The accessories designer Aseef Vaza talks about his fashion influences, working in couture houses and the art of the handkerchief hem
An exact art of fluidity
The accessories designer Aseef Vaza talks about his fashion influences, working in couture houses and the art of the handkerchief hem. At first, I didn't want to be a designer; I wanted to become a biologist. I really liked learning about human anatomy and how it functions. I grew up around pharmacists in my family, and that initially had some influence. But all of a sudden something switched in me, and I wanted to be a designer. My dad, Essa, was an entrepreneur who was busy managing and growing his halal poultry business, and my mum used to make her own clothes from time to time. Luckily, due to my parents' commercial and creative backgrounds, they were very supportive of me wanting to study and eventually start my own fashion business.
When I was younger, I remember coming across Bruce Oldfield's sketches, which made me want to read all about him. Oldfield was a famous British couturier who dressed the late Princess Diana during the early years of her marriage. I discovered Oldfield when I read an interview with him in one of the Sunday papers. He grew up at an orphanage and built an amazing business dressing European nobility and royalty and glamorous Hollywood actresses - it was truly inspiring.
Oldfield's sketches were so striking, and from what I can recall, they were very glamorous even on paper. His croquis (model sketches) were kitted out in hats, gloves, shoes and jewellery. He was renowned for doing fabulous occasion wear, particularly evening gowns. His column dresses were effortlessly executed. I guess from the early days of my work I have always been drawn to a refined, sophisticated couture look. This has never changed I guess, and coming across those sketches perhaps helped me develop a style of my own which is part of that old school world.
I studied at Ravensbourne and Central Saint Martins, both in London. I learnt discipline from the former and creative freedom from the latter. Ravensbourne is run like a business - you clock in and out. Central Saint Martins is much more relaxed, and I enjoyed the research and development components to the projects we had to complete, especially when we had to realise our designs in 3D. Learning the technique of moulage (sculpting cloth on the mannequin) at Hans Muller, where I had interned for a year before art school, helped a lot, as I was not a big fan of flat pattern-making. This process requires concentration, accuracy and precise mathematics. Working in 3D can bring your design alive much quicker and it also allows you to explore innovative cutting methods.
Art deco, Paul Poiret, Madeleine Vionnet, Erté, origami, geometric shapes and architecture inspire my work. I like the decorative elements of art deco, and there are no heavy political movements attached to it unlike other artistic periods. Meanwhile, Vionnet, Erté and Poiret were big-time purveyors of the handkerchief hem, which is a square piece of geometry with fluidity depending on how you conceive it.
I started my label roughly two years ago. I wanted to return home to London from Paris, where I was working at Carven Couture, France's oldest couture house, which was an incredible experience. I had a great time working there and got on well with the chief designer, Pascal Millet, whose sketches reminded me a little of the ones Oldfield did early in his career. Millet was trained under Hubert Givenchy and he had certain finesse to his work. I also produced some good pieces there; one of them became the bestseller of the 2005 couture collection: a black silk faille cocktail dress. Pascal was so pleased with my pieces that he asked me to accessorise them. So then I made two clutch bags - one in black silk faille and the other in a black cashmere material with lizard trim.
The bags were well received and so when I returned to London I decided to go down the accessories path. I quickly set about designing four colourful lizard clutch bags, which were picked up by the American socialite Catherine Prevost, who had a cocktail jewellery store behind Harrods. The bags hit a nerve and then the press got on to them. My biggest challenge back when I was starting out was finding a good bag maker, which in London was impossible. Eventually I found a lecturer from the Royal College of Art's accessories programme who made small runs for me.
Then my breakthrough moment came when my clutch bag was on the cover of Vogue Italia's October 2006 issue. It was amazing. I was in London and I knew the bags had been called out for the shoot but had no confirmation on whether they were used or not. Then, a friend of mine rang me and said the bag was on the cover with Nicole Ritchie. She scanned the copy for me and I saw it on e-mail first. But, eventually I found a copy of the magazine for myself. I was thrilled. I rang all my friends and family - that was my celebration. Then I sent a thank-you note to (the stylist) Edward Enninful's office.
* Robert Cordero