Floating, Falling, Drowning, Flying with Phoebe English

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Photography by Charle Emerson

We speak to Phoebe English about a new exhibition that excavates her old notebooks to immerse us in her creative process

Tomorrow sees the launch of Phoebe English’s first venture into an art gallery space as she opens her new exhibition, Floating, Falling, Drowning, Flying: An Introspective of Process, at Greenwich’s NOW Gallery. The result of an excavation through her archive materials, the show offers insight into the creative process of a young fashion designer and, according to English herself, is "the antithesis of a glossy fashion story. It's all about the scrappy bits of paper and drawings that go into a collection." As she put the finishing touches on the giant handmade fabrics and curiosity cabinets that fill the space, we spoke to her to find out what inspired the project, what we can expect to find there, and how curating an art show is different to a fashion presentation.

On the inception of the exhibition...
"Originally we planned to do a larger-scale version of the giant, beaded installation. But then I prepared some background information about my work to present to the gallery and they found that quite interesting, so I decided to make a showcase of the relics and ephemera that accumulate throughout the process of making a fashion collection. It's all the bits that you wouldn't normally see and might have no knowledge exists, elements that just get no exposure. Essentially, it's an exposé; a behind-the-scenes look at the making process."

On collecting ephemera...
"I've been interested by all of that stuff ever since my MA collection, and so I've been building a sort of archive of it all. Things like really vital bits of paper which, after the collection, become utterly useless. All the little pieces of the garments, work in progress, initial sketches, polaroids of making it all. And then there are the show images, film stills, garments and lots of working textiles. We normally do 10 or 20 pre-samples in order to get a perfect textile, so there’s a lot of bits of that and also the specific tools we’ve used to make them. For example, there's this one thing I use quite a lot: a needle taken out of a knitting machine. It's like a more efficient version of a crochet hook... those are the things that are actually really useful in textile making."

On the final installation...
"The result is surrounded by all of the work in process, so you are exposed to how it all works, and then you get to see this giant, handmade textile made out of about 60,000 beads. It's so sparkly! At the gallery, the space itself is completely glass, so there's loads of light and loads of height and it's really been designed with that in mind. It's interesting, it's been a totally different experience to working on a fashion show; we've been working on it for about 12 weeks which is much longer than we get to spend on the collection! And, although we've done quite a lot of installations for retail spaces, this is our first for a gallery."

On inspiration...
"I was really impressed by the Guy Bourdin show at Somerset House. I really loved that there was a table there with all of his original sketches, and I think that was really an inspiration. It's been very strange to go through all of my old sketchbooks excavating my old drawings; the horror! The things that I've drawn! Because I always just finish a sketchbook and put it on the pile, I've never really been back through them before and it's been really exposing. It's a very weird process, but great to see all of those old things."