Designer Focus

Designer Focus: Carli Pearson

If any of Carli Pearson's designs look familiar, it may be because you've seen them before—at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's highly lauded "Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” exhibition. Carli's brand, CIMONE, brings a new energy to the old guard of designers featured in the Met's exhibit, and it's a thrilling addition that we encourage everyone to see.

A few weeks after the Met Gala, we took a moment to chat with Carli to learn more about her process, inspiration, and all that goes in to the garments within CIMONE.

How did you get into fashion? 

I was always interested in painting and drawing, so I knew that I wanted to do something creative with my life. Of course I also knew that being an artist was a hard road—I wanted to do something that could be a sustainable career, too. Fashion seemed to marry all of the threads, though it was almost accidental, as it is for many people—it happened organically. In practical terms, I suppose I first began my career studying at a small college for my BA called Winchester School of Art. The course was really hot on technical skills, so I gained a lot of knowledge around pattern making and construction. 

I was lucky enough to gain a place on the MA Womenswear at Central Saint Martins—the course was super creative and conceptual, but far less about the practical skills that it takes to make the actual garment, so I was fortunate to have developed both sides and was able to merge the two—this really helped me to hit the ground running. CSM was the real springboard to my career—thanks to Louise Wilson, our course director at the time. She arranged interviews for several of her students for a position at Stella McCartney, and I was the lucky one that got the job! Louise was my biggest career influence. I have never met anyone before her, or since, who has had the capacity to both terrify and inspire all at once. Her reputation preceded her, and I guess this is how most of her students remember her—our memories are her monument and legacy—which, I think, would have pleased her!


What made you decide to start your own label?

I think that nearly all designers at some point seriously think about starting their own brand. Design is such a personal process, and we all want to make something new and exciting, to create something unique—naturally everyone dreams of being able to do this without having to answer to someone else’s whim. The big problem if you do it the way around that I have, is that when you start working for others, that dream drifts further away. As time passes, you have greater responsibility and your pay check gets bigger, so the idea of risking that all on an unsure future, with fewer ‘creature comforts’ becomes more petrifying as you get older and more experienced. 

But in the end, I just thought, well, if not now, then when? I had already worked for some of the biggest brands, and although there are many more that I would like to work for, I felt that if I didn’t do something soon I would be perceived as being too old. Sadly, we can’t all be Karl Lagerfeld! 

I think for women it’s even harder. And to a certain extent, you have to create your own luck and fight ten times harder. There seems to be two perceptions of women: one, that we are fragile and weak, or on the flip side, that we are ‘ball breakers’—women are rarely rewarded for being tough and having high standards, and the qualities of sensitivity and empathy are also seen as negatives it seems. If a man possesses these same traits they are rewarded… as a woman facing a male interviewer, there is always the expectation that we are about to go off and have a baby and that if we do, our brains will turn to mush. If a man has kids, it's not seen as a threat. Once you’ve been stuck at the same level of employment for a long time, the youthful optimism starts to fade, and you begin to see the underlying sexism for what it is—as a woman in your 30s, you’re not seen as a safe bet. Sure, I wouldn’t be right for everything, but once you’ve reached a certain level, it's frustrating to see so many male womenswear designers with less of a track record pass you by.

With CIMONE, we will always support women in fashion. It’s one of my mission statements, and I take my hat off to all of the other women in fashion who have risen to the top or who have started their own brand. I think all of us wonder what it would be like to have complete creative freedom, but unless you do it at the very beginning, it’s really tough. When you’ve worked in big houses, it's hard to go back to ‘roughing it’ —even now, I have to compromise—we simply don’t have the money to do everything I would like to do, but we do what we can with what we have. I wanted to create a brand with integrity, to slow it down. When I started on my own, I knew I had the opportunity to make a statement about the kind of designer I am and what matters to me. 

How do you define your particular style and aesthetic? 

