Photographs of Phoebe English’s Designs, Modelled by Puppets

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Phoebe English: Inanimate, Animate exhibition London 2019
Phoebe English: Inanimate, Animate© Asia Werbel

The designer talks about working with puppet-maker Judith Hope, and tells us why we should be designing our way out of climate change

Phoebe English met puppet-maker Judith Hope after a chance conversation with a friend, who told her that Hope was working on the intricate marionettes in the same building as the designer’s studio. English was running late – and was stuck – with the collection she was working on at the time, and the thought of working alongside Hope struck her like a “lightning bolt”.

The result of the ensuing encounter has been a fruitful collaboration: at her S/S18 presentation, Hope provided puppets to act as “mirrors” for the models’ looks; later, as part of the V&A’s Fashion in Motion series the pair filled the museum’s Raphael Gallery with marionettes, each wearing English’s ‘greatest hits’. The latter struck a personal chord.

“My grandmother was sadly dying at the time,” the designer tells AnOther. “They seemed to perfectly fit how I felt during that summer – they are extremely emotive things, puppets – they say something about childhood, mystery and fragility and about death too, I think. They have the properties to be both dead and alive, inanimate and animate.”

“Looking back on that project now, it was as if I was off-setting my loss of her with the ‘birth’ of the puppets,” she says. “They are a really important part of my work to me.”

Now, English has worked with Hope once again, taking over London’s Morley Gallery, as part of her new exhibition Phoebe English: Inanimate, Animate. Hanging stationary – previously, she has worked with puppeteers – the marionettes will wear intricate, miniature versions of the designer’s archive looks. “I wanted the show to be a chance to see the marionettes as a body of work in themselves,” English says. 

Another section of the exhibition will allow exhibition-goers to see the process behind English’s Autumn/Winter 2019 collection – in particular, the innovative, sustainable textile processes behind her clothing, which can appear simple, but is anything but. “I have always found that [textiles] are the most interesting part of my practice,” she says.

This time, she has created material from waste fabric usually sent to landfill – layering stacks of reclaimed black cotton and tulle to make up a coat which would eventually take two months to finish. “We later named it the coat of many dreams – and nightmares,” she says.

Sustainability has long been at the core of English’s practice – but as time goes on, that facet of her work becomes only more pertinent. “We know the facts. And once you know them you can’t unknow them,” she says. “The fashion industry as a whole contributes an absolutely huge and blood curdling eight percent to the total carbon gases that make up global warming.”

She is one of several young designers tackling the issue head-on. “We have to very literally and very urgently start designing ourselves out of this nightmare,” she says.

Phoebe English: Inanimate, Animate is on at Morley Gallery, London until February 20, 2019