Leader of the pack: Emma Cook

Emma Cook’s vision and originality is more than a match for the bigger fashion brands. The British design sensation talks to Susannah Frankel about the joys of creativity, the perils of commerce – and why she finds inspiration at the circus

For a long time now, Emma Cook has proved herself to be something of a frontrunner where establishing the season’s look is concerned.

If this might appear to be stating the obvious – she is a fashion designer after all, and some might therefore argue that it is her job to do just that – it tends not to be the function of an independent designer showing in London to pave the way. Instead, both Milan and Paris may be relied upon to dictate what the mood will be six months down the line. London, meanwhile, is at best about individual and idiosyncratic expression through clothing. Cook is in the enviable position of laying claim to both.

In fact, the nod to a Twenties line that is all present and correct here has always been a signature where this particular designer is concerned. This time around, however, she is far from the only name to have adopted it. Balenciaga’s stand-out dresses, shown in Paris later on in the season, also had dropped waists and tiers – two tiers, coincidentally. There was also a nod to the Twenties in Marc Jacobs’ summer silhouette. Given that the two international superstars are amongst the most influential in the fashion hemisphere, this is company of the highest possible calibre.

Also at Balenciaga, light and the way it plays on the surface of any garment was central to the story, just as it was at Prada where shimmering gold stole the (spring/summer) show. Then there’s transparency to consider. Pick a designer, any designer, from John Galliano at Christian Dior to Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi and, lo, a trend is born.

If the big names in question are all responsible for clothing that is as dazzling as it is status-driven, there is, and always has been, a gentleness and homespun quality to Cook’s designs, which is more personal in flavour. Hers is a relatively small business, and while the aforementioned fashion superpowers have the skills of the world’s finest ateliers at their disposal, Cook has only her own considerable powers of hand-craftsmanship to rely on. That and the handful of assistants that make any young British designer fashion business tick.

“I was looking at archive photographs of circus performers, all the women dressed up with the sequins and tattoos,” says Cook of the inspiration behind the iridescent surfaces.

“There was a lot of crystal and metal fringing and shine in the show and, yes, quite a Twenties silhouette.”

To achieve an opalescent as opposed to full-on shine, pieces of silk chiffon and organza were hand dyed, embroidered and patchworked together with pieces of plastic and crystal, she explains.

Such a laborious process means, of course, that the end result will be far from low-budget. Weighing in at around £2,000, these are some of the most expensive pieces Cook has ever made, and while such a price point – and indeed upwards of that – might be standard for an international brand, the current economic crisis has meant that, from hereon in, Cook has decided to rethink her business strategy.

It is one of the most frustrating things about being an self-funded British designer that this country still lacks the business infrastructure to support even a label such as Cook’s which has, in the past, boasted stockists everywhere from Los Angeles to Reykjavik and from Tokyo to Antwerp. In Paris her designs are sold at Mare Louisa, and in London, at Liberty, Selfridges and Harrods to name just three. Simply finding the money to show, produce and sell a collection is a struggle, however. Cook, whose pragmatism and hard work is as well-known by now as her witty and pretty designs, chose not to show at all during the autumn/winter season last February, explaining that instead, “I had a really big, long, hard think.”

The conclusion? “I have decided to focus on making my clothes more affordable from now on,” she says. “I spent the season working out ways to halve my retail prices, working with new suppliers, things like that, and dropping the show.”

Most of Cook’s dresses – and dresses are central to every collection she has designed to date – retail at around the £700 mark. In much the same way as Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo clearly have their own and their contemporaries’ needs in mind when they make their clothes, so too does Emma Cook.

“But I don’t know anyone who can pay £700 for a dress,” she says. “I know lots of people who can pay between £200 and £300 though and so it makes sense to design for them, in theory at least.”

Emma Cook, 33, grew up between Glossop, Vivienne Westwood’s home town, and Manchester. Her mother is a hairdresser, her father worked for Rowntree Mackintosh and then Boddingtons before becoming a musician full time.

Cook’s fashion education began at Brighton University, where she completed a degree in fashion, textiles and business studies and also met up with the stylist Cathy Edwards and the set designer Shona Heath, who remain her best friends and main collaborators. Cook designs clothes, now as always, for herself and people such as these first and foremost, finding their different characters and body shapes inspiring.

Following graduation, Cook was accepted onto the fashion MA course at Central Saint Martins’ and, with that course’s director, Louise Wilson, travelled to New York to complete a placement with Donna Karan. She graduated in 1999 immediately attracting considerable attention and set up her own line.

“She’s always been the same,” says the aforementioned Edwards, fashion director of Another Magazine who has always styled Cook’s shows. “She works really, really hard. She was the youngest person in our year and she always got the best marks.”

Ten years on and Cook’s talent as a designer is undisputed. Today, however, with the power so firmly in the hands of the major international luxury goods conglomerates, survival is a challenge.

“I think when you first start you rely on sponsorship rather than sales,” Cook says, and Topshop, with whom she still collaborates – she designs a smallcapsule collection each season – has long been the title sponsor of her shows. Last autumn/winter, fiercely androgynous boots for the chain sold out in a day – they are now selling for £600 on eBay. This season cartoonishly elevated designs with oversized (very oversized) frills are on the same site for £150.

In the meantime, Emma Cook will be busy selling her spring/summer 2010 pre-collection to buyers across the globe next month and is currently working on that season’s main line at a new and improved price.

“Fingers crossed,” she says.

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