The Sartorial Puppeteer: Andrew Bell Design Interview // Pulling Strings Exhibition
One of the first thoughts that struck me upon encountering Andrew Bell was a resolute belief that were he to stand in a sea of aspiring design hopefuls, swathed in lacklustre garments whilst the latter were clad head-to-toe in their most brightly-coloured wares, his would still be the most impactful presence in the room. An earnest passion for his craft and a notable pragmatism towards his chosen industry distinguishes him from a myriad of emerging designers across the globe, who understandably struggle to cultivate business savvy and sartorial prowess in equal measures. Unparalleled drive and determination permeate his work, coupled with a forward-thinking approach towards garment construction that would turn this decade’s sartorial offerings from reminiscent to revolutionary in a heartbeat, if only it were bottled and implemented through international fashion labels and influential design schools.
The Dundalk-born, NCAD-trained designer generated considerable buzz in the latter stages of 2015 with a highly-successful crowdfunding campaign, formulated to realise an innovative video-turned-multimedia-exhibition entitled “Pulling Strings”. Based around the concept of a simple needle-and-thread pulling together garments – combined with an enthralling showcase of fabric manipulation and garment agility – the exhibition was devised, in part, to highlight the one constant of clothing construction in an industry gripped by the continual urge to re-invent and heighten its work pace, often at the expense of high-calibre creativity. The occurrence of such a dynamic exhibition is relatively rare on our shores, despite the wealth of creative talent evident throughout the country; a factor which only made fashion and culture enthusiasts all the more eager to attend Pulling Strings’ mid-February opening night in Dublin 8’s Steambox Gallery:
On the occasions I spoke with Bell regarding Pulling Strings and his burgeoning design plans, it was very much apparent that his viewpoints on global fashion spheres – and the technology that accompanies them – are incredibly astute. Whether it was surrounded by captivated attendees on the night that his contemporary exhibit unveiled or nestled in a buzzing Camden Street restaurant, his opinion on this expansive digital era and what it signifies for young fashion designers is clear-cut and unflinching: “Fashion is about movement. With Instagram, I think fashion sometimes gets very flat and still – it’s just something that you scroll through and it’s the same images. Even in how designers are designing now is just becoming quite flat – with COS for example, everything is flat in terms of even how things are constructed. And they do lovely constructions as well, but even if I look at young graduates’ collections there’s so many very simple shapes and very flat shapes and I think, where’s the challenge in terms of construction and shape, and pushing boundaries in that? I partly wonder if it’s because it’s just easier to make simple garments, and we live in a society where we take the easy route.”
His excitement on this impending transferal to Paris may be palpable, but make no mistake: Bell possesses no idealistic views on the challenging nature of breaking into international design scenes, nor the hard graft and copious amounts of luck needed to help along the process. Rather than fall into the death-trap suffered by a number of highly-talented young designers wherein their independent labels collapse under the financial strain of breaking even – let alone enjoying a profit – Bell is intent on realising his innovatory concepts from within a well-established fashion house, and developing his craftsmanship in a team environment. Maintaining an industrious fortitude necessary for such a competitive field has never posed an issue: “[Fashion design is] like a drug – as I said to my parents, it’s like a sickness! I think a lot of designers can resonate with that, my friends and I can’t stop. I think it’s human nature to want to produce and to create.“
As we discussed the various components of “Pulling Strings” and the premise behind his tailoring-orientated designs, our conversation expanded further into the alarming rate at which ready-to-wear designers are forced to churn out collections, attempting to match the pace of high-street multinationals and, in tandem with this, their augmented retail patterns. This season’s induction of “See Now, Buy Now” strategies allowed consumers to shop certain runway pieces straight off the catwalk – yet another move that has spurred on the CDFA to examine the dwindling format of traditional fashion shows and rectify New York Fashion Week’s once-exclusive showcases (though the issue remain across each major fashion capital). The universal shock of Alexander Wang, Alber Elba and Raf Simons‘ sudden departures from their respective fashion houses last year – albeit with varying circumstances – was further harrowing evidence of this newly-established, “disposable” feel to the multitude of high-fashion collections designed each year with little to no time allowed for creative brainstorming. With Andrew Bell’s “Pulling Strings” video primed for its online debut, I gained further insight into a man who has harnessed his exhibition’s invisible thread to pull at the heartstrings of Dublin’s fashion insiders:
Was there a definitive moment when the concept of Pulling Strings, the exhibition, first struck you?
Yes, it struck me ages ago. I was doing quite similar things for my degree collection when I was in college – I was looking at the same research. Pulling Strings is a micro-collection of garments which is a spin-off from my degree collection. For my degree, you had to make six outfits, those were the set requirements. But I loved that as well, within those kinds of requirements you meet the challenges creatively as a designer would. I wanted to make stuff that could be a little more commercial and that’s what I did – still they weren’t that commercial, because there were bags coming off of trousers and things like that. I wanted to create these garments that were special, and that were really nicely made.
