How do you connect with your inner child? For fashion designerSophie Spratley, she’s been reimagining fairytales and forgotten folklore in her hand-crafted garments. The 24-year-old creative imbues her delicate screen prints, crotchet and knits with memories of her childhood in Marlow, climbing trees and planting seeds in her family’s allotments, for her brand rabbit.
Among the grotty warehouse runways and white cube exhibition spaces that we’ve come to expect from fashion weekshowcases, rabbit prepared its SS23 collection presentation at the George Tavern pub in Stepney Green. Guests were lured in with lemon shortbread biscuits – rabbit-shaped, of course – and entrancing harp strums by Aga Ujma, transporting London’s fashion elite into the comfort of a local boozer. On stage, seven models rested, some on chairs, others laying across the dilapidated wooden stage, as puppet shows and piano recitals entertained attendees.
“Fashion week was amazing, but I’m definitely relieved to have a few weeks of a more gentle pace of life,” Sophie smiles. “I’m enjoying my weekends again which is good. I’ve been visiting petting farms, I went to a couple last weekend, and it always feels good to be around animals.”
rabbit feels like an apt name for Sophie’s brand, not only due to her fondness for farm animals, but for the quiet resilience of these underestimated creatures. “The brand name came from a nickname, like a rabbit in the headlights. I used to get overwhelmed by things easily, which I guess is where the rabbit came from,” she explains. Off camera, her real-life rabbit companion, Nettle, hops across the carpet. “He’s only a year old,” she starts, “and he’s already brought such a lovely structure into my life. Running your own brand, you’ve got to be really self-motivated and resilient, so having him is really nice. It’s good to balance hard work with softness.”
Based in Bristol, she creates her designs from the bedroom of a flat shared with her twin sister, Bella, who also serves as inspiration for the collection. Rabbit celebrates the contrasting elements of its materials, marrying soft woollens with muslin dresses in surrealist patterns. She laughs, “Even though I can be a bit timid, I definitely see Nettle and rabbits in general are such strong animals, and if they want to do something, there’s no stopping them – no matter how much I tell Nettle not to destroy my carpet, he will do it.”
Below, we talk to the Bristol-based designer about rabbit and its SS23 collection, ‘The Adventure’.
How was your experience studying fashion and where did you study?
I started at Kingston, so the outskirts of London, and I had a really good time to be honest. I got on really well with my tutor and I felt really supported but also challenged. She really pushed everyone and I think some people couldn’t handle it, but I really could and we really gelled and still stay in touch.
How did your practice develop during your studies?
Very drastically – I didn’t actually do a GCSE or A Level in textiles, I literally started from that first year learning how to sew properly. I could sew, and I’d made a few pieces here and there, but I was very much on the backfoot compared to everyone else, but it didn’t put me off at all. I feel very confident now, in the quality and the way that I make. Something I really back Kingston for is making you finishgarments nicely, rather than it being just concept driven. The symbolism behind my work is so important to me, but so is making an end product that’s really lovely to wear.
What barriers, if any, have you experienced in accessing the industry?
I didn’t see [my lack of sewing skills] as a barrier at all because I wasn’t the only one, and I’ve always felt quite supported. Even when I was interning, I worked for small brands that were so supportive. I’ve been through the Fashion Minority Report, which is a mentoring scheme for people who are from minority backgrounds. I’ve always sought out the help that I’ve needed and not been afraid to ask for it.
What inspired your most recent collection?
For the design process, I like to research and visit museums, so I went to the Bristol Museum of Art and there I saw these teapots and glasses that I was really drawn to and that’s what ended up being the prints, these glasses overflowing with blood wine and these teapots. So these artefacts, which are also quite surreal when you put them together, are so enjoyable and it’s come from museums and books.
There are also prints of eggs in these beautiful nests throughout the collection, and I was inspired by a book by Susan Ogilvy called ‘Nest’. I love eggs – right after I finished AW22, I kept having a daydream that I was an egg falling through the sky and I would say to my friends, ‘I feel like I’m either going to smash or land somewhere safe’. I felt like when I left university I was this egg, and when you’re studying you’re protected in an egg carton but when I moved I was flying through the air and Dover Street was the nice fancy glass egg cup, and so my egg has ended up in the fancy cup because it’s an amazing place to be, but also still so delicate.
I could go on about all the inspirations, Daisies the alternative Czech film, and much more.
Can you tell us more about how you developed your relationship with Dover Street Market?
So Damsel Elysium is a musician who I befriended through Instagram because I’d been inspired by lots of emerging musicians while I was researching so I contacted her when I finished university just to say I loved her style and that she was on my mood board. We got on well, so I lent some pieces to her for shoots. She then invited me to an event at Dover Street Market and we both wore my dresses. When we arrived everyone knew her, so she introduced me as the designer. People thought the dresses were vintage, so they were surprised that I’d made them. I’ve had a really long-standing obsession with Dover Street Market, I could never afford anything there but I’d just go to the shop to stare and take sneaky photos. I still get told off for taking photos in there to this day!
