people in fashion; The man who makes the fabrics of society

Nigel Atkinson's luxurious fabrics have graced many a runway - for other designers. His own creations are just as covetable. Imogen Fox reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Downstairs in Nigel Atkinson's basement studio, rolls upon rolls of fabric are carefully stored on top of one another. In the corner, on the cement floor, stands a glass display case, protecting a pair of what appear to be antique slipper-shoes. The sewing machine under the window looks more ornamental than functional. In fact, the whole room looks like part of a museum archive rather than the workroom of an innovative textile designer.

Atkinson himself seems like the curator of his own collection of fabrics. He handles his creations carefully, delicately running his hands over his fabrics as he talks about his work. "I'm very interested in working with ambiguity of period. I like to create things which could be new or antique - you could look at them in 10 years' time and not be able to pinpoint quite what period they were from," he explains. This desire to let the fabrics do the talking has meant that Atkinson has, among other things, been producing a collection of wraps and scarves for the past eight seasons or so. He believes that, by their very nature, wraps are, "the perfect vehicle for being able to show the fabrics in a very simple and pure way".

His creations are rarely just printed cloths. Often the fabric itself has been manipulated to create a design. Using heat-reactive inks - which change the quality of the cloth as they are applied - is a process which Atkinson, now 33, developed while studying textile design at Winchester college in the mid-Eighties. "I studied print design but was always more interested in the surface of the fabric. The way print was taught then was that you created patterns on paper and then translated them into cloth. I always felt that a lot got lost in the stages between the design on paper and the end result of the fabric. I was looking at embroidered fabrics and brocades and I wanted to create the richness of those techniques, but without the labour," explains Atkinson of his approach to textile design.

Constant experimentation with old bits of fabric, pilfered from jumble sales in Winchester, meant that Atkinson was able to develop his own distinctive way of working on raw material. Shortly after he graduated in 1986, Atkinson's work was picked up by the Parisian-based designer Azzedine Alaia, who used three fabrics from Atkinson's first collection. That was just the beginning. Atkinson browses through a scrapbook of fashion pages. "That one was for Cerruti," he says, pointing at clothes featuring his fabrics, "and that was when I was supplying the velvet for Romeo Gigli."

Despite such collaborations with high-profile international designers, Atkinson himself is not particularly self-promoting, and still seems touchingly surprised by his own success. He describes walking by Leicester Square on the evening of the opening of Robert Altman's film Pret-a-Porter and seeing a crowd of photographers. "A limousine pulled up and then a lady got out wearing one of my wraps and I thought, 'Oh, look, there's one of mine.'"

Luxuriously large with a weighty price tag (prices start at around pounds 300) the wraps look like they should only be worn over the shoulders of some grande dame of the theatre (Atkinson has designed fabrics for films and for the National Theatre). "I want to get the feel of having found a trunk from a glamorous cruise liner from the Twenties or Thirties, full of all sorts of treasures." It's not difficult to imagine his designs in such a setting.

So, who does wear his wraps? Atkinson is coy about the subject, but he does admit that they sell extremely well in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, which sells a lot of eveningwear. He also claims that Italian women are more comfortable wearing his wraps - and apparently English women feel much more self-conscious in them. "There was one English woman who looked anxiously at the pieces and asked, 'Where are people wearing these?' She really looked as though she thought she was missing out on something," Atkinson recalls, smiling. He is obviously a little mystified by this attitude, believing that it is far easier to wear a wrap over an evening dress than to cover up with an overcoat.

He has recently branched out into an area that is equally good at showing his textile designs to their best advantage. Launched this year, the Nigel Atkinson Interior Textile line includes cushions and upholstered boxes - also simple shapes which mean that you notice the fabrics first. This expansion into upholstery is important to Atkinson as he's keen not to be pigeon-holed in any way; he is fascinated by fabric itself rather than by any one particular use of it. "One of the things I really enjoy is that it takes a long time to really know a fabric well and to know how it behaves. I love starting with a new fabric and seeing what happens when I cut it on the bias, and how it reacts to different printing processes, and I don't mind accidents." Each season Atkinson tries to explore a new fabric, so we will continue to see the results of such experiments in various different reincarnations.

Nigel Atkinson Accessories are available from Browns, 23 South Molton Street, London W1, and A la Mode, 36 Hans Crescent, London SW1. Nigel Atkinson Interior Textiles are available from Carden Cunietti, 83 Westbourne Park Road, London W2. Enquiries: 0171 284 0316.

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