A lot of womenswear doesn’t get the attention-to-detail that a menswear collection gets: there are hardly never pockets on women’s clothing, things aren’t lined.. You know, some people would say it’s because women want to feel slim and they don’t want that extra layer of a pocket, like say on women’s jeans the pocket bag gapes etcetera etcetera, but having the option is important. For the exhibition, there are a few garments – I took a jacket, a pair of trousers and a shirt, so it’s kind of like a suit for women. Tailoring for women is what I constantly design for. I want to produce smart clothing for smart women; strong silhouettes, and strong colours. I’m not the most amazing designer in terms of fabrication, I’m more about shape, clothing construction and really developing that, but I always wanted to create a video – moving image is the way of the future. When you press the image on the new iPhones it actually makes a two-second video. The future of visuals is video: you know, it’ll be like Harry Potter, the newspaper will be moving! – ‘cause it’ll be a tablet device, that’s the way it will be. So I really wanted to get on that. I just wanted to create something new.
How did the exhibition come about, and what steps were taken for Pulling Strings to be realised?
I had already been doing similar things in college, but then when I had done my year in commercial design and was fed up, I decided that I wanted to do this. I didn’t know anything about how to produce a video, and I just thought I would try to execute this while still in Ireland and surrounded by Irish people. If I move to Paris I’ll never be able to meet people and communicate in the same way, not for a good few years - so that’s why I did it. Initially it wasn’t going to be an exhibition, it was just going to be a video and then it kind of developed and evolved, and then we produced this massive frame to elevate these garments and created this video which went into production and got someone to do music for it. I just thought that I didn’t want it to disappear into the stratosphere online... I didn’t want this to just disappear onto a hard drive somewhere, you know? I wanted to do something physical, that had human engagement. Then I decided I wanted to do an exhibition - the frame was in my attic at home, we had finished the video, I was home working in retail and trying to save money because I had spent a lot on the project. So then I applied for a grant, and I got turned down. And then I was going to give up, my friends said to just go to Paris, and I said no!
I did the first three months of the project on the dole, at about 100 euro a week, and was off down to the shop to buy MDF sheets and Dulux paint and some hand-sewing needles and thread. I was also using my life savings at the same time, so it was semi-terrifying. And then I realised that wasn’t enough money. I did a crowdfunding campaign, another friend of mine produced the video for it. And then I made 950 euro in three weeks which was over the budget! I founded the exhibition with that money - I was going around trying to find a cheap, affordable venue and to sort out transporting everything to there. With the logistics of organising it there’s so much that goes on, behind the scenes - the projectors, the speakers, the wood.. everything. So that’s how it all came about. It was pretty organic in terms of how it became an exhibition.
The title of the project, Pulling Strings, obviously refers to the video; the garments are elevated on invisible strings, and I wanted to show the fabric moving. It’s called Pulling Strings because of that, but also referencing how garments are put together - the thread and needle is pulling a string, and pulling things together. Visually, I imagined these garments being pulled together without hands. It also references pulling people together, and creativity, and talent, that’s the basis behind all of it. It has a double, almost treble meaning to it.
What does your creative process entail?
What I was designing in college, and now with Pulling Strings, what I’ve done is quite similar to back then. I can’t wait to start something new. I would make up the samples of something, put them on somebody and see them walking around, and moving. When I create designs, for something like the college runway, or for something quite show-stopping - not talking about commercial clothing - I want to create a silhouette that I think is quite new or different. You have these incredible designers like Mary Katrantzou and Erdem that create amazing fabrics, but not many designers are re-defining silhouettes. There are some designers who say that every silhouette has been done before, and that fabrication is the only way forward in terms of fashion which, to a degree, is true, but I just think it’s no reason to give up. Silhouette is what you think of when you think about fashion: when you think of the 20s, you think of silhouette; when you think of the 30s and 40s, you think of silhouette.
Wrap. Clutch. Clench. Consume collection
I want to create a look that makes people stand, move around and behave in a slightly different way. These garments have bags attached to them, that really affects body language. That’s how I think fashion was so strong in the past, because body language was affected by what garments people wore. Women in the 20s stood a certain way, because the waistline was so low; women in the 40s stood a certain way because the waistlines were quite cinched. The boxy shoulders in the 80s made it different again - those wide-legged pants affected women's stance as well. So, that’s what I aim to achieve - I first pause on silhouette and then colour.
