Erdem’s fine romance
Age-old needlecraft combines with the latest in fabric technology to create Erdem’s endlessly desirable aesthetic, says Lisa Armstrong
By Lisa Armstrong
August 30, 2014 07:00
“Lots of label manufacture in England…it’s the only way that you can keep a close on eye what’s going on – and the execution is amazing”
Laser-cut black velvet dress, £3,920, net-a-porter.com
“Really, it was always going to be fashion…I was just always completely fascinated by the way women look”
Detail of laser-cut black velvet dress, £3,920, net-a-porter.com
“At Ryerson there was so much more focus on learning to sew. It was a very technical course”
Embroidered dress, £4,480, net-a-porter.com
“There has to be a dark side,” Erdem says, even if it is only in his head as the starting point for a show
What with the oversized specs, the slight physique and the trainers, Erdem – like Giles, Roksanda and Osman he has dispensed with his surname – is an amalgam of so much east London grooviness that his already pale face drains of all colour at the mere mention of the word groovy, which is, apparently, very un-groovy. “We cannot use that word,” he remonstrates in that hard-to-place (mid-Atlantic? North of Cape Cod? West of Loyd Grossman?) accent.
“I can,” I say.
Groovy, hip – these words drop in and out of fashion so rapidly, who can keep up? Certainly, I think it’s safe to assume, not Ed Miliband, who has somewhat incongruously pitched up today to stage a press conference in the very building on Bethnal Green Road where Erdem and his dedicated team toil on lace froth and hand-embroidered silks. As I make my way through the art-house cinema on the ground floor, the lift bobs up and down faster than Miley Cyrus’s tongue, disgorging discombobulated political hacks. The peak beards and ultra-skinny drainpipes favoured by the local fauna are as exotic to most of these crumpled-suited incomers as the hand-embroidered silks and filmy lace fluttering on the rails of the three-storey studio.
The politicos may not be familiar with Erdem –who, by the way, is originally from Montreal – but Erdem knows a thing or two about them. Michelle Obama, Sam Cam, the Duchess of Cambridge – these women may not be career politicians, but what they wear has an impact that tends to become political. For one thing, the clothes Erdem makes are the opposite of cheap, mass and democratic. Instead they are exquisite testaments to the remaining skills of Britain’s beleaguered manufacturing industry, although if you listen to Erdem, you will come away thinking it is not quite so beleaguered as all that. “Not at all. There’s one factory that I use in London that’s amazing. It’s a beautiful workshop. Very modern. They do all our eveningwear. A huge portion of what we do is made in England. And look at the other labels that show at London Fashion Week – lots of us manufacture here.”
I’m not sure how many get their embroidery done in Brighton, though. I’ll stick my neck out and say he is on his own in this respect, because there is only one embroiderer there who can do the kind of work Erdem wants. He met her when he was studying at the Royal College of Art, where he graduated in 2003, and, shrewdly, he has monopolised her.
This emphasis on craft is not, sad to say, something much associated with British production since the Second World War. The history of British manufacturing since the 1950s has been one of decrepitude, decline and dismal pursuit of the mediocre. From the mid-1980s onwards Britain’s brightest design stars did their utmost to get their clothes made in Italy, and to a lesser extent France, which was having its own manufacturing problems. But the current crop of fashion luminaries – all of the aforementioned one-name-onlies, plus Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders and Roland Mouret (whom Erdem met through a mutual pattern-cutter) have what they can made here. “It’s the only way that you can keep a close eye on what’s going on,” Erdem says. “And the execution is amazing.”
Certainly it is the case that whereas Britain’s fashion names were once known for unevenness in the quality and delivery of their collections, today’s generation has wised up. Erdem in particular, with his intensely romantic, unashamedly feminine historical mash-ups, had to reinvent a way of working that had all but disappeared. That means incorporating skills from across Europe.
Take the pieces from this winter’s collection that came into being after several days researching 18th-century chinoiserie patterns at Blythe House, the V&A’s archive in west London. Motifs of flowers were manipulated (or modernised and redrawn by hand) on paper then woven into jacquards, to be sliced into fitted dresses, or miniskirts and matching short-sleeved tunic tops.
