's Cross premises open this term. "That one 'was' Saint Martins; you were on Charing Cross Road and you felt connected to all the people who had walked through that building before. And the pace is like real life. I don't know how it'll be in King's Cross – it feels so strange to me now. All the bookshops are gone – I think it's bizarre and really sad. I also think change and a new beginning is good, but I definitely think it will affect the mentality of the students."
After graduating in April 2007, Gray almost immediately became involved with Fashion East – Lulu Kennedy's 10-year-old initiative, which provides financial and business support for emerging designers. Gray always knew about the scheme, but never saw herself becoming involved in it. "I always thought I'd work for other people. I never did work experience with fashion people – it was with print companies or embroidery things. Lulu is amazing. Even from day one I was asking her lots of questions. I think she does it from her heart, genuinely. She chooses people she sees something in and wants to support. I said to her: 'I can't believe you've been doing it 10 years. I hope you know how much you help people.' We call her Nana Fashion: 'Go and see Nana if you need some help'."
After making her on-schedule fashion week debut in February of this year, when I meet Gray in early August she is in the early stages of preparing for her spring/summer 2012 show. "I have one assistant and 10 interns. We'll get more in the run up to the show. There's just so much to do," she explains. "I worked for Peter Jensen the whole time I was on the MA, doing hand embroideries for his collections, but I never did an internship like these kids. It's so hard, especially in London, to be able to afford to work for free. So I say: 'Come and do two days, or just figure it out with your schedule, around your schoolwork.' I'd prefer them to have their own thing. It's better for their mind. You have to want to work in fashion. God love, I don't know how people would do it if they didn't."
The pressure building up to the twice-yearly collections must be great, I say. Does she ever feel that it's just too much?
"It just clicks into place and everything goes crazy. The studio starts to become my home. That's when you start to feel completely submerged in it and it gets exciting. The exhilarating part is usually when you're getting the girls dressed and they've got their hair and make-up done and they're wearing their outfits. I always say: 'Just chat; hang out. You don't have to be a pony' to the models. They end up just having fun, dancing. That's nice, when they understand the energy you're trying to build."
It may seem clichéd to refer to Gray's mainline collection as a riot of colour, but that is exactly what it is – an explosion of bright pigments and clashing textures. She stuck to her colourful guns while many retailers put out their most pared-down, classic collections in a bid to stem haemorrhaging retail figures. Her resolution to keep her collections "honest"; to portray the essence of herself in the clothes is now reaping financial rewards.
"My parents come to the shows and think: 'Oh, Louise has always been like this. I can't believe you think this is funny.' They don't find it so new. My Dad was amazingly supportive, he just said: 'Do what you want to do and we'll support you', which is an amazing gift when you're in school and hate it. I always thought you do the thing you like and surely somebody will pay you."
As well as selling her collection internationally, she collaborates with Pollini on a shoe collection, has created jewellery for Asos Inc in the online giant's initiative to work with emerging designers and next month a collaboration with a high-profile Scottish heritage brand will be announced.
Gray sees things pragmatically."I think there's an individual way of dressing at the moment. Not everybody wants the same coat in winter. Fashion is the thing you can be yourself in. You can dress how you want. I feel like people understand what I'm trying to do now." The Scottish collaboration is currently under wraps, but Gray is excited to bring her own colours to a traditional brand as well as the chance to see where it comes from.
Back to the Scottish connection, Gray acknowledges how much her homeland has influenced her aesthetic.
"They do say Scottish people are obsessed with colour. I'm from a small village beside the sea. I was forever outside. The Scottish landscape is really nice, but then in the winter it can be really depressing. It's a mixture of seeing all the nice colours and imagining what could be there too. When you're boxed up in your house and it's snowing – it's as much dreaming as what you are surrounded by. I know that I'm obsessed with colour. When I close my eyes I see everything in colour. My aesthetic has changed as I've grown up, I think my label will change with me. I think I'm more of a tomboy – I do really love shoes and make-up and hair. But then I do think I come from a male way of dressing. I like lots of trousers and coats more than I like dresses. When I was at art school I dressed insane. Like I learned how to get dressed in the dark, but that was the funnest thing. Now loads of the kids, to me, don't look so good. All my interns had their hair pink by the end of last season, picking it up by osmosis. You can see them start to think: 'Ooh, what's it all about?' which is nice."
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