It’s The Quiet Ones You Have to Watch

Text: Melanie Rickey

Holly Fulton has always been a bit of a mystery. She’s the seemingly introverted Scottish lass with a very loud voice when it comes to creating daring Pop Art fashion prints, such as her multiple lips for AW11 and statement jewellery pieces comprising crazy mosaics of crystal, plastic and, sometimes, rubber tubing bought at B&Q.

Why is she a mystery? Well the clue is there in the second sentence. Unlike her British Fashion contemporaries Erdem, Mary Katrantzou and Louise Gray, Holly isn’t a busy social bee, buzzing from party to party or to and from trunk shows and events. You are more likely to find her puzzling over how to translate her latest hand drawn print inspired by, say, New York skyscrapers or Eduardo Paolozzi into an abbreviated shift dress; and then puzzling some more as to whether the Modernist jewellery that is part of the dress should be sold separately or, as she designed it, be part of the dress itself. Holly doesn’t like to be limited, she’ll say so herself: “I don’t want to be constrained by technology. It’s hard work. I want artisanal freedom.”

That isn’t to say she isn’t fun. Oh Holly Fulton is a lot of fun. She’s Scottish, for goodness sake! There is a certain bar in Paris named Carrs (1, Rue du Mont Thabor, 75001) where the British fashion firmament gathers at the end of Paris Fashion Week. This period is when the show reviews have been written, filed, published and digested and almost all the sales from the designers to the boutiques that stock them are complete. In other words, time to let off some steam. There you’ll find Holly (and the Richards Nicoll and Mortimer, Jonathan Saunders, Giles Deacon, Phoebe Arnold, Eugene Souleiman, a gaggle of Grazia girls and last March, on one memorable night, Paloma Faith in a 1940s gown) drinking her signature tipple of rum and pineapple and hoping her karaoke favourite, Mambo Number 5, might come on over the speakers. This is unlikely in an Irish bar, but never mind.

In an attempt at recreating our last night at Carrs I managed to persuade Holly to slip away from her busy but calm studio (“I never get in a flap”, she says) which is situated in the Centre for Fashion Enterprise (CFE) design rooms at the London College of Fashion on Mare Street, site of the recent riots. “The police made us stay in the studios late that night of the riots, it was fun,” she says tucking her 30s-ish brunette bob behind her ear and twitching her signature red lips (she religiously wears Pirate, a red lipstick by Chanel; more on Chanel later) into a blink – and-you-miss-it smile. She’s good at irony.

Getting free use of the design studios of the CFE can be part of the package on the occasion of joining NEWGEN – the young designer initiative funded by the British Fashion Council and Topshop. Holly has certainly got the full package of support. Her first catwalk show for AW09 was supported by Fashion East, as was the next for SS10. Now she is NewGen. 

When I fetch her to spirit her away for a rum and pineapple, I see her CFE studio-mates Tim Soar, Christopher Raeburn, Louise Gray and Thomas Tait are all hard at work on their Spring/Summer 2012 collections. As is Holly who is about to have her fifth catwalk show at London Fashion Week; this fifth show also happens to be Holly’s first all on her own. I always think of her as a stand-alone; she’s that kind of designer, in that even when she is sharing a catwalk in a back-to-back presentation, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re watching. A Holly Fulton catwalk show could not be mistaken for anything else. That’s probably why she’s clocked up, among others, the award for Young Scottish Designer of the Year in 1999 and an Elle Style Award.

I can barely tear her away from the studio, and definitely not for a drink. It’s eleven in the morning and Holly is far too sensible to drink alcohol at this hour, especially as her Spring/ Summer 2012 show is in three weeks’ time. Oh well. Café for coffee it is then. Nevertheless, I continue my attempt to recreate that slightly drunken moment you have in a bar when you corner someone you’ve wanted to chat to for ages and grill them, so I manoeuvre Holly into a corner and begin….

Melanie: Tell me about your family?

Holly: “Mum is Jenny. She is a retired art librarian who has always made jewellery in her spare time. She is an expert enameller. She cut out all the wood for the bracelets in my first two collections! My Dad Stewart is an architect and town planner. I have an older brother, Neil, who is an actor. He runs the Edinburgh Film Festival.”

Melanie: So, quite a creative family then. Were you encouraged to be creative at school?

Holly: ‘We were definitely supported in whatever we wanted to do. My earliest creative impulse centred on my obsession with modelling clay Fimo. I would be in a cold sweat when a new Fimo colour came out. I used it to make jewellery; I would bake it in the oven…”

Melanie: So you always knew you wanted to be a designer, then?

Holly: “No! I wanted to be a vet. For my Highers (the Scottish equivalent of A-Levels) I studied Biology, Physics and Chemistry, and realised halfway through I didn’t want to be a vet, I wanted to do something in the arts.”

