People in fashion: A knack for all trades

Fashion isn't just about clothes. Hester Lacey meets multi-talented design duo New RenaisCAnce
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The lair of Harvey Bertram-Brown and Carolyn Corben, together known as the New RenaisCAnce design company, is in a cave-like underground basement in Covent Garden. It is windowless and small, at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs. It is not, however, a dank and cheerless cavern; more a glittering grotto. Visitors are likely to ignore its human inhabitants and wander off for a poke around its alluringly overflowing shelves and drawers, full of essentials such as snowdomes, artificial flowers, glittering sequins, rude playing cards, false nails, scraps of lace and feathers. The piece de resistance in the middle of the floor is a television screen surrounded by a huge and irresistible collage, featuring glittering blue lobsters, red feathers and golden grapes.

Luckily Harvey, 31, and Carolyn, 34, are used to such rude behaviour. "People do tend to come in and say 'Wow'," says Carolyn, kindly. (Bike couriers, not the most easily shocked breed in London, are often particularly taken aback when they swagger through the door, she adds.)

The room is lined with souvenirs of an enterprise that, in just six years, has spanned more aspects of fashion than many designers get through in a lifetime. Bundled on a shelf is the Christmas-tree mini-dress that transformed Ulrika Jonsson into last year's Evening Standard Christmas Fairy. Dripping from a hanger is the ethereal web of a dress, supposedly spun by spiders, that stars in New RenaisCAnce's latest project, a television advert for Gordon's Gin which goes out from tomorrow. Next to tins of spray-paint and glitter is a jam jar full of tiny, naked, pink, plastic, baby dolls. "You've got to have a jar of babies, it's essential," says Carolyn (quite possibly she is serious).

Harvey (resplendent in T-shirt that proclaims "supermodel") and Carolyn (skirt with panoramic vistas of the New York skyline, plus French chateau- patterned shirt) met, conventionally enough, at the Royal College of Art - that proud big "CA" in their name refers to the RCA. He studied fashion and she studied embroidery, but neither had "Making Nice Frocks" at the top of their career agenda. Unusual for fashiony types, surely? "At college, everyone was geared up to enter the clothing industry," says Harvey. "The aim at the RCA was to get a good job in Italy." And what's wrong with knocking up posh collections in Italy? "We think of fashion as almost intangible. It's a feeling, a mood, it's relevant to society, clothing is only a part of it. Fashion is as much photography, advertising, music and pop videos as clothes."

It's a handy philosophy, because their work embraces all of the above. Their showreel, a fast-moving whirl of the glamorous and the kitsch, introduces them as "art directors, stylists, set designers, image managers, costumiers, supermodels and fashion darlings". They do make clothes, and have had lines on sale in the poshest of London's department stores, but most of their pieces aren't ones to wear. "We didn't want to make seasonal collections with the idea that they will be thrown away when they go out of fashion. We wanted to make stuff you could keep as a work of art," says Carolyn. She pulls out a bustier made entirely of labels. "If you wear one designer label, why not wear a thousand?" Another favourite, hanging in the studio, is a white sheepskin coat, decorated with laminated real flowers and real insect corpses - "We didn't kill them," explains Carolyn, "we found them in a light fitting."

They are responsible for the fantastical WeatherGens that introduce the weather forecasts on ITV; each WeatherGen is a living symbol for rain, snow, hail or sun and there are 17 of them, all baroquely over-the-top confections of sequins, feathers, PVC and... Sellotape (a very versatile material, says Carolyn. They also used it in the costumes for a pop video for Bryan Ferry. "Fifty layers of Sellotape have a strange, fragile density.")

They have designed the Christmas window display at Harvey Nichols, which also hosted the New Generation of Fashion Designers show, where Naomi Campbell modelled for them. She made the headlines for wearing their voluminous skirt made of folded copies of the Financial Times. (The Sun followed up by showing their readers how to create the same look, using the Sun, of course.) Most of their assignments have involved a brief that is, well, brief. They have the reputation for being able to pick up a half-formed idea and develop it. "A lot of people let us run with the ball," says Harvey. "We are seen as ideas people with the skills to carry the ideas through. Many designers are given a very tight brief, but people tend to come to us for the whole vision."

But now, these fashion designers who don't believe in fashion have decided what they really, really want. They want to direct. "We have just done our first commercial, for Gordon's," says Harvey. "Commercials are wonderful because you are allowed to create something quite perfect - it's such a small amount of time that you can concentrate on every single frame. And it embraces all the areas we have worked on for the past six years."

Because, of course they don't just want to direct, they want to do everything, costumes, hair, make-up, music, lighting, the lot. "We still think of ourselves as a fashion company," says Harvey. "We are still wearing the same fashion hat as when we left college." Less of a hat than an umbrella, perhaps.

The New RenaisCAnce, "available for weddings and bar mitzvahs", can be contacted on 0171 240 8302.

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