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The Books That Made Me: Phoebe English

Designer Phoebe English reveals the most precious and formative books, catalogues and novels that have instilled their magic in her life and work

Photography by George Harvey

Phoebe English is one of London's greatest emerging talents; a designer whose eclectic references and intuitively created garments are not only aesthetically delightful but, somehow, wonderfully intimate. "It’s a bit like that kind of automatic writing," she said of her design process earlier this year. "I just automatically do it, and then look at it afterwards... I’m not someone who draws something then makes it, it’s a very impulsive thing. Then, I step back and ask myself, 'why did I do that?' because you have to figure out where it came from in your head." Now, through a considered selection of her five favourite books, she is inviting us into her world: one of Mervyn Peake and radical fashion, the Symbolist movement and Charles James. 

"These are a mixture of books given to me by important people in my life and ones which have inspired my work significantly," she explains. "Either way, they are books with which I feel a particular sense of actualisation when I read or look at them, and each have helped me to realise who I am as a person as well as a work maker. These are books that I find magical and that have all, in their own way, instilled their magic in me." Thus, we present Phoebe English's Books That Made Me.

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Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
"I love Gormenghast for its gothic bizarre magical fantasy. Its weird world of bright carvers and mad, identical, purple-clad sisters living amongst the intense and claustrophobic vast castle setting is something I fell for as soon as I opened the first page years ago. I first borrowed this book from my best friend who I was living with at the time – but it took me three years to finish it; I think I was savouring each page. I took it to Paris and to New York with me during my internship year out from Central Saint Martins, and then back to London again. It is full of surreal characters, like a wild girl called 'the thing' and vicious conflicts like the desperate murder attempts of Titus and Steerpike.

"If you looked into my skull you would probably see a tiny, isolated Gormenghast castle sitting right there"

The detailed and amazing visual descriptions of the extreme environments and monumental, haphazard buildings go on for page after page, sometimes filling entire chapters. It is like reading a very intense painting rather than reading a book. It's long, magical, wild and chaotic and every page is a treat for me to read, even when parts of the story are very sad. I always feel very protective of the characters, even though they are all so flawed and frankly ugly in their selfishness. The visual descriptions make me feel as if I'm inside my own head when I read it – in fact, if you looked into my skull you would probably see a tiny, isolated Gormenghast castle sitting right there."

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Artwork by Nicholas Kalmakoff in The Symbolists by Philippe Jullian

The Symbolists by Philippe Jullian
"This was a gift from my mother, and it is probably the best gift she has ever given me; it is a testament to how well she knows me and how much I am a part of her. I could look through this book endlessly forever and ever, and I return to it any time I feel the need to remember who I am and what things I like when I am making my work. There are some really really weird images in this book that I just cannot get enough of; each one is so interesting, and I see new things in the paintings each time I look at them. The allegory, storytelling and symbolism of each image is something I just find so fascinating – you can so easily get lost so easily in images like this. Strange lakes of naked sleeping children amongst flocks of swans, mythical creatures singing on cliff edges, various female temptations in the form of snakes, sinister twins and sad floating death gondolas are just a few.

"I love that those images were made for audiences who couldn't necessarily read books, but who would have been able to read these windows"

I grew up spending hours on end in deconsecrated churches that were being demolished or taken apart for sale, as my dad worked in architectural reclamation. He would take me along to the churches he was dismantling and I would sit on the wooden pews in these building sites and draw all day long. When he wasn't working, he would walk me around all the stained glass windows and explain the allegory in each, and that is where my interest in symbolism came from. I love that those images were made for audiences who couldn't necessarily read books, but who would have been able to read these windows as they had the biblical knowledge to decrypt them. When I think about this, it reminds me of the power of images and how important art and imagery has always been to humans. It reinstates my conviction about art making and how intrinsic all of that is to our culture and society as a whole, even if we live in a time with a government that isn't necessarily supporting this ethos, or any ease to the education of it."

