FRN Visits Cockpit Arts Holborn, 18th March 2016
By Katerina Pantelides
Nestled in the labyrinthine streets behind Theobald’s Road is Cockpit Arts Holborn, a hive of making activity. It was here, one blisteringly cold March afternoon that FRN got a glimpse of some of some of the most original artisans in small-scale fashion production. Development and Events Manager Dana Segal, who led our tour, explained that Cockpit Arts’ mission is to provide talented craftspeople with an affordable, well-equipped and comfortable studio space in addition to financial and branding advice. ‘We believe that our makers should be earning a living wage, in line with their talents,’ she stated – words that go straight to the heart of any arts professional!
Cockpit’s communal spaces, with their long corridors, big windows and light smell of acrylic paint, resemble those of an art school. And what I found most compelling about our visit, was how each studio had a distinct layout, work-tools and culture, which made it an entirely different place from the last.
First on our tour, was Carréducker, bespoke men’s shoemakers Deborah Carré and James Ducker. As a non-shoemaker, I had the sensation of entering a workshop, similar to my school Design and Technology room. There was row upon row of curiously-shaped metal tools, a pile of shoe lasts, each pertaining to a specific client’s foot and great swabs of hanging leather, which felt woody and resistant to the touch and was clearly a few steps away from the satiny, pliable material that graces the duo’s uppers. It was amusing to learn that the leather had to be sourced from Polish, Italian or French cows, because the poor English ones are scraped by barbed-wire and therefore have uneven-textured skin! Sustainability and longevity are top priorities for Carréducker, and they explained that their shoes can last for fifteen to twenty years. This has the advantage of gaining them a reputation for high quality, but also means that some of their clients disappear for years on end, simply because their shoes won’t wear out…
Still, as Ducker explained, their clients most always return, even if it is years later, because once you have had bespoke shoes made for you, it is difficult to go back to shop-bought ones. Much as in haute-couture, the clients come in for fittings, and mock-ups are made to ensure perfect fit and comfort. Clients with problematic feet often have to attend multiple fittings. Comfort is the by-word at Carréducker, and the chief reason why they venture very cautiously into commissions for women’s shoes and automatically reject requests for high heels. ‘People think that because we’re bespoke we can fix all their problems – create a “perfect black high-heeled pump” that will be compatible with their problematic feet. That simply isn’t the case!’ Still, the duo aren’t content to rest on their laurels and are now launching a high-end ready-to-wear line of men’s shoes.
Leaving Carréducker behind, with still a million unanswered questions, we next headed to textile designer Sophie Manners’ very different weaving studio. I immediately noticed the smell of wool and the panoply of coloured threads: in lustrous spools, in shards on the floor and most importantly, attenuated and intricately crossed on Manners’ 16-Shaft Harris loom. It can take over half an hour to thread the loom when your designs are as sophisticated and textured as Manners’; a fact that’s easy to believe, when you’re faced with the dizzying geometry of threads on its back-side. As a weaver she has to be both intensely creative and mathematical. One of our tour attendees asks Manners whether she sees the world in pattern. She replies that she does.
Manners is warm and unassuming, happy to be working on her beloved loom in the face of sometimes Rumpelstiltskin-like demands from her high-end fashion house clients. They have been known to request cloth of gold (or its modern equivalent) in minute amounts of time. Manners then has to frantically liaise with the Italian mills who furnish her with her quality wools and silks and are understandably incredulous that they can produce a novelty within the tight deadlines. Somehow, though, it usually works out in the end! When we ask Manners if she minds creating fabrics for clients that aren’t to her personal taste, she replies that she views it as a challenge and simply gets to work. In fact, Manners finds challenges irresistible, and uses her technical creativity to materialise her clients’ most outlandish dream cloths.
Finally, we headed to meet jewellery designer Dovilé Bertulyte. Bertulyte is a Creative Careers’ Participant at Cockpit, who is on a programme that provides mentorship, while integrating her into the studio’s professional work environment. Her room, shared with other jewellers and metalworkers feels like a much cooler environment than the bustling weavers’ studio, but her pieces themselves are playful and dreamlike. There is the collection based around the idea of nightmarish hands that scratch into your skin as you sleep. The hands are equally sculpted from both sides, giving the impression that Bertulyte has considered the wearer’s personal experience of the jewels, as well as the public front. She admits that she’s more intrigued by the dark side and when she made a butterfly-themed collection in an attempt to be more commercial, she got feedback that the butterflies too, looked creepy!
Much fun was had feeling and trying on Bertulyte’s octopus textured, tubular silicone necklaces, which come in vivid blues, limes, oranges and purples. To our delight, the necklaces had the authentic, rubbery weight of octopuses and when Dana tried one on over her Breton-striped top, you couldn’t help but think that it was the one accessory that Brigitte Bardot was missing from her 1960s Saint Tropez outfits.
With that, we left Cockpit Holborn feeling inspired by the range of crafts we had seen. It was encouraging that ancient techniques such as bespoke shoe-making and weaving could be creatively updated to have currency in a modern throwaway society; and refreshing to see how playfulness and curiosity could coexist with techniques of fine craftsmanship. At a time when arts funding is being drastically cut and the costs of living and producing art are rising, Cockpit Arts is a vital stronghold for makers and those who enjoy their work.
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FRN Visits Cockpit Arts, Holborn, 18th March 2016
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