Carol Alayne

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Archive for 2009

Bright ideas for a new year

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Happy New YearThe winding down of another year always produces such mixed emotions.  They seem to be ignited by the curious late December conflict between the abundance of free days and the sudden overflow of dizzying preparations.

The thing I look forward to most during these times, however, is a few quiet days alone in the studio.  It gives me the chance to reflect on past garments created and the changes throughout the year…and to give the place a proper sweep.

I like to take time reviewing the materials and sketches from the past year’s projects.  Some have special memories.  Some, future possibilities which have value and are worth holding on to.  A bit of trim, a drawing, a length of cloth or a beaded motif…all will be stored safe for the moment when just the thing is needed. The pressing boards will all be freshly covered, and the tools given a sip of oil and a brisk polish.  Everything clean, in its proper place, resting for a new start.

Brighter hopes and new ideas can be a product of these slower, and sometimes darker times.  In the midst of some pretty gloomy business forecasts these days, I find some benefit in this down-time to create and plan some ways around the challenges of running a business.  This process often sparks more exciting projects in which to become involved.

There is much to look forward to in this next year.  The recent exposure I received, courtesy of the V&A and the BBC, has born fruit and I will be making presentations for a number of executive MBA programmes.  Most of all I will look forward to breaking new ground with a series of film ‘shorts’, the result of some memorable collaborations with colleagues in the fields of design, textile history and the craft of tailoring.  Also, I am ready to launch  a limited edition garment – an outdoor piece inspired by the countryside that will be practical and elegant for the working woman.  There will be more to come in January.

So, here’s to a new year full of challenges and rich in the variety of work.  But for now I am grateful for a few more days of rest to take in the blessings of the season.

A very Happy New year to you all.

Press, presentations and processes

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Business Sense MagazineIt’s been a busy week so far.  I was thrilled to be featured alongside Sir Martin Sorrell and ‘Dragon’s Den’ Duncan Bannatyne in Business Sense Magazine, the National Westminster Bank’s national periodical.  The rest of my time has been spent focussing on my presentation at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) with Jaeger.  The process of tailoring is something which tends to take place away from public scrutiny, so being given such a prominent platform demands careful thought about why the art of bespoke is so unique.

It seems to me that the distinctive experience my clients seek is comprised of the knowledge and integration of three important and fundamental elements. Physiology, technique and …psychology.

Physiology is all about understanding the shape and proportions of the body, not as an object frozen in time, but as a dynamic entity that Body Shapeschanges and flows as it moves.  Most textbooks illustrate body types in 4 or 5 basic postures, but the devil is in the difference.  I have yet to find a client whose shape fits these proportions precisely.  I often give group seminars and set the participants the task of finding someone in the room that matches their own body shape.  It hasn’t happened so far!

Technique is something which takes time to develop.  It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to reach a competent level of skill in any chosen activity.  This may be so, but I find that I still look to expand my own skills base, and that is after over 20 years in the trade.  The art of tailoring is still grounded in techniques that were developed in the 19th century, although the records show evidence as far back as the 13th century.  Modern materials, the change in life styles and modern body proportions all influence the ways in which these techniques have to be applied so they have to be constantly revisited and refreshed.

Tailoring is a relationship business.  We have to dress the body and the mind.  So, the psychology of the relationship with ones client is paramount.  This is all the more so as the current changes in society affects the role of women and how they wish to be perceived.

I was speaking with a former CEO of a global PR firm the other day who mentioned how he always emphasised the need for his staff to think of the image they portrayed when they visited clients.  “They have to realise that if they are charging a four figure sum per day, the first impression they give their client as they walk in the room is vital, and this is dependent largely upon how they look”.

A potent statement when you consider how this simple matter can undermine the huge investment that has gone into training the company representative.

L for Leather

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

CorsetWhat do  Lou Reed’s jacket, the waistcoats for the UK’s Olympic shooting team, and our latest commission (a corset) have in common?

All are orders that used leather.

Genuine leather is one of the oldest and most luxurious of all natural materials and can be both functional and decorative.  It is made from the hide of an animal, including birds and reptiles, by a process of tanning; the word comes from the Latin for oak bark, tannum, and it is from this that the tannin used in the process was originally extracted.

Tailored garments initially bring to mind wools, cashmere, silks, cottons and linens. These all go through a similar process of cutting, padding and pressing to make the traditional fitted clothes with which we are all familiar.   So, there is a certain degree of uniformity throughout, irrespective of the fabric type.  Leather too can be used in a similar fashion, although it requires a different set of skills and tools because of its unique properties.  Hides come in many different shapes, sizes, textures and colours, and much care has to be taken in selecting and matching them, particularly if more than one is used in the same garment.

A leather needle is essential for both machine and hand work.  Its 3-sided point enables one to cut or pierce the skin instead of puncturing it.  Weights are used for pattern layout, and prior to sewing, the parts of a garment are set in place with clips, glue, or sometimes even a stapler.

The process of sewing too has its own peculiarities.  Depending upon the weight of the leather you may have to use a heavier thread or a longer stitch, so it is always worth testing the settings on the equipment first.  A teflon or  “walking” foot on the machine is a necessity, and seams should be glued and flattened with a dry iron or a small roller after the loose ends of the thread have been tied instead of being back-stitched.

