As she launches her second collection for Kin by John Lewis, Yorkshire print designer Laura Slater talks to Fashion Editor Stephanie Smith about confidence and the creative process.
Laura Slater wants her art to be worn on the sleeve – specifically the sleeves of a brilliant and daring new fashion collection she has created in collaboration with John Lewis.
“It’s important my work’s accessible to people. I don’t want it to be an untouchable thing,” she says.
“Art by the yard” is a concept Laura holds dear. Coined in the 1950s when British textile designers including Lucienne Day, the Hull Traders and Shirley Craven began producing brave, bold prints, it reflected a new optimism in the post-war period. Laura says: “How do you make art accessible to people? Usually by the clothes that they wear or in their homes.”
Laura, 33, is a designer of print and pattern, especially hand screen-printed designs for interiors. She runs her own flourishing business, called Laura Slater, and has been sought out for collaborations with prestigious names including Heals, Harvey Nichols, the Tate and the Hepworth Wakefield, creating designs for them from her home city of Wakefield, where she has a studio and creative print workshop.
“I’ve been really fortunate in knowing that I’ve always wanted to work within textiles,” she says. “When I think about it, it’s purely my childhood. All the women in my family used to make.”
Her mother, Gillian, made clothes for Laura and her two sisters, all visiting the markets of Wakefield, Dewsbury and Leeds, collecting fabrics and wool. “My mum was, and still is, not professionally creative, but very, very creative,” Laura says. “I remember, for my seventh or eighth birthday, I wanted an outfit, and we picked some fabric and my mum made these amazing floral culottes and a red cropped sweater – this was in the Eighties, obviously – and cut out this huge flower from the pattern and appliqued it on the back of the sweater.
“My dad’s a retired gas service engineer. I always think I get my work ethic from him, because that’s been a big part of what I do, working hard and evaluating things and moving forward. Having your own business is not something that you can just come and go from.”
At 16, Laura left Outwood Grange School in Wakefield to go to Leeds College of Art to study a vocational A-level specialising in Textiles, followed by a BA in Mixed Media Textiles at Loughborough University School of Art & Design and finally a Masters at the Royal College of Art.
Now she lectures two days a week on printed textiles and surface pattern, working alongside tutors who once taught her – “really pivotal people who taught me about the things that have been so essential to developing my work as a designer, like colour mixing and painting and creative drawing, all still embedded in what I do,” says Laura.
She has observed that, since her own student days, tuition fees have made studying art and design less accessible for poorer students, but also that, after university and college, it has become easier in some respects to be professionally creative. “Now there’s a whole world of creative jobs out there,” she says. “You can be quite multi-disciplinary and work across so many different markets, from fashion to textiles, because of digital and because there’s more of an ethos of working together in creative communities and collaboration.
“It’s strength in numbers, particularly small independent businesses or emerging designers and artists working together to have more of a voice, which I think is really important. Also I think people are wanting an alternative to more consumerist ways of existing.”
Laura set up her own business as soon as she had completed her studies, aged 24, and took on freelance work found via her agent. Her approach has been inspired by artists, especially those surrounding Barbara Hepworth, St Ives painters including Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and John Piper. “But then I love printmaking as well, like Sister Corita Kent. The classic is Zandra Rhodes, because she still screen prints everything, she’s still going strong, she’s such a great character and such an individual as well, which I think is really important.”
The outdoors, both nature and cityscapes, often form a starting point for Laura’s designs. This second 15-piece collection for Kin by John Lewis was inspired by a road trip she took with her partner Bob Johnston, a musician, to Palm Springs in California, a place steeped in Modernist architecture, a 1950s suburbia amid the cacti of the desert.
Helen Prior, womenswear designer for Kin by John Lewis, had already seen Laura’s work in The Hepworth and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and felt that her print handwriting resonated with the Kin aesthetic. “Laura’s unique, large-scale, placed collage prints worked effortlessly with the Kin DNA for pared-back, clean, oversized silhouettes. We had so much fun bringing the collection to life,” she says. “For SS18, we felt there was still so much more that we could do together, experimenting and pushing the direction further.”
John Lewis is keen to support young British talent, which it sees as an essential part of its own development. “Young and new designers are our future and we have the platform to support their development and growth,” Helen says. “Smaller independent designers are equally important to the development of our own brands, as they also allow a new perspective on the ranges, ensuring we continue to further push our own collections.”
“It’s a very collaborative decision-making process,” adds Laura, who will soon be relocating her studio to the Mabgate area of Leeds. “The Kin shapes are accessible for women of a really broad age range, but the print gave a new dimension for younger people as well. I felt it was a directional pattern for the High Street.”
Working with such a large and respected retailer can be daunting, Laura says, but it is also confidence-building. “I don’t think being creative and confidence comes hand in hand, but that’s something I’ve work hard to develop over time,” she adds. “If you’re not confident in your work, then who is going to be? Hopefully, it comes through my that work has integrity.
“More than anything, you want people to enjoy your work.”