Emma Cook: Dolly mixture

On the eve of London Fashion Week, Susannah Frankel meets the hot young designer Emma Cook – and we exclusively preview her latest collection. Styling by Gemma Hayward. Photography by Julia Kennedy

Saturday 09 February 2008 01:00 GMT

"It's not like blancmange," says Emma Cook of her new collection, destined to be, not a pudding, but one of the high points of London Fashion Week, which starts tomorrow. "There's no middle ground. It's either disgusting. Or it works."

It's not how one might expect a designer to describe her own work. But then, while the work in question looks like just the sort a fashionably minded young woman might like to wear, it's also full of the kind of bizarre and at times even twisted humour that Cook has by now made all her own.

Central to this designer's vision is a fantasy friend called Susan – "it's funny," she muses, "because I don't know anyone with that name. My cat's called Susan though." First came Lazy Susan, based loosely – very loosely – on Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party. Not long after that Susan IV made her entrance, a medieval beauty (hence the Roman numerals) and Cook's fourth show, neatly enough. "Yes, I was pleased with that one," she says. Every six months a new Susan is brought to life – Suzy-Styrene ("because she was a bit punky") and Right On Susan ("she was green") were two more.

For the forthcoming autumn/winter season, Susan finds herself Lonesome. Lonesome Susie is, according to her maker at least, "like an Italian exchange student doing Dolly Parton. She's a country-song Susan, all a bit tragic, widows and veils, a bit depressing."

The end result, it almost goes without saying, is anything but. Instead, the most delicately pretty, hand-made lace and lace prints rub shoulders with tie-dyed latex (Cook was, by all accounts, pretty pleased with the latter), dandelion clocks and shuttlecocks with leather and fringing. Throw in references to comic-book heroes ("in a cartoon way, with pastel, sugar-coloured tin soldiers"), majorettes and brass bands, rockabilly, psychobilly, cyberpunk, beauty pageants and more and a picture begins to evolve, albeit it a somewhat chaotic one.

Emma Cook, 31, grew up between Glossop and Manchester. Her mother is a hairdresser and cuts her daughter's bleached-blonde tresses to this day; her father worked for Rowntree Mackintosh and then Boddingtons before becoming a musician.

Their daughter's fashion education began at Brighton University where she completed a degree in fashion, textiles and business studies ("I wasn't very good at that bit") and also met up with the stylist Cathy Edwards and the set designer Shona Heath, who remain her best friends and main collaborators to this day. Cook designs clothes, now as always, with her friends in mind, finding both their different characters and body shapes inspiring.

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

"She's always been the same," says Edwards, fashion director of Another Magazine, who styles Cook's twice-yearly shows. "She works really, really hard. She was the youngest person in our year because she skipped her foundation course and she always got the best marks. She thinks of an idea and then she gets really excited about it. I come in and she's like, 'Look, look, it's latex! But it's tie-dyed! It's amazing!'"

With this in mind, perhaps the single thing that stands out is the fact that for Cook, the surface of a garment comes before the cut. "Everything she does comes from that," says Edwards, "from the print, or textile or technique." Many of said techniques are found in old craft books and then modernised. Cook has, in the past, embossed leather, explored sun-fading, batik, and raffia. "A lot of them are quite nostalgic," Edwards confirms. If the surface of the collection is often very complex – in particular a sequence of show pieces is always designed to demonstrate any new-found technique or elaborate workmanship involved – the shape will, by contrast, mostly be relatively simple. "Emma wants girls to actually be able to go out in her designs," Edwards explains.

Cook returns to the London Fashion Week catwalk this season after an absence of a year – spent designing her collection but also looking after her young baby. To celebrate, she says, "we've gone a bit crazy".

The product of her fevered imaginings is as lovely as ever – if not more so. Cathy Edwards sums up the look of her friend's clothes thus: "So a girl will be out in a dress and it will seem quite simple. And another girl will say, 'That's nice, but what's that?' pointing to a wooden carving on her shoulder. And then the girl will say, 'It's a wooden owl, actually, it's hand-carved'. And her friend will say. 'Lovely.'"

Model: Sif at Models 1
Make-up: Aly Hazelwood at Terri Manduca using Chanel Spring/Summer 08 Collection
Hair: Claire Rothstein using Bumble and bumble
Photographer’s assistants: Caroline Marks and Sarah Piantadosi
Stylist’s assistant: Aimee Grundell
All clothes from the Emma Cook Autumn/Winter 2008 collection, www.emmacook.co.uk , enquiries 020-7923 4840

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