Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Posed by Bethan Holt, Fashion Junior at Large

I've said it before, and I'll say it again... being a fashion geek is a pretty important part of getting anywhere in this industry. And the very best way to increase your geekiness is to find someone with their own particular kind of geekiness and get them to share it with you. So it was that in mind on very rainy morning last week, I spent a couple of hours with designer Christian Blanken, who not only has his own label which sells at Harrods and shows at LFW, but has also worked with American design stalwarts including Michael Kors and Diane Von Furstenberg. Blanken is currently working on a book, which he's hoping to publish next year, which will be an  anthology of modern sportswear. The tome, sure to become a fixure on the coffee table of many a fashion devotee, will trace the development of easy, wearable, revolutionary design from Chanel and Vionnet right up to the likes of Alexander Wang today.

Blanken in his showroom
It's a cause which has been close to Blanken's heart since he was studying a the Academy of Fine Arts in Arnem, Holland during the late 80s. "All my peers seemed to be obsessed either with the Japanese designers, like Comme des Garcons, or with that Vivienne Westwood/ Galliano look' he tells me, 'but my obsession was Halston, which is quite different'. His own aesthetic may have set him apart from the vibe of the time, but that didn't stop him getting on to the Central Saint Martin's Masters course. 'After that, Michael Kors was the guy I wanted to work with, he was the person doing what I was most interested in at the time" Blanken explains. By a stroke of luck, Kors was looking for an Italian speaking designer to work on his Kors range which would be produced in Italy. Thanks to his childhood moving countries every few years, Blanken had the linguistic credentials Kors was looking for and so he landed the job.

Great silver trousers in Christian Blanken AW12 (image from catwalking.com)
He eventually made the move to New York where it sounds like life got rather fun. He worked at J. Crew in the design room alongside Jenna Lyons, who is now the brand's very cool Creative Director. Blanken also joined Diane Von Furstenberg at a time when the brand was being 'reined back in'. Even better, he was hanging out with the likes of Terry Richardson and Chloe Sevingy, just when Marc Jacobs was marking her out as the coolest girl in New York. Despite launching his own label over there, Blanken eventually decided to return to London which he describes as 'less homogenous' than New York. Before re-opening his label here, Blanken worked with Sue Whiteley at Harvey Nichols on the store's private label collection. The two sought to create 'a really good wardrobe' which gave the HN customer 'new options'. In 2008, Blanken relaunched his own label.

Christian Blanken SS12 (from catwalking.com) You can buy online here or in Harrods
His is quite a CV. He seems to have touched base with so many of the key players in his particular nook of the industry at some point in his career that he seems ideally placed to be working with Bloomsbury publishers on the anthology. For me, the most interesting thing to come out of our conversation was the realisation that sportswear represents such a seismic change in women's lives. It reflects the new found political freedoms which were gained in the 20s and follows the course of those freedoms extending into every other aspect of our lives... work, family, relationships and lifestyles. Basically, it was radical. It seemed like Blanken really got that; he is all about fashion being 'intelligent but democratic'. It's telling that he originally wanted to be a painter but was attracted to the 'chronic output of fashion. It's not whimsical, like giving a part of you to people to put on their wall. It's about seeing people wearing what you design and using it to live. I really like that part of it'.

I don't want to ruin Christian's book for you. He is currently holing himself up at Central Saint Martin's library in every spare moment he has between commuting to and from Rome (where he works on various design projects) and working on his next own label collection. So here is a taster (in his own words) of some of the earlier designers (from 20s through to 40s/50s) he'll be covering- there are many, many more to get us to the present day. And there's still lots of thinking going on about who is the ultimate sportswear designer right now. Blanken says that "Alexander Wang is the most interesting proponent of modern sportswear coming out of New York. He ticks all the boxes' However, Europe is harder to pin down; 'I'm really interested in Raf Simons. It may be him, but he's very cerebral. Isabel Marant really hits a chord too. Her look is sexy, like how every girl wants to look'. I can't wait to see what Blanken decided when the finished work comes out next year, hopefully during LFW in September.


From the research file: Chanel in her own design, beside an image from the Edwardian era. 
"Coco Chanel was so fresh, plus she was a great ambassador for her brand- she lived the life and was really active. She may have used the 70s to reaffirm her brand but the blueprints were all created in the 20s, like the tweeds which were inspired by her fascination with England and her relationship with the Duke of Westminster"

Chanel with the Duke of Westminster (from chanel.com)

From the research files: Patou with his American competition winners
"I think Patou was actually a better designer than Chanel. He created this genius product- Huile de Chaldee- which was the first tanning oil. That was such a sign that things were changing. It was fashionable to be tanned, rather than pale, for the first time ever. It was also fragranced, making it even more glamorous. Patou recognised the appeal of America- he held this X Factor style contest where he picked six American girls to come to France and represent the brand"

Making tanning glamourous (image from fr.hprints.com)


From the research file: Vionnet's patterns, and a small image of her working on a mini mannequin
"Vionnet is really interesting- she was very studious and mathematical. Obviously, she introduced the idea of the Bias cut. And she did all her work on mini mannequins, like dolls, so she could be as exact as possible. Azzedine Alaia cites her as grand influence"

A classic Vionnet bias cut design (from vogue.co.uk)

From the research file: Gloria Vanderbilt in Mainbocher
 "Mainbocher is like the bridge between France and America. He worked at Vogue in Paris as an Editor but grew his couturier business alongside that, then took the label to New York. He would use sensible fabrics like gingham and linen and make luxe garments from them. Gloria Vanderbilt was a big fan. I think of Tom Ford as a kind of modern equivalent; he's all about discreet, simple, ultimate luxe clothing"

From the research file: Mainbocher inspired by Vionnet


From the research file: McCardell wearing one of her denim ballgowns
"She was really ahead of her time, not just in terms of design but also because she was such a shrewd businesswoman. Her designs were mass produced by Townley but her name was on the label at her insistence. It looked good for the brand too who knew the pull she had. She was obsessed with Vionnet and would buy pieces and pick them apart to study their construction. One of her standout designs was the monastic dress- a really simple shape which could be worn any way around"

From the research file: the 'wear it any you like' monastic dress

1 comment: