Fannie Schiavoni

...the Swedish jewellery designer explains how she developed her signature style

by Mariel Reed
Fannie Schiavoni has led an unexpected life. She moved to London at 18, married at 20 and chose a career path she hadn’t previously dreamed of. Has she made the right decision? Now 26, she doesn’t know for sure, but her inadvertent switch from architecture to jewellery design has allowed her a freedom she would have never had designing houses.

She muses: “If you study architecture, if you are lucky, you get to build one house in your life that will be exactly how you want it, and it’s probably going to be your own. There are so many things like city planning [restrictions] and budget that go into it that mean you’ll never get to do exactly what you want. So in a way I’m happy I didn’t become an architect, because I get to do what I want.”

After secondary school, the star student from Gotland, Sweden set off to London on a four-month work/play excursion. She started working at a pub and met her husband three days later. When it came time to decide whether to stay or go, Fannie chose to study for a degree at London College of Fashion. “I realised that I would probably want to stay here because of him, so I applied to London College of Fashion. I didn’t think I had the right credentials to apply for an architecture course. That’s the only reason I applied for a foundation at LCF.”

Her passion for intricacy and structure, and her education in maths and science, are evident in her work. Each bracelet, necklace or harness is a complicated rhythm of carefully calculated patterns. Each ring is placed one by one to create a special form of structure, with historic references, often suggestive of chainmail. Every piece of jewellery is handcrafted, made up of an intricate pattern of interconnected steel rings that make it undeniably Fannie Schiavoni.

She explains: “My whole collection was inspired by my hometown. There is a really rich medieval history. Because it’s an island, it was a port for all the Viking ships. A Danish king slaughtered half the population in a battle and buried them with the chainmail on, so we have a lot of chainmail.”

Her signature style is attributed to the way she links each ring. “That’s the ancient European chainmail weave. That’s how all of the armour used to be put together. Last season I included some Japanese techniques as well. It’s not as beautiful, but it’s more effective because it’s easier to put together.”

Fannie makes every piece by hand. “All the rings are connected one by one. If it’s not my signature chain, then it’s rings that have been cut out and sourced, one by one by hand. I don’t buy any chain or anything premade. I use some silver, but I rarely use gold, or any fine jewellery. I don’t use precious stones. All of my materials are like plastics or steel, things that are unusual and cheaper. The reflection of my pricing is in the labour.”

As her namesake label, started in 2009, progresses, so too does the level of intricacy. Each season, Fannie adds something new to the work she has created so successfully for the past three years. “I have boxes and boxes of things that I have gathered for a whole season, so I choose whatever fascinates me the most. With the PVC, I wanted to create a surreal effect. On the body, or around the neck, for example, it looks like doll skin. Also, I’d never seen anyone use PVC in that way before. When cutting pattern shapes that hug the body, the material is usually something stretchy, like a catsuit. I always look for something that I haven’t seen often.”

Including unconventional materials can be a big risk, but not for Fannie. “When I design I don’t sit down and think ‘what can I sell?’ But I do sit down and figure out what sold well last season, and carry on with those. The PVC, funnily enough, actually went quite well. It’s all about bigger pieces. I barely ever sell any of the bracelets or necklaces. So, I might try a heavier, black, big, shiny PVC.”

When Fannie first started her label, it wasn’t easy for her to see the next step. “I was studying fashion design and before that I was studying tailoring. That was all about the construction of the garment and attention to details. I didn’t want to use bold colours or patterns. I ended up doing a boring collection, especially for the runway, compared to my classmates who were doing these big things that were crazy and had interesting materials. I was doing something more suitable for Savile Row. I didn’t get into the press show and that was a big thing for me because I had always been at the top of my class, never missed a lesson, always had distinctions. After three years of not sleeping, not getting into the press show was seriously disappointing. The only thing in the collection that stood out was the chainmail.

“I was upset about the press show for about a week. I was really depressed, thinking, what am I going to do with my life? I was fed up with the school so I set up a meeting with Browns Focus. I had emailed a couple of buyers but Jemma Dyas was the one who responded. I only had three pieces at the time so she helped me develop a range of six pieces from photos and sketches. She picked what she thought would sell and put an order in. “

Fannie’s long blonde hair and delicate features make her a perhaps surprising creator of powerful armour-like jewellery. Her low-key style and understated demeanour reflect her down-to-earth approach, but maybe she doesn’t give herself enough credit. “I really don’t like interviews. It feels like I’m a celebrity, which I know I’m not. It kind of makes you feel as if you are because someone is interested in knowing about you. Then you get all wound up and talk about yourself and you feel bad about it.”

Her fans believe her work deserves greater exposure and recognition. Since her exclusion from the London College of Fashion press show, this designer has come a long way. In part, she has been inspired by being chosen as one of the NewGen designers. “NewGen is great. It’s an amazing opportunity. You work with some amazing people. Without that team, I wouldn’t be where I am today, for sure. “

But Fannie’s position is far from ideal. With the freedom and glamour of starting her own business has also come the struggle and administration that often gets overlooked, by the media not least. She said that a designer only spends 18% of her time designing. The rest of the time is spent dealing with business. Corresponding with buyers, dealing with taxes and finances, managing employees: these are all issues that that Fannie faces daily. She says: “I spend two weeks out of six months designing.”

Fannie’s daily routine goes something like this: “I try to wake up somewhere between six and eight o’clock in the morning. Then I try to get stuff done like answering big emails or organising myself. Then the interns come in from ten to six. When they are in, I just sit in front of the computer and do emails, organise files, press and these sorts of things. For the past month, I have been dealing with my tax returns. It’s everything but designing.”

A young designer must develop the ability to switch back and forth between a business mindset and a creative mindset. Sometimes just getting started can be the hardest part. Fannie’s creative process is key to her success. “I can’t draw. So, I sketch something that looks like a three year old’s doodle. But I never believed in the whole beautiful sketching thing because you can draw the most amazing dress, but it’s never what it ends up looking like anyway. I always design on the mannequin because my work is about how the lines go on the body. It’s either pleasing to the body, or whatever shape you want it to be, but you’ll never know until you put it on a mannequin. That’s why I do more harnesses than necklaces.”

Fannie Schiavnoni’s fast rise in the fashion scene has been an interesting ride. She is now recognised globally for her distinctive designs, worn by the likes of Pop Superstars, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. But Fannie shies away from stardom herself. It is important, she says, to add personality to a brand, even if she has trouble doing so. “I can’t make myself do those public things [such as blogging, tweeting Facebook]. In a way I wish I could, because when people get engaged with you as a person; they automatically become more interested, which is weird.”

Could it simply be because the people want to understand the person behind the beauty of the creative work? Her strong work, although predominantly masculine in flavour, has a characteristic and quintessentially feminine touch too. For fashion enthusiasts, Schiavoni’s switch from architecture to fashion was fortunate indeed.