Hats and Handicraft with Nicholas Oakwell

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In the world of haute couture, Nicholas Oakwell might not be a name that rolls off the tongue as easily as the big houses, like Chanel or Dior. But this enigmatic and well-seasoned designer has been building a global reputation for his eponymous – and still very young – label, one red carpet at a time. His pieces have been championed by a host of celebrity royalty, and word-of-mouth has reaped great rewards for his atelier, now in its sixth year. Something tells you it won’t be long before we see his elegantly crafted pieces gracing Parisian haute couture runways. 

It is always inspiring to listen to someone talk with enthusiasm about a topic they love. MiND caught half an hour out of an extremely busy schedule to hear about Nicholas’ career, his inspiration, and his ambitions for the future.

From the onset of his career in fashion, a youth studying at Epsom University in 1985, his heart was set on the couture world, despite warning from his teachers that it was a dying industry. Persuaded to temporarily drop his couture ambitions, but still intent on “learning a craft,” he decided he would put his hands to use in Millinery. As it turned out, Nicholas had quite the knack for making hats, aided by the highly esteemed Shirley Hex (whose former students have also included renowned milliners Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy). His big break came at his final degree show where Harvey Nicholas bought his entire collection of 16 hats, half of which were sold within the first week. He went on to sell around 40 hats in the  first year with the store and, from there, began designing hats for eminent designers such as Jasper Conran and Katharine Hamnett while selling his own collections through global retailers like Harvey Nichols and Harrods. After three years of operations, realising “[he] knew nothing about how to run a business,” and feeling “slightly disillusioned,” he decided it was time to close up shop.

Nicholas working on Hokusai – ‘The Great Wave Dress’ – for his SS13 collection

It was not long before his passion for couture was rekindled when one of his clients, top couture designer Isabell Kristensen, brought him to help in her workshop as a hand finisher. Six years later, Nicholas had worked his way through the business to become Operations Director, in the process learning about all the different roles within a couturier, from beaders to tailors, and even meeting the infamous corsetier Mr Pearl. Eventually, he “outgrew the design aesthetic” and returned to Harvey Nichols to look after their own label, using the opportunity to learn everything he could about business “from front end and back end…doing every course possible from first aid to financial controlling.” During his four years there, he “slipped into uniform design” and 15 years on his business, NO Uniform, is still running strong with an impressive portfolio including the likes of Claridges, Connaught, Browns, and the Four Seasons.

“I just design me, I can’t quantify what that is. Maybe somebody thinks it’s very British, I’m not sure”

The efforts of a long and varied career finally culminated in opening his own couture house, Nicholas Oakwell Couture, shortly after getting married in 2010. Nicholas admits “it was very much a conscious decision, I knew I wanted to set up my own house and I had to have that in my mind-set from the start. I knew it wasn’t going to be in a year’s time, there was a lot of personal development and business development needed. I suppose I was quite wise at 20-25 making that sort of decision.”

The meteoric rise of his label over the past six years is a testament to the skill and attention to detail that goes into every piece, although having his own magazine cover at 21 certainly helped: “as a milliner I was entered into the fashion industry, I worked with British Vogue, I was doing hats for the runway shows, so I knew the industry very well. It was almost like I had a short course of how to work in the fashion industry back then so when I came back to launch my couture label, I already had an understanding of how everything worked.”

Outfits from the Panthère collection

Having created pieces for and worked with the big stars over the years – Nicholas namedrops, “with Isabell we were making gowns for Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner…I made a dress for Annie Lennox” – you might assume these famous women are his muses when designing new collections. His approach, in fact, is quite the opposite:

“I create these fantasy women in my head, where I build a character and create these ideas of how they would dress and how they live their lives. For example, for the Panther collection it was a woman on the rooftops on the wrong side of Paris at four, five o’clock in the morning. She’s wearing very expensive jewellery so you’re thinking why is she here on this side of Paris? Is she a lady of the night? Is she an ex-prostitute who’s married well, or is she a woman who comes from a very good family but she wanted to be on the dark side of Paris? So I don’t think ‘I really want to dress Naomi Harris’ I just hope people enjoy the characters and the gowns I’ve made, so when they purchase them they create their own characters as well.”

“I just hope people enjoy the characters and the gowns I’ve made, so when they purchase them they create their own characters as well”

Nicholas does not just stop at design, throughout the creative process he takes the same hands-on approach he’s had since starting fashion college, “I’m happy as Larry in the workroom, if I could spend every day of the week in the workroom that’s where I’d be.” It is because of this hands-on approach, using traditional couture techniques, that Nicholas was asked to join the GREAT Britain campaign, celebrating the best in British innovation and creativity:

“I was very flattered, they wanted to see how we could promote what we [couturiers] do and our skillset. A lot of people say haute couture has gone to Paris or Italy now and I really wanted to triumph that actually there is couture in the UK. We were able to contact local suppliers, we worked with Royal School of Needlework, Hand & Lock did the beading and Garrard supplied us with the rubies. It was a great opportunity to get them all involved with us and create that gown.”

