25 July 2020
Header Photo: Asia Werbel
Photos & Interview: Martin Hufnagel
Intro & Text: Celine Lika
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.
To introduce her to you, our editor-in-chief Martin chatted to Phoebe over the phone about her first designs, the emergency designer network, her favourite place in London and, of course, sustainability.
When did you start designing clothes? Who was your biggest fashion idol back then?
I was very, very young. I designed my first outfit as a child at the beach. I made a really long dress from seaweed and built 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 knit, and I was about 11 or 12 when I made my first real dress. My mother was an art teacher, and when she would come back from teaching, she would bring big bags full of fabric to our home. I grew up in the town Shakespeare came from (Stratford-upon-Avon), so my mother collected the off-cut fabric from the Royal Shakespeare Company costume department for her students. That was usually my opportunity to sneak in and raid all the beautiful fabrics. One time, I found a very beautiful silk stretch jersey in black. I draped it on my body and sowed some straps on it – that was the first real dress I ever made. The weird part about it is that it kind of looked like something from my collections now.
It was great learning about design at such a young age, because I learned a lot about fabric. Having someone teaching you the names of all the fabrics and having access to hundreds of different fabrics was very educational.
Hooded Smock Jacket
What is the Emergency Designer 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 was a huge issue, because everything is imported.
During the crisis, there was a really big demand for PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) across the whole world, specifically in the countries where they were manufactured. So, we started producing it here in the country to reduce the time the medical professionals had to wait for the supplies to arrive.
Of course, we can only help with garnet-related items, but so far, we produced over 10,000 scrubs, helped supply 50,000 masks, and are now developing a new type of gowns. In the UK, you can’t treat someone with Covid-19 without wearing a gown. In conclusion, if you don’t have one, you must send people away. So, we are specifically working on a gown that is reusable to shorten the waiting time.
What you’ve been doing is pretty amazing! When I came across your brand, you were already at the forefront of the sustainability wave of new designers. Do you remember when sustainability became an important part of your brand?
When I was 21 or 22, I was an intern in New York for a big brand, which 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 a very inefficient use of time 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. 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 a ‘Made in England’ brand. About two years ago, I became more aware of the realities of global warming and the ecological impact it will have on me and our entire world in the future.
We are a very small business, and we don’t produce a lot, but my designs get ripped off, and they get made big brands. So, within that eco system, I’m still part of the fast fashion industry. I fully accept that we’re part of the problem, and it is my responsibility to be part of the solution instead.
Therefore, I’ve spent a lot of time re-educating 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 brought them together. We made them much smaller, more concise collections. We weren’t just making stuff to make stuff, we tried to design and produce clothes for the sake of actually making well-thought-out, edited pieces.
At first, I actually had a bit of a backlash 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. However, for me it was sensible because I only showed the designs that meant something to me and that were made properly. I was just trying to do more by making less.
How do you keep yourself updated with current developments regarding sustainable fabrics and manufacturing methods?
It’s really hard. A lot of it is not important to us because we’re very small. Some of the big tech developments can only be accessed by big companies because of their budgetary requirements. We only do what we can as a small brand and share everything we come across with other people, so that they become interested in being environmentally friendly.
That’s obviously a big subject, and there are always a lot of developments happening all the time, which is quite challenging. Sometimes you just have to take a step back from the practical research and learn by doing.
Collarless Dress Shirt
Your label is based in London. Do you have a favourite place in the city?
Well, it has probably changed a bit since lockdown. I live very close to the River Thames, 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. Therefore, you experience this complete silence and complete devotion of the river’s body. That is something we might never experience again. A city like London – usually big and busy but now silent, nothing moving on the streets, skies, or water. Completely surreal.
What’s your favourite place in London?
I didn’t know how much I loved my print room until we went into lockdown. I’ve missed this the most and have come to realise it really is my favourite place to be working. It was such a nice moment to walk back in.
What’s the most played song on your studio playlist?
‘Fast as You Can’ by Fiona Apple.
What are the next plans for your label and for you personally?
We’re currently working on our next digital showcase to present a new collection, which we’ll be sharing with you in September during London Fashion Week. We’re also planning to expand our range, which I’m looking forward to. I have a lot of ambitions for the brand, I really want to build a brand that is supporting and championing positive change in the industry. We will continue to responsibly source fabrics and trims and pursue slow fashion by designing seasonless collections.