Tracey Neuls was interviewed on her design ethos and inspirations by Susan Postlethwaite for The Measure, a compilation of interviews and features on shoe designers edited by Louise Clarke. The book is available to purchase in our stores.
Time and speed are two of the key elements in an industry that thrives on newness and a constant state of change. Fast fashion just gets faster and faster. But what would happen if we slowed down the fashion cycle, why might it be desirable and what does it mean for design practice?
Small scale production, a link between ethics and pleasure, integrity and education - might inform future design practise and innovation; allowing time for the generation of a different kind of pleasure in fashion.
SP: One of the first things I was going to ask was - you obviously know about the Slow Food movement. How did you come across that idea, do you know?
TN: Actually there was an article that was in either Blueprint or Icon magazine. Just the thought of it felt wonderful and especially coming from Italy because having produced shoes for so long in Italy it’s that side of things that I believe is fantastic.
SP: Let's talk about how you actually started.
TN: I’m Canadian and I came from quite a small town. When I was 9 years old I was already making shoes out toilet paper rolls for heels and walking around town in them. Once living in London, it seemed ridiculous to not actually pursue shoe design so I thought yeah let's do it.
When I arrived in London, I was really really disappointed in terms of high street fashion. I had this perception that everything would be different and in fact, I felt like you could knock down all the walls and all the labels could be the same. That really bothered me. That was the start of TN_29.
Photo credit: Uli Schade
SP: How did you get into making shoes in Italy? That’s still a centre of designer shoemaking, isn’t it?
TN: I did a final show with Cordwainers and Tracey Mulligan really liked the shoes and asked if I could do a catwalk collection for her. That went really well and she said why don’t we try producing them in Italy.
SP: How big was this factory you were working with?
TN: It was probably 1600 sq ft or something like that. It was tiny with a lot of hand making. I think what is quite common is you take in a shoe that someone else has done and you say you want to copy it. But we were not doing that. It was like, ok I’m really looking for the sole to do this and the upper to do that and... So it was a bit of a challenge when you don’t speak the language on top of it.
SP: Were you taking drawings in or were you thinking with materials more?
TN: The material, leather was quite basic - when you start out minimums are a factor just like with textiles. The more basic it is, the smaller the minimum and so it was more about the treatments and the last itself and how the soling was executed.
SP: Did you have your own lasts made?
TN: Yeah for me that’s almost one of the best parts of shoe design… getting in there and sculpting it. I do a mock-up first and I use just basic plasticine. I love the smell of it.
SP: We’ve talked a little bit about the idea of Slow Fashion could you pinpoint a time when you think you were coming around to that way of thinking?
TN: I think its something that is in you. I will be walking along the street and I often bump into people because I’m looking at the ground or I’m looking in the sky and it’s the teeny weeny little things I’m looking at. And even now I’ve got my hand in the shape of it, of teeny weeny, because it's kind of interlinked somehow. I really love the small things in life. I think that the idea of Slow comes in because to really appreciate something small you have to take the time. It’s not some big Las Vegas glance.
SP: It's more the minutia, it’s the little details and the little nuances?
TN: Yeah. For example, one time I was in New York and in Soho, in particular, there is not a patch of green anywhere and this poor dog is looking for a pee, and you could see this spring of grass probably the only one for miles and he went and sniffed that out, and that whole scenario, that theme, the story around it I totally love. It’s almost like finding that one piece of beauty or it’s not even as raw as something that the human hand has done. I really do like the teeny little details.
SP: English fashion has become very high street driven and it seems to have become more so in the last 4 or 5 years, where the high street has a sort of stranglehold almost on English fashion and the way we dress. Do you think that’s true?
TN: Certainly more than the French, yeah. Italians have a bit of that I think but it’s a bit more classics driven, you know, with the blue jacket. Everyone is buying into design and I think the High Street has bought into emulating that. English Fashion is sort of urgent High Streets shopping.
SP: What I think is interesting is how the high street has driven this idea of speed within fashion, and the speeding up of the cycle, but it seems to me what the high street is doing is saying ‘this week we will have Marni flavour garments, and next week we will have Prada and the week after that we will have Dries Van Noten’, so in fact the idea that fashion is fast and that ideas are generated fast is crazy. What the high street shops are doing is copying faster. They are just borrowing ideas from other designers more and more quickly and fashion shopping is being driven by the desire to consume and the high streets’ desire to sell you things rather than design and ideas.
TN: And I think that’s shocking and the quality level is so low because people don’t want it for more than 3 months at a time.
I get emails from people who have a pair of shoes from 7 years ago from the very first collection and they are distraught, like it’s a pet that’s gone missing or something, and they are like ‘What can I do? The sole has worn out.” and I’m like ‘It’s ok, we can re-sole it.’
SP: It seems to me that you would feel more satisfied as a consumer if you had bought something that you really loved and you knew someone had spent a lot of time over the design and making it, and also loved it.
TN: But also the idea that goes hand in hand with that is the price level and I think America is particularly bad where the quality of something is concerned. If you think of your purchases over a lifetime instead of thinking 'Oh it's £300', think you can wear that until you're dead, not until it's dead. And it’s almost like a whole new education that goes hand in hand with that idea.
