The influence of architecture plays out in many fashion collections whether designed by students or well-known designers. University of South Wales graduate, Ben Thomas, was also taken with the idea of building. Using his family background of engineering, Ben manipulated fabrics for his final collection, Engineered, going so far as to create his own material.
Bubbled silhouettes appear alongside tight-fitting trousers in a colour combination of black and yellow, riffing on the health and safety signs dotted around the workplace. Ben also used his previous experimentations with jewellery design to create steel accessories; their arrangement at the side seams of structured vests proving an alternative to sewing.
Ben spoke to Modeconnect about his AW15 collection, his design process and his plans for the future.
Ben, tell us about your approach to design
My work is about marrying conceptual ideas with a desirable silhouette. I see designs out there today that just seem to have been created to shock people. While that’s all well and good to get yourself noticed, I’d rather stay true to myself and design clothes that I feel ultimately fit their purpose: to be worn. Fabric development and manipulation is a huge part of how I work… it’s in my designer DNA!
What inspired your collection, Engineered?
The initial inspiration was my families’ background in engineering. My dad learnt his craft as an engineer, and works as the manager of my grandfather’s engineering firm. Family means a lot to me, so it was a very natural initial concept.
Could you talk us through your creative process?
I started by taking photographs of the machinery, the nuts and bolts I found lying around, the ‘danger’ signs – which went on to influence my black and yellow colour palette. Once I’d gathered enough resources, I started to sketch initial ideas. I didn’t get it right first time. The toiles I came up with were too fussy and flamboyant. So I started to be resourceful and ended up creating my own fabric out of the strands on the cover stitch machine. That’s when everything clicked.
How did you manipulate fabrics?
I realised engineering is all about problem solving and finding a resolve to any hiccups along the way. I’d used a lot of ‘cover stitching’ on seams (how a wetsuit is sewn flatly together) and suddenly, one day, had a thought: what if I ran the stitch over itself instead of over a fabric? The result was a non-woven, non-fraying fabric that I could make as fragile or as dense as I wanted.
What challenges did you face when designing your collection?
Pulling my ideas out of my head, putting them onto paper, then into paper: the pattern. It’s always a torturous experience, but one I’d happily repeat!
Anything you would do differently?
I would use more of the fabric I created myself from threads, to make it more of a recurring theme. It took three weeks just to make the sleeves of a jumper. I wish I’d come up with it sooner!
I’d also think more about the silhouettes in the first semester, because they all changed after Christmas which took its toll on the time-scale I had left to complete the collection.
How do your designs fit into the market?
I’d like to think my clothes fit in at the high-end of the market. The silhouettes are a mix of easy-to-wear and borderline conceptual as are the fabric choices which are luxury and therefore costly! My collection is market-led. I don’t see the point of designing for the sake of designing. Obviously, things are different for couture houses that put on spectacle shows.
Where do you look for inspiration?
This is something I struggle with. Ideas literally come out of my head. I guess you could say I find inspiration “everywhere and nowhere.” Usually, a lot of inspirations for concepts have come from family, friends, or experiences. In Newport, I would have to say there is no better place than the design studio itself for people-watching and inspiration. There are no walls; the outside is all glass so you can see for miles.
Do you pay attention to trends?
Not so much. I’d rather find something I’m truly passionate about and be an originator. I’m a conceptual designer. I take a concept and run with it, rather than doing what everyone else is doing.
If you weren’t designing fashion, what would you be doing?
I have a few plans; one would be going into social work thanks to my mum being a foster carer. If all else fails, I’d move to Australia in the hope of finding some sort of sanctuary to lay low from student finance!
What are some of your strongest fashion memories?
Realising where my weaknesses lies. I’m not afraid to admit where my pitfalls are, but I am a positive person and always play to my strengths. Another memory comes from my last year of study when I realised I’d taken my eye off the ball in the first semester. After the Christmas break, I knuckled down, and it paid off; I ended up winning “Best FD Portfolio” at University of South Wales’ end of year awards.
Any advice for would-be fashion students starting a course?
Start saving! It’s a very expensive course. You have to pay for all the fabrics, trims and trips to London to buy supplies and equipment regularly. We aren’t talking a few quid… We’re talking a few thousand. Apply for any grants, bursaries and sponsorships as soon as possible. Don’t be put off though – look at it as an investment in bettering yourself.
And as soon as you receive an offer, don’t waste the summer away. Get on an industrial sewing machine and start practicing! Youtube tutorials are useful and start building up your own folio of samples. It may sound tedious and unnecessary but it will be invaluable once you start your course. Also, if you can get any hands-on experience, do it! It’s just as important as your degree on your CV.
What is the future of fashion?
Advancements in technology. As of now, a few people have experimented with 3D printing to make garments, but have all found the outcome material is rigid and unwearable. But I feel that in the near future, we will produce more comfortable results. We may even see a radical change in the making of clothes so that there’s no longer any need for sewing.
What’s next for you?
The biggest challenge at the moment is trying to suss out where to apply taking into account the type of designer I am. My ideal role at this point would be in Collection Development, as I found this the most natural and rewarding part of my degree. I’ve sourced fabrics from the UK and abroad, and find seeing my designs come to life in the “real” fabrics after toiling in calico/muslin to be very exciting!
Many dream of it, but in the future, I ultimately hope to start my own label. After completing an MA, I will endeavour to do so.