When I’m looking at the model, I want the look to evoke the feeling that I have about whatever it is that I’m researching or working on. With the bag collection, Wrap. Clench. Clutch. Consume, that was all about me feeling very overwhelmed by fashion. I had come back from London and was feeling disillusioned, and then I had to go and do fourth year of college with loads of deadlines. I had just been working for nothing in London, with challenging people and circumstances to work for, and so I was evoking that feeling. I really wanted the elements to be overwhelming; that you couldn’t put your bag down, you couldn’t have your hands free, you were never free and constantly enveloped in this fabric. The bag is a symbol of status, with a lot of women it’s all about the “IT” designer bag - it symbolises being changed through it. The title of my degree collection was made up of words that came to my mind when I was thinking about how fashion is marketed. These clutch bags are a possession but as you hold them, they’re almost clutching you - they dictate how you stand, how you dress. The concept of ‘Pulling Strings’ is (in part) from that but it has much more of an artistic direction. It’s a visual, creative fashion statement.
You interned with JW Anderson back in 2013, and then also assisted with the design department in Dunnes Stores with Carolyn Donnelly’s “The Edit” label?
Yes, I was working on Dunnes’ main range for a while and then I moved onto Carolyn Donnelly’s line, so that was really good. Carolyn Donnelly is so nice, and I got to work with proper fabrics there, a lot of which was produced in Italy: real leather, real silk. The main range was really good training - my first week I remember drawing up these t-shirts and I was asked by one of the buyers two weeks later “where are those t-shirts you drew up? I booked those; 350.000 euro in that style and then we’ll do three quarters of a million euro in this one, and then 300 items in that design. We’re going to do them in a lilac, coral, a beige, stone, and a white”! So it was exciting as well because if you think about it, any big companies like Chanel or Dior survive off of the sales of their basic t-shirts, basic perfume and accessories, so it was quite relevant training to have I think. But it is commercial and that’s why I left, I wanted to be more creative. Another reason why I wanted to do the exhibition is that it’s non-commercial - I wasn’t selling anything. I wanted people to come in and engage with it, but it’s also a backlash against commercialism.
I worked in Dunnes after I had come back from interning in London. In my opinion, the city is very young and youth-orientated which is amazing, and it’s really exciting that anyone can set up a studio in London. I worked in two of them - I always lived with friends who were also interns, so with most of the companies that are quite young there, I had a friend who worked or had worked in there. I was living in a house with six interns over one summer. You see these companies and you think “woah, Gareth Pugh, Jonathan Saunders, Richard Nicoll - amazing!” and they do look so impressive, but if you see their studios it actually is half of the size of this room (the main space in DeSelby’s) or smaller. I was in an intern’s studio once and the studio was like a triangle, you had two machines and a domestic overlocker. It’s crazy. When you’re a young designer initially you don’t make any money, you are really working for the love of your work, so you’re setting up in something absolutely tiny.
"Pulling Strings" exhibition still
What prompted you to decide to move to Paris?
Compared to London, Paris is more serious with its heritage and it’s also where the money is. You can’t even intern for a company in Paris unless you have certificates from your college, and [the internships] pay as well. It does make it more competitive and more serious. I think Paris is also more progressive in terms of design: London is where all of the experimental designs come from, while with Paris it’s a lot more romantic. Paris is an inspector of couture, a lot of silhouettes are cinched in with added tulle and I don’t love that, but I want to go there to get the skills of working in these high-end companies. Chanel is making about a million euro per season with each show - one season is a casino, the next season it’s an airport.
I want to work somewhere where I can drag my way up to the top - God knows how long that’ll take! - and use my ideas and see them happen. That is one thing I really struggled with in the Pulling Strings exhibition, because I have so many visions and it only takes two seconds for an idea to come to mind, but it takes six and a half months and 4000 euro to actually execute it. So I want to work with teams, and I want together to create interesting, new frontiers in terms of fashion and to create something exciting. I also want to learn French while I’m still young, apparently as you get older your brain becomes less of a sponge!
Milan is very serious, more so than Paris. You can’t even get an internship in Milan, it’s definitely more closed off, while New York is like the commercial hub - that’s where the focus is on sales and where the money is. Eventually I’d like to end up in New York when I’m a bit older, I wouldn’t want to go there now as it’s so expensive to live and with visas as well, it’s not really possible. You just get settled in and then you have to leave - all of my friends had to leave after their year in the city. I don’t want to invest in a year and then take off.
Be it in Paris or any other fashion-orientated city, who would be your dream collaborator/label to work for?
