An Interview With Sustainable Womenswear Designer Joshua James Small

by SHOWstudio on 19 February 2021

We sat down (virtually) with the London designer to discuss his most important collection to date.

We sat down (virtually) with the London designer to discuss his most important collection to date.

London-based womenswear designer Joshua James Small has become well-known for presenting a definitive and assertive take on sustainable fashion where high-end craft doesn't suffer. A regular at SHOWstudio, Small frequently hosts and appears on our seasonal panel discussions, and is never afraid to give his well informed take on the latest fashion happenings, whether that be Maria Grazia Chiuri's Dior, or Daniel Lee's Bottega Veneta. Ahead of presenting his second collection as part of London Fashion Week, we spoke to the designer about his most important collection to date, and how the act of creation can save us even in the darkest of times.

The designer, stylist and model previously cut his teeth at Gareth Pugh and Richard Quinn, and has shown his work as part of Helsinki Fashion Week, at the British Fashion Council's Positive Fashion exhibition, and worked with Fashion Revolution. He has also contributed to titles such as Vogue Italia, BRICKS and 1Granary. Pushing for a circular fashion economy, Small is listed on the platform RETURE, whereby clients and designers are connected worldwide to collaborate on upcycling underused garments. His designs are made-to-order, and everything is made in England. Sustainable fashion is, however, an oxymoron, says Small. He couldn't be more spot on. The very business of fashion is in producing more things to litter our planet with. That's why the designer's latest collection, Thru These Tears, is seasonless, resisting the viciously fast-paced traditional fashion calendar. The collection notes devote a heavy word count to outlining the brand's conscious practices, which include working with deadstock materials from sponsors Swarovski, Sophie Hallette, and Ultrafabrics. The collection has been unveiled in a series of photographs by Jade Smith, with styling by Nathan Henry and make-up by Maria Comparetto.

'Thru These Tears', Joshua James Small, illustration Scott W Mason

Although it cannot be officially classed as haute couture, Small endeavours to work as closely to this high standard of craftsmanship as possible. This season, he worked with students to create his new collection, placing an emphasis on hand craft. He tells me that over half of the collection ticks the official couture specifications of being bespoke and handmade. For example, a backless black mini dress made out of upcycled Wales Bonner black wool suiting fabric, is almost entirely hand sewn. It took over three weeks to complete, and features lace appliques donated by Sophie Hallette and upcycled clear Swarovski crystals. Another look, a long embellished sheer shirt made from undyed silk organdie, features over 150 deadstock pearls, and was sewn together with recycled polyester thread. Flocked red velvet text reads: 'To my favourite homosapien. I wish you the best of luck with everything in this life'.

'The shirt itself is cut purposely back to front, so the collar and button stand open at the back. The phrase "back to front" is often used to describe something in a state of disorder when something isn’t quite right or as expected. I wanted this pattern to be a subtle nod to the feeling of muddled abnormality that one would feel when upset.' Small explains.

Coloured using azo free dyes, the dark colour palette which runs throughout the collection was directly inspired by the colour field paintings worked up by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Thru These Tears 2 draws on the emotive nature of Rothko's abstract works, and more directly on the trials and emotions which have faced Small over the past 12 months or so. 'Built from the remnants of sadness, this collection hones in on the strong, necessary front we create to push forth', Small summarises.

'Thru These Tears', Joshua James Small, photograph Jade Smith

Hetty Mahlich: This collection feels very personal, especially with the colour palette being inspired by Mark Rothko. What was it about Rothko's work which you were trying to evoke here?

Joshua James Small: The best work comes from personal attachment and emotional investment. Mark Rothko is an artist I’ve studied since pre-university. I have a great appreciation for his work. When I was initially thinking about the focus for this collection, I admittedly wasn’t my best self. Rothko’s later works really stood out to me, and actually ended up being the first visual matter on my mood board. He produced 20 works from 1957 up until his suicide in 1970, all of which abandoned his earlier use of high-key colours in favour of blacks, burgundy and other darker hues. Rothko’s works register differently to each viewer, but to me, these later works showcase a great depth and a depressive state of mind. There’s an unexplainable beauty to the ratio and placement of colour, especially so in Black in Deep Red (1957), looking at the way the foreground colour bleeds into the background. I knew immediately that this work would inform the colour palette.

HM: Where does the text, which also appears on the invite, come from? It feels very personal.

JSS: This was a slightly controversial addition for me, as I’m normally quite private when it comes to my personal life. The collection was an honest and direct response to how I had been feeling, and largely, but not exclusively, how one individual had made me feel. The text was written in the cover of a book, given to me at the end of an extremely formative relationship. This was a simple note from someone I had a great affection and admiration for. I carried the book with me for five months in my bag. This very short quote accompanied me to every shoot, every job, and every meeting. It embodies this individual in such a concise selection of words, but is also a reminder of how much pain they caused me. The text is replicated exactly as it was written. I had the original scanned and scaled, making sure that it was distinctly the same handwriting. I like the idea that most people will read it as a broad sentiment, but for the two people it involves, it holds significance.