Structure is an important part of the CIMONE aesthetic. The clothing I create is made to be bold, beautiful and powerful—to make a women feel upright and proud of who she is and the way that she looks. I hope to dress and inspire women that are strong and assertive, and have a brave attitude to fashion—those that are brave enough to push boundaries. We love a strong shoulder line and in turn a good suit: the CIMONE woman is no shrinking violet!

Also many of the clothes I design have unexpected but balanced proportions. We often pair textures that you wouldn’t necessarily put together, or use everyday items to make prints. I like to challenge the perception of ‘good taste’. 

An important part of the CIMONE DNA is the process in which we work. This really informs the style of our brand. I usually start off my design process with inspiration from something that is quite obscure and actually has nothing to do with clothing! It’s often a technique I have seen in another craft or industry, or something beautiful that inspires me. I begin a process of research and testing into ways to make that application work within the constraints and boundaries of clothing. New pieces and concepts develop from this organically. I never start the season with a plan of how many dresses, trousers and jackets we are going to make, we work at it until the balance feels right. I’m really fascinated with new technology and science, and hope that one day CIMONE can grow big enough to be this laboratory of experimentation, merging old techniques with modern technology, to be innovative and reinvent the familiar. 

We are a small studio and work very intensively with each garment. Nothing leaves our studio until it is completely finished, so we live with it and add to it and change parts during development. We love each piece and coax it through the whole process gently so that we feel that it is absolutely the best that we could make it. 

We are experimental at our core, but I never want to release anything unless it feels resolved and established. Even if we create a new technique, we have to refine it and refine it, to the point where it feels as though it has always been there. The true meaning of luxury to me is being able to give due attention to a single idea even if it isn’t always commercial. Luxury fashion should be dreamlike, it shouldn’t just be everyday clothes—it should be that little bit fantastical and challenging. We want to keep that element and to experiment, and then translate these ideas into clothes that women can, and want, to wear. That said, it’s really important to me that the design isn’t so serious that it loses all sense of fun. Though it has a refined aesthetic I like everything that we make to have youthful, playful, spirit, even if sometimes that spirit is a bit dark and dangerous.


What or what are your inspirations and muses? 

CIMONE is all about freedom, so the CIMONE woman knows her own mind, but is also playful and understated. 

If I had to picture the type of women that I think would be interested in CIMONE, I would definitely say she is worldly, individually minded; strong and independent. Someone like Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Bjork, or even Grace Jones. A disparate group, but they all know their own minds. I most definitely don’t design for wallflowers. I design for women with drive; they’re not the kind to be sitting at home prettying themselves waiting for their partner to return. The CIMONE woman is definitely a feminist who dresses for herself—not for the approval of others. 

I think that our inspirations are very broad, from films to science, or traditional crafts—but the women I picture wearing our clothes, who bring all of the disparate elements together, are united by a common mindset—a drive, individualism and motivation. These are women who don’t want to be like anyone else. I don’t think our customer is someone who buys clothes for clothes sake, or would necessarily be easily pushed into buying trends, instead they are buying clothes because they are beautiful things to be loved and passed on.

They could be 18 or 70, or anywhere in between, I don’t like the idea of a fixed customer profile, I find the whole concept very restrictive creatively—she lives here, wears this, eats that—it's all very alien to me, as that person that is being created fundamentally doesn’t exist—besides, your target customer is rarely the person who actually fits this fictional profile!I would hope that our collections speak to many people in different ways. This could also be a man if he wanted to wear the clothes! I don’t like gender stereotyping. Instead, I prefer the wearer, to remain enigmatic—essentially those who like the clothes, like the clothes. 

