I am speaking to the young designer, and recent womenswear graduate Andrew Bell. What he is explaining to me would not be out of place on a Maison Margiela catwalk (pre Galliano). It is in fact, what he envisages for his new website, one of the many ideas sparking in him at the moment. “My work is really tailored, all the jackets and trousers, and I want to develop that, that is what I’m really interested in and to go there and get experience in tailoring would be amazing. Just to understand the construction values, to look at them and go, there’s that amount of padding in that jacket, that’s been hand sewn, that’s horse hair. You know, how garments fit, all of that.”
Within the first half hour we flit between pursuits in tailoring, architecture, or womenswear in London, Dublin or Milan. “If I don’t get to use the skills in design which I think I have, which is all about details- I like to spend a lot of time working on the design- if I don’t feel like I’m able to do that I’ll move to architecture because in architecture you work on one building for two years.” But despite the prospect of such varied possibilities, it is clear from the outset where he is destined to be – “I have to be a designer.”
Andrew Bell’s talent first became widely apparent last May at the fashion graduate show from the National College of Art and Design. Particularly in graduate shows, when students have a final chance to create over the top pieces that define their aesthetic before facing the commercial reality of the fashion industry, larger than life, eye catching creations abound. But it was Bell’s masculine tailoring, whipped up a contrasting palettes of grey, blue and screaming tangerine that made a proper impact. In a real life, modern day sit up and take notice moment, as soon as the first models strode down the catwalk, the commanding silhouettes taking centre stage, a ripple effect began throughout the audience. It was people scrambling for their iPhones hoping to capture a photo of these stand out pieces and launch them into the Twittersphere.
“I started looking on Facebook at how girls carry bags, and you know how they carry them with this sense of achievement, like plaques or certificates.” – Andrew Bell
He is talking me through the process of the collection and he takes out a sheath of reference photos that served as inspiration. Looking at the finished pieces, you would expect a conceptual, borderline puzzling, image responsible for such dizzying proportions and stark asymmetry. Instead he shows me a photograph of twenty or so girls. It is a familiar image so much that they could be in Sydney’s Western suburbs, or Latvia, or Dublin. They are a gaggle, balanced precariously on platform stilettos, stuffed into minuscule bandage dresses that go from upper thigh to somewhere just above the nipple. Their tan is patchy, their hair is big and they are ready for the night. It is so remarkably normal I can scarcely draw a comparison between it and the final photoshoot of his collection. “It was all about handbags. It was all about body language of girls. I started looking on Facebook at how girls carry bags, and you know how they carry them with this sense of achievement, like plaques or certificates. Like this sort of body language, clenching things near to you. You’re really kind of debilitating yourself in these high heels and these bags and I just thought that was so interesting, I love when clothing makes you stand or feel a certain way.” I look again, and the tableau is scattered with arms bent at all angels, small handbags wedged protectively against the body.
“It was all about women and their relationship with accessories so I started looking at bags and taking them apart, tearing them apart and looking at the construction, and then I suppose when I interned at JW Anderson, I’d just come back from there and I found that a very intense studio to work in and I was like oh my god, the fashion industry is so all consuming. So that is why all these silhouettes were so huge and all consuming, kind of like enveloping the body and weighing you down.” He shows me sketches and photos of calico garments draped onto mannequins, the heavy fabric laboriously poured over the figure, the hem sewn into a handbag clasp.
“So the body is wearing the bag, so you can hold it… I started to make this bag which opens and the fabric all comes out, and then it becomes a dress, and I wanted to make ones so it would be a shirt. So it would be six metres long, you’re holding this massive amount of fabric and weighed down with it and that’s what I was really interested in, kind of drowning in fabric. The collection is called Wrap, Clench, Clutch, Consume. It’s how women interact with the bags and I looked at images at how women hold the bags naturally. I would get the Luas everyday, and in the morning it was everybody in their suits, and their smart bags, and then coming back at night from fashion it would be all the hons on the street with their clutch bags and was literally a mash of the two. They’re all going out and I really liked that kind of contrast.”
“I did so much research into bags, into cave paintings where bags were first represented. Why do men not carry bags and women carry bags? The pocket is masculine, the bag is feminine. I made the bags extract from the pocket in earlier samples, where the pocket bag went into the lining and they were connected.”
He shows me a photograph of himself and a model taking a final walk down the runway. One of the legs of the trousers she is wearing does not stop at the ankle. It runs down her leg and becomes a sheath of fabric that is draped across her body and clenched under the opposite arm. “I think this image really summarises it where she’s walking and it’s kind of powerful, she’s in control, and yet she’s kind of debilitating herself with this loop of fabric. There’s vulnerability, it’s like in the image there where the girls are on the night out, there’s one guy in the image and he’s just like in a flat pair of shoes and a shirt, he’s rocked up like that, but it’s this sort of power that you’re doing this tight rope act where it’s a really difficult performance, you’re wearing these shoes and really awkward dresses. I just thought that was really interesting. So that’s what it was about.”
So, highly conceptual after all. But vitally, it is also highly wearable. Currently working in design for Dunnes Stores, Bell has an understanding of the commercial viability that must be present in clothing in order for it to sell. “’I am not interested in being an artisan person who produces four jackets a year, that’s not what I’m into.”
“The day we had our external examiner a guy flew over from a college in Amsterdam to look at our work and we had to present our work to him, and he looked at the rail and he looked at the work and said to me ‘You need to go to Paris, you need to go Italy, you need to do tailoring, the worst thing you can do is get a job on the high street’, and I said okay, well, I’m actually going for an interview now in about half an hour’s time for Dunnes stores. So then I went for the interview and it’s been a very good experience. I think anyway that I’m the kind of person, no matter what it is, if it’s about detail I’m there. I’m obsessed with detail, my bedroom can be complete mess but my work will be perfect and the room will be upside, that really is kind of what I’m like. To see your designs getting ready to be in store, we work a year, year and half in advance but they will be in store and it is good”
Closely examining the samples from the collection, the high level of workmanship is commendable. The tailoring elements are impressive, especially considering no formal training in tailoring has yet been undertaken. Perhaps an exploration into menswear could be next? “I’m really interested in it, and we did menswear in our final year. We had to do a collection for menswear and fifty per cent of it had to be knitwear. I really like it, I am really interested in it and drawn towards it but no, it is womenswear that I want to do. It’s like smart clothes for smart women, tailoring on women I think is amazing but I feel like men’s clothing gets so much, whats the word?” He pauses, grappling for it. “Inequality!” I assume he means menswear is often overlooked, with so much of the focus piled onto womenswear, but again, his answer is not what I expect. “Men’s get all of this attention and detailing and quality, and in womenswear its faster and it’s shitter. It’s diluted. So thats kind of one of the things that I would like to do, is tailoring. I would just love to make suits for women, but still be really designed, I don’t just mean a jacket and a trouser, it has to have design to it.”
Having returned the day previous from London to attend the RCA open day, Bell is carefully considering his next move. With an obvious skill for design, a finely tuned eye for detail and an understanding of production, there are opportunities that await him are vast. We’ve spoken at length about the countless avenues he would like to explore, but he manages to sum it all up in a one liner; “I want to learn good skills and I want to be a designer.”