One should know better than to ask Phoebe English about her inspiration. The emerging London-based designer, known best for her dark and delicate handworked wares, always uses her textiles as muses. This season, English’s fabric explorations took her in myriad different directions, all of which somehow merged into her most complete outing to date. First there were the prints, which weren’t actually prints at all. A collaboration with fashion illustrator Helen Bullock, a member of the same graduating class at Central Saint Martins as English, these “prints” were actually tactile smudges of ink binder that were applied in gorgeous globs across black or white mesh garments. Elsewhere, the same technique was used on “modest” cotton skirts, blouses, and a bustier, only the smears were rendered in vivid hues. According to English, those colorful patterns began as florals, but she asked Bullock to “destroy” them. The result was far more interesting than any ordinary bloom.
English played with raw muslins, sometimes constructing them out of cotton, other times out of frayed taffeta. The silhouettes of these dresses, coats, trousers, and skirts were simultaneously sculptural, boxy, and relaxed. She also modernized a lace-making technique that was popular in 16th-century England but originated in France much earlier. “It usually would have been made with vellum,” offered English, gesturing to a cropped net vest with a sheer mesh underlay. The netting was used on its own, too, most notably as skeletons of skirts (or “aprons,” as English called them) and an oversize jacket. Despite their lack of material, these designs had a chunky, almost cozy appeal.
While English’s fabric innovation is clever, the best part of this collection was the vast possibility it afforded. Those netted confections could be worn on their own (if you’re particularly daring, that is) with a simple muslin slip, or over a blouse and English’s comfortable, wide-legged viscose dance pants. Nearly everything was ripe for mixing and matching, and each combination created an entirely different look. “Prints, trousers, tailoring…these are all new things for me. I’m trying to get more breadth in the collection. And I want people to be able to interpret these pieces differently, styling-wise,” English said. “You have to bring some ideas yourself. Hopefully, some thinking will go into it.” The designer might just get her wish—this lineup might not be for everyone, but women who pride themselves on a cerebral approach to dressing are going to adore it.