If you look at many of my archive references you will find women in the 40s and 50s going about their normal day, and attending parties. Women were unafraid to celebrate their bodies and to express themselves. I think right now, on the surface, we have so much freedom that the new form of rebellion is to appear mundane, the ‘anti-fashion’ movement—the dad on holiday look. I’m a little bored of this look already, and even those that have created it admit that they wouldn’t buy into it themselves—I think in time the tide will turn. ‘Anti-fashion’ is already high fashion, so I think its days are numbered—ironic dressing can only last for so long before we all realise it's just ugly, and its hard to be ironic and edgy when it becomes mainstream. When the switch up happens, I think we will find a whole new group of women wanting to push the boundaries and wear brands like CIMONE. It’s fast becoming rebellious to wear something considered! From a purely fashion perspective, I have always been fascinated by designers of yesteryear, such as Alix, old Balenciaga and Dior to name a few. I’m fascinated by the seam work from that period; they are more like masterpieces in construction than items of clothing. 


Tell us a bit about your recent collection. What’s the story behind it?

In the period of the last collection I had just been through a family bereavement which was a transformative experience, and the show itself was heavy and dark as a result. Even our show music included David Bowie’s Blackstar. I’m not sure how conscious that was, but it’s interesting to see how your own emotional life manifests itself physically in the work we create. The collection definitely had religious overtones, though I myself am not a follower of any religion. There are several looks in this same collection that are heavily inspired by ecclesiastical garments, and much of the styling took inspiration from the gothic.

I also always symbolically link religion to particularly heavy emotions, it’s a language of extremes. There is an austerity and seriousness in religious wear. I can’t help but associate much of the iconography with grief, melancholy and occasionally guilt! 

Generally, the opulence of religious garments continues to fascinate me—there is a certain intrigue too in what lies beneath, what is concealed, the tension between religious attire as ‘costume’ versus ‘clothing’. This is something that I see continuing. There is something innately appealing about the blasphemous concept of religious garments being seen as sexy, very much the opposite of their intended purpose. In my work, I love to play with these notions of power, and the provocative nature of the untouchable. 

Do you think you have a responsibility as a designer to respond to the social and political issues of our time?

Yes absolutely. As it is in any creative art form. But sometimes, I think revolution is seen as a young person’s issue, that youth culture is the only thing that can drive change. Sadly, I think many of the ‘cutting edge’ designers aren’t edgy enough. If you are 45 and want to be subversive with clothing, do you have to wear overpriced ugly trainers and charity shop chic? You look around you now and it's almost sickening that we are willing to pay hundreds for a DHL t-shirt to subvert the system, when actually, in the end, we’re just advertising DHL. I wonder what the suffragettes would think about the way we dress now, would they see it as revolutionary, or as laughable? 

If it were that you pay £300 for a t-shirt but that £200 of that was donated to a charity making change, then it would be different, but today’s fashion seems to be monetising and exploiting the desire for revolution rather than supporting an actual revolution. One day a whole bunch of people will look down and see that they are actually just wearing a very ugly trainer that cost a fortune, and for no other reason than everyone was paying too much money to wear them because they thought they were making an intelligent statement on the state of fashion. I’m not really sure who the joke is on then. I’d like to know where all of these pieces will end up, I suspect many won’t last into the next decade. In a time when we are constantly being reminded of the human impact on the environment, I am surprised that so many items of clothing are now designed to be passé almost as soon as they are released.

Our form of political is to ignore the idea of seasons or trends. We will end up as another brand on the scrap heap in a few years if we were to follow the current oversaturated sportswear look. Our form of rebellion is to create clothes to empower not to undermine. Most of our items are made to order—we want the wearer to have something truly unique and special, something that fits properly, and with this approach, we also don’t overproduce and our clothing doesn’t end up in landfill. 

I think it’s a shame that more brands don’t march to the beat of their own drum, but follow each other like sheep. I guess social media platforms have a lot to answer for, and influencer culture. It’s hard to remain individual when adoring fans copy your every move and can shop a whole look from the comfort of their sofa. Fashion seems much more corporate now—the most commercial products are those that on the surface may seem subversive, and the ‘edgiest’ dressers are copied instantly and supported by those same big brands. There is increasingly a blurred line between the independent and corporate—influence can be bought. 

