Five Go Mad

Sunday 2 May 2010

Q and A with Alexandra Mann

Fashion Stylist and Artisan Alexandra Mann started her career in Vivienne Westwood's shop in London assisting the head of couture, dressing celebrities and royalty. Her latest venture sees her put her fashion sensibilities and love of textiles and fabrics into practice to design a must-have range of lifestyle accessories. Her gorgeous wash bags, shown below, are some of the delightful products from her hotly anticipated range.

What or who was your earliest inspiration? 
My National Trust membership and Zandra Rhodes. I watched an interview with her when I was about 10 or so, I was inspired by how colourful she was and how all her designs were inspired by her travels to the exotic.

Did you always want to work in fashion?
I knew from a young age that I wanted to study fashion but my interest has always been more in fabrics and clothes than fashion. I probably should have studied textiles to be honest.

How did you start out? 
I did Art foundation at Luton 6th Form College, then on to Nottingham Trent University to study a fashion degree. All the technicians at Trent were amazing; they had worked in fashion production for years. They could gossip, have a cup of tea, smoke a fag and construct a bagged out garment at the same time. Good machinists are so talented and inspiring, they bring all the designers ideas to life.

Tell us all about your time working at Vivienne Westwood.
I loved working for Vivienne Westwood. I started out as a shop girl then became Gold Label manager and took on all special order fittings, assisting the brilliant head of couture Brigitte. I learned a lot from her about how to work closely with a client when fitting for bridal and evening wear couture. Seeing the order through to production and ordering fabrics and toile’s from the studio. I went to Paris twice a year to buy the gold label collections for the shop. It was always really full on but immense fun.

After working for a fashion institution, how did you find the transition into costume design for film? 
Working in film is all about being part of a team or even a family, all striving for the same end product with as little drama as possible. Fashion is by nature dramatic. Film, in my experience, is more pragmatic. Working closely with clients fitting clothing at Westwood was a valuable experience I use everyday in film. You have to be sensitive to who you are dressing and the script that you are working with. 

How do you prepare when designing clothes for a film?
Designing for a film or any production starts with two very important things. The script, this tells you what characters you are dressing, who they are and what they are doing. It dictates everything, as does the budget. That determines how creative you can be or have to be.

How long does it take you to make the costumes for a film such as Morris which you worked on recently?
I had around 6 weeks prep time for Morris. After one week I realised I needed an assistant.  For six Morris teams of six men we spent two weeks making all the ruggles (leg bells with looped ribbons) and bells and ribbons for the arms. Then the director informed me I had to silence the bells for sound, ouch.

What are your favourite fabrics? 
Printed fabrics are my first love. As are natural fabrics, tweed, tartan, cotton and silk.  It lasts longer and feels nicer.

With your newly launched collection, where did your inspiration come from? 
Fabric sourcing is always where the collection starts. The cut work design ideas evolve from the strangest places; each idea has a little story behind it. The hand grenade idea came from watching a box set of Band of Brothers, as did the Spitfire design. I always carry a sketchbook in case something inspires.

What do you hope to achieve with your collection? 
I want to set up a cult brand of accessories that have longevity but change from month to month and continue to evolve as I get together new ideas. The great thing about selling online is you are in control of how you sell; I want to transcend seasonal buying. 

Who is the most stylish person you have worked with to date? 
Nobody could top Vivienne.

Do you have any favourite style icons yourself? 
Coco Chanel for daring to dress like a boy when everyone else was still in corsets and Katherine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall for their glamorous gamine.

What do you consider typical British style?
Being brave, dressing for yourself and not others. Mixing it up and sticking two fingers up at anyone who balks. Metaphorically speaking!

Quintessentially British, what does that conjure up for you?
British style is more about personality than appearance, it's not what we do, it's the way we do it. Helena Bonham Carter and Quentin Crisp they march to the beat of their own drum in the style stakes. 

Are there any British designers you would like to work with?
I would love to design a collection for Barbour reinterpreting their innate Englishness into a line of accessories. On a costume design front I would love to work for Sandy Powell, she costumed the film Orlando at the age of 27. Arianne Philips and Jacqueline Durran both have a sensitive beauty to their costume design that is inspiring too. 

What do you like to do when you aren't working?
Put on a pair of wellingtons and go for a walk or visit car boot sales looking for bargains. I also like cooking a massive roast for friends.

Are you a foodie at all? Do you have any favourite restaurants or cafes you can tell us about?
I love my food, cooking it, buying it. Everything revolves around it. 

Best coffee shop: Climpson on Broadway Market, best flat white in London.
Best curry house: Curry Capital Brick Lane. A table in the window is best for people watching.
Best Dim Sum: Royal China on Baker Street. My other half is half Chinese and knows all the best places to go.

I still love the Rivington on Rivington Street for good English seasonal cooking or a pint of prawns at the bar. It's not a restaurant, but everything is so good at my friends Lucy and Chaz's, who directed Morris. They grow most of the produce and the service and company is excellent. Lucy never lets me leave not bursting at the seams and Chaz never lets me leave sober.

Any tips for budding designers? 
Be aware of your surroundings. Don't waste time watching TV or worrying about what others are doing. Hard work always pays off in the end.

What does the future hold for Alexandra Mann? 
I will be branching out into handbags and launching my own line of prints this year. As well as working on new stock for my online shop.

by Liz Appleby


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