Well I definitely want to work for labels. And then 10/15 years down the line, if I am still in fashion, I want to be the person who gets to choose whether or not we work with an architect for that season to create something we’ve never done before - a creative director. But I don’t want to be someone in their 20s saying they want to be a creative director on a whim - to be in the role you have to have had a lot of experience, and design perspective. I love Margiela, more the pre-Galliano days that were less overt than the designs right now. I think it was a clash to choose him as the successor of a designer who was always so secretive and anonymous. With Martin Margiela, no-one (in the public) really knows what he looks like, and that adds mystery, while Galliano is the opposite of that. It’s just shock tactics.
I went through a stage of being obsessed with Céline in college ... I loved early Phoebe Philo Céline, the silhouettes etcetera. You can see some of that in my work, even the use of the bags and their structures. She’s an amazing designer, I would love to work there. The trouble is that you have to be very careful with where you say your “dream” job is - that can turn into a nightmare very fast. Having interned in London, a lot of my friends would say “I can’t believe I’ve got a placement in x, y or z's designer’s studio", and then they went there and hated it. It’s like that phrase “never meet your heroes”, it’s very true.
Even though you spoke earlier on how important it is to harness the digital side of things, I know you also really wanted that physical connectivity with people when setting up Pulling Strings.
Absolutely, I really wanted to create that physical space.
Do you think there’s ever a risk that human engagement in lieu of digital activity could ever be entirely overwritten?
Completely. Well first of all, joined handwriting (pointing at the notes written in my interview notebook) was designed to make people write faster, because you don’t have to take your pen off the page, so we have always been engaging with ways to execute things faster. That is humanity. So we can’t whinge too much, we’ve always been wanting to catch up and move faster. I think what will be lost is space - space and doing things in real time is going to change entirely. Both are so expensive. I’m working in River Island in Dundalk in Marshes Shopping Centre and in the last year and a half, there’s been a click-and-collect service: you buy stuff online, and then you get it delivered to the store for you. It’s absolutely taken off in terms of an idea for the company, and one of the stockrooms has been basically turned into a postroom where you have a massive set of shelves, 24 different shelves where all the parcels are stacked. When a customer comes in and says that they want to collect a parcel and have their confirmation email, you take out a scanner and take down their code, you go upstairs, you get the parcel on the shelf that has their name and you give it to them. It makes me think that this is going to be the future - I feel that shops will be a luxury. There won’t be as many of them, or stockrooms: you’ll go into a boutique and they’ll have one of every size, you’ll try it on and it’ll be delivered to your house the next day. Print, equally, will become luxury: Vogue Magazine will be published twice a year and will retail at $100.
What is physical will be luxury. When you think of Victoria Beckham’s new concept store in London, these beautiful, creative open spaces cease production, and the regular person will just have things delivered to their house - and it’ll be cheaper so they’ll love it. Even the way people are now streaming fashion shows, I think that will be the way this industry will be going forward. In terms of making sure parcels are delivered and the production of that, I’m sure it will all be sped up. You’ll have scanners in the future where you’ll be able to scan yourself and know whether or not the jeans you’re wearing are fake, a knock-off.
It’s in equal parts amazing and terrifying to consider, I think - the rate of progression even in the last twenty years alone is unbelievable.
Twenty years ago there was no such thing as wifi in Ireland! We never would have imagined it - the same with mobile phones. So I think how we consume space will change, it is sad to be losing space. What we do have to remember is that we are communicating things, whether it’s through the radio, through a podcast.. it changes over the years, from communicating through a manuscript to a tablet, there is a natural evolution. And that’s what makes what you’re saying even more important, not how you’re saying it. I think you should embrace new technology. Though one thing about Céline is that they don’t embrace social media at all and have a very minimal website. In the same way, they’re making it very exclusive, they’re making their company very physical; saying “come into our physical shop”, not just accessing the brand online.
As our dialogue drew to a close, Bell encouraged me to read an insightful article published on Dazed Digital almost two years ago which documents the inimitable Louise Wilson OBE's final interview. Her viewpoints on online excess and pursuing originality over regurgitation of ideas, achieved by training her MA students to embrace "old-school, hands-on" sewing skills immediately resonated with me. She prided herself on the fact that her class of designers were, above all, "individuals" - Bell's original design ethos slots in perfectly with her approach and, judging by his parting statement, it has been something he embraced from a considerably young age: "I remember once when I was a kid in school and we were doing something in art class, I remember someone copied me and the colours I was using. I remember being really upset, and saying it to the teacher, and I remember her saying that someone can copy you, but they can never copy what you’re thinking. They’ll never be able to truly copy your idea, or be as good as you. If someone copies someone else, they’ll never be as good as the original. That’s why I think my design process is very driven by personal matters, because if I stay true to myself, it will always be original." As he prepares to embark on his Parisian adventure, there can be no doubt that whatever scale of a team he finds himself working for - and scaling the ranks of - he'll never stop being an individual.