Are there any techniques that you consider central to your work and design?
Definitely, the machine that I use is an antique knitting machine, and the patterns that I do are Intarsia, which is the repeat print. The way the machine works, you have to do each row with your arm, kind of like a loom. I think it’s important to not give up on craft and to continue supporting people rather than machines. My grandfather is an antiques restorer, he’s in his 90s now and he would always use traditional methods, and it’s just beautiful. So, I guess the way of keeping these crafts and skills alive has always been important to me.
Another important feature is how I finish the garments – I do all French steams which looks folded instead of overlocking. Same with the knitwear, all of it is shaped so not cut and sewn, and then we use a machine called a linker. I also use screen printing, so the prints aren’t digitally printed. I screen print the samples in a repeat pattern by hand in my garden. For production, it’s done by a small team in London.
My grandfather is an antiques restorer, he’s in his 90s now and he would always use traditional methods, and it’s just beautiful. So, I guess the way of keeping these crafts and skills alive has always been important to me.
It’s interesting to me that you value the quality of a well-finished product, but also have this big focus on traditional craft, which often has natural imperfections. How do you marry these two ideas?
Exactly. I think my work has so many contrasts that balance together really nicely. Like the softness and the strength, the perfection and then the acceptance of imperfection from handcraft sits beautifully together for me. Wanting something to be done to the absolute best of your ability, and then accepting and encouraging natural change. I like to leave my dress edges raw, so they degrade and pull over time. But behind, there’s a stitch about a centimetre back that stops it from fraying past a certain point. I like that the garment has this freedom to move and change, but not without impacting its longevity.
Are there any materials that are significant in your work?
From what I see in stores, it’s normal to have one type of wool throughout one jumper so it’ll all be Merino, or it’ll all be Alpaca. I really like mixing the different textures so it creates more depth and it’s a little bit more interesting, like a collage. One jumper, for example, the neck trim is tweed wool from Yorkshire, and then this fawn colour is from Italy and it’s a wool-cotton blend that’s dyed from flowers, and the supplier supplies Dior, so that’s definitely my fanciest wool. Then there’s a mercerized cotton which is beautiful and shiny, and then a Merino wool too, so there’s around four of five different yarns in one piece.
I try to keep my materials as sustainable as possible, for instance irish linen and the three-layered muslin. I got really into muslin, which is what the skirts of the dresses are made out of, because of this book about the history of fairies. It’s an academic text that I read for my dissertation. In one of the accounts of someone seeing a fairy, they said that they felt like muslin, they felt like this soft fabric against their skin.
Can you tell us more about your SS23 London fashion week presentation?
So I have had two presentations at the George Tavern now. AW22 to celebrate being stocked at Dover Street Market and of course SS23 LFW show I love the people there, the manager Fran Albrecht has been so supportive and friendly and it’s why I’ve kept going back. At AW22 party, there was indie-rock musicians playing and instead of a biscuit, guests got a glass of baby cham and absinthe on arrival, so it was a very different tone! It was a lot freer, everyone was dancing, while SS23 felt more serious, like an exhibition. It was fun to be able to present the clothes in really different ways.
Utilising the music in the space to create these contrasting environments for the clothes was really effective. How did you initially meet the musicians you’ve worked with?
So from the previous AW22 collection, Katy J Pearson approached me about buying some pieces for her Glastonbury performance and we found out we had mutual friends in Bristol. Clara Man, I was recommended her by friends in the music scene and she was the perfect fit because we’re now great friends. For SS23 I worked with Joey Eyers, whose soundtrack included birdsong, opened the show. The gifted concert pianist Kirsty Chaplin came next, magical puppeteer Ash Appadu led the models including Molly Hunloke in performance and finally the mystical Aga Ujma’s (@agaujma) harp and singing closed the SS23 show. The models gazed on seated in their billowing outfits and satin slippers. Everyone is unique and mesmerising and so talented, but before I booked them it was important for me to meet everyone to make sure they’re kind and they have the right energy.
It’s the same with my models, I’ve had professional models contact me about work but I’d much rather work with someone who I feel has the right vibe rather than someone who is perceived as more beautiful, so the models are usually friends of friends. It sounds silly, but I want to make a community of nice girls who are kind to one another.
My dresses are all named after the models, including last season, so if you go into store and see AW22, one of the dresses is the Cidella Dress and she was the one that modelled it. It’s really important for me to find the perfect person that sits well with the brand and I also want them to feel like they’re not just going to be there for one little catwalk it’s like you feel part of rabbit now.
How would you like to see your presentations develop?
I’d really like to do something with dancers. I love music, live music especially, but having some dancers would be amazing. I really enjoyed doing the live music sets because I really see musicians in my pieces, but like the puppetry at the SS23 presentation, I’m happy for these things to come organically.
What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry and how is your brand contributing to this?
Like I said before, I feel really passionate about championing craft and its makers over machinery, as it would create more jobs for people. Having people actually make everything is vital to me, so I’d like to see those individuals supported more.
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