Over time a you will need to apply a little after-care to your garments, and for this be sure to keep a tin of dubbin or a bottle of neat’s foot oil to hand!

Almost any item can be made from leather, and  it will be suitable for most seasons or occasions: check out the corset above!

A fashion guru

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Hirofumi KurinoI had a great treat the other day.  A visit from the fashion guru Hirofumi Kurino, Creative Director of United Arrows; one of the biggest clothing retailers in Japan.  Our meeting was arranged by a mutual friend, and what made it all the more special was that he knew well this area of London, Spitalfields, where my studio is based.  So it also gave him the opportunity to visit some old haunts, and pick up some samples of richly coloured African fabrics.

It struck me during our conversation that in order to become a succesful and authentic fashion leader one needs the foresight of a soothsayer coupled with the academic rigour of a social historian.  We spent much time talking about the degree to which one has to anticipate trends and how they are often cyclical in nature,  re-emerging sometimes after years of lying dormant.   He explained how he created his long term view from watching closely the stimuli of everyday events; street culture, political influences, the emergence of new social movements.

He is also a huge music fan with a collection of over 3000 vinyl albums;  another indication of how important it is to him to preserve a solid core of authenticity.  “Fame will lose its appeal and we will be in for simpler times with less fuss” was his prediction.

One of the best three hours I have spent for a long time.

Imagine my surprise when I saw him make an appearance talking to the designer Deryck Walker as part of the superb documentatary about the current demise of the Harris Tweed industry shown recently by the BBC (Trouble Looms).  For those in the UK you may still be able to catch it on the BBC’s  iPlayer.

2 degrees East

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Yukiyo SugiyamaI said good-bye to one of my assistants this week.  Having graduated with her second degree, an MA in arts administration from Goldsmiths College, she has to fill her suitcase and return to Japan.

Yukiyo (Sugiyama) spent almost 3 years of study and work experience here in the UK during which time she immersed herself in ballet, opera, theatre, museums and galleries.  She still somehow found time to help me in my studio, and in particular with planning my own Japanese trips.  She returns to Tokyo to run the new concert hall at the Ueno Gakuen (a music university in Tokyo) which came to prominence recently when one of its students,  Nobuyuki Tsujii, won the Van Cliburn Piano Competition.

To add to her souvenirs I thought that a light weight business suit would make a welcome change from her customary jeans and t-shirt.  This charcoal grey fresco suit will be ideal for those sticky summer Tokyo days with humidity levels you could cut with a knife (‘fresco’ is a type of open weave used particularly for tropical suitings).  This particular fabric is cool to wear and also has a crease resistant quality that can withstand the most rigorous packing regimes!

Ganbatte. Good luck, Yukiyo.  We will miss you very much.

Revival of the fittest!

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

Victoria and Albert MuseumFrom 18th – 20th September the Revival Meeting takes place at Goodwood.  A celebration of vintage cars, airplanes and clothes, all resonating with the theme of calling back to years gone by.

As the fashion world goes through its cyclical stages once more,  ‘vintage’ is a word that seems increasingly popular, covering anything within the time span of 20 – 80 years old.

Near my studio in Spitalfields there are a number of outlets that specialise in vintage clothing.  Absolute Vintage is one such example.  Over time, these garments have had many a good outing as well as changes in ownership and some will benefit from a ‘tune up’.  One of my clients purchased a crepe dress from Love Saves the Day (New York City) to wear both for her daughter’s wedding in Knightsbridge and a gala opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In order to bring it  back into its prime it required a certain amount of dying, shaping and re-beading, but the result was striking and original, with no danger of anyone else turning up wearing something even remotely similar.  (Check our post about ‘the A word‘)

Alternatively one could have something made specially that embraces this trend towards nostalgia.  In a recent post I mentioned a couture piece we made that reflected the designs of André Courrèges.  We have recently extended this to similar garments from a range of different fabrics.

Working with vintage clothing also bings considerable benefits when it comes to training new talent.  Some of the older techniques used are seldom to be seen on the high street where mass marketing loses much of the subtlety in construction.

So why not embrace a little bit of history…there is still many a good tune played on an old fiddle.

Photo: thanks to Victoria & Albert Museum

Stop Press!

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Paper boyWe reached a milestone recently.  One that you helped to create. For just over a year we have been writing about tailoring for women, and it is incredible to see how our audience has grown.  Our goal was to try to create a hub of information that addressed some of the prevailing practical issues for women when it comes to selecting tailored clothing, and to help you make better informed decisions.  Judging from our Google rankings it has reached way beyond our initial expectations…and cultural boundaries.

From India to Canada interest has been stimulated, and not only amongst our immediate client base.  Discussions have been opened with other craftspeople from the trade, a regular stream of apprentices and work experience students has materialised, opportunities for exchanges between clients and non-clients have been created, and our blog has acted as a talking point for several internet based forums.

