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Norwich's eco-chic queen

PUBLISHED: 09:50 30 March 2011

Textile Artist Johanna Couldrey.
PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Textile Artist Johanna Couldrey. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2011

If Stella McCartney is seen as one of the pioneers of eco-chic, Johanne Couldrey could well be her protégée. Emma Harrowing talks to the Norwich fashion designer about her eco-friendly clothes and how she wants to
take the next Norwich Fashion Week by storm.

One of Johanna Couldrey's handbags. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

After Norwich fashion designer Johanne Couldrey’s hemp and alpaca dress and cardigan shimmied down the catwalk at Norwich Fashion Week last month the city has gone mad for the designer’s knitwear.

Within a week of Norwich Fashion Week Johanne’s dress was sold from Ethika’s shop window on Timberhill and the trend for summer knits was reinforced in the minds of fashionistas.

Johanne’s success at Norwich Fashion Week has not made her turn into a pretentious bore; like many Norwich fashion designers she is reserved and is quick to play down her talents.

Luckily her designs speak for themselves. The mesh-like effect of her organic knitted dress and long cardigan with train exclusively produced for Norwich Fashion Week would not look out of place on the high street. In fact Jaeger London’s Spring and Summer collection includes crochet structures and basket-weave mesh dresses and tops not dissimilar to Johanne’s designs.

One of Johanne Couldrey's designs at Norwich Fashion Week. PHOTO: SONYA DUNCAN

“My aim is to design clothes and accessories that are easy to wear,” says the 49-year-old fashion designer. “Organic knitwear is often seen as fashion for grannies or those with an alternative lifestyle, I want to change this perception and bring organic knitwear into mainstream fashion by creating edgier pieces.”

Johanne is already looking at different techniques to make her designs contemporary and more irreverent, and she plans to create her first collection for the second Norwich Fashion Week in the autumn.

“It’s my ambition to create a complete collection for Norwich Fashion Week and I have already got some ideas about what I want to design,” says Johanne.

“All my designs are similar but all are unique so you can really have an item of clothing or a complete outfit that no-one else has.”

Johanne is experimenting with different techniques in order to create contemporary designs for her first fashion collection. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Eco textiles and fashion run through Johanne’s blood. From an early age she learnt how to sew and knit, skills she gleaned from her mum and aunt. Johanne would spend hours putting together creations made from old dishcloth cotton and other materials she found on the farm in Essex where she grew up.

It was when she moved to Norwich about 21 years ago that her design skills were nurtured when she spent a year studying textiles at Lowestoft College.

Says Johanne: “The skills I learnt here made it possible for me to design the pieces I create today. The course taught me different techniques and how to work with different materials. This knowledge has proved invaluable.”

Johanne sources materials for her designs locally where possible or from organically certified businesses in the UK. The hemp she uses in many of her designs is sourced from a company in Cornwall and the alpaca, which makes her designs soft and easy to wear, is sourced from Alpacas of Norfolk, a farm in Briston near Melton Constable in North Norfolk.

“I’ve recently visited the alpacas and bought some wool ready to create some more pieces,” says Johanne. “Actually seeing that your materials are coming from an organic source is important to me and I have developed a good relationship with the owners of the farm John and Sheila.”

Local places and organic structures such as the North Norfolk coast influence Johanne’s designs. Past creations have been inspired by seaweed and even the groynes on the beach.

Says Johanne: “I take inspiration from a variety of places. The North Norfolk coast is one of my favourite places as is Pakefield in the south. These are interpreted into my designs through the texture or shape of the piece.”

All of Johanne’s designs are made using her knitting machine and by hand. Instead of pattern cutting Johanne follows the natural shape of the materials she uses and carefully makes any alterations needed to make her pieces fit like a glove.

In the beginning Johanne’s designs were created in a small, dark box room in her home in the Golden Triangle. Here she would work on colourful knitted handbags, scarves and hats. To say that she made these in the hope that one day her designs would be worn and adored by others will probably be quickly rebuked by Johanne who is modest when it comes to the pieces she has created. Yet there must have been some ambition inside her, as when the husband of Norfolk jewellery designer Alison Varley suggested that Johanne sell her work at Ethika on Timberhill, Johanne plucked up the courage to approach the shop’s owner Roberta Pumer about her designs.

“It was a nerve-wracking experience,” says Johanne. “I’ve been designing clothes all my life but to actually stand up and say that they are good enough to be sold in a shop was alien to me.

“When I approached Roberta I was surprised that she was interested in my work and asked me to bring samples of my work in. I was even more surprised that on seeing my designs she wanted to sell them in her shop.”

The first piece Johanne designed for Ethika was a hooded hemp cape, a stylish cover-up that has become a fashion staple over the last few months.

Ethika has stocked Johanne’s designs for a number of years and Johanne has moved from her tiny box room and has built a studio in her garden. The studio is full of for photographs of people wearing her designs, design samples and textile experiments, as well as materials, knitting needles, a flying shuttle from an old handloom, a vintage mannequin and her trusty knitting machine where she spends a lot of her time overlooking her garden which is full of wildlife, chickens and vegetables.

Johanne’s green lifestyle is an existence that many would like to accomplish as eco-friendly alternatives such as growing your own vegetables, dressmaking, knitting and sewing skills, so popular with past generations, are in style once again.

“I’ve started to teach knitting skills every Tuesday morning from my home and I’m looking to do more classes as there are many people who want to learn how to make their own clothes,” says Johanne.

“The items people have started to make are fingerless gloves and scarves. The lessons are very relaxed and tend to be more of a chance to have a gossip over a nice cup of tea, as well as learn skills in knitting and crochet of course!

“It’s nice to be able to pass on my skills to others just as my mum and my aunt passed on some of their skills to me.

“With my teaching and my aspiration to design my first collection for the second Norwich Fashion Week it’s turning into a busy and exhilarating year!”

Johanne holds knitting and crochet classes every Tuesday morning from 9.30am until about midday. Classes cost £8 per session. For more details contact Johanne at johanne.couldrey@ntlworld.com

You can see Johanne Couldrey’s designs at Ethika on Timberhill.

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