Words by Clare Coulson
Photography by TaRA DARBY
t’s a common misconception that Holly Fulton is, first and foremost, a print designer. “It always makes me smile,” says the 34-year-old Scot. “I didn’t even study textiles, but everyone always presumes.” Fulton’s vibrant-coloured graphic prints have marked her out as a key figure in the current print revival – ever since she launched her own label at Fashion East in 2009. And, standing beside her very orderly mood board for A/W 12, it’s easy to see why.
Almost every look bears the Fulton hallmarks – the linear art deco symmetry and Chrysler-era graphics, the glamorous and over-the-top embellishment and, of course, the intense colour. But this season marks a shift. “I thought it would be interesting – because I am so known for colour – to really restrict myself. So I am only using two colours, but each one in about 20 or 30 different tones. And I am using black, which is new for me.”
The line-up on the wall also suggests a shift from her favoured young Sixties silhouettes into something more refined and grown up. “I always start with a woman and this time she is a bit of a Lady Chatterley. It started with greenhouses, in a funny way,” explains Fulton, whose mother works at the botanical gardens in Edinburgh. “It’s about a woman who wants to be quite sexy and seductive, too. I love Jeanne Moreau – a bit dirty, sexy French; I always want to be that woman myself.” Fulton’s silhouettes are more figure-hugging than ever before, but clean and unfussy. “I like simplicity, because I like to do so much on top of it. So it’s about finding a balance.”
Even if Moreau has inspired Fulton’s polo necks and pencil skirts and a more refined new elegance, the art deco graphics remain. Tropical palms and plants from the greenhouses appear as motifs on prints, as well as illuminations and strings of lights. The moon also appears in the collection, starting with an intense pop pink, before merging into a cool blue section at the end. “I suppose it’s moving into something quite chilled out for me, in a way, but still quite busy.”
Like many of her contemporaries, Fulton builds the collection with cut and print totally in tandem. “I hand-draw all the prints, so I can work directly straight onto the patterns. It’s a really stupid way to work, really laborious, and it drives my team mad.
But it’s key that I have that knowledge of where things are on your body. I want to know where a certain shape is going to fall on your leg, or around your waist. I couldn’t do it on a computer.”
Fulton is a self-confessed symmetry freak. “I don’t have any idea where the art deco thing comes from. I just like it, and when I first did Fashion East there was no forethought – I just sketched one line-up and that was what I made. I love that aesthetic – it’s about symmetry and luxury materials, and there is quite a lot of colour too.”
“She fits in very well as part of that whole school of British designers who have created the current frenzy for prints,” says Matches joint CEO Ruth Chapman. “But her collections are also quite different to everything else out there, as her prints are so easily identifiable and she has a unique sense of colour.”
Fulton grew up in Edinburgh with her environmentalist father (before retiring, he looked after the Cairngorm mountains) and her mother, who worked in publishing and later became an art librarian. Fulton did an art foundation course in Newcastle, and then a fashion BA at Edinburgh College of Art. After that, she made pieces for the boutique Koh Samui. “It was on a really tiny scale and I was making every garment myself, so I had my own label, but in the most miniature way,” says Fulton. “It was nothing whatsoever like I’m doing now. I used a lot of vintage and antique elements, but reworking them with quite contemporary stitching. I suppose it was still textural, but it was on a very different tack.”
Yet despite her burgeoning brand, Fulton spent the next four years juggling myriad roles, including working for Joseph Bonnar, an Edinburgh-based jeweller, where Fulton says she was exposed to “really interesting things”, not least Bonnar’s fantastic eye for stunning art deco jewels.
Fulton combined this with working in a wedding-dress shop, doing alterations. She also travelled to Australia. When she returned she worked for the cashmere specialists Queene and Belle, commuting two hours each day to their Georgian mansion in Hawick. But during this time she also started to put a portfolio together to apply to the Royal College of Art.
“I think it was the best thing for me to have those years doing all that different stuff. I started to get a focus when I was in Australia. I really didn’t think I would get into the RCA, but it was the best decision that I ever made.”
Fulton graduated in 2007, in the same year as menswear designer James Long, with many of her contemporaries going on to jobs at fashion houses such as Dries Van Noten and Balenciaga. But halfway through her second year, Fulton was approached by Lanvin and worked on a project, before being offered a job there as soon as she graduated. “It was quite a mental time – a lot happened fast but, obviously, you are not going to say ‘no’.” Fulton had the task of working on embellished womenswear, but her eye for accessories soon caught the attention of Alber Elbaz.
“I used to wear a lot of jewellery,” she remembers. “And one day Alber said, ‘You wear so much jewellery, why don’t you come up with some for the collection?’ It was a privileged position to be in and I ended up doing the majority of accessories for that show.”
If there was an early indicator of Fulton’s subsequent direction, then it’s probably the accessories for that S/S 08 Lanvin collection. She created chunky, antiqued-metal chains with huge enamel and crystal pendants, chokers with oversized wooden beads, industrial-looking layered chains, and other layered necklaces in pearls or clean, clear crystals – all of which nestled among mousseline gowns or light, feathered cocktail dresses.
It not only helped to set an aesthetic that would become a hallmark of Lanvin’s highly covetable costume jewellery (“My research fed through into a lot of other work that they did,” adds Fulton), but it also strengthened her resolve to start working under her own name. “Alber told me that there was something different about my approach and that I never just thought about the clothes; it was always about the whole thing, from the textiles to the jewellery. It definitely sowed the seeds of doing something for myself.”
Fulton went on to work on jewellery with Swarovski, and then applied to Fashion East for the following September season. “Again, I didn’t really think I would do it, but Lulu Kennedy came back and said, ‘Can’t you do the show in February?’ I had literally just moved back, I was teaching in Scotland, and I had about six weeks to get the first collection together. It was an intense time.” Fulton did another season with Fashion East, before launching on her own in 2010.
This season will be Fulton’s fifth solo show and she’s steadily building her brand – A/W 12 will be her second working with Scottish textile mill Caerlee on some fabulous colour-blocked cashmeres.
Sitting calmly in her tiny Hackney studio, Fulton doesn’t look to be in any hurry. Above all, she just seems very happy to be doing what she is doing. I never forget that I am lucky to be in this position, because I had Fashion East and then NEWGEN and I really couldn’t do it without the help. I just love it.”
Holly Fulton’s A/W 12 collection is being shown today at 12pm in WC2. Stockists: Matches, Hervia Bazaar.