What happens when your two-year-old brand is on a roll and Covid-19 strikes? Not only that, but one of the co-founders is in Milan, the centre of the pandemic in Europe, the other is soon to be told to “stay at home” in London, and your factories in Italy halt production? If you’re Lucinda Chambers and Molly Molloy of the luxury fashion brand Colville, you keep calm, pause for thought and pivot.
In what has become the norm for interviews of late, this one was thrown out of context immediately after it was conducted in Colville’s HQ in Milan one sunny Sunday morning at the tail end of fashion week in February. It was mere hours before the gravitas of the pandemic that would soon paralyse the world sunk in, and towns around us in Lombardy started to lock down.
The design duo, known for their niche fusion of fashion, art and craft, had just hosted a series of intimate appointments to unveil their collection for autumn/winter 2020 and share details of upcoming projects with textile artisans around the world. The collection was full of their gloriously off-centre designs and accessories, as ever, and I was looking forward to talking to them about how their brand cuts through the noise of a crowded industry and do things their own nonconformist way. Two months after the collection was unveiled, we were mid-pandemic.
Catching up on FaceTime in late April, the pandemic was the first thing we talked about. “Obviously it’s frustrating, but what’s good is that it really makes you think about what’s important,” says Molloy. “It makes you focus,” agrees Chambers. “There’s been such a seismic shift – we’re never going to go back to the old world. You recalibrate and question everything. I’m sure everyone else is doing the same and if they’re not, they’re crazy… For us, it’s a chance to take a deep breath and have a think about what Colville really stands for.”
Celebrating the art of designer collaboration – from its sculptural jewellery by Valeria Bersanetti to its shoes by Matteo Mena and bags by Marcus Griffith – is central to Colville’s ethos, and that’s exactly how they have approached this challenging time. Rather than push product on their Instagram account over the past two months (“It didn’t feel right,” says Molloy, “we wanted to take a more human approach as opposed to peddling”), the pair rallied knitting enthusiasts on the social media platform to help make a giant multicoloured, multitextured patchwork blanket which, when it’s finished, will be auctioned in aid of Cadmi, a refuge for victims of domestic abuse in Milan.
While they continue to WFH as best they can, Molloy declined an offer from their Brescia factory to create digital 3D representations of their SS20 fashion designs using an avatar so they could push ahead. “You just lose too much not being able to touch it and pin it. The poetry is lost,” she explains. They also postponed their SS21 June launch to September or “until the world is ready again and wants to see things,” says Chambers.
These are decisions not everyone can afford to make, but challenging the status quo from the start has allowed the duo to be agile now. As two of the fashion industry’s most experienced and well-liked women, thanks to 46-year-old Molloy’s 13-year-stint at Marni, where they met while working on the womenswear collections together, and 60-year-old Chambers’s 36-year tenure as fashion director at British Vogue, Colville was always going to be special.
In a nutshell, the Colville look is part grown-up YBA, part polished Portobello Market bohemian who makes wearing an asymmetric pink silk dress over a vivid printed T-shirt with a pair of trainers and handcrafted gold earrings look like the most effortless and elegant thing you’ve ever seen. The current spring/summer 2020 collection juxtaposes relaxed tailoring with asymmetric cuts, chunky knits with ruched silk and delicate ruffles with crunchy anoraks made from recycled boat sails.
Eclectic, yes, but accessible also. “There’s a hybrid of entry points so women can make of it what they want,” explains Chambers, herself a style icon when it comes to layering a bright and bold look. Crucial to Colville’s success is that every item gives an instant hit of creative cool. “Colville doesn’t churn out product for the sake of it,” adds Chambers. “It’s never been about that – we want to say something different with different design.”
“There is nothing basic or everyday about the label’s aesthetic,” declared American Vogue of its first collection in 2018, which was snapped up as an exclusive by Matches. “What was refreshing about launching Colville was that the collection has a really unique point of view,” says buying director Natalie Kingham. “It appeals to that creative, confident woman who is very brave in her style choices. Loving colour, understanding layering and looking for wearable pieces that have a point of difference.”
It’s not just its aesthetic that sets Colville – named after the west London terrace frequented by David Hockney in the 1970s – apart. Rather than be a slave to the fashion calendar, they made an early decision not to hold shows. Instead of churning out the usual four collections a year, they stick with a thoughtfully executed two; and in lieu of sourcing only new materials, they upcycle things such as silk scarves, or the boat sails, into their tightly edited offerings. (Long-sleeved shrugs which they made out of second-hand shell suits have proven to be bestsellers.) They are also waging war on plastic hangers, which Molloy describes as the “plastic straw of the fashion industry”.
It’s a model that puts the practice of creating back into the concept of creativity and one which even big brands are starting to call for. In the past month, Giorgio Armani and Yves Saint Laurent have each announced a shift towards a more holistic way of working, calling the increasing speed at which the industry has been hurtling at untenable. Last month Armani penned an open letter in which he called grandiose fashion shows “meaningless wastes of money”, while YSL announced it was relinquishing its spot on the official Paris Fashion Week calendar in order “to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule”.
“Given the time we live in and what is relevant now, the way we are doing things feels absolutely natural,” said Chambers back in February. “There’s room for amazing shows, but there are too many of them, and it can feel like a great weight. If you don’t have that fixed point in the calendar, you feel so free. Storytelling from the heart feels more immediate and leaves you free to collaborate with people you find along the way, whether that’s a potter, a painter or an artist.”
The collaborative element of Colville is of huge importance to the British-born pair. They work with factories no more than an hour from Milan so Molloy can check in regularly. Everything except their T-shirts, which are made in Turkey, is realised here, and they also work with small communities around the world. The label’s Colombian bags, currently on sale in Liberty, are made by Wayúu women in the northern Guajira Peninsula, who receive payment directly (“a collection of 35 bags feeds 16 families for a month,” says Molloy). Elsewhere, they have worked with 18 villages outside Dakar in India for the colour-burst rugs they have made for their most recent collection, and are also able to guarantee that the makers reap the rewards.
“We don’t need anything,” says Chambers, “but it doesn’t stop us wanting to buy something beautiful made in a gorgeous way by people we love.” This spirit stretches to the internal structure of Colville, which the pair describe as “a sum of its parts”. “We’ve always been a collective,” explains Chambers. “There isn’t one designer sitting in an ivory tower.” They also heap praise on their assistant, Danny, who works remotely from Amsterdam, and their co-founder, Kristin Forss, who stepped back from the business earlier this year but remains a part of the Colville collective.
Given the warmth and shared sense of humour between Chambers and Molloy, it’s no surprise that their collections feel infused with love. The pair recall the late nights in the early days, spent gathered around Forss’s kitchen table. After wrapping their other jobs (Chambers co-runs the curatorial fashion and lifestyle website collagerie.com and Molloy works in-house at fellow Milan-based fashion brand La Double), they would converge to plot and plan while guzzling frozen banana smoothies.
Before the virus hit, Chambers would fly in from London once a month and the pair would meet up in their studio in the gothic Palazzo Berri-Meregalli. The self-confessed “chatterbox Charlies” would enjoy breakfast meetings over coffee, and long lunches. What’s changed since their first collections is their sense of who they are appealing to.
“It’s someone who is confident and has a skewed idea of their own style in a really independent way – it’s slightly against the grain,” says Chambers. “You plough your own furrow when you wear Colville,” she adds, inviting comparison to the duo’s confident approach. “For us, it’s so compelling to do something in a different way,” Chambers continues. “It already felt like a new way of doing things, and what’s going to happen now is different from the path we were all on anyway.”
Colville is available at matchesfashion.com
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