SP: I think this idea of education is absolutely key for thinking about Slow Fashion. You need to re-educate people to think about the real value of things and value beyond the thing you have in your hand. Thinking about the making of it, you’re consumption of it and then your continued pleasure in it, as opposed to ‘I’ve worn it once and now I’ll throw it away.’
TN: I think with a lot of things these days your pleasure needs to be a bit more considered. It’s almost like we can’t be that spontaneous really anymore, in terms of energy, the whole gamut of environmental concerns and so on.
SP: Where do you get your ideas from, how do you start designing?
TN: I think I’m a little bit like a sponge, like I say, I’m always looking and when it comes time to wring me out then it all comes out. But it's not like I sit down and go ok, the fairytale, its so not that at all. Probably every 3 seasons I end up doing a new shape and that can be quite a starting point because I love the idea of sculpting and the shape. It’s almost as if the form dictates everything else in terms of inspiration. For example stationery, I absolutely love stationary, and you get the little closes and clasps and I put them on shoes instead of lacings. So just the very small things. Making people look at things that they take for granted in a slightly different way. For me, I think the stuff that I do is different but it's not because I’ve thrown a bag of jewels on the top or have lots of other embellishments I still think its good designing. Maybe it’s an old way of thinking about it, but I still think that those reasons of why things are beautiful haven’t changed.
SP: I’m quite interested in the idea that fashion is over, in fact, because it is so self-referential now, fashion repeats itself so quickly.
TN: I’ve never heard anyone declare that before!
SP: Well it is an idea that I have been toying with and when you tell people they are very shocked, but I think fashion as we have known it, with its six-monthly cycle, is definitely over. And also because there are such diversity of looks and overlapping of styles.
TN: I like that idea. It’s like a dictator that’s died or been overthrown or something.
I get people that come in and they love the shoes and then Vogue is in the background going, ‘you need a pair of high heeled stiletto’s’, or ‘those aren’t wedges’ and you can almost sort of see the fight going on within them, but if they could learn to trust themselves and have their own personal taste and just say, ‘I love that’.
SP: This is one of the things that Matilda Tam* talks about in her research. The High Street consumer being very unconfident, so you buy something, wear it and then think ‘I don’t know if this is quite me, I don’t know if I like it’. It’s cheap enough to throw away and you can buy yourself a whole new persona for the following weekend. I think for young women it’s terribly confusing because in a way you don’t get to develop your own fashion identity because you're having all this stuff forced on you all the time. You have to try it out, you have to play the game, and it’s unsatisfying because you end up looking like everybody else and you find your decision has actually been manipulated by somebody else, by magazines or stylists.
TN: Yeah. Even more than the designers creating the outfit.
SP: I’m quite interested in this idea that London fashion, London’s designer Fashion always seems to be in this terrible crisis. Our designers are either moving to Paris or abandoning ship or that the businesses just go under because it’s so difficult to get finance and it seems to me that the way you work, in a way that is removed from that very fast cycle, having direct contact with your customer and your factories and your makers seems to me to be the only model for designer fashion that can really survive in London.
TN: It's interesting that you say that because a woman came in the other day and she said ‘This is such a find. You would never be able to make it on the High Street, people have to find you.’
SP: That’s a nice idea.
TN: I was thinking about London Fashion Week itself and we did that when we were first starting and we won a Marks and Spencer’s Award and you know little things like that. But the fact of the matter is that it's not representative of what’s going on in London and its very strange. I mean my wholesalers don’t come to London anymore whereas 7 years ago, 5 years ago it was on the map and now it's not. Like right now London Fashion Week is just about a few stockists who are based in the U.K
SP: I was talking to Julian Roberts* not so long ago and he is really interested in London becoming not just about fashion in clothing but about film and video and graphics and Fine Art and instead of having just catwalk fashion it becomes a more multi-media approach to showing design and a showcase for everything that we do really well. Involving all the fantastic magazines that we have got and showcasing new ideas and for it to be much livelier and much richer in its content.
TN: Last September what we did is instead of saying that we are showing over London Fashion week is we joined the Design Week trail and the Icon trail.
We had an article in Elle magazine and another one in Blueprint magazine we had people writing in from Australia and all over on the back of this and it was just such a good match. Proper attention is so fantastic.
SP: It must be so nice to place yourself outside the normal fashion route.
TN: Yes it got to a point 4 years ago you know and I’m thinking, I’m not growing fast enough, and you get so caught up in what your peers are doing and look there is that model wearing her shoes and that sort of stuff and I feel so healthy now. I feel like you know I’ve gone to Footwear Yoga or something. And if you’re true to what it is you believe in it sort of goes back to the beginning where I can’t help myself looking at tiny little details and being fascinated by a beautiful crack in a building or something. If it takes 20 years to build the business then fine because I also want fun along the way
SP: For you, it sounds like going to the factory and meeting the craftsmen and being involved in all of that is actually one of the joys of the design process?
TN: Yeah I think that your fingers are just as important as your eyes and you can’t just be entirely creative looking at something. In one of one of my previous design jobs when I first moved here there were designers and then there were buyers or design coordinators that would go out and basically shop America and come back with things that they would like in their range. So as a designer, I was there in the factory and they were taking nuances from what already existed.
Today everything is so now, so directly linked to your eyes, so instant. What happens to these guys at the end of our arms? (wiggles her fingers).
It begins to look a lot like Christmas at Coal Drops Yard.