This resource has also led to the creation of a number of opportunities for extending our business.  In September we will be visiting clients in New York City, October will see a feature in National Westminster Bank’s ‘Sense‘ magazine, and in November we have the exciting opportunity of opening the seminar on women’s tailoring at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London alongside Jaeger and Evie Belle.  As a result we have received mentions in the online magazines for both Vogue and Elle, and the influential Fashion United blog.

Some of our most popular items to date have been Dressing the Fuller Figure, Restore, Refurbish, Restyle, Resurrect, Remodel…and the A Word, Variations on a Seam, Folding a Jacket, and more recently Trouser Roles.  The credit crunch too stimulated a number of posts, and there appears a regular stream of visitors to the more technically based features in Briefing for Bespoke.

So, thank you all for making this possible, and finally, do let us know if there are any subjects you feel we are missing!

Photo: thanks to Media Bistro

Spitfire tailors

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Spitfire pilotSomeone recently said to me, ” I’m sure you can see now that men’s and women’s tailoring will never sit side by side.”   Granted, this was not one of the most  forward-thinking of the Savile Row fraternity. (I am not sure that Armani would agree with him either!)  It seems ironic that these days, when the talk is of ‘breaking glass ceilings’, there should be such a lack of joined-up thinking.  I have to confess that this thought was in part stimulated by a book I was given by a friend recently; The Spitfire Women of World War II (Giles Whittell)

The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary may not have taken part in the Battle of Britain but, without their flying skills and courage in Spitfire womendelivering the aircraft to the RAF bases for their male counterparts, the battle would never have got off the ground; they flew Lancasters and Wellingtons too.  There are believed to be about 15 of the women pilots left, all in their eighties and nineties.

To fulfil their posts, they needed to be in uniform and as you might imagine, all the tailors were men.

The book relates a charming account from one of the women pilots about a trip to a local tailor in order to be measured up, and the consternation caused amongst the erstwhile cutters when a group of them first walked into the shop.  “Whoever heard of such a thing!”.

Apparently the basic measures were accomplished without incident, but when it came to the bust Spitfire Womenmeasurement the approach of the tailor seemed somewhat unusual.  “He would take a few quick steps, throw the tape measure round the back, catch it in mid-air and, turning his head away as if he couldn’t bear to look, wait until the two ends met before giving a fleeting glance to the number of inches it recorded.”  The process was completed by the cutter whispering “the awful secret” in the “hairy ear” of his amanuensis.  What a performance!

The end result was that their long awaited uniforms arrived with trouser seats four inches lower than they should have been.

Thank goodness times have changed…or have they!?

Photo: thanks to HarperPerennial, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail

Following the Silk Road to Holland & Sherry

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I had something of a surprise last week.  An unexpected visit to my Spitalfields studio  from one of the members of the Japanese Imperial Household.  It also gave me the chance to show the latest treasures in stock.  A selection of superb silk and wool tweeds prepared specially for me by Nicolas Guibauld at Holland & Sherry.

Silk is a natural protein fibre spun by the silkworm as it makes its cocoon…which is perhaps why moths aren’t particularly interested in it!  In cross section, the fibres have a triangular shape with rounded corners which allow light to reflect at different angles, giving the fabric a natural lustre.  Its smoothness and softness of texture belies the fact that it is one of the strongest natural fibres, and it also takes dye extremely well.  I believe also that violinists wrap their instruments in silk cloths in order to equalise in part any changes in humidity.

Holland & Sherry’s Silk Essence range is woven in England with Super 100’s wool.  When silk is included in the weave the natural qualities of the wool are enhanced immeasurably giving the fabric a unique drape and luxurious feel.  What is more, when silk is woven into patterns – dogtooth, herringbone, birdseye or glenchecks – it becomes almost irridescent.

They also stock a range of cashique fabrics; a very special treat indeed.  It’s made from a blend of the highest quality mulberry silk with cashmere and super-fine wool.  Definitely for the connoisseur.

It is not only the properties of the fabric itself however that lend to it its mystique.  It first began to appear in the West almost 2000 years ago and the trade routes that were established for the transport of silk and other commodities from China, the Silk Road, gave rise to a rich reservoir of stories and legends.

Everyone seems to have a ‘silk’ story.  What is yours?

Japan comes to Spitalfields

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

MatsuriI think that you may have gathered from previous posts that I have an interest in things Japanese.  What a surprise to find that in September, in Spitalfields Market (East London) opposite my studio, there will be a daylong event devoted to both the traditional and more contemporary aspects of Japan in the form of a ‘matsuri‘; the Japanese word for festival.  Click here to see just how spectacular it was.

I made my first visit to Japan last year and at the same time had my first experience of ‘o-matsuri’ in an area of Tokyo called Azabu Juban.  A really vibrant street festival with food, dancing, and everyone dressed in their summer yukatas.  The perfect way to blow away the jet lag.  I remember the air being heavy with the summer heat and eating flavoured crushed ice (kakigoori) to keep cool, and munching on octopus balls and grilled fish with a sip or two of sake.

It looks as if this could be a date for your diary.  Check out the website. Japan Matsuri

I can’t wait for my next trip.

Image: thanks to Shimei Okumura


Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.



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