Sketch of the red dress created for the GREAT Britain campaign

Without wanting to go full-patriot with a Union Jack dress – “far too crass” – Nicholas instead looked for inspiration in the most English of places, his back garden in Oxfordshire. “I was in the garden looking at these roses which were a dark red going to a blackish colour around the edges and thought that it would look amazing as a dress. Two and a half thousand hours later and out it popped!” English horticulture may have been his inspiration, but he refuses to label his designs as British, “I just design me, I can’t quantify what that is. Maybe somebody thinks it’s very British, I’m not sure.”

Necklace Concept dress with ostrich feathers for the Grima collection

One irrefutable aspect of his work is the extraordinarily high level of technical skill and craftsmanship in every piece. It is in stark contrast to mass-market fashion that dwarfs the world of couture, with its firm emphasis on quantity over quality. But far from seeing his atelier as the last bastion of English couture, Nicholas has instead noticed a much more positive movement for younger people to gravitate towards the industry.

“I think that my age group were very much about not learning apprenticeships, it was the computer generation. With this generation it’s unbelievable how fast they can work on photoshop, but we’re getting a lot of young girls coming out of university that don’t want to be a computer. They want to learn the physicality – how to stitch, different types of beading techniques, how to pad a proper jacket or how to construct your own shoulder pads – I think that’s amazing.”

Working on Hokusai – ‘The Great Wave Dress’

Nicholas is a great believer in giving the younger generation an opportunity, one reason why he chose to collaborate with the RSN for his dress in the GREAT Britain campaign. He uses his atelier as a platform for young people to come and learn a craft, running internship programmes that are meaningful for both mentor and mentee.

“I think businesses now are giving a lot more opportunity for young people, Dior and Chanel and all the big houses are opening their doors, which is really so inspiring. I love bringing interns and students on board and not just for five days of cheap labour. With my interns, we really ask them to push themselves. There was a girl, Charlotte, who came in as an intern and we were doing some smocking, I think it was for the Laura Mars collection. What she developed was amazing and she ended up working with me as my head of embellishment and textiles for two years.”

Working on the Scattered Blocks gown from the Grima collection

Seeing such a strong desire from the younger generation to get involved in couture, and with a team of over 70 working in his atelier, it is understandable that Nicholas doesn’t see couture stopping any time soon from the supply side. So what is his take on an article recently published on the Business of Fashion that the ‘culture of couture’ is dying?

“I think customers are a lot more educated now, they want quality instead of mass and they want to have personal, bespoke pieces where they see the craftsmanship of what they’re buying. And the consumer is different than they were 20 years ago and I think any business has to move with the times of your industry and your customer. We love to send beautiful hand invitations and flowers, but our clients are young and they like to receive a Whatsapp message from you with their appointment time. Touch points are different for the customer nowadays but the fundamentals of the disciplines are still there.”

“With my interns, we really ask them to push themselves”

“I don’t believe in regret, there’s a reason this journey has happened”

Nicholas’ set up reflects the traditional couture practices – no big flagship store, no outsourcing, everything takes place at his atelier and boutique in London. So does he think there will ever be the time and place for him to do ready-to-wear?

“I do want to go into ready-to-wear but I’m really focused on getting into the Haute Couture Federation in Paris. It will come eventually, but I don’t want to do mass ready-to-wear, I still want it to be a very top end. If we do a dress there’s only going to be 20 or 50 of them around the world and, like all my dresses, they’d be numbered. I’d still want it to be a limited run.”

Having toyed with the idea of moving to Paris when he left Isabell’s workshop, the fervent desire to ascend into the lofty heights of the Fédération Française de la Couture has overtaken Nicholas again. His aspiration is to show as part of the schedule in Paris, which would provide a fitting conclusion to a tale of hard work, drive and ambition. It is refreshing to see success that’s been “organic…it’s always been word of mouth” and Nicholas echoes this sentiment in his advice for young designers, “follow what you believe is right for you. Don’t think you have to follow a path, listen to advice but make your own conclusions. I don’t believe in regret, there’s a reason this journey has happened.”

Reflecting back on his long, eclectic and hugely successful career, will there ever be a quiet nostalgia that permits a place for hats in his plans? “No, I appreciated them and I think Phillip’s [Treacy] hats are beautiful, but I love making gowns. Sometimes when I just need to break away from stuff, I sit at a table and do some hand stitching or some beading. That’s my escapism.” It’s the perspective of a man consumed with a passion that has carried him to where he is today and fostered a unique British talent. Here’s looking forward to the grand opening of his atelier on some rue de Paris sometime very soon!