Faustine Steinmetz: Beyond Denim

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Photography by Chris Rhodes

The innovative designer gives AnOther an exclusive insight into her S/S16 collection – a dramatic evolution of her signature handcrafted jeans

Faustine Steinmetz’s London studio is a modern reinvention of the term 'shabby chic'. A short walk from Seven Sisters tube station, down a shaded alleyway and requiring a few leaps over iridescent Monday morning puddles is a large shed comprised of corrugated iron, rudimentary planks of wood and foam filler. A knock on what seems to be the door invites immediate loud barking. That’s the shabby. Then comes the chic. A charming French assistant, Anne, opens the door, all the while shushing the gorgeous spaniel, Lily. The studio is empty after a late finish last night – “we’re working ten ‘til ten at the moment,” Steinmetz later tells me – but evidence of painstaking handiwork is all around, from the looms which take up most of the back of the room, to rolls and rolls of denim stacked against the wall and embroidery frames containing horticultural works in progress scattered across the table.

The scene is not surprising because the Parisian-born, Central St Martin’s graduate has become renowned on the London fashion scene for beautifully handwoven denim, which she meticiously creates using the unpicked threads from old jeans, then styles with such effortless ease that it seems like the model might have simply rolled out of bed and slipped straight into the first thing she found on her bedroom floor.

We are meeting with less than a week to go before the presentation of Spring/Summer 2016, and Steinmetz has now emerged from her bedroom, which forms part of the shed. She’s laughing and down-to-earth despite pre-show angst and is fussing over her beloved Lily and Buzz, the fluffy Pomeranian who’s also joined us. Paris-born Steinmetz has some news. “This season is a big change,” she begins, “I’ve always made all my materials from scratch. This time we will still have 14 pieces which will be handwoven, but I’m also adding things which have been made industrially.”

Apparently this was always the plan. Steinmetz has never wanted her work to be an “artistic project,” which would perhaps have been its limit given the intensity of work required on just one of her casual couture items. She confides that she’s “tired of that… I want to be a label,” and has been thinking a lot about being “democratic”. “I’ve never been able to buy pieces for £3000 so it would be hypocritical of me to ask people to do the same." It’s a leap which is at once tricky to comprehend, given how exclusively limited and intensive her work has seemed until now, but also the most natural thing imaginable because is there any item more universal than jeans?

Steinmetz’s view on fashion democracy was crystallised when she stumbled upon a Primark haul video on Youtube, in which teenagers excitedly take viewers through everything they’ve purchased on their latest spree. She describes how the girl in the video would hold up dresses and say “I don’t know why I bought this, I don’t think I’ll ever wear it!” Their throwaway mindset is what Steinmetz wants to combat, instead offering up something which, yes, you might need to save up for but will ultimately love forever.

Responsibly made, ethical fashion has always been a vital tenet of Steinmetz’s business. In fact, before she bought a loom out of curiosity in a yarn shop in Finsbury Park and learnt to use it through the power of Google (true story), she had toyed with the idea of establishing a completely eco-friendly fashion label. “I had to stop” she half-laughs, half-sighs “because I got so far into my research and realised that stopping producing is really the only way to do it.”

Steinmetz is hyper-aware of our impending environmental doom – “I feel like it’s too late already” – and has been banned from watching any more Netflix documentaries on the subject by boyfriend and business partner, Michael. Consequently, high standards were a must for any industrial partner she was going to work with. Spanish denim mill Royo passed the test. “They’ve won a lot of eco prizes,” says Steinmetz, “they recycle their water and also old denim; buttons and zips are removed and reused, then they pulp the denim." She has still been able to retain some of the control which came with handmaking jeans, working on the denim “from scratch” and then seeing it run off “a massive machine which does 100 metres an hour.” The designer describes Royo as, quite simply, amazing. “Working with them changed my mind about the fashion movement,” she realised that “the big boys can change a lot where us young designers can’t.”

The industrially manufactured denim forms part of a Spring/Summer 2016 collection inspired by Joseph Kosuth’s work One and Three Chairs. “The collection is like an exercise or a dissertation,” Steinmetz explains. There are six parts which each explore a different everyday item, as follows:

1. Polo
2. Tracksuit
3. Denim jacket
4. Bags
5. Jeans
6. Flowers

“Everything is subverted because it’s the polos which are handmade." She points to sketches and swatches showing the strict, familiar lines of a striped T-shirt reimagined with “glitches” so that they swoop suddenly into a wave, or “erased” so that the threads ladder and separate before coming together again. She was thinking about Dali and they way he would “take an object which everyone knows and makes it liquid.” This is where that intense, textured and careful textile work for which Steinmetz is celebrated for comes back into play.

The flowers, inspired by the work of French artist Camille Henrot, lend an unexpected element to the collection. Lush green leaves, vividly orange and sculptural Birds of Paradise and delicately pretty gypsophila are all lovingly hand embroidered, ready to cascade down the front of those everyday items. 

But it’s her exploration of bags which best demonstrates Steinmetz’s steely combination of ambition and ethics. She recently travelled to New York to give a talk at the prestigious fashion school, Parsons about “my little life!” While she was there, she thought she might treat herself to a new handbag, but after all that documentary watching, leather was out of the question.

Steinmetz returned home empty-handed, unable to find a great vegan bag anywhere. Cue her own “non-leather goods”. With Royo, she devised coated denim which is actually smooth, bright white and feels incredibly luxurious. Pleating is a theme throughout the collection, so the bag section follows suit. Inspired by the super-practical size and iconic look of Fendi’s Baguette, her iteration looks a little but like an accordion-cum-guitar hybrid. The line will evolve into the excellent idea of individual brooches which will each carry a set of keys or a card.

“If one day we could have a corner in a department store of non-leather goods then I would be very proud. We wanted the bag to be something you would be proud to show your friend,” says Steinmetz of her philosophy, “I would like my label to become big but know that I’ve done it the right way.”