Meet the judges: Nicholas Oakwell of Nicholas Oakwell Couture

11 June 2015 by Sarah Waldron

Couturier Nicholas Oakwell talks textiles, embellishment and designing with Sarah Waldron.  Nicholas joins the Texprint 2015 judging panel end June to select this year's prize winners.

If Charles Frederick Worth was around now, I'm sure he'd be using the latest technology to build beautiful gowns. It's a balance of using technology but with some traditional disciplines at the same time. For me, that's what couture is about now. 

Texprint is so important because it’s developing textile designers and printers and every type of embellishment onto fabrics. I am so inspired by the fabrics. In the couture world, clients are always looking for exquisite fabrics, for embellishment, beading, hand painting – everything. They don't want run-of-the-mill.

I have a team of embellishment designers and they don't just do embellishment. They do printing, weaving, every type of possible fabrication. I give them an inspiration and they come back and show me visuals and then start developing all the different weaving and print ideas and beading and embroidery ideas. I see something and I go yes, yes, yes, and then I say how it all works together.

And then there’s the catwalk. There are so many layers to a catwalk presentation, just like making a gown. I'm like a conductor of an orchestra. I'm using all these different elements. It's about combining them and bringing them to their best, hopefully.

Nicholas Oakwell couture

If you look at every dress in my Panthère collection, they all have panther spots in different sizes, in different fabrications. We appliqued fur spots to make the leopard spots, printed it onto fur, beaded it in beads, did it in sequins but stacked sideways instead of lying flat. We did so many different types of embellishments. We printed it, for linings too. Sometimes you don't see the fabrics on the inside. For me, couture dresses are not how you look – it's how you feel. So when you put the dress on and you're feeling absolutely beautiful in it, you just radiate it.

I think there's something very luxurious about embellishment. Sometimes it doesn't photograph well, but it's not really about the picture – it's actually for the wearer, who can see the beauty in the workmanship. When people come into our store and see the collection, the exquisite workmanship stops them in their tracks.

Nicholas Oakwell - Flower collection spring/summer 2014

My Flower collection last summer was about using traditional style but modern fabrics. I found a moiré fabric that used a nylon thread. It was so beautiful to see how it gave a moiré effect just by the light shining on it. What gave it modernity was the fabric and the construction. We don't use fabric just on the outside of the garment, but also on the inside. We were using modern crinolines, removing all the horsehair, canvas, petticoats, tulle and netting. We had this sort of nylon mesh – it's the only way that I can describe it – that gave the construction a form. Making it modern, modern, modern.

I could spend hours in Première Vision or the big shows just looking at the fabrics and the technology. I like seeing how a designer uses materials and comes up with ideas.

Abigail Gardiner [2011 Texprint alumma and formerly at Nicholas Oakwell Couture] was my first embellishment textile designer. She came as an intern and then on the sponsorship programme, working with me for two or three years. Abigail took me to the Première Vision Texprint village for the first time. I was really inspired. It opened my eyes. I don't use a lot of print, but since then we’ve used it more.

Nicholas Oakwell couture

Most of our interns are textile designers and embellishment designers. They see how their idea of some type of embellishment can translate into a garment. I know some of the colleges are getting the fashion designers working with the textile designers. That is really important because you've got to work together as a team. There's no point in being a very creative textile designer and coming up with these wacky designs. Where's the customer? Where's the user? How is the designer going to relate that to a garment or furniture or whatever it may be? How can it be used? You've got to consider that as a designer. Otherwise your designs won't get purchased and you won't be a designer anymore. Collaboration is vital.

I remember being an intern myself. I did the whole hat collection for a runway show back in the 1980s. When someone gives you responsibility, you really grow up. I did another internship and I was shoved into a basement receiving boxes of knitwear, having to sit down and pack and steam them, put them onto hangers and sort out the kimballing, the little swing tickets and stuff. Now, when I bring people on board for internships, I always want to meet them and talk to them beforehand. I want to make sure they get something from it. I always like to find people who are really interested, and go out and do it.

I will enjoy the judging at this year’s Texprint. What am I looking for? The creativity, absolutely. That goes without saying. It doesn't have to use every type of medium – you can grab anything. If you're a weaver, you're a weaver. If you're an embellisher, you're an embellisher. If you print, you print. There's no point trying to go across all media, is there? But also understanding how that can translate into something that is going to be used.

And loving it really. I remember when I was a student, I thought, ‘Oh, I don't want to live and breathe fashion’, but actually you do. It overtakes you. That’s not a bad thing. Live and breathe it.

Note: A unique international festival celebrating British business creativity and innovation took place in Shanghai earlier this year. Items on display included a stunning gown (image below) created by Nicholas Oakwell Couture, hand embellished with some 200,000 ostrich feathers by a team of specialist embroiderers from the Royal School of Needlework.

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