Design duo Cunnington & Sanderson speak about crafted heritage, sustainable future & timeless fashion narratives. Written by Anna Battista.
In the fast-paced world of fashion, where trends come and go in the blink of an eye, it is hard to maintain your integrity, authenticity, passion and beliefs. Yet British fashion designers Matthew Cunnington and John Sanderson managed to carve a niche for themselves by staying true to their principles.
Transcending fleeting trends, the duo came up with designs such as their 2018/19 "Occupied" collection that pre-dated the quilted designs referencing beds and pillows and the comfort of our houses during Coronavirus lockdown, and promoted mental well-being among creatives.
Founded in 2012 on a shared passion for beauty and craftsmanship, the duo who met while studying Fashion Design at the University of Central England, became synonymous with hand-made garments that exude both sophistication and longevity. In the last decade they embarked in a personal journey to reduce their carbon footprint, embracing zero-waste practices and maximizing sustainability. They have done so choosing to collaborate with heritage mills in Yorkshire, paying homage to the rich history of textile craftsmanship in the area, and combining modern design sensibilities with time-honored techniques.
As they take stock of the challenges faced so far and the achievements they reached, they remind us that remaining loyal to one's values and embracing innovation can lead to a lasting impact in the ever-evolving world of fashion.
Your 2018/2019 "Occupied" collection was inspired by mental health and the comfort of home, and became extremely relevant during Covid-19's lockdown. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the emergency officially over, but, as we strive for positivity, optimism, and comfort in our turbulent times, the relevance of the collection seems to have increased with time. Do you feel that the message and the garments in the "Occupied" collection possess a timeless quality?
Cunnington & Sanderson: The focus of the "Occupied" collection was to raise mental health awareness and to show a positive outlook by starting a conversation about this silent subject matter and talking about emotions. We feel that most of us question our mental health on a regular basis but with no guidance. We think that the more we talk about this subject the more we can help each other, so that no one feels alone. This heartfelt collection was inspired by the pillow top - a skillfully crafted and tailored garment, a sort of modern day corset inseparable from the wearer. It includes bespoke feather and down internal padding and an internal framework to support the structure and it’s worn unmistakenly on the front for all to see. It symbolizes depression and how a bedroom can become a solitary sanctuary. It encourages us not to feel ashamed or scared to talk about our feelings, but reminds us that difficulties are there and yet we can make our way forward. In the collection bedding and pillows turn into everyday garments,. In the design bedding and pillows turn into everyday garments, so that the wearability of what’s around us is emphasised. Although the collection was designed and created in 2018, exhibited at Lotherton museum and acquired by Leeds museum and galleries and featured in international press, it was not until the beginning of lockdown for the Coronavirus pandemic which highlighted the importance of people's homes for security, comfort and wellbeing, that it became more popular. This stressful, worrying and uncertain time showed everyone what it can feel like to suffer from anxiety, depression or poor mental health, and the importance of having comfort, security and support around us during difficult times. When during lockdown there was the #pillowchallenge, we felt a sense of pride as we saw billions of people worldwide experimenting with the creativity of wearing a pillow to bring positivity and community spirit during the unsettling times of lockdown. Our pillow top was featured in dansk magazine in Sweden at the same time as the #pillowchallenge was launched by two fashion influencers based in the country. Although saddened by the fact that our poignant message behind this design was missed during the pillow challenge it was comforting to know that so many people found resilience and joy in taking part in wearing a pillow with a belt exactly the same way that we designed it to be worn years before. The pillow top and garments from the "Occupied" collection are still highly requested by stylists and now one of our bestsellers is the unisex, one size for all, printed Pillow T-shirt made in organic cotton and with eco-friendly printing techniques. We wear ours regularly because it is a soft and comfortable design and always receives many compliments.
The pillow top was acquired by the Leeds Museums & Galleries, but was it also exhibited in other places in the UK and abroad?
C&S: The pillow top and pieces from the "Occupied" collection were exhibited at Bankfield Museum in Halifax, presented at the White trade fair in Milan during Milan Fashion Week, and has been worn by iconic stylist Lily Gatins, artist and model Michael Moon and RuPaul's Drag Race UK star Le Fil. It was also iIllustrated by award winning artist Caroline Riches and we will exhibit it at the Future Fashion Factory at their 5th annual showcase in Yorkshire. The Pillow T-shirt will also be featured in a personal project which will include Spain, South Africa and America later this year. Our dream would be to have this storytelling garment displayed at the V&A Museum in London.
More than a decade has gone since you founded your brand, how do you feel looking back and which new challenges are independent designers facing nowadays?
C&S: The fashion industry has changed direction a huge amount of times in the last decade. Now creativity and craftsmanship are starting to become more desirable and sustainability is constantly on the rise. At Cunnington & Sanderson we designed zero-waste garments from the very beginning of the brand, but we still feel there is a huge way forward for the industry and customers to have a greater understanding in how everyone can and should have a part in the process of fashion becoming more sustainable.
You are now based in Yorkshire – what's your favourite thing about the area?
C&S: We have a fantastic studio space, bathed in natural light. We love the natural landscape and we are inspired daily by the ever changing flora and fauna and dramatic scenery. It's a huge privilege to be able to walk remotely for hours right from our doorstep whilst also having fast train links to London and an airport close by. And obviously we love the Yorkshire mills with their heritage and traditions.
