DESIGNER FOCUS: ROSE DANFORD-PHILLIPS
Was there a particular moment that made you decide you wanted to work in fashion?
I never intended to study fashion, I went into university planning on being a fine art painter. Then I discovered textiles and decided to try that, and loved it. While I was studying textiles, I went to intern for Helen Lawrence for a month and a half. It was completely mad, because while I was there helping with production, she got offered a free show and we had to make a collection in three weeks. From there I was hooked - I desperately wanted it for myself, and I had to make it happen. There’s something about the mixture of art, identity, and energy in fashion that is completely electric, I love it.
Do you think you have a responsibility as a designer to respond to the social and political issues of our time?
I think designers have a responsibility to themselves to make work that is completely personal and authentic, and since nobody lives in a vacuum, responses to social and political issues inevitably arise, especially as fashion is entirely about identity.
In my own work, I really think about what women want to wear, what’s comfortable, what makes us feel powerful, what makes us feel protected, what is useful and what inspires us. It’s not an overt feminist statement, but the female gaze is there: it’s a fantasy for women, based in practicality. To me that is what is most exciting - take huge consuming issues and put them into context with your own story. It makes it more real and impactful, it turns something from a concept into real life, and tries to make a small change.
In your opinion, what’s the problem with fashion today?
To me the biggest problem with fashion is it’s insatiable hunger for new, and for more. It is unsustainable at every level - the insane wrecking of the planet for clothes that often end up in landfill before they’ve even been worn, the overworking and underpaying of factory workers, and also of designers (so many designers I know in luxury brands are paid nothing and forced to work incredibly long hours), the empty unhappiness it creates in people buying and not feeling like they can stop. The value of clothes should be so much higher than it is. We do so much damage when things are only special for 15 minutes.
Has your relationship with clothing changed as you delve into the fashion world?
My relationship to clothes has changed completely. As a teenager, and then a textiles student, I really cared about what I looked like - I planned every outfit every day, I wore lots of makeup, I had to look right. When I started my fashion MA this slowly disappeared until I didn’t really care at all about what I looked like on a daily basis, and instead I only cared about the quality of my work. All of that creative expression has been channeled into my collections now, although I do still make pieces that I can wear in the collections. Honestly, I’m too tired to do both!
What are the trials and tribulations of being an emerging designer?
There are so many as an emerging designer! It’s a really fragile time. For me the biggest difficulties are funding, exposure, and isolation. Funding is obviously difficult, I don’t come from a rich background, so it’s just a constant stress in the back of my head, trying to work out how I can do something as cheaply as possible. Exposure is so hard, because you have to rely on other people, contacts, and competitions. I’ve applied to loads of things and not even heard back, which can be quite demoralising. It’s probably the no.1 thing you need as a small brand, and it seems to me that a lot of it is just luck and perseverance (this is where funding comes in again, because you need the money to persevere!). Isolation to me is the biggest problem though, because it makes all my problems feel worse. I am only just about to move into my new studio, so I’ve been working at home which is horrible, it made me feel like I’m going a bit insane without structure and other people around me. I’m lucky to have fantastic friends and family who are my cheerleaders, they really help me keep going and keep focused on making my brand successful.
What do you feel are the most important ingredients in building a brand?
The most important ingredients are a unique point of view, perseverance, practical knowledge, and good people skills. First, you need your creative vision, the thing that makes your brand unique and finds a gap in the market. Then, you need perseverance because it’s incredibly hard, things go wrong constantly, you don’t get all the help you need and you have to make it work anyway - you have to be willing to learn new things and just keep going. Thirdly, you need the skills to be able to achieve your vision mostly alone at the start - that includes design, pattern cutting & textile-making skills, but also social media, organisation, accountancy, and more. Finally, you need good people skills - because you literally cannot do it completely alone (and it’s nicer to work with other people anyway) - and you have to be able to manage and motivate people to help you, and to be able to communicate your brand to everyone you meet.
How do you balance your creative vision with the harsh realities of the fashion industry?
The foundation of all my collections is the commercial product - simple, wearable shapes that women want to wear, combined with my prints to make them special. My print means that no matter what I make, it always feels personal, it always has my artistic mark, it’s never too simple, and never sacrifices my vision fully. I think it’s especially important for a young brand to make sure every single garment has that personal mark, otherwise why would they buy from you?
My focus shifted when I started the brand, I went from being a student and only thinking about what I want to say, to also thinking about what my customer would want to wear, how could I make them feel, and of course, how can I make money. It’s a new challenge, but it doesn’t quell my creative vision - it gives it a new dimension. Experimental show pieces are still important, because they help sell my brand and give me press - they sell the story, and I have a lot of fun with those.
How do you go about choosing your materials and manufacturers?
Because the print is so important to me, I always start with what the print company I work with (Silk Bureau) has. I’ll change my ideas around if they don’t have it, because I’m not a big enough business to order in custom fabrics yet. I’ll usually pick around five fabrics which go with my concepts - a denim-like cotton, a silk jersey, a polyester chiffon, etc., and get a 1m sample of each with all my prints swatched on them. It’s amazing how completely different a print will look on a different fabric! From there I pick everything.
I also use other fabrics such as lace (I used Sophie Hallette as they sponsored my MA and it’s stunning), and dupion. All my other fabrics are based on what the concept requires, often something sheer like plastic or organza for unusual embroidery. These materials are rarely used as commercial pieces, so I have the freedom to use vintage garments, recycled fabrics and other stuff I find.
For my first season, all my manufacturers I used based on friend’s recommendations, and they were mostly based in London for convenience, which worked well. In the future I want to try to find some manufacturers across Europe, but I want to wait until we know more about Brexit and import/export before I explore that properly.
Tell us a bit about how you run your business.
In my first season I was part of the House of Peroni, and as part of that platform I had some fantastic mentors who helped me and my fellow designers launch our brands. The mentors were Alexander Fury, Anna Orsini, Isabella Burley, Jonathan Saunders and Pandora Sykes. Everything I do I learnt from them. It’s quite simple at the moment - I’m just about to move into my new studio and start practical work on the SS2020 collection. Because it’s very early in the business, it’s not very business-like, I feel more like a craftsperson or artist just getting to work. I think it’s good to keep it small and dynamic.
One thing I want to do with my business is to run it in a positive way - I have had bad management experiences in studios, and so have all of my friends, and I want to run a business that treats everyone who I work with, and who works for me well. Mental health is often not considered a priority in the industry, but it is to me.
What’s your take on the advent of commerce via social media?
I think it’s really good for smaller designers - most of my private orders are through Instagram, and I can really get to know my customers and what they’re interested in through it. It’s a digital shop window, where I’m at the counter. It’s good for customers too, because they can find interesting designers that will make them something really unique.
What makes a design compelling?
An authentic point of view makes design compelling - it has to be boldly what a designer stands for, utterly them. As well as that, for me personally, the most compelling designs have beautiful textiles - print, embroidery, knit, or something more experimental. There’s something about the perfect mix of colour and texture that I find irresistible.
What would be your dream collaboration scenario?
I have already collaborated with some amazing people, including Jo Miller (milliner), and Jessica Pass (jeweler). I love collaborations, they’re the most exciting part of a brand to me - working with other people to create something more interesting and complex than you can do alone is what fashion is about to me - making something more than myself.
My dream scenario is that me, Jo, Jessica, and other amazing people I conspire with like @cupidsvault (who does incredible makeup) and others have the money and the time to create an incredible project together where we can fully realise the crazy beautiful things we have imagined without limits.