It was such a great pleasure to meet Brixton knitwear designer Coco Cripps. As a fellow designer working in sustainable fashion, natural fibres and made to measure clothing, I really want to give you an insight into what the world that Coco is bursting into is like. Some of the unique challenges that this type of work throws up. Because, I think it’s really important to see the work through that lens. So here’s a little introduction to give Coco Cripps work some context.
The world of genuinely sustainable fashion. Fashion that has considered all the angles (over production AS WELL AS end of life etc.), is actually still small and fringe. And that’s deliberate – the newest ideas on the sustainability scene; the ones that could actually be a viable answer to the multiple crises being brought on by Global North consumption, have to be small-scale and fringe, because over production is where most of the damage is being done. Stuff is produced badly, but the poisoned rivers in Bangladesh are because stuff is being produced badly on a really really really really over the top scale. High Street brands are making billions of pounds worth of clothes that they never even sell!
These new ways are special partly because they keep hold of their rarity, their uniqueness, their one-offness. Of course, if Coco sells out to Adidas next week – I’ll be happy for her! Occupying Bohemia, in all its resistive glory, is as stressful as it is exciting and not something that I’d wish, long term, on a talented maker. Most of us have to eventually admit that there probably isn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the rainbow is the whole thing.
It’s always a pleasure to meet other practitioners navigating these choppy waters, particularly if they’re doing it with serious style as the struggle for an authentic response to how dreadful consumerism is, that can pay the rent, is REAL!
Coco was awarded a residency at the Studios, part of the Department Store by Squire and Partners, to develop artisan knitwear that incorporates that crazy light up (reflective) thread used in high vis gear. Since then she has temporarily moved into her Mum’s studio near Stockwell Skate Park. Walking through the garage doors (those old school wooden ones, not a roller shutter) and up the garden path is like finding Narnia on Stockwell High Street. These spaces remind us that the cracks of this incredible city; the cracks that creativity needs to be able to get its roots down, still exist. They’re just maybe getting harder to find.
Coco works on a beautiful pre-digital industrial knitting machine. Textile Machinery is always mesmerising – the rhythm of the motion, even on the most basic domestic sewing machine, is a real testament to human ingenuity. It’s fascinating to me watching hulking solid iron castings mimic motions that are achieved so delicately by human hands. It’s affirming, to think how easy it is to do with our own awe inspiring bodies, when it requires so many different hooks and loops and cams and cogs inside a machine. But also to think that someone was able to distil that process down into a steel mechanism, a carefully choreographed dance of needles and shuttles and latches opening and closing. Both ways it’s a testament to our potential as a species, the potential that we desperately need to realise as we look for inspiring and creative approaches to the mess we’re in.
It was in Lockdown when I started cycling everywhere. I’d done a bit; a few years ago someone would have laughed at the idea of me cycling everywhere because I was known for being a bit hazardous on a bike. Basically one time I was cycling with some friends all across London, beyond Hackney and I was just looking at people in these disgusting high Vis, and I was thinking ‘Well I guess it’s a good idea, but they look so ugly! I could never see myself wearing anything like that.’
Coco’s design journey is very much about the context of the work. “Each of the pieces I made were designed for the person who modelled them. And them as people, what they like to do. Particularly because its dual clothing – it needs to be something that functions for that person and what they like.” explained Coco.
So they’re describing the scenario of where they’re cycling to?
“Yeah – even Jasper who modelled the trousers, he wears a lot of these very wide legged trousers and still tries to cycle in them. So I designed these wide legged trousers that can button up and become narrow, so it fits with what he likes to wear. For me, I designed a longer skirt that can hook up, because I like wearing long skirts, which isn’t always so practical for cycling.
“I’m drawing design inspiration from people who really cycle. Not so much for sport, but as a means of transport to do what they need to do. Not those guys who you see coming over London Bridge, who’ve gone to the changing room and put on their lycra and transformed into racers for the journey home. I’m sure that makes them happy, but not everyone wants to do that, or has a shower at their office!”
This understanding of clothing as a ‘utility’, something that makes the other things in your life better, rather than purely a status symbol or a way of attracting or influencing people, is quite unique in the fashion world, and definitely a real strength in a sustainable brand. It’s one of the strong points of outdoor brands like Patagonia or Finisterre, that they recognise their wearers as full humans with full lives, not just mannequins for their product.
It’s also fairly unusual, in recent years, for someone working in fashion to be a designer-maker, but in my opinion this is a great way to work because it creates a deep and rich connection between the finished garment and the process that brings it to life.
“Just in the nature of partially money and time, I do make most of the stuff. All of the collection that I developed at the studios I made myself, except one item. I had a bit of help with some finishing, and knitlab north made knitted up the sections of a hoody that I then put together and added in the reflective elements. They’d been having problems with the reflective yarn snapping on the digital machines, so that was another thing that we had to work on.
“But yeah, there’s also something nice about, when you can, making a bespoke piece, because obviously it adds more value and makes something special when it’s made for that person. “
Like many designer-makers, she has had other jobs alongside her journey in her chosen field, and maybe being immersed in the real world, not just the fantasy world of fashion, is what prompted her to consider the context of her work so carefully.
“I used to do bits of piano teaching, and I had a lesson up in Wimbledon, so I would cycle up there, it’s about a 40 minutes cycle. And then I would just wear what I was wearing for the piano lesson, so I had to think about what would work for cycling and look like a reasonably smart music teacher. You don’t want to arrive too sweaty or smelly, so its obviously evolved out of my way of life.”
Coco studied textiles at university, but she wasn’t certain that she’d be a knitwear designer.
“I was always really into print, so I almost went in the print direction. I don’t know if you know anything about textiles as a course? But you can go in different directions within it, and it was quite close which one I would choose.”
What drew you to knit?
“Well I always liked it, I got very into hand knitting when I was about 8 years old. I did a lot and I knitted loads of scarves. But I only knew 2 techniques, so I did as much as I could, (tried to knit as fast as I could), my Dad taught me how to knit, but he only knew minimal stuff, then I got my gran to show me a few others, but then when I ran out of things to do, I kind of stopped for years. Then when I ended up doing textiles, I was reintroduced to the world of knitting. I love learning new skills and techniques, and it seemed that there was more to discover, we had machines like this one at college, but you couldn’t even go onto them unless you specialised. It just felt like there was so much more to learn. I also like making three-dimensional things, and I like patterns, really it was curiosity and wanting to explore more. In general I wouldn’t say it’s about the technique. The techniques are just a means to explore the ideas.”
And the ideas themselves are really inspirational. Coco Cripps is one of those brands that really digs into what ‘living sustainably’ not just ‘making something in a more sustainable way’ means. So not only are the yarns she uses responsibly sourced, but the items she knits them into are created with a way of life in mind that ticks the low energy, high positivity boxes.
“All the yarns, apart from the reflective yarns, are a mixture of organic cottons, and some end of line silks. My aim is definitely to have a sustainable element, particularly with textiles being so damaging. But the idea is that you could have one item of clothing that works for your day to day and for the bicycle, so you’ve already cut your clothing in half, because you don’t have to buy something specially for riding your bike. These items are designed to adapt, and last- be more hardwearing. I’m into that idea that you buy less stuff, but better quality. I also design in the after care- I’ve got a few commissions and I always say- if there are any problems you can bring it back for repairs.”
Alice Holloway has been beavering away in the Sustainable Fashion space since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2008. Its not an easy space to work in. The skills and expertise of makers and practitioners has been really degraded by the rise of fast fashion and neo-liberalism.
Last year Alice completed an MA in Design for the Cultural Commons where we was energised by rediscovering her peasant ancestors who were so skilled, so resilient and tbh, having such a good time. Alice is on a mission bring us back into conversation with a way of life in balance with nature, and in balance with our own brains – which seem to really crave a deeper connection to each other and to nature.
Alice is the founder of Brixton-based bespoke lingerie brand Little Black Pants Club producing little handmade garments with big post-capitalist dreams.