In your collection you employ sustainable materials and heritage wools, can you tell us more about them?
C&S: We are so proud and privileged to work with some of the best yarns and wools in the world, located right on our doorstep in Yorkshire. We work with traditional Yorkshire mills such as Hainsworth, Linton Tweeds, Clissold, and Abraham Moon. As all the materials are locally sourced, so that in this way we can reduce the carbon footprint of our collections. New arrivals like the printed Pillow T-shirt and top, and the Zero dress are produced with environmentally friendly printing processes on high quality soft organic cotton.
You prefer draping directly on the mannequin to sketching, do you feel this technique gives you more freedom?
C&S: We became skilled at draping through years of self-taught practice and dedication. For us it is important to know that our garments are our own design and bear no resemblances to others, so we do our best to avoid researching any other designers. We are proud to say that the techniques we have always used, developed, and refined are self-taught and we keep on using them nowadays. Because we drape, construct, and sculpt directly onto the body, the garments that we create are original and can be highly imaginative. After many years we still enjoy experimenting and creating new elements and features with draping and structure, and this is what we find exciting - the possibilities are endless. Draping directly on the body form can provide instant results, shapes, volumes, silhouettes, feelings, detailing and so on that you could never predict by drawing first. Working with your chosen fabric can show you techniques that best highlight its own qualities, texture, pattern and colour. We have also presented our zero-waste draping workshops at various universities including Nottingham Trent and the University of Leeds in the UK, and the Haute Ecole Art Design University (H.E.A.D.) in Geneva, Switzerland, but also online on Zero Waste Draping. In this way we can educate a new generation of designers towards the importance of sustainable fashion and create genderless zero waste garments where the full value of the fabric is used. Zero-waste fashion design also gives you the freedom to invent organic silhouettes, allowing you to come up with unexpected volumes and spaces around the wearer.
Quite often your designs have a transformative twist about them – a jacket can be worn as a skirt, for example. How important is this versatility in your designs?
C&S:The tailored jacket that turns into a skirt with the sleeves that transform into functional pockets was inspired by the idea that garments can be recycled and remade into alternative structures; the gown of jumpers in which unworn and unwanted sweaters are draped together and reused to construct a luxurious garment, was for example the result of our pondering on disposable fashion and our will to prompt people to ask themselves how they can contribute to sustainability and reduce the consumption of fast fashion which is detrimental to the environment. We love creating pieces that are thought-provoking and conversation starters. You see, fashion can be so much more than mass produced garments and our designs offer wearers the possibility of telling a story. The transformative element in our designs is not just a way to create a sense of magic and wonder in one garment, but a sort of bonus feature that can inspire people the confidence to wear what they want to wear, how they want to wear it. We feel that diversity is beautiful and comfort is found in the non-conformity.
In 2021 you did the #weareemotionchallenge, what was the response to it and would you do it again?
C&S: The #wearemotionchallenge received a tremendous response from stylists, photographers, editors, models, students and the general public. The challenge raised money for charities including Mind, the Samaritans and the Mental Health Foundation. Setting a challenge on social media is a fantastic way to provide everyone with the opportunity to participate. To simply post a picture wearing an emotion and the hashtag #wearemotionchallenge started a conversation about feelings and showed others that we are not alone. Raising awareness about this crucial subject can break the stigma and the silence about this important topic. At Cunnington & Sanderson we believe that everyone can be creative with fashion and participate in social media in a way to support others. The colour of your jumper, the memories associated with wearing your favourite garment, the way you style a design and the symbolism intrinsic in items of clothing, accessories and random objects that you can wear - including flowers, for example - trigger a whole gamut of emotions. The response from some participants was surprising: one of them even ended up turning their entry into their Christmas cards - what a fantastic way to share their support and creativity! But the challenge to talk about emotions continues: earlier this year Nottingham Trent University included the #wearemotionchallenge as part of the first year knitwear programme and we will see the students' entries in the next few weeks.
Do you feel that fashion weeks are still relevant for fashion designers and brands and will you be presenting your new collection at the next shows or at any trade fair in the next few months?
C&S: We feel that fashion weeks are enjoyable and desired, but they can be very costly. As creatives we are constantly looking for alternative ways of presenting our work, and enjoy collaborations with luxury brands such as Creed Fragrance to express our creativity in other fashion forms. We are considering the possibility of returning to present our work during Paris Fashion Week in the future, but at the moment we are planning an exhibition in Yorkshire to promote creativity and sustainability in fashion. In the meantime, we will continue to launch new collaborations with performance artists, photographers, art galleries, magazines, film makers and so on to present our fashion narratives in other mediums and formats.
You did a digital version of your pillow dress in collaboration with Seamm, do you have any plans to do more digital designs in future?
C&S: There are many sustainable positives to digital fashion and we hope to have more digital wearables available in the near future. In the meantime we are focusing on fashion IRL with new arrivals such as sweatshirts and T-shirts in organic cotton, and focusing on diversity. Cunnington & Sanderson are looking forward to extending our selection of unisex fashion and garments with a variety of size ranges.
Many Thanks to Anna Battista for this wonderful interview featured on www.irenebrination.com.
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