Whilst everyone was poring over whose dress lit up (literally) the red carpet or who out sci-fied each other with their latex limbs, cut-away hemlines and metallic arm guards at the Met Gala on Monday, I was eager to see what the consensus was of the Manus x Machina exhibition, the latest headline exhibition at the Costume Institute – you know the thing that supposedly is the primary reason why everyone devotes a good three months on nailing that dress code.
I had to chortle a little at the clever titling manouvre Andrew Bolton and his curating team made with Manus x Machina, leading everyone down a merry garden path of “Oooh, let’s see what funky hyped-up wearable tech I can get on my body!”, when in actual fact, the exhibition is really about the intimate and subtle ways that fashion has been co-opting technology for well over a century, integratingboth the hand and machine. It’s the sort of technology that is hidden in seams, apprenticed in quiet ateliers and ingrained with subtle know-how, as opposed to circuit boards, LED lights. I look forward to seeing the exhibition in person to delve deeper, when I’m in New York next week. From afar, it looks to be a triumphant and pertinent feat of fashion curation.
This week, I’m trying to see as much of London Craft Week, now in its second year of running. In fact in the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to get my content mojo back, by working on blog stories that are centred around the maker and their hands. If I’m accused of the act of fetishisation of craft, then so be it. This is what I’m interested in and amidst ongoing discussions of a shifting fashion industry, a season less calendar, and a businesses based on product-product-product, I’m retreating into worlds that you wouldn’t technically call ‘fashion’ but offer insight into how fashion as we know it could change for the better.
I will be rounding up LCW in a broader overview but I had to focus in on one designer, whose work pretty much sums up the dichotomies between machine and hand made, exposed at the Manus x Machina exhibition. On Tuesday evening, Alice Archer, who is a new wave embroidery specialist hailing from the Royal College of Art, opened up her studio and presented her work at The Place on Connaught Street, a showcase retail space operated and backed by Simon Burstein, the former CEO of Browns and son of the legendary Joan Burstein. In fact, it was Archer’s work which galvanised Burstein into finding a work and retail space to help start her business.
Samples from Archer’s graduate collection
After seeing Archer’s work up-close, it’s easy to see why Burstein has so wholeheartedly invested in her talent. In her own words through her op-ed piece for Business of Fashion, “It is my ambition to push the potential of traditional embroidery techniques and make embroidery relevant and desirable today by combining new technologies with that spirit of traditional handcraft.”
And so every single stitch that you see on her pieces are the result of a computer programme file that she creates through synthesising a JPG file, which is then sent to a digital embroidery machine. It’s why she can reel off the exact number of stitches and length of thread that has gone into individual pieces. The versatile nature of the machine is such that depth of shading and tension of stitches can be varied up. When you look at the range of techniques that Archer has created, from her graduate work and capsule pieces for Browns, through to her current standalone collections, there’s no way you could accuse the embroidery of being uniform-like.
Archer makes a great case for coming up with the right combination of a manual process and a machine-operated one. The designs and programming still need to be done by hand, often taking up to two days to get the file right. And then completing the piece on the machine can also take a couple of days too and has to be overseen in person. What’s significant though is that the embroidery can be replicated in quantity, it doesn’t have to be heavy and ultimately reduces the cost of what is considered to be an expensive craft – without sacrificing the quality.
The precise nature of Archer’s work is especially apparent when she combines a base of white porcelain-polyester thread embroidery with digital printing. Her graduate collection and work for Browns featured classical master paintings of rosy cheeks – specifically from Claude Marie-Dubufe’s painting The Surprise – positioned and played around with in Photoshop and printed digitally over the embroidery. The resulting effect is like a distressed canvas of painterly strokes that is wearable. The often glossy or flat appearance of digital printing is given added depth and texture.
In her latest A/W 16 collection presented during London Fashion Week, Archer exploits this technique to great effect with the manipulation and abstraction of Degas’ ballet dancer paintings, printed over embroidery of birds of paradise on a kimono. On top of that are the finishing touches of hand-embroidered scalloped of tools. This is Manus x Machina at its best. Photoshop also informs designs where black and white and coloured roses contrast against each other. Or when the digital pattern of floral embroidery is rendered as a woven jacquard, made in a historic English mill. Her references of botanical drawings of Kew Garden flowers are tried and tested, but the final interpretations of those drawings are innovative in process and in appearance.
Digitally printed embroidery samples featuring artists like Monet and Gauguin
Alice Archer A/W 16 collection
Archer does all the sampling in the basement of The Place before initiating production in Italy
Tradition lingers through hand embroidered embellishment worked on top of the digital embroidery
Downstairs, Archer laid out a number of samples and tests for us to see, which are almost as fascinating as the final garments. They get the mind thinking about the possibilities that Archer can achieve with different printed imagery, different base materials (so far she has used anything from evening-derived chiffon and silk satin to more casual denim and gingham cotton), different stitch settings and thread thickness. Archer is fixated on florals at the moment, trying to introduce rare species in her embroidery, but she might well move on to more unconventional subject matter. After all she has seven years of experience of doing embroidery work for the artist Tracy Emin to draw upon. Archer is equally effusive though of devotees to hand crafted embroidery such as Dries van Noten, where she worked for a short period of time.
For Archer, it’s a harmony between the machine and the hand, rather than a dichotomy. It’s how craft can move progress and evolve – something that is something of an emerging theme at London Craft Week. One thing Archer could do with delving into digitally though, is a fully functioning website. With embroidered shirts starting at £270, this is the sort of intricate craftwork that – with the right images and information – can sell itself online. For now, you can see and buy Archer’s body of work at The Place on 27 Connaught Sreet or on Browns.