We refuse to support this, and will never pay someone to wear our clothes. That is also a political statement in itself, we won’t sell out by buying in. We want to know who buys our clothes because they like them, because they know their own selves, we don’t want to clothe an army of clones. 

In your opinion, what’s the problem with fashion today?

I find the interest in sportswear as high-end clothing to be scary. CIMONE is a brand with its roots firmly placed in nurturing a product and defining every small detail and focusing on the preservation of design—so it's the opposite of what we do. Even more worrying is that a lot of designers and buyers are jumping on the same bandwagon and are unwilling to take a risk on anything else. I don’t see the point of multi brand stores if what they are selling is virtually the same product regurgitated in various reincarnations. It's just a boring cycle that nobody is willing to break.

In the end, it just means people are less likely to want to invest in design and save up to buy something special that cannot be copied, as they can just get the same thing cheaper and faster. High fashion is killing itself by becoming high street. It’s a bit of a recurring nightmare for me!

The lack of platforms and physical bricks and mortar stores dedicated to emerging designers is also a big problem. I’m sure it has always been a problem, just not one I had been aware of before starting CIMONE. It’s hard for new brands to get their first break. Without several seasons behind you, stores won’t take a risk, and buyers still, despite so many changes to the fashion calendar, buy to the traditional fashion season timeline. It doesn’t reflect the way consumers purchase, but the structure remains, and that structure only favours the big brands. As a young brand, you’re always lost in the wash, and unless you can afford to get great PR or know the right people, it’s often difficult to even get people to look at what you do. 

It does force you to think of alternate routes around the problems, and perhaps in the end, eventually, things will change for the better. But the beauty of being small is the struggle, and the flexibility to overcome it—you can define the way you want to work, and reinvent yourself as many times as you want until you find the way that works for you—something bigger, more notable brands do not have the luxury of being able to do.

What do you feel are the most important ingredients in building a brand?

In short, time, money and belief. If you take away one of these ingredients, then it is really difficult for the others to survive. I really underestimated the cost of pulling something together in the way that I have with CIMONE. In retrospect, I should have spent a lot more time planning and researching before launching the brand. I blindly and naively thought that the brand would just sell itself, but it doesn’t work like that! Because of my experience, and building a fully rounded range, I went far too big too quickly. Like my father says, if you create a monster, you have to feed it!

Without the budget to employ other people, then you give up the luxury of time, as you have to work on so many other elements of the business yourself. I’d also say that the ability to survive with extreme sleep deprivation for prolonged periods helps, it’s the only way to give enough time to everything. You have to believe that it’s going to be worth all of the sweat and tears though in the end, else you lose all momentum, and then end up wasting more time and money.

It's very easy to feel like you are fighting a losing battle, but you have to remind yourself why you started your own brand in the first place—mine was to eventually give myself more creative freedom to have a voice of my own.

Tell us a bit about your clothing being part of the Met exhibit. How did that come about?

Out of the blue, some time last year, I was emailed directly by the Costume Institute, regarding a loan request. The forms for the loan were already attached in the email, along with the look that they wanted to use—it was very well organised and swift.

We are very proud to have been selected to be part of the MET exhibition this year, which is entitled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination.” We are the only relatively unknown brand in the exhibition, and one of only 6 or 7 British brands represented.

Naturally I was completely overwhelmed and shocked that we had been chosen, it’s such a huge honour for any designer to be asked to take part in such a prestigious exhibit, let alone a very young and relatively unknown brand such as ours. 

When I thought about all of the other pieces throughout the history of fashion that could have been used, I was even more humbled and honoured. It’s encouraging to know that someone, somewhere is taking notice. It makes it all feel worthwhile. We have a full show look (including accessories) in the main Fifth Avenue site, in the Medieval Gallery. I went to the press preview—it was overwhelming and very strange to see our girl proudly standing there amongst all of the other beautiful amazing work of past and present designers. I wanted to cry—it was extraordinary.