If fashion were to have a scent, then for Laura and Deanna Fanning – the twin sisters who presented their Central Saint Martins MA collection under a single moniker, Laura Deanna Fanning – it might well be that of petrol fumes.
That was the smell in the air when they first encountered fashion in the pages of Italian Vogue as children in Australia, sat on stacks of the magazine in their mother’s aunt’s garage. The images inside were often torn out, and drawn on – an attempt by their aunt to translate the designs, those of Claude Montana, or Azzedine Alaïa, into dresses she could make on her sewing machine at home. Now, in their London studio, part of a renovated ex-chocolate factory in Wood Green, they liken this process to their own moodboards, where, alongside swatches and sketches, fashion photographs from the 1970s and 80s are scrawled with emphatic directions in marker pen.
The Fanning sisters grew up surrounded by women. “We don’t have brothers,” Laura says. “We were always around our grandmother and mum’s aunties, so it’s always felt like we’re about the female, about groups of women.” Accordingly, their MA collection, shown at London Fashion Week in February, followed this line of thinking, the pair finding inspiration in the power women of sci-fi movies of the 1960s and 70s, of increasingly obscure origin – “I found myself spending a day watching late 60s, post-boom west German sci-fi, they were really great,” Deanna says – enlivened by the way these women often travelled in packs.
If their chosen name, Laura Deanna Fanning, allows for some degree of anonymity (people often think they are a single designer, and they don’t mind – “I quite like the idea that no one knows,” says Laura) then their first collection together was not for women inclined to shrink into the background. “I don’t want the person who wears it to sit in the corner and have nothing to say,” says Laura. “She can’t be afraid of colour, or her figure.”
“I don’t want the person who wears it to sit in the corner and have nothing to say. She can’t be afraid of colour, or her figure” – Laura Fanning
In keeping with the inspiration, the fabrics – all of which are knitted by Deanna, by hand – are shot through with acidic colour and a sporty stretch, while the garments are somehow amplified, invariably at the shoulders and chest, with padding. A feeling of armour comes through, too, in the “chainmail” knits – “they began with Barbarella and Paco Rabanne, and the 10th Victim,” says Deanna – though, in slices of rainbow colour, the chain-knitted gowns also found a forebear in clingy, disco-era lurex. In Laura’s words, this dissonance makes for a collection which is “aggressively feminine”.
Their MA collection began life as a patchwork – Deanna had previously undertaken a BA in Knitwear at Central Saint Martins, so each garment started with her handmade swatches of fabric, which Laura, who studied womenswear back in Melbourne, then constructed into items of clothing. From there, a to and fro until they both were satisfied with final piece. This means of collaborating began in the first year of the acclaimed MA programme – though they applied the same year, they initially had no intention of working together – when they were paired, via ballot, for one of the early projects. By the second year, they found themselves creating a full collection together.
“The tutors were like ‘ah, you have to tell us if you’re working together, you can’t just start doing it’,” laughs Deanna. “We just started doing it anyway.” The course itself, known not only for the successful designers it has produced, but for its demanding work ethic, lived up to its reputation. “I think it’s the students that are tough with each other, but in a good way,” Laura says. “When you come in everyday you get to know everyone and get to know what people’s work is like, and they will give you their honest opinion if they think you’ve done your best or not.”
The sisters, though, had their own sounding board in each other. “I know some people are okay doing it by themselves, but I think when you talk to someone about something all the time it reinforces what you’re doing. You create your own bubble,” says Laura. “You create this world and language and this is probably going to sound really corny, but being twins we have that world naturally. So, I guess it’s kind of extended from that,” Deanna adds.
“I know some people are okay doing it by themselves, but I think when you talk to someone about something all the time it reinforces what you’re doing. You create your own bubble” – Laura Fanning
In talking to the pair, the closeness between them is palpable – if not so clichéd as finishing each other’s sentences, the sisters are resolutely on the same page. If they disagree, they say, any tensions are easily dissipated. In part, this bond is protection from the world around them (both describe themselves as “outsiders” over the course of the interview) and the challenges it poses for young, female designers. “I don’t know if social media has made it worse,” she says. “But I just feel like it’s very tough being a woman and presenting yourself and your collection, because a lot of women have something to say about that. That was a real shock.”
If anything, though, this has galvanised them; their woman, they insist, should defy easy categorisation. “If she has a nipple out or her boobs are a bit too big for her shirt – who cares? She’s a woman,” Laura says. “You’re young once and this is a part of femininity, and our clothes – they are about being really comfortable with yourself.”
Top: Hair: Alex Brownsell at Streeters using Kérastase. Model: Anok Yai at Next NY. Casting: Noah Shelley at AM Casting. Styling assistant: Molly Shillingford.