London catwalk designer to show new collection at Norwich Fashion Week

Fashion label Silk & Sawdust took to the London catwalks earlier this year as one of the hot new brands on the fashion scene. Now, the Norwich fashion designer behind the brand is bringing her new autumn collection to Norwich Fashion Week next month. Emma Harrowing reports.

The Silk & Sawdust fashion label has been around since October 2009, with an online collection of 1920s to 1970s vintage inspired day dresses, evening dresses and separates.

Then, earlier this year, the label made it to the London catwalk at Pure London's Next Generation, a national platform for hot new labels to present their original collections on the runway.

For fashion designer and founder of Silk & Sawdust, Claudia Orrell, this was the moment she had been waiting for all her life.

'I was about six-years-old when I made my first frock,' says 36-year-old Claudia as she sits in her modest design studio, otherwise known as the spare room in her flat on Wensum Street. Next to her is her computer with the Silk & Sawdust website on display ready to flick through. A well-used mannequin stands in the corner and some of her designs hang around the room.

'It was in the very early eighties when white was all the rage. I relieved my mother of an old sheet that was a little threadbare in places, snipped away, nipped, tucked, ran over it with her hand-powered sewing machine and hey presto, I had made a cute little straight white dress, finished off with a red ribbon at the waist. Sadly, I don't think Mummy Orrell could quite get over the idea that it was, in fact a sheet, and was slightly mortified by me wearing it to school.'

Dreams of becoming a fashion designer diminished when on 'growing up and having to pay the bills', Claudia began a career in publishing in London and her love of dressmaking became a hobby.

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'I used to make prom dresses for my friends in my spare time. It was like having an illicit love affair on the side of my publishing job,' laughs Claudia.

'I made lots of little outfits for mine and my friend's wardrobe and I knew that this is what I wanted to do full time. I signed up to some short courses in fashion drawing and design at St Martin's in London. The problem was how to make enough money out of it.'

Like many, Claudia came to a crossroads in her life when she was faced with redundancy from her job in London. With the prospect of yet more spreadsheets and a desk job that would bring in a regular income on one hand and the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy and try something new, Claudia choose the latter and went to work in Bangkok with Voluntary Service Overseas.

It was here that her fashion career began.

'It's strange to think about it now, but amongst all the humbling scenes I witnessed, I also met some incredible people with so much creativity and dress making skills,' says Claudia.

'They work with stunning fabrics and it wasn't about fancy modern equipment, it was all about highly-skilled people cutting patterns, pinning fabrics and working with old-fashioned machines.

'Experiencing this magic swung me back into dressmaking.'

Within two months of setting up Silk & Sawdust, the orders came in and the workload meant that Claudia could finally follow her dream. She now spends most of her time working on her fashion designs in Norwich (she moved here from London in April this year) while supplementing her income with freelance publishing work in London.

'The name Silk & Sawdust came from sitting in a pub with a friend who I had made a dress for from silk chiffon,' says Claudia.

'We were trying to come up with a name for the label when my friend dropped her dress on the floor. The floor of the pub had a kind of sawdust mesh on it, so when she picked the dress up it was covered in sawdust shavings. We looked at each other and said 'silk and sawdust' and the name was born. It's been an incredible journey and a huge amount of work, but it continues to be fun.'

Claudia has currently designed four collections for her Silk & Sawdust label. Each piece is inspired by vintage patterns, old fashion books and original vintage dresses, coats and tops; all made from fabric sourced worldwide. Each piece is available in limited quantities and hand tailored by some of the highly-skilled dressmakers in Bangkok who Claudia met while on her travels. Currently, Claudia is working on her fifth range, an autumn collection which was half launched at Pure London and which will be launched in its entirety at Norwich Fashion Week next month.

'The idea behind Silk & Sawdust is simple,' says Claudia. 'To bring back the glamorous fashion from years gone by using modern fabrics that will make each item wearable and the wearer feel stylish.'

As she talks with passion about her new designs, a quick glance around her studio reveals a few clues as to what will be in her final collection. A fabulous 1930s dress hangs on the hook on the door and a beige ruffled midi skirt seen on the London catwalk is joined by a 70s-style satin blouse.

A sneak peak inside the makeshift hanging space in her studio reveals other 30s and 60s inspired finds, plus a military style blouse, all very much in keeping with next season's trends and all made to a high quality and in fabrics and designs you could just fall in love with.

Says Claudia: 'Primarily, I make my designs for women over 30 who want a feminine, sexy and stylish look, but with a quirky twist.' And you can see Claudia's new designs for yourself as Silk & Sawdust's full autumn collection will be launched at the Open Store event during Norwich Fashion Week. Claudia will open the door to her studio so that you can see, touch and try on her latest designs and perhaps order a piece or two. Says Claudia: 'As each item comes in a limited number, there is a good chance you can pick up a dress or top that no one else has. You can own a piece of original fashion, and I might even put together some goodie bags too!'

You can see Claudia's new collection at her studio at 23a Wensum Street from midday until 8pm on Tuesday, September 27, as part of the Open Store event at Norwich Fashion Week.

Open Store showcases the work of Norfolk fashion designers who will be showcasing their latest designs at Ethika on Timberhill, Verandah on Upper St Giles and at various locations on Wensum Street.

Norwich Fashion Week takes place from Thursday September 22 until Thursday September 29. For more information about Open Store and the other events taking place throughout the week click on the Norwich Fashion Week link at the top right of this page.