Fashion & Grooming Editor, Ross Pollard talks to the rising star of British fashion: Phoebe English.
Regular followers of my Twitter and Instagram accounts will know two things: one, it was a bad choice; it’s random and without any themes or connections, and two: I hold Phoebe English as the leader of the vanguard of young British designers that are currently emerging. With her own unique design philosophy, she’s brought a new vibrancy and energy to fashion and especially to menswear. At a time when British fashion has a well-established generation of leaders, there has been a space for a new leader to emerge, a space Phoebe English has stepped into. As you can tell, I was looking forward to interviewing her (not just because she told me she liked my coat at the last Men’s Week). So, here’s what she had to say…
Phoebe English, photograph by Julia Grassi
There is an image that people have of the way British fashion looks, even more so for menswear. You’ve split from that; is it a conscious rejection of tradition or a natural projection of your own style?
I don’t think it was a conscious rejection. I had absolutely no clue about menswear when I started it. All our menswear is based on men who I know personally so it is definitely a reflection of those characters and personalities. It’s rooted in a personal reality rather than a menswear tradition.
You’ve become known for your block colours and signature darker hues with splashes of other colours dotted through the collections. Will we ever see a Phoebe English patterned print?
That is a good question! I have worked on print for our womenswear once, collaborating with illustrator and print designer Helen Bullock, who made incredible hand-painted pieces for us, but that’s as close as I’ve come to a print. I do keep trying them out every season but they never seem to ‘fit’ unfortunately. I guess I’m not figurative enough. One day I will get there. It’s an ongoing project!
Bum bags seem to be making a comeback, do you think they’re brilliant or bobbins?
Brilliant when in fashion and brilliant when not in fashion – love a bum bag!
*Editor’s note – shakes head.
There have been a lot of discussion about the place and purpose of London Fashion Week Men’s (LFWM) recently and it will return in June. How do you feel about the event?
I’m really fond of LFWM. I’ve shown for years on the women’s schedule and I love the difference between the two. They always feel quite different from each other. I really hope it continues.
As a designer of both women’s and menswear, there is a good gap between June and September; is the roughly six weeks between the January and February events too much pressure? Would changes to timing help you?
The gap between January and February is a real problem for us. We are a small team and it’s a real struggle to get everything done properly when there is such a short space of time. We also go to Paris during this time for sales, so it ends up only being five weeks in the studio before the next presentation in the end. We are trying to alter how we work to even this out a little bit in future because it’s so tricky logistically. Changes of timing would definitely be helpful!
What song do you play most in the studio?
I listen to a lot of Conan Mokinson (I prefer his earlier stuff) on repeat. I love how bizarre it is; it’s like a breath of fresh air. And, also [I listen] to endless Turkish Disco from the 1970s which keeps the spirits up when you are tired and working late in the evenings.
As the last couple of weeks before the January edition of LFWM falls largely over the festive period, do you ever look at your Christmas dinner, see the pigs in blankets and think ‘ahhhh, striped scarves’ or ‘I must add more greens’?
I really try to completely switch off at Christmas. It’s the only time the whole year that the studio is closed. We work so, so hard in December to be able to do that; it’s a real mountain to get to Christmas day. But I think it’s really important that everyone is able to go home and be with their families. Also, it’s great to pack up the collection before the break because you have to be really strict with yourself and commit to an idea.
How do you get through the busy days before the presentations? Are the fashion stereotypes of strong coffee, ‘enough cans of Red Bull to wake up a buffalo’ and sleepless nights true?
They can be tough, long days; you really need a good team in place to help get through them. I don’t drink caffeine anymore, sadly. I find having a big lunch helps to keep me going, and also potatoes – potatoes can keep you going for hours and hours! ‘Potato power’ is fantastic! Crisps and chocolates and Red Bull are useless for me though.
As such an up-and-coming designer, did it take a lot of courage to say so early, ‘I’m going to do something unique’? The temptation to do something based in the commercial must have been there?
I don’t think it was a conscious thing I aimed for. It was more the fact that I don’t know how else to do it. This is the only way I know how to work. It’s worked ok so far.
You’ve been in Hong Kong; can we expect the June collection to have some influences from the trip?
I loved Hong Kong, what an incredible place! I wish I had been able to spend a longer time there. I’m not sure I will be basing any collections on it but I will never forget it and really would love to go back and have time to explore more. I accidentally ended up in the botanical gardens in the incredible open-air aviary early one morning and it was wonderful; it was completely deserted, just me and hundreds of exotic birds with the sun coming up between all the high-rise buildings in the background. Surreal and lovely.
Does healthy brown rice remove the fun from a takeaway dinner?
I love brown rice more than fun white rice. Sorry!
You’ve released a range of T-shirts with your sayings and thoughts on them; do you plan to keep them coming?
I enjoyed doing the T-shirts. It was a new thing for us. I don’t think we will be doing them every season but will for sure do some new ones again. Actually, I guess they count as a print!?
I recently bought your bag that mixes a tote with a rucksack. Do you use one, and in which form do you use it most?
Oh, that’s so great! I’m so pleased you got one, thank you so much, I am really flattered! Yes, I do have one, I use it every day, its super useful – even if I do say so myself! I use it mainly in the tote version as I’m usually late for the studio and running there. It’s really useful if you are shopping and need both arms and you can just turn it into a backpack and have both arms free.
Stan Smiths or Dunlop Greenflash? – there is a correct answer to this.
Dunlop – erk – I hope this is the right one! I had them as a teenager and wore them every day to their death.
*Editor’s note – Right answer. I’m a huge Dunlop fan in all forms.
I’ve got all the way through this without asking an English question but I can’t resist just one: what one quintessentially English thing couldn’t you do without?
Well it used to be tea until I gave it up – I used to drink practically hundreds of cups a day, but now it would be for sure the English countryside during May. It’s one of the most beautiful things I know. I spend all year waiting for May.
Visit Phoebe English online.
Read Ross Pollard’s 50th anniversary interview with the managing director of Models 1.