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An inspiration for contemporary fashion, film and clothing

by Ananya Arora
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Portrait of a flowered jacquard bodice made in eighteenth-century France.
A flowered jacquard bodice made in eighteenth-century France. Photo: Design Library.

“it was love at first sight!” When fashion icon Alexa Chung visited The Design Library’s Wells Street campus in search of inspiration for her Met Gala outfit in 2019, she spotted a flowery jacquard bodice on a hanger. Built in eighteenth-century France, Chung wanted just that to convey that year’s theme of twenty-first century “camp”. The result was a silk mini dress embroidered with hundreds of sequins, with matching berets and handbags. “Austen Goes Disco” was the headline of Vogue that welcomed its glorious epiphany at the gala.

The story of the design library began in a loft in Manhattan’s apparel district, where Susan Mailer and her late husband Herb stored their vast collection of designs. New York art dealer Peter Koepke joined the company in 1989, and in 2002 he bought the business. Three years later the Soho branch was opened to cater to their UK, European and Antipodean clients. Migrating to Oxford Street in 2012, the library came to rest in Wells Street, in the patch of Fitzrovia most closely associated with the clothing trade. Sadly, this is declining now, but thanks to the design library, the textile and fashion industry still has a foothold in our field.

How “High Street to High End” director Kate Denham presents the library’s series of fashion clients. Denham is a design graduate whose rich knowledge of textiles was acquired first with Laura Ashley and then with the Gallery of Antique Dress and Textiles on Church Street. He established the London branch in 2005, and has managed it ever since. In 2008 he was joined by archivist Ula Luniwiska, who has the formidable task of organizing the library’s 70,000 specimens. John Hamilton arrived in 2010, moving away from the glamor of the international trade in surface decoration to property development.

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Kate Denham and Ula Luniewska in front of a kimono, early 20th century. Photo: Sue Blundell.

The Design Library itself is a cave of Aladdin’s designs. There are original artworks, fabric swatches, wallpaper, prints, beadwork, embroidery and actual textiles, like the bodice that caught Alexa Chung’s eye. They are stored in books, placed on shelves, and hung from racks. A select few examples are displayed on the walls, such as the Japanese kimono behind Denham and Luneushka in the photo. “That dress looks very trendy, doesn’t it?” Hamilton comment. “But it’s actually from the first half of the twentieth century,” he says.

Spanning nearly three centuries from the 1750s to the early 2000s, the collection includes items from Europe, the Americas, Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia, and the Far East. The mission is to preserve and pass on the designs of the past, which are then adapted by clients and used to inspire their future collections. The library seeks collections from around the world, often acquiring the entire collection of a discontinued business. Bianchini-Ferrier, for example, was a major design and silk-weaving business founded in Lyon in 1888. In the 1950s and 60s it produced clothing that was highly sought after by Parisian fashion houses such as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent; It also made scarves for Hermes. In 2010 Peter Koepke negotiated the purchase of its original collection, which – to quote The Design Library’s website – includes “exquisite jacquards, beautiful burnout velvets, printed clipped satins, luxurious beadwork…”. Some of the designers featured in the collection are stars: between 1912 and 1928, for example, the French painter Raoul Dufy was creating designs for Biancini-Ferrier. But most of the designs maintained by the design library are unsigned, their creators unknown but certainly not unsigned.

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Ula Lunuska, Kate Denham and John Hamilton. Photo: Sue Blundell.

Two or three times a year Denham and Hamilton visit the huge library in America, now housed in a converted mill in the Hudson Valley. They return with a selection of their seven million designs handpicked according to what they know about their customers’ needs and current trends. Back in Wells Street, objects are organized into four basic categories: floral, geometric, conversational and world.

Hand-painted paper, late 20th century, Studio Tucano, Italy. Photo: Design Library.

The design library is a source of inspiration for a wide range of companies in the world of fashion, home furnishing, active wear, cosmetics and paper products. These include Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Bowden, Colfax & Fowler, Lululemon and Nike. It is also a resource for costume designers working in film. I can tell that in the 2021 remake of Steven Spielberg story of the westThe cool black and red shirt sported by a member of a gang of sharks was based on one of the patterns from the 1950s design library.

The black and red shirt worn by a member of the gang of sharks was based on one of the patterns from The Design Library from the 1950s. Photo: Design Library.

Hamilton spends most of his time traveling in Europe, introducing clients and discussing possibilities. But most clients prefer to visit the design library in person. They come with a detailed design brief, a storyboard, a concept, or just a vague idea. “A customer once came in, put his hand out, and asked us to smell it,” Hamilton told me. “‘I want something that smells like this,'” she said. She was in the process of designing the packaging for a new perfume. As Denham and Hamilton suggest, samples are displayed, and it is left to the customer to decide. Serendipity may also play a role, along with Alexa Chung’s gala outfit.

1960s Biancini-Ferrier print. Photo: Design Library.

The client can borrow the design for a few months, but it is licensed to them for two years, and it is closed for the rest of the period. The resulting design may be a fairly close copy of the original, but more often than not the spec doesn’t come into play and the original is reinterpreted. For example, in America, the Bianchini-Ferrier print of the 1960s was eventually turned down into Nike leggings.

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Contemporary Nike leggings inspired by 1960s prints. Photo: Design Library.

Denham tells me that the growing popularity of sports and leisure clothing – accelerated by the pandemic – is having a huge impact on current design trends. Art exhibitions, music, film and social movements also play their part. The recently opened Africa Fashion Exhibition at the V&A will almost certainly spark interest in Pan-African textiles. At the same time gender fluidity means men’s fashions are becoming more flamboyant and colorful, thanks in no small part to singer Harry Styles. Most of us will never get an invitation to the Met Gala, or even visit the design library. It only deals with business, and sadly it is not open to the public. But at least when we buy a frock or shirt from the most famous name on a UK high street, we can enjoy the pattern that may have been inspired by a design in the Wells Street library.

A glimpse of the Design Library collection can be found in the book Patterns: Inside the Design Library by Peter Koepke, published by Phaidon Press.

Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in classical studies. sueblendel.com

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