Norwich designers have lots to shout about

Forget fast fashion, clothes should be designed using traditional tailoring techniques to make fashion a work of art – and Norwich can be one of the cities to lead the way. EMMA HARROWING meets the woman behind these strong beliefs that could see our fine city become a leader in textiles once again.

Norwich has a history of textiles and craftsmanship; it's about time that this heritage was shouted from the rooftops . . . That's the firm view of Norwich University College of the Arts (NUCA) fashion degree course leader Sue Chowles.

Catching her between meetings and classes, Sue barely pauses for breath as she talks about the importance of the craftsmanship behind the business of fashion.

'A garment should be just as beautiful on the inside as the outside and this comes from good cutting and tailoring – skills that my fashion students are taught from the outset of their degree. After all, how can you be creative and produce innovative yet wearable fashion if you do not know the rules of the craft first? Once you know these rules, you can of course break them – this is one of the elements that make a good fashion designer.'

And Sue should know. Her career to date has seen her working for and with international fashion designers such as John Galliano, who taught her at the Royal College of Art in London, and Galliano's friend John Flett, who inspired Sue to push the boundaries of her designs in the final year of her studies.

'John Flett has been my inspiration since my early 20s,' says Sue. 'I was in the final year of my degree at the Royal College of Art when I began helping John with his collections.

'I was always amazed at how he never pattern cut his designs – instead he would drape the fabric and create the pattern on a mannequin. He had such vision and he would be a real name now if he hadn't died of a heart attack at the age of 27.'

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Sue was a sample machinist for John Flett's spring and summer 1989 collection, in the production of privately commissioned garments, and worked as a backstage production assistant for his final show in October 1988.

'John was such a dynamic character,' says Sue. 'In the 80s fashion was seen more as an art and designers would wear their own collections out in the clubs and bars in Leicester Square. I would get to wear some of this designs and even John's dog Lily would be adorned in a little coat designed by John Flett!

'John would sleep on his pattern cutting table at night and would forgo food in order to buy fabric. It's this lack of business support and high level of stress that I feel led to his untimely death.'

As a fashion designer Sue had many successes. While at the Royal College of Art she won various awards for her designs such as the Courtelle Awards for Connections, where her range was sold in all Connection stores in the autumn and winter of 1987-88. Sue was also runner-up in the Cartier Foundation Prize in 1989 for her woven copper wire and chenile dress she completed in the first year of her studies in collaboration with a second-year woven textiles designer Alida Efstratiou. Sue was also awarded the Byblos prize for innovation for her final collection when she graduated in 1989.

Says Sue: 'In the 80s there was a great rivalry between the Royal College of Art and St Martins College. The Royal College was always seen as producing designers who would design for high-end retailers such as Max Mara, and St Martins had the reputation of producing the more creative designers. 'Both Philip Treacy (who is now an international hat designer) and myself represented the Royal College of Art at The Cartier Awards. Producing something that was creative at a couture level was a little bit different for a Royal College of Art student.'

Since graduating, Sue had further success. She was commissioned to accessorise Harvey Nichols' shop windows, she was commissioned to design a range of lycra/jersey separates for Miss Selfridge's spring and summer 1991 collection and she designed and produced a range of garments for American and Japanese markets.

In September 1995, Sue teamed up with Rachel Munday and together they formed fashion company Chowles-Munday Ltd. The label designed a collection for Liberty's of London, which sold out within three days of the collection going on display in store.

The label had further success when the design duo won a commission to produce a capsule collection using Swiss embroideries for Textiles Suisses.

Says Sue: 'The success of our label took us completely by surprise. At the time I was a senior lecturer on the fashion design degree course at Brighton University so it was stressful putting together a collection and teaching at the same time. My focus is always on the quality of the workmanship in the garments and so it became too time-consuming to do another collection that would match the high quality craftsmanship of the last.'