Look 3, 'Thru These Tears', Joshua James Small, photograph Jade Smith
The best work comes from personal attachment and emotional investment - Joshua James Small

HM: How did you come to work with Scott W Mason, and what was the brief for the illustration they created?

JSS: I knew before I made the collection that I wanted an illustrated image on the press release cover. I wanted it to almost act as an ident, to transfer a feeling. Similar to a show invite or a film poster, I think high quality visual matter like that is imperative to forming a more complete identity for the collection. I keep an archive of printed matter of a similar nature myself, and analyse every element from typography to graphics to logos. If well considered and laboured over, it sits as a work of its own, as well as a part of a larger concept and project.

The title Thru These Tears came about once I’d decided on the concept, and I knew for the illustration I wanted it to feel lonely. I mocked up a very rough visual with a focus on a more delicate upper body. I wanted it to feel directly sad without it being confrontational. I’d known Scott through the internet for many years, and I’ve long admired his illustrations, so I reached out casually to see if he was interested, and we took it from there. His illustrations usually focus on solid outlines over an ink or watercolour base, however I felt his quicker less polished illustrations held a beautiful quality, more fitting to my brief. I explained that I didn’t want any clothes in the illustration, as the focus had to be on this character and how she felt. My only stipulation was that copy of the text, as mentioned, would be layered over the illustration, non-negotiable. Scott then sent across a number of rough sketches and interpretations, and straight away one stood out immediately. It captured what I could only attempt to express through words. He then developed upon that as a base, keeping me updated with progress through Instagram messages. I’m very pleased with the final outcome, and grateful that Scott wanted to be involved.

Rita Dress, 'Thru These Tears', Joshua James Small, photograph Jade Smith

HM: We see the Rita dress return this season. Why did you choose to develop this design in particular?

JSS: It is one of my favourite designs, and a look I am most proud of, so it made sense to develop this silhouette in a new colour way. The original version of the dress was worn by Rita Ora in 2019, who at the time, was the first notable person to wear one of my designs. Following this, the dress has been requested for fittings with Kylie, Paloma Faith, Zara Larsson and Griff, as well as being shot in multiple editorials, including for Wonderland and Glamour. This silhouette cemented me a serious designer is my most commercially successful design. Taking about two and a half weeks to complete from start to finish, it is also one of my most intricate designs. Formed from eight metres of responsibly sourced silk chiffon and two metres of upcycled deadstock lace supplied by Sophie Hallette, the look is finished with discreet French seams, and embellished with over 100 hand sewn upcycled deadstock pearls donated by Swarovski.

HM: Why is presenting in a seasonless format important to you, and how does it reflect the values of the brand?

JSS: We’re seeing the dissipation of ‘trends’ in the traditional sense, and the rise of the remix in an age of overconsumption, so seasonless makes more sense. The construct of seasoned outputs works well commercially, because it fuels a constant need for new product, but the reality is that shopping habits have surpassed the need for seasonal buying. There will always be a desire for the new, but if someone wants to purchase a scantily clad mini at the height of winter or a knitted polo mid heat wave, consumers will find a way to buy it when they want it.

I think it makes far more sense to release a few well considered bodies of work annually, focusing on brand identity, and silhouettes that honestly translate what you’re trying to say as a designer. You can then use the narrative of that work to springboard custom and bespoke variations. In that respect, I also don’t believe you need to produce a ridiculous amount of looks for an impactful release. An intelligent designer should be able to convey the same message in seven looks, as with 60. It’s not sensible for a small brand to conform to the same expected standards as a heritage brand. This works for me now. Now I can’t explicitly say that as I evolve as a designer, I won’t expand the amount that I produce or that I won’t conform to seasonal buyers, because that’s just not rational. But I think it’s greatly important to really grapple with the idea that less is more when it comes to production, and that it’s paramount to consider how much you produce as a brand, and the existence of that product.

Joshua James Small

HM: The act of creation seems to have been a sort of therapy for you. Taking into account this idea of sustainable fashion as an oxymoron, how does fashion play a positive role in your life as a designer?

JSS: As I explain in every talk and every lecture I’ve ever given on sustainable fashion, being a conscious designer is a matter of creating in a more considerate manner. It shouldn’t be a limiting factor, but an added consideration to the manufacture process. The reason I point out that the term sustainable fashion is an oxymoron, is because discussion around sustainable design needs to realistic and progressive. I find the sustainable design community to be much more inclusive, and generally I feel that sustainable designers enact a more positive and encouraging atmosphere.

I think this leads into the idea of craft as form of therapy. I’m very much an escapist designer. I like narrative, and I thrive being able to meticulously engage in producing a well laboured piece of clothing. With this body of work there’s heavy emphasis on textiles, because I really enjoy fine detail. I like sitting down for hours sewing pearls while listening to a playlist. In this collection specifically, I wanted to reconnect with the joy I have for design. I’ve always been the person who puts my work above all else; it means a great deal to me. I never used to get that phased by spending nights alone sewing, but for the first time last year, I lost motivation. I used this as an escape, to prove to myself that I am good at what I do, and that above all else I still find enjoyment in doing it.

Explore the collection in full here.


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