It gets more complex. One of the Blythe House jacquards was rewoven in Lurex. The hand-embroidered motifs were then cut out by hand and sewn on to organza. This was the method employed by the Royal School of Needlework on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress – but Erdem’s dress has a far more ephemeral gauziness. “It kind of looks like it’s dissolving into chiffon,” he suggests. “They had to make a tool in Italy to weave that together.” This is a man who gets a kick from technical challenges. Then there are the miniature ruffs, again hand-sewn, that edge jewelled mini dresses and crocodile-effect embossed leather pea coats. It sounds fanciful, but it all meshes into beautifully wearable – albeit for special occasions – clothes that, like those of his hero, Yves Saint Laurent, will never date. “He’s special because he really understands the lifestyle of his customers,” Ruth Chapman, the CEO of matchesfashion.com, says. “This is a woman who definitely has a calendar of events that she relies on Erdem to dress her for.”
One dress in the winter collection was woven in Italy, sent to Switzerland to be laser-cut and hand-embroidered, then hand-pleated in England. “That would take a long time,” Erdem says, with impressive understatement. “Several weeks.” Another tiered cocktail dress in silk velvet was heat-bonded with neoprene to give it weight, before being laser-cut.
This level of fabric development and craftsmanship is rare enough outside the very biggest couture houses in Paris, Milan and Rome. I would hazard a guess that it was almost unheard of in the Montreal suburb where Erdem Moralioglu grew up in a yellow stucco bungalow. The decor was, he says after some consideration, “very Virgin Suicides”. Aesthetically, that doesn’t sound promising. Yet his British mother, of whom there are black-and-white photographs pinned around his office, appears to have been inherently stylish. “I thought she was the most beautiful thing,” he says sweetly. (Truly, blessed is the woman who gives birth to a future male designer.) “My mother was amazing and completely instrumental in what I do now, in as much as she would read to us every night and show us art books. She was a very visual person.” Originally from Birmingham, she met Moralioglu senior, a Turkish chemical engineer, when she was working as a corporate secretary in Switzerland. Montreal represented neutral ground. “It was beautiful, idyllic, with a lake at the end of our street,” Erdem says. “You’d swim in summer and ski in winter – and I knew from a very early age that I wasn’t going to stay there.” His twin sister, Sara, who now makes natural-history documentaries, concurred.
There were some well-meaning attempts on the part of their father to turn his young son, who was even skinnier and whose spectacles consequently looked even larger, into a jock. It was not to be. Erdem was, by his own admission, a “bit of a geek”. There was a brief flirtation with a nose ring, and a longer relationship with teeth braces. “But really, it was always going to be fashion,” he says. “I was just always completely fascinated by the way women look.” When he was about seven he made the requisite (for a budding designer) Barbie doll dress for his sister – a circle skirt with a bodice that consisted of one piece of fabric. “It was very chic,” Erdem says, with the perfect recall of the obsessive.
By his early teens, he was drawing constantly (his illustrations today are elegant, refined and charming but rooted in reality, just like his clothes) and spending far too much time watching FashionTV and CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch, a slightly breathy tour around the palazzos and ateliers of the rich and famous. Unzipped, the 1995 camp fly-on-the-wall documentary film that tracked the New York designer Isaac Mizrahi for a season, was the turning point, however. “I was the only person in that cinema,” he says with a sigh. “That was a great film.” Shortly afterwards, he applied for a place on the fashion course at Ryerson University in Toronto, and after graduation moved on to the Royal College of Art for his MA.
David Hockney and Ossie Clarke had been to the Royal College, so that sealed it for Erdem, who at Ryerson had found little outlet for his artistic talents. “There was only one drawing class a week,” he says. “There was much more focus on learning to sew. Everyone sewed the same garment and they would measure your seams. I’m painting a very negative picture and I don’t mean to because it was very good training. But it was a very, very technical course.” He won a Chevening academic scholarship from the British Government to the RCA (more usually handed out to students attending the London School of Economics or Oxford; a dummy he is not). He also took a job as a painter and decorator to pay the tuition fees. “I remember the tutor went round the class on our first day at the RCA asking what we’d all done in the holidays, and it would be, ‘Oh, I worked for Lacroix,’ and, ‘I was at Helmut Lang…’ and I had to say, ‘I primed walls.’ Not even painted, because I wasn’t accurate enough to be entrusted with the pigment.”