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Alaïa dress in Radical Fashion by Claire Wilcox

Radical Fashion by Claire Wilcox
"This is the catalogue to the V&A exhibition of the same name. I was taken along to the opening night at the age of 14 by my Aunt Rose. I think it was the most exciting night of my life – and probably still is. I hadn't really been to London that much before and had grown up in a small town in Warwickshire, so suddenly being at a heaving sparkling party full of champagne and supermodels was incredible. But even more incredible than being at my first proper party was the actual exhibition. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this exhibition changed my life. I was useless at being a teenager; all my friends already had serious boyfriends or were sniffing glue and I didn't really connect to either of those things. I just wanted to make things and draw and sew and was a bit of a flower fairy really. That night was the first time I saw real fashion for the first time. It introduced me to Alaïa, Comme, Margiela and Chalayan, each designer had a large area which they had transformed into their own universe. It was just incredible; I had never felt that excited and amazed, it really was the first time I felt that really I connected to something.

"I was useless at being a teenager; all my friends already had serious boyfriends or were sniffing glue and I didn't really connect to either of those things. I just wanted to make things and draw and sew"

I was completely taken by the Alexander McQueen area – I pressed both my hands against the side of the massive glass box holding his S/S01 collection so that I could get my face as close as possible to the red glass and feather dress worn by Erin O'Connor in the show. It was like a lightning bolt seeing that dress. I suddenly realised you could communicate with materials: the feathers were fragile and the red stained glass slides were also fragile, but they were both fragile in different ways and those fragilities communicated against each other, and that in turn communicated something to me. I read that dress and in those moments I realised what I wanted to do. When I looked around the room, I realised I must have been standing staring at it for ages as the whole exhibition was empty and I was the last person there. This catalogue holds all those memories and subconscious decisions that I made as a 14-year-old girl on that amazing night."

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The Genius of Charles James, Brooklyn Museum photograph, 1982

The Genius of Charles James by Elizabeth Ann Coleman
"Another catalogue, and one of my most precious and beloved gifts. I have pawed and scrutinized every page and every detail on every photo in this book over the time I've owned it, literally drinking it in. Mr Pearl was the first person to teach me about fashion, what was good fashion and what was bad fashion, and Charles James was a key part of my education from him – he very kindly gave this book to me when I was 19. This book holds real art made by an unearthly talent. The construction, the insane engineering, the intellectual proportions and unparalleled fabric manipulation are just utterly masterful. I knew then and I still know now, I will never make work to the brilliance of this, I can only look upon these pages and dream.

"I knew then and I still know now, I will never make work to the brilliance of this, I can only look upon these pages and dream."

My favourite image is of the 'Figure 8 skirt'. To me it is one of the purest visions of design brilliance, and I think one of the best examples of his genius. I wish and wish that I had been able to see the real exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1982, but this book helps me to imagine that I have. As an object in itself it is a talisman of a past time, and when I see it sitting on my shelf it reminds me of being 19 and knowing nothing about fashion at all. Now I look back on it, how wonderful it is to know nothing and to be at the start of everything."

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Abstract Vaudeville: The Work of Rose English by Guy Brett
"I haven't owned this book for very long but I have owned the love I have for it my whole life. This beautiful, magnificent, perfect tome holds the life's work of my beloved Aunt Rose. I grew up going to watch her shows and hearing about the legendary ones that had occurred before was born. It was an extremely emotional moment when I first held this book in my hands. To be able to hold all the work of someone you love in your hands is an extraordinary feeling. It is such an absolute luxury to be able to see all of her work in one place and also be able to see everything in relation to the whole body of work. Something that existed to you as a string of conversations and family legend recounted over dinner tables was now in photographic form right in front of me for the very first time.

"I grew up surrounded by amazing women and it is only since I have become older that I have seen how privileged I am to have had that experience"

It is very hard for me to talk about Rose’s work rationally as I am such a manic super fan; there are so many things I love about her work but the aspects I enjoy the most is how brilliantly she communicates visually. There are simultaneously brilliant intellectual and humorous elements which she masterfully combines and manipulates, in a way I have not seen anyone else manage to do in art. I am also very drawn to how present the female is in her work. I grew up surrounded by amazing women and it is only since I have become older that I have seen how privileged I am to have had that experience. This book is full of wonderful female power, energy, magic, intellect, imagination and pioneering exploration. All women should own this book."