Katy Bell is a textile design graduate from Central Saint Martin’s College, and her continuous fascination and eye for rescuing abandoned fabric inspired her label Lost Property of London. In this guest article, Katy talks about the streets of London and why she looked to the coast for her new collection. Lost Property of London kindly contributed to our Bid for Better event last week by donating one of their gorgeous tote bags.
I am someone who is slightly obsessed with picking things up off the street. If there is something shining up at me from the pavement, I’ll pick it up, dust it off and take it home to see what I can make with it. I can’t walk past a piece of old fabric on the ground or laying on the side of the road without bending down and checking to see if it has potential to be turned into a cushion cover or a scarf. After a good wash, obviously! I once found an old leather 1960s egg chair thrown out onto the street next to some bins. It was sprayed with cigarette burns. But like the magpie that I am (hence the logo for the brand), I had to take it home! Being too big to fit into a cab, I ended up kindly asking my boyfriend to walk it home, wearing it in the style of a tortoise’s shell.
This is how the idea for my fashion label was conceived. I noticed a bundle of old coffee sacks strewn onto the street outside a well-known coffee roaster in South London. I fell in love with the raw fibrous nature of the fabric. It was marked with the most beautiful typography – words and numbers that were printed in large block type using vegetable pigments. I immediately imagined the workers who would use old printing presses and wooden printing blocks to apply these to the hessian sacks. But these words and numbers were performing a function rather than aiming on aesthetic purposes. Every sack was marked with a date, weight and place of origin, along with the brand or logo of the coffee grower so that they could be identified at the next stage in the supply chain. By the time they reached my hands, the sacks were emptied, the raw beans roasted, repacked and sold as high-end and amazing tasting coffee. The sadness is that the sacks are nothing more than a waste product at the end of this process. And yet they have travelled thousands of miles.
It’s the combination of these little details that make salvaged fabric so endearing. That’s why I started turning the coffee sacks into simple tote bags. After all, they were strong and most importantly, did not need over-designing. I wanted the material to be the star, to be free to tell its story and show its character. I think people love products with provenance. Products that don’t just look nice, but that tell a story and make us think about the journey it’s been on and who’s been in contact with it. I’ve always wanted to create products that make people part of that story. I love the idea that people who buy my products are helping to extend the life of this beautiful material.
I made a few prototypes using the sacks I found at the coffee shop and used some off-cuts of Liberty art fabric I had sitting in a textile box to make the linings. This made the most sumptuous luxury contrast to the rawness of the hessian. It proved to be a bit of a masterstroke after I presented the product idea to Liberty at their Best of British open day. They ordered 250 units for summer, and I started working with their Art Fabric department to purchase roll ends and off cuts to make the linings. The original tote, ‘The Maltby’ (named after the street where I found the fabric), went on to sell extremely well in the store’s “Bazaar”.
From there I built up a collection made from a mounting pile of coffee sacks that I retrieved from coffee roasting houses across London – at one time I had over 2000 coffee sacks that I had either collected by hand or that had been donated to me by various roasters! Where I can I try to take different cuts from the sacking to make each bag unique. That way I am able to achieve diversity not just across the range but within each style. To compliment the hessian I began sourcing vegetable tanned leather for its natural hues, texture and smell, along with a mix of hunted and gathered vintage fabrics for the linings.
The collection attracted other London department stores and boutiques as well as a flurry of international stores. I have been so lucky to have the chance to form relationships with so many inspiring boutique owners across Europe and in the Far East. Now, in its 3rd year of trading and 6 collections later, Lost Property of London has taken me to Paris to exhibit at Premiere Classe, and I recently went on a Japan mission with the UKTI to promote my brand and products to some top shop owners and fashion buyers. It was such an amazing experience and it has only spurred me on to do more trips like it.
The most recent collection, Spring Summer 2013, features an alluring array of sun-beaten, salt-streaked sailcloth that I have sourced from boat yards on the Kent coast. Again, this is such wonderful material to work with as it has already been used as jib sheets and main sails on London barges. When I got my hands on the material for the first time, it was crinkled like paper, soft to touch and had a beautiful worn and faded quality to it. Now, these sails are taking on a new life in the form of eco luxury shopper totes and rucksacks gracing the floor of Fortnum and Mason amongst many more international stockists.
The new collection is on its way so watch this space!
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