All kinds of unexpected research can emerge from the resources of a great library. But I must admit that I’d never really thought much about the striking ways archival material can feed into fashion design. Last September, during London Fashion Week, the Syrian-born British designer Nabil Nayal launched a collection at the British Library , precisely because he had been inspired by the Elizabethan holdings there. He was also one of the judges for the second British Fashion Council x British Library Research Competition, which gives students from the BFC’s member institutions a chance to create a portfolio inspired by the BL’s collections.
This time, more than 60 students from across the UK attended a masterclass to learn about digital and physical access to national collections as well as issues such as copyright and the use of culturally sensitive imagery. Eight were shortlisted, and two joint winners – Victoria Lyons (Kingston School of Art) and Andy Froud (University of Brighton) – were announced at a ceremony on 22 February because the judges had “found it impossible to choose between Lyons’ colour-infused vision of nature rooted in her Northern Irish background, and the ethereal and elegant lines of Froud’s collection”.
So what was the route that led them from dusty archives to the glamour of the catwalk?
For her project, “The Two Trees”, Lyons told me, she began with “the work of William Henry Fox Talbot, the scientist, inventor and photography pioneer”, and particularly “the first photographic recordings of plants, fragile yet so clear”. She also became fascinated by the “meanings attached to plants, myths and stories told”.
While she had previously “concentrated on knitwear and colour combinations”, Lyons went on, she has now begun “experimenting with digital printing, dye sublimation” and even “the possibilities of hand-painting my fabrics”. Her forthcoming collection is currently “going in the direction of jackets, skirts and dresses, creating bold shoulders and the use of draped panels”.
Froud’s collection (pictured inset), he explained in his entry to the competition, was influenced by seemingly banal aspects of the library, “from the intricacy found in the various British Library stamps seen in the books themselves to the intimacy presented during the act of transferring personal belongings into clear plastic bags for those that wish to enter the reading rooms”. Reflecting on “the marriage between intricacy and intimacy” led him to think about lace-making. So he turned to an 1875 book by a Mrs Bury Palliser called A History of Lace and began to explore “contemporary printed textiles that draw inspiration from the woven intricacy that lace embodies, covering the body whilst highlighting the negative space between the fabric and the wearer”.
As well as encouraging designers to access its resources, the British Library hopes to use the competition to hone its own services to creative researchers. A separate award was given by staff to Maz Smith (Edinburgh College of Art) for a collection based on her research into masculinity and mental health.