25th of July 2020
Interview: Martin Hufnagel
Title-Photo: Asia Werbel

Phoebe English

When she realised that she was in a position to help make the fashion industry less environmentally harmful, Phoebe English drastically rebuilt her eponymous brand. Having reassessed every single process, sustainability has become an important part of the way she designs.

For an introduction to our readers & customers of The Wasted Hour, she had a chat over the phone with our editor in-chief Martin, to talk about her first designs, the emergency designer network, her favourite place in London and -of course- sustainability.

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Phoebe English Header

When did you start designing cloths ? Who was your biggest fashion idol back then ?

I was very very young. The first outfit was as a child at the beach.
I made a really long dress from Seaweed and made a little catwalk on the beach.
I must have been like seven.
That was the first time I started to think about, decorating the body or better yet adorning the body.
I had a grandmother who taught me how to sow and to knit and I think I was about eleven or twelve when I made the first real dress.
My mother was an art teacher and when she would come back from teaching she would bring big, big bags full of fabric to our home.
I grew up in the town Shakespeare came from, so my mother collected the off cut fabric from the Royal Shakespeare company costume department for her students.
She was an art teacher and when she would come back from teaching she would bring big, big bags full of fabric to our home, before she took it to school.
That was usually my opportunity to sneak in and raid all the beautiful fabrics.
So I found a very beautiful silk stretched jersey in black.
I draped it on my body and sowed some straps on it and that was the first real dress I ever made.
The weird part about it is that it kind of looks like something from my collections now.
It was great learning about design at such a young age, because I learned about a lot of fabric. Having someone teaching you the names of all the fabrics and having the access to hundreds of different fabrics was very educational.

The Hooded Smock Jacket | Available at our shop
It's crafted from 100% Econyl: recycled nylon waste from landfills and oceans around the world.

Model: Fabian Dworschak | Photography: Martin Hufnagel

What is the designers emergency network?

The network is a group of four designers and it exists to connect abilities and skills across the whole fashion industry, specifically in the UK.
With this network we started voluntarily producing supplements for hospitals, which are short in the UK.
In the pandemic it obviously was a huge issue, because everything is imported.
During the crisis there there was a really big demand across the whole world, specifically in the countries where the PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) were manufactured in.

So we started producing it here in the country, to reduce the waiting time the medical professionals had to wait for the supplies to arrive.
Of course we can only help with garnet related items but so for we produced over 10.000 scrubs, helped supply 50.000 masks and are now developing a new types of gowns.
In the UK you can not treat someone with covid-19 without wearing one, in conclusion if you don’t have a gown, you have to send people away. So we are specifically working on a gown that is reusable to short the waiting time.

The Collarless Dress Shirt | Available at our shop
It’s crafted from Ramie, a Southeast Asian plant that doesn’t need irrigation or drainage as it gets sufficient water from rain. It is grown under organic standards and feels skin smoothing like linen.

Model: Julia Rieß | Photography: Martin Hufnagel

It's pretty amazing what you’ve been doing!

When I discovered your brand, you already were at the forefront of the sustainability wave of new designers. Do you remember when sustainability became an important part for your brand ?

I remember when I was 21 or 22, I was an intern in New York for a big brand, who produced a new collection every month, and they produced in China, so as an intern I had to send packages to China and wait for samples to come back.
I remember thinking that it was very inefficient to wait for four weeks for a package to fly across the planet and come back again from the other side with a sample in it.
It just really felt like a really inefficient use of time. If we were just making it here we could decide by the end of the day, if we would produce it or not.

So when I set up the label, I decided to produce everything here in England. It just seemed logical to set it up as an "Made in England“ brand.
About two years ago I became more aware of the realities of the global heating and the ecological impact it has in the future on me and our entire world.
We are a very small business but we are part of the fashion industry and as such were part of the problem.
We don’t produce a lot but my designs get ripped off and they get made big brands, so within that eco system I still am part of the fast fashion industry.
I fully accept it that we are part of the problem. It is my responsibility to be part of the solution not the problem.
So I spend a lot of time reeducating myself.
I decided that we need to spend more time in developing the collections more carefully, so I took myself off fashion week schedules and instead of doing four collections we did two and decided to bring them together and made them much smaller more concise collections.
We weren’t just making stuff to make stuff, we tried to design and produce cloths for the sake of actually making well thought out, edited pieces.
I actually had a bit of a backlash at times at first from the press giving me a bad reception, because I had a collection with only eight looks.
The press basically said it didn’t count as a full collection book because it was so small. But for me it was sensible, because I only showed the designs that meant something to me and were made properly.
I was just trying to do more by making less.

How do you keep yourself updated with the current evolvement regarding your sustainable fabrics and manufacturing methods?

It is really hard.
I mean a lot of it is not important to us because we are very small, like some of the big, tech developments which can only be accessed by big companies because of its budgetary requirements. So we only do what we can as a small brand and share everything we come across with other people. So that they can be interested in being environmentally friendly.
There is obviously a big subject and there is always a lot of developments happening all the time.
It’s quite challenging.
Sometimes you just have to take a step back from the practical research and learn by doing.

The Collarless Dress Shirt | Available at our shop
It’s crafted from Ramie, a Southeast Asian plant that doesn’t need irrigation or drainage as it gets sufficient water from rain. It is grown under organic standards and feels skin smoothing like linen.

Model: Fabian Dworschak | Photography: Martin Hufnagel

Your label is based in London. Do you have favourite place in the city?

Well it has probably changed a bit since lock down. I live very close to the river, which I just love. It was extraordinary during lockdown, it was and still is the most real place. The skies above London were entirely empty and silent. So when you go to the river you’ll see that there are no boats. Because of that you experience this complete silence and complete devotion of the rivers body.
That is something we might never experience again.
A city like London, usually big and busy but now being silent, nothing moving on the streets, skies or water. Completely surreal.

The Hooded Button Anorak | Available at our shop
The foundation for this collection was a zero-waste approach, so this hooded button anorak is crafted from 100% Econyl: recycled nylon waste from landfills and oceans around the world. Models: Viviana Wessels & Paulus Goerden | Photography: Andreas Rieß

Thank you Phoebe, for being part of The Wasted Hour

Click here to see more of Phoebe English

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