Prints charming

Monday 17 September 2012

Designers · Featured

Photography by TARA DARBY
Words by Kay Barron

Earlier this year, Peter Pilotto and Christopher De Vos organised a lunch for their whole team at Shoreditch House. As 24 of them squeezed around a banquet table, the designers struggled to comprehend just how much their business had grown. Only a year earlier, there had been a workforce of just 10. But the past 12 months have been significant for the pair, with sell-out collections worn by the infinitely varied likes of Rihanna, Samantha Cameron, Miranda Kerr and Carey Mulligan, and 140 international stockists buying into the brand.

So it’s not surprising that they have outgrown their studio of just two years. Step inside their space in Dalston, east London, and the evidence of that rapid growth spurt is everywhere. Downstairs, a large team of people draw, measure and cut in silence; upstairs, seven more workers are gathered around computers in a room big enough for just four – while a boy works diligently on his laptop in the doorway, as if he has drawn the short straw.

Pilotto and De Vos’s own studio, meanwhile, is filled with the paraphernalia of two industrious designers: seasonal mood boards cover the walls; initial sketches of the S/S 13 collection are spliced with swatches depicting colour and print; a rail is heavy with A/W 12 samples and early toiles, and underneath are piles of print try-outs and fabrics that threaten to spill out further into the room; a pair of prototype Nicholas Kirkwood catwalk shoes lies on a high table, with samples of the beading that will eventually form the laces coiled next to them. Five people are working among the madness, but, as everyone steps around each other, there seems to be an organised rhythm to it all.

The duo met in 2000 when both were studying at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Arts and emerged on the runway in S/S 09. It was the season before Mary Katrantzou first showed, and the year before Jonathan Saunders returned to London Fashion Week from the New York schedule. The Big Bang of the British digi-print revolution was gathering force and the duo were in the vanguard. No one really thought the print trend would last long – historically, it had been difficult to convince women to embrace the concept. But the naysayers were wrong: five years later, print is still dominating the catwalks, and Peter Pilotto has proved to be an international success, founded on the dialogue between the brand’s state-of-the-art digitally engineered prints and the super-luxe, body-sculpted silhouettes, creating pieces women want to wear.

When we meet, a month before their S/S 13 London Fashion Week show (whose looming date was reacted to with mildly disguised panic by Pilotto and wide eyes by De Vos), they had just returned from a trip to Asia, where they had hiked through Nepal and visited Rajasthan in India. Although they had intended it to be a much-needed break, they returned with their heads full of inspiration and research for the new collection.

“Our collections are like diaries; they reflect our experiences, and this is so much about our trip,” says Pilotto of the new-season collection. “We find it so boring having a theme. It’s always much more about a process for us. We had started working on the collection before we left, but India is so full of amazing colour combinations that of course it became part of it. We were in Jodhpur and the blue and lilac houses there were incredible. Our brand is about print, yes, but it’s also about the emotional feeling you can get from colour and colour combinations.”

This collection is actually Part 2; Part 1 being the label’s first Resort collection, shown at Pitti Immagine W, in Florence, in June. “We’re thinking of it as one collection released at different times of the year,” says De Vos. “It’s been really exciting to be able to split the collection,” adds Pilotto. “For Resort, we used a variety of fabrics with different price points. This freed us up to really push it for S/S 13, where we’ve used luxurious silks that really affect the colours as they resonate on the fabric.”

So what trail of clues did their Resort 2013 collection offer as to what to expect from today’s show? First was a collaboration with art director and digi whizz Jonny Lu (who redesigned the Love magazine website and collaborated with Louis Vuitton and Giles). Lu created a software programme that the boys likened to a “digital kaleidoscope”, which helps them generate a dizzying number of bespoke prints.

“Every season our prints are about layering – it is never one simple idea. Together we created something where all the layers moved to create an infinite number of patterns. We clicked on things as you would with a video game and then selected frozen moments to create the prints,” say Pilotto and De Vos. The kaleidoscopic prints continue in S/S 13, but they’ve upped the luxe factor with beading and embroidery.

As for their inspiration, the Resort prints were derived, in part, by an exhibition at the British Library, called Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, showing beautifully illustrated books dating from the 9th to 16th centuries. The exhibition book lies in front of the designers as we speak – heavily thumbed and bursting with Post-it notes. It’s clear that it continues to play a starring role for S/S 13. “There are some very religious elements we are currently looking at, but we don’t want it to be so literal. Look at the calligraphy work bordering some
of these pictures,” Pilotto enthuses, hungrily delving into the marked pages. “It is so beautiful and detailed that recently we have been working around that.”

With previous designs, the boys have put the print first and the design has followed, but “this season, we have started with the silhouette; the success of Resort has allowed us to really explore the shape further,” De Vos explains. So while they usually deliver a signature narrow silhouette, in the form of pencil skirts and fitted shift dresses, the catwalk might add some rather different shapes. Some early sketches of the collection are pinned up on the wall behind De Vos’s head and, although when we meet it is early days, there are definitely styles that could be described as gowns and full skirts – there is undeniable volume. When they catch me looking at the drawings, they are quick to dismiss it all as a work in progress. “Although we will be having more show pieces,” they admit, “we’ll play with a contrast of shapes, as we did with the fitted dresses under the vast puffa jackets of A/W 12. We want it to have a more couture feel.”

Indeed, every piece is bespoke in some way. “It’s important for us that our designs are rich and fit into our customers’ lives. Every garment demands its own rules and is idiosyncratic in its own way,” says Pilotto. “We don’t create clothes that all fit in a certain way or share the same silhouette. Each piece is designed so that the wearer feels a certain excitement and feels energised. This is very important to us.”

Pilotto and De Vos are not quite at the stage where they finish each others’ sentences (let’s give them another season on that), but they are in sync, albeit with seemingly opposite personalities. Austrian Pilotto races through sentences as he tries to verbalise his perceptions, while Belgian-Peruvian De Vos speaks slowly and confidently, although he answers most questions to Pilotto or the tabletop. The label might be in Pilotto’s name, but don’t be mistaken, this is an equal partnership. “Before I joined, Peter was already stocked in Colette and Opening Ceremony,” remembers De Vos, who came from Vivienne Westwood and is renowned for his draping and fitting technique. “When I started, we began playing with combining the names, but they all sounded terrible, so we stuck with Peter Pilotto, but obviously we are both the designers and do everything together.”

This summer, the pair attended the Serpentine Gallery Summer Party and spotted 10 women wearing their designs. “It was pretty insane,” says De Vos. “We felt so proud, but what is most rewarding is that those women went into a store and bought Peter Pilotto, and that is what really means something.”

Peter Pilotto has become renowned for its fit, which is rare in such a young label. “Fit is so important to us and we work so hard to make sure it is perfect,” Pilotto says proudly. “We have fitting models in every size, which I think is unusual.” It also means that it doesn’t exclude any woman from buying into the label.

“They really understand how to flatter the feminine form,” explains fan and buyer Ruth Chapman, joint CEO of Matches. “Our customer looks to them for something directional but wearable, in beautiful fabrications, and they always find it.”

Peter Pilotto is being shown today at 9am in WC1. Stockists: Dover Street Market, Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Matches, Selfridges, The Shop at Bluebird

Kay Barron is Fashion Features Editor of Harper’s Bazaar

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