Until recently, my wardrobe has been dictated by either my mother or my pay check. Sadly, this has led to some devastatingly bad choices— fashion-wise on my mother’s part (okay, on both our parts!), and quality-wise on mine.
However, now that I’m almost a grown-up, earning an almost-grown-up wage, I can finally make the choice to purchase pieces that I know have been made to last more than one trip to the washing machine. My predicament is that outlets selling high-quality garments like this from are so few and far between; my clothing diet has been solely high-street-on-a-budget, and I am at a loss for where to find UK-based independent labels.
Thankfully, I have stumbled across Alexandra King, a designer who graduated from the University of the West of England in Fashion and Textile Design in 2005. Having gained valuable experience from working in the vintage clothing market, as well as the BBC costume department, she now devotes her time to her own label, working alongside the label’s head seamstress – Anna Vickery.
Hi Alexandra! Please tell me a little about yourself to get us started.
I grew up in the Somerset countryside where I still live now. I gave city living my best try, but quickly realised how important it was for me and my work to be based in a rural setting. Ever since childhood I’ve had a great appreciation for the countryside; mixed with the encouragement and hard-working ethos of my parents, it gave me the confidence to set the terms of my own career path. I studied in Fashion and Textile Design at the University of the West of England, where we had great tutors who taught us how to question our own work, and the essentials of how to sew properly.
After leaving university, I ran a vintage clothing business for a few years where I collected forties and fifties ball gowns and imagined the stories behind them. The more damaged they were, the more I felt the need to rescue them. They provided the inspiration for creating my own designs which led to setting up the label in 2009.
What would you say are the characteristics of your designs?
Full skirts, beautiful fabrics, tulles and fine detailing that reference mid-century design. They’re very much about transforming how a woman feels in a dress. It should be spectacular, like a movie star, not just the average that you can find anywhere.
What kind of manufacturing techniques go into making your garments?
We make each and every garment here at the studio. We’ve tried different manufacturing techniques and batch processing, but the pieces are always best when made individually. We hand cut the fabric, machine sew all the main seams and finish the linings and any detailing by hand.
How do you ensure the quality of your product?
By knowing every aspect of the business, from research and development to the actual making, wearing and packaging. I design and produce all the samples for each new collection myself so I know every facet of each dress, and I have a wonderful head seamstress whose work is meticulous. We source the best quality natural fabrics from reliable and consistent suppliers and have spent several years sourcing the best synthetic linings that can reduce our costs without the loss of quality, allowing us to work within a wide range of budgets.
How are the garments made – for example, are they made to order, or as a small series? Do you only make a limited amount, or keep making a collection for as long as it sells?
Each garment is made individually. Some pieces are one-of-a-kind, designed with a specific idea and fabric in mind. The ready-to-wear collections are made to order, with a few pieces being made in a small run. I try to keep a few of the best pieces available for couple of years, and sometimes they become a classic like the prom dress. The rest are discontinued so that I can make way for the new.
It has been argued that expertise in clothes fabrication craftsmanship is dying out in the Western world. Why do you think so few garments are cut and sewn in the West?
I have to agree. So few garments are cut and sewn in the West because of cost and loss of skills. People want cheap, mass-produced clothing and the Far East factories are able to supply in high volumes to a good quality. There is the question of ethics, and it would be an ideal world where wages the world over were relative to skill and not location and the availability of cheap labour, but demand and even education in future skills is consumer-driven, and any change would have to start there.
For a label like Alexandra King, our location is important to the brand, along with being able to react quickly to trends. Mulberry have recently opened another factory locally and ASOS manufacture some lines in the UK, showing that European quality is something that will always have appeal.
On the subject of craftsmanship, I recently watched a documentary on Fabergé, which told how this level of craftsmanship will never be seen again. The problem again being money and a customer willing to invest in something like the 80 hours of work required of a beautifully hand-beaded neckline on a dress. I hope that fine craftsmanship can be sustainable for the future, but financially Fabergé couldn’t exist without the Tsars.
What inspires you?
Fashion itself inspires me the most, and the almost mythical world that surrounds the golden-age of couture— the occasions and people who would have been able to indulge in such a secret luxury. I want everyone to have a taste of that kind of beauty. Classic Hollywood cinema is also a major influence. Nothing is more thrilling than seeing those magnificent films with leading actresses and gorgeous costumes, great plots, and all the craft that must have gone into their creation.
Do you pick the fabrics first and then design the garments, or is it the other way around?
Both. I have a huge hoard of vintage fabrics, and when I find a fabric, I immediately start thinking about how the final dress might look. For collections I’ll set a brief, and after research, the fabric sourcing and design will evolve together in the process.
What do you think divides fashion and style? On which side would you say the Alexandra King label falls?
They go together. Fashion is about ideas, and style is how those ideas are used. Both fashion and style are divided by the people who don’t care about either. Alexandra King is for the people who are interested in both.
What would be your motto?
“Make it amazing.”
Interview by Cheryl McGee