Sue's fashion designs took her to three London Fashion Week seasons between 1996 to 1998 and her work was featured in a campaign by international hair stylists Toni & Guy, which appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Marie Claire; but it was her passion for teaching the next generation of fashion designers that truly became her calling.

'I have been teaching fashion since I was 24, shortly after graduating from the Royal College,' says Sue. 'I was a part-time lecturer at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design before I got a full-time position in Nottingham. I sort of fell into teaching in a way, but it has become something that I really enjoy and I feel passionate about.'

It was between 1992 and 2001, when Sue was a senior lecturer on the fashion degree at the University of Brighton, that she found her calling. Here she wrote what has become one of the best fashion degree courses in the country, propelling Brighton into a top fashion destination outside of London.

Now she wants to do the same for Norwich, having already written the fashion degree programme at NUCA.

'I was born in Norwich, living on Earlham Road for a while before moving and growing up in Dereham, so getting the job in 2010 as the course leader on the fashion degree at NUCA was a kind of homecoming for me,' says Sue.

'Norwich has direct parallels to Brighton – both have vibrant independent retailers and designers and both have the Lanes shopping areas. But Norwich has a history enriched with fashion from textiles to shoe and handbag manufacturing and it's time to bring Norwich to the forefront of fashion once again.'

Sue has already formed strong links with Norwich retailers Jarrold and John Lewis; both helped fund the end of year fashion show last May which saw the first intake of the degree take to the catwalk with their designs. And it is these links between education and retail that Sue is determined to nurture. Sue is currently working on an installation and show in association with House of Fraser for Norwich Fashion Week this March and she is working with the Norfolk Costume and Textile Association to help curate future projects with her students.

Says Sue: 'To have such an extensive and impressive fashion collection that can rival the V&A should make Norwich one of top fashion destinations in the UK. Through working with the Costume and Textile Association, I hope to bring the likes of Jo Brown at Saville Row, the V&A and other people renowned in the fashion industry to Norwich.'

Last September Sue presented a paper and film at the Fashion Colloquia 2011, a symposium during London Fashion Week. Her paper highlighted how traditional crafts and craftsmanship can be preserved in light of the drive for fast fashion and the demise of widespread technical skills in the construction of garments.

Sue's passion for heritage and craftsmanship runs through the heart of the fashion degree course at NUCA. Haute couture, bespoke tailoring and hand finishing techniques are all taught on the three-year course.

'The focus of the degree is on heritage and craftsmanship; exemplary workmanship, refinement and mastery of technique is paramount,' says Sue. 'It is vital that future generations are educated and informed to protect the heritage of traditional skills.'

Sue has forged links with the British Fashion Council College Forum to give her students opportunities to reach an international stage. Currently, her second years are working on a fashion collection of five to eight pieces for a Mulberry competition.

'Next year we will have our first graduates and I want to show their work in Europe and beyond,' says Sue. 'Fashion is a very competitive industry and in my experience the ones that make it are those that have the passion, determination and drive to succeed.'

Sue's past student success stories include Hannah MacGibbon, who was the design director at Chloe for 10 years until last season, Julian MacDonald, who has estabilished his own international design company and worked with Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Alistair Carr who was the head designer at Balenciaga and is now the design director for Pringle, Ellen Brookes who worked at Abercrombie and Fitch and is now creative director of Jack Wills and Aubin and Wills, and Gresham Blake, who established his own international bespoke tailoring company. Other students have worked at Dolce and Gabbana, Donna Karen, Burberry, Marks and Spencer, Ted Baker and Calvin Klein.

This list is by no means exhaustive and it seems that Sue's passion for fashion has rubbed off on many of her graduates over the years. So could we expect some future internationally acclaimed fashion designers from Norwich?

Says Sue: 'I've already seen at least three students across the two years who show that they have the ambition and drive needed to succeed in the world of fashion, and as NUCA offers an MA in fashion too, Norwich could produce the next big designers – so watch this space!'

You can see more of Sue's fashion designs by clicking the photo gallery link at the top right of this page.