"My starting point was longing to normalize what I do. I was interested in crafting a bridge into 'normal' clothes. Looking at my previous work, I've always considered clothes as artworks and my approach has been quite conceptual," Roni Ilan confesses from a quiet corner of her presentation space.
The Israeli-born, London-based designer has specifically probed ideas of closeness and connection since her Central Saint Martins BA show; she's highlighted the concept of a common bond by dressing groups of young men in subtly different outfits, and sculpted large garments that connect. This season, Ilan turns her attention to processes of 'normalization,' specifically exploring the life of clothes. Her fall/winter 17 collection is a study in how garments are worn, loved, passed on, and shared.
"I was interested in clothes again and quickly began to think about family, remembering my own experiences and reminding myself how pieces can become everything from hand-me-downs to clothes you pass on yourself and clothes you inherit from your parents. Half my closet is made of up of garments from my mom, dad and Will [her husband, William Richard Green]," Ilan explains. On the ever-quickening conveyor belt of fashion, it's all too easy to forget that garments can become items that are treasured. They can be desired far longer than the whims and fancy of a season. Existing outside the orbit of fashion, hand-me-downs evolve into heirlooms and the everyday can become elevated. Even the most simple of shirts can be stitched with memories.
By creating her own family unit, Ilan was able to peer through the lenses of James Wreford and Alice Neale to see just how her clothes were used to present a curated idea of the self. "It's a lot about how you feel, both in your clothes and whether you're surrounded by your family or on your own. We often dress differently when we go home. It's interesting to explore how free or how closed we can be in different environments, how similar and different we can be with people close to us — whether there's a common bond or attempts to be different. I was interested in both homogeneity and the odd-one-out." Much like flicking through Ari Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek's Exactitudes series, the eye begins to search for little nuances in the contradictions between individuality and uniformity.
After early experimentation, Ilan decided to fabricate a family, built of friends and friends-of-friends. "We chose an interesting people and individuals that we were drawn to," she explains. "The main thing was striking a mix of characters, both shy and outgoing, just like a real family." The fall/winter 17 family consists of artists, a design consultant, a photographer, a designer, and an architect. Before stirring this bubbling cauldron of creativity by sharing her designs and finding them a home, Ilan researched the work of Thomas Struth. "He's a photographer known for his family portraits," she explains. "Rather than forced fun and smiles, he really captured emotion. That's what we wanted to replicate. I wanted to see firsthand how people are when they're in a group and when they're on their own."
For this study of wardrobe ethnography, Ilan transported her chosen few to a house in rural Kent. Over 7,500 square feet, the converted concrete reservoir is a celebration of concrete, steel, glass and now, Roni Ilan. "We wanted a modern house. It was important to set the collection in a house that felt relatable to me. England hasn't always been my home. Part of me wanted to do it back home, so I could put the collection on my own family but I feared I'd be too attached. There's a danger of being too close emotionally." Placing herself behind the glass, Ilan observed. Over the course of a weekend, the group was filmed to see how they reacted to different domestic scenarios.
"After meeting at the house, we discussed what each cast member liked, what they felt comfortable in, and then we styled them as we would for a shoot. The difference was there were no outfit changes, they wore the same look for two days," Ilan says. "That was really fun. For me, it was viewing everything from the outside. I wasn't directing. I did get to speak to them and that was useful research: how they felt in the clothes, what they thought of the fabrications, and so on," she explains. These natural conversations between friends reaped insight and honesty that went far beyond exchanging pleasantries with fit models.
"I thought the collection was practically finished when we began filming," she recalls. "We approached it as a research film so I was prepared to tweak things but then, we made an additional 35 pieces. It gave me so much to think about and that was surprising. There was a certain amount of research pre-film but after, we concentrated our attention purely on the film." During this collage of intimate snapshots, the viewer feels like a voyeur. However, the voyeurism goes deeper than watching the family pose on the rooftop or lurking in corners as they dance. As our eyes bounce from one scene to the next, Ilan confesses to having a favorite scene. "It's Bronte in the bath. In her face, you really feel she's alone and she's looking right through the camera, at the viewer." This sense of voyeurism extends to the design process. We're watching the collection in its infancy, before she's fully nurtured silhouette, form, fabric and function.
"The process helped me see how garments change for the body," she adds. While fixated around the process of hand-me-downs and borrowed garments, the designer understands how clothes imbue elements of the identity of one owner onto the next and impose their physical attributes simply through size and the garment's wear and tear. From incongruously cut shirting and outsized blazers, the collection's common thread of tucking and pinching link each silhouette to echo personal alterations.
Just as our discussion of the fall/winter 17 family came to a natural conclusion and the films looped once again, Ilan's daughter and mother rush in to the presentation space. "Family," she exclaims during a heartfelt hug, illuminated by the flickers of two vignettes from this season. In our interview last season, she hinted at the impact motherhood has had on her approach. "Family changes everything," she reminds us with a knowing smile.
Text Steve Salter
Film James Wreford
Photography Alice Neale
Styling Vincent Levy