The RCA with its tiny, elite course and multi-disciplined guest speakers – Alber Elbaz from Lanvin one week, the fine-art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans the next – and three-month work placements with Vivienne Westwood, was a revelation. “It really taught you to see the world with different eyes and it forced you to answer the question, who are you? What do you stand for as a designer?” Erdem increasingly stood for a delicate, romantic femininity that was unusual in the early noughties. At weekends he would visit his sister, then living in Paris, and stalk the flea markets for defective fabric. “You could buy a whole bolt of toile de Jouy where they hadn’t quite completed the printing process. I thought it was beautiful.”
This was the time of unfeasibly low-cut jeans, visible G-strings and plunging sparkly vests. Erdem’s graduation show, which starred much tulle and felt, also featured leather coats with linings composed of sepia photographs that had been sewn in by hand. Even then, if there was a tough option, he would take it.
In the middle of it all, in 2002, his father died of cancer. Erdem took a term out and after graduation, a job in New York, with Diane von Furstenberg. He says it was the only one available to him at the time. DVF’s compelling and all but ubiquitous wrap dress helped him realise where he wanted to be – back in London. A year later, having learnt a lot from von Furstenberg about commercial realities, he made it, thanks partly to the Fashion Fringe competition, which that year was judged by Roland Mouret, the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, and Louise Wilson, the head of Central Saint Martins MA fashion course. It was prestigious, and he won it.
Part of the prize was a tiny studio in Dalston, east London, an area now teeming with arty start-ups, then somewhat grittier. A studio of one’s own, however, is to a designer what a room was to Virginia Woolf. Within a few months he was showing at London Fashion Week, which, considering that he was doing everything himself, from sewing (thank you, Ryerson) to booking the models and spraying the shoes (which were left over from the collection he had entered for Fashion Fringe), took quite some chutzpah. He says, “I had 36 looks, and to save money, I decided to show three looks on each model, which for someone who was pretty good at maths, was extraordinarily dumb, especially if you’re showing at the V&A and your changing room is behind the Chinese Ming vase collection and you have to have the models walking very carefully and slowly.”
But Erdem’s first show was a surprisingly resounding hit, with Barneys and Harrods, two of the world’s most prestigious stores, placing orders. Like most niche British designers, he is cagey about turnover and figures, but he has a solid business, selling to more than 170 stores around the world, and the success of the newly launched erdem.com has taken all concerned by surprise. Four years ago he won the inaugural British Vogue/BFC Designer Fashion Fund of about £200,000, which significantly helped in the structuring of his company. But it is never easy to go it alone. Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Bergé to shepherd him through the business jungle. Tom Ford has Domenico De Sole. Christopher Kane leans on his sister Tammy… Erdem says his own twin sister is a useful sounding board, and has vocal views on the practicality of his clothes (even women in the market for a jewel-sleeved coat demand functionality these days: the sleeves are detachable).
But he still does it mostly on his own. His mother died unexpectedly in 2005, and he says his long-term partner, Philip Joseph, a lawyer, has been a rock. They are currently renovating a house near his HQ – like his collections, it is something of a historical blend of Joseph’s beloved mid-20th-century Danish finds and what Joseph calls Erdem’s salvaged “tat and crap”. The interiors magazines will be falling over themselves to shoot it. But before it is completed, there is a wedding dress on the floor above us to finish. Erdem has been slaving over it lovingly, for many months, for Joseph’s younger sister, for whom Erdem also designed a one-off when she turned 21. “Actually, in the early days, there were plenty of one-offs,” he says, “I would often end up with a single order for the most expensive pieces.”
One-offs are notoriously unprofitable but, like his clothes, Erdem is at heart a romantic, although he claims all is not as sweet as it may seem. “There has to be a dark side,” he says, even if it is only in his head as a starting point for a show.
Although the subversiveness is muted, it does mean his prettiness is never twee. Even that collection of organza dresses with their layers of colourful plastic petals looked cool, especially on Sienna Miller when she wore one on the red carpet at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards. “There’s always a deliberately frayed edge, or a slightly undone embroidery, or a darkness to the floral print that slightly deformalises his event dressing. It’s very British,” Ruth Chapman says. “And that appeals to our global customer.” There is also, Chapman says, zero resistance to his prices – this autumn’s £5,040 jewelled sheepskin coats will, she predicts, sell out. “He’s not just a master of fabrication, he knows how to cut to flatter the female body, often emphasising the most attractive areas, like the collarbone, or adding sheer panels to warm and flatter the skin. Customers understand that this attention to detail costs.” That they know that they can buy it from a British-based designer has to be good for designers and craftsmen in this country. Barbie did something good.