Holly Fulton’s decision to change her direction proved the catalyst for change that saw her throw away her persona as a “sensible, sporty, academic, middle-class schoolgirl” into a young red-lipsticked creative on a mission. The mission turned out to be a long one. Holly did indeed study an art foundation course at Newcastle and get a degree in fashion textiles at Edinburgh College of Art, but at Edinburgh the head of fashion was an old lady “who made us sit in a room and pencil-draw historical costumes. She told me I’d go nowhere.” 

As luck would have it the old dragon retired, a new guy took over, and things improved. After graduating, an inkling of Holly’s future fashion fame showed itself in the form of sales with the now defunct London fashion store Koh Samui. Then she began teaching and after that ran a gallery, became a nanny and travelled Australia ending up in Canberra, “the dullest place in the world” says Holly. In fact she did so much different stuff she began enjoying the journey without thinking about the destination.

Holly graduated with her degree in 1999 but it wasn’t until 2009 that she had her first catwalk show at London Fashion Week. ‘Ten years in the wilderness’, I say. She refers to the decade as her lost years. They were anything but, because in 2005 Holly Fulton put her head down and applied for an MA in Fashion at The Royal College of Art and got in. This was the clincher for finding her purpose in life.

Melanie: How did you come to start your MA at The Royal College of Art six years after finishing your degree at Edinburgh college of Art?

Holly: “While I was in Canberra someone offered me a position on the MA course at Canberra University – the thought made me want to run as far away from Australia as possible. It forced me to address my true goal of attending the RCA. It was the best decision of my life. I was petrified on the first day, which was made worse by someone thinking I was a teacher. But it was the turning point. I could have stayed in Edinburgh and had a comfy life. But I chose this and I have to say the first year was hellish. I couldn’t find my direction. I’m telling you this because it’s an encouraging tale for students to hear. It wasn’t until my third year that I found my groove.”

Indeed her MA Graduate show at The Royal College in 2007 was an out-and-out hit. I remember it: the eleven exit collection was pure colour, pure handwork and pure decoration taken to a modern extreme. The result was beyond description except to say it was clear we were looking at someone with a talent for surface decoration, who was modernising old jewellery techniques and incorporating them into clothing OK, so the clothes were too heavy for normal life, and masking some of the pieces caused her fingers to bleed and B&Q to run out of rubber tubing, but Holly was onto something. Since that day in 2007 Holly Fulton has been honing her printed –looking mosaic patterns on 60s, 80s and 30s inspired shapes into a rather successful business. And of course, her blocky, graphic, colourful and Swarovski-sparkly jewellery has been a best-seller since day one. But there was one more detour for Holly to make before she hit the London runways. And he is called Alber Elbaz, or rather the fashion house is called Lanvin.

Melanie: Tell me about your time at Lanvin?

Holly: “I was approached to work at Lanvin before I graduated and I went as soon as I finished at the RCA. Alber had noticed that I worked differently from most designers in that I think of clothes and jewellery at the same time: the two are one and the same to me. Most fashion houses will have someone designing dresses and another doing jewellery. Alber saw I was doing both and he said to me “you are different”. I think I intrigued him so he sent me off to brainstorm jewellery ideas. The sourcing lady took me around and we got a mix of doorknobs, coiled springs and chain. I’ve never had so many ideas and when he saw them he changed the slant of the show to incorporate my ideas. It was amazing but it didn’t make me a very popular person at the company! I left soon afterwards and interviewed for major jobs at Balenciaga and Marni. They always asked ‘Can you adapt your style to ours?’ Everything pointed to me being independent.”

And so here we are, at the café, drinking coffee. Holly’s Autumn/Winter collection, my favourite of hers to date, is about to hit the twenty global shops that stock her work from Milan and Hong Kong to London. It was inspired, she says, by the little known fact that Coco Chanel was a keen angler and indeed from 1925-1927 fished the same Scottish River, the Laxford, as Holly, who also loves a spot of fishing. A quote from the Coco Chanel biography by Justine Picardie reveals that Chanel loved to fish from morning to night and was exceptionally good at landing whoppers, regularly catching 17lb salmon.

Melanie: Why Coco Chanel?

Holly: “I love the idea that she messed around up in Scotland with the Duke of Westminster, that she had a hedonistic time. I kind of imagined her taking magic mushrooms and that got me onto the textures and colours. Coco Chanel wore a lot of tweed, so I re-explored tweed incorporating unexpected elements like woven python and metal; I used some great 30s inspired architecture prints, and lip-prints with colours inspired by my mother’s old Yardley lipsticks. I also took inspiration from the Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine and re-drew their cartoonish psychedelic prints from the film. It was a lot of fun.”

Then, unfortunately, Holly has to get back to work on SS12, which she says “is different again, but I’ve been drawing and drawing new prints by hand that are very Holly Fulton, but with a fresh new feeling.”

Interrogation over.