“It was love at first sight!” When fashion icon Alexa Chung visited The Design Library’s Wells Street premises in 2019 in search of inspiration for her Met Gala outfit, she spotted a flowered jacquard bodice on a hanger. Made in eighteenth century France, it was just what Chung was looking for to express that year’s theme of twenty-first century “Camp”. The result was a silk mini dress embroidered with hundreds of sequins, with matching beret and handbag. “Austen Goes Disco” was the Vogue headline which greeted its fabulous epiphany at the Gala.
The story of The Design Library began in Manhattan’s garment district, in a loft where Susan Meller and her late husband Herb stored their vast collection of designs. New York art dealer Peter Koepke joined the company in 1989, and in 2002 he bought the business. Three years later the Soho branch was opened to cater for their UK, European and Antipodean clients. Migrating across Oxford Street in 2012, the Library came to rest in Wells Street, in the patch of Fitzrovia most closely associated with the clothing trade. Sadly, this is dwindling now, but thanks in part to the Design Library the textile and fashion industry still has a toehold in our area.
“High street to high end” is how director Kate Denham sums up the Library’s range of fashion clients. Denham is a design graduate whose rich knowledge of textiles was gained first with Laura Ashley and then with the Gallery of Antique Costume and Textiles on Church Street. She set up the London branch in 2005, and has managed it ever since. In 2008 she was joined by archivist Ula Luniewska, who has the formidable task of organising the Library’s 70,000 samples. John Hamilton arrived in 2010, lured away from property development by the glamour of the international trade in surface decoration.
The Design Library itself is an Aladdin’s cave of designs. There are original artworks, fabric swatches, wallpapers, prints, beadwork, embroidery, and actual garments, like the bodice which caught Alexa Chung’s eye. They are stored in books, stacked on shelves, and hanging from racks. A few of the choicest examples are displayed on the walls, like the Japanese kimono behind Denham and Luniewska in the photo. “That fabric looks very modern, doesn’t it?” Hamiltion comments. “But it actually dates from the first half of the twentieth century,” he says.
Spanning nearly three centuries, from the 1750s to the early 2000s, the collection includes items from Europe, the US, Latin America, Africa, Central and South Asia and the Far East. The mission is to preserve and pass on the designs of the past, which are then adapted by clients and used to inspire their future collections. The Library seeks out collections from all over the world, often acquiring the entire archive of a business that has closed down. Bianchini-Férier, for example, was a premier design and silk-weaving business founded in Lyon in 1888. In the 1950s and 60s it produced fabrics which were in great demand by Paris fashion houses such as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent; it also made scarves for Hermes. In 2010 Peter Koepke negotiated the purchase of its core archive, which — to quote The Design Library’s website — includes “exquisite jacquards, beautiful burnout velvets, printed clipped satins, spectacular beadwork …”. A few of the designers represented in the collection are stars: between 1912 and 1928, for example, the French painter Raoul Dufy was creating designs for Bianchini-Férier. But the majority of designs held by The Design Library are unsigned, their creators unknown but certainly not unsung.
Two or three times a year Denham and Hamilton visit the huge Library in the US, now housed in a converted mill in the Hudson Valley. They return with a selection of its seven million designs, chosen in accordance with what they know about their clients’ needs and current trends. Back in Wells Street, the items are organised into four basic categories: Floral, Geometric, Conversational and World.
The Design Library is a source of inspiration for a wide range of companies from the worlds of fashion, home furnishing, active wear, cosmetics and paper products. Among them are Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Boden, Colefax & Fowler, Lululemon and Nike. It’s also a resource for costume designers working in film. I can reveal that in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story, the cool black and red shirt sported by a Sharks’ gang member was based on one of the Design Library’s patterns from the 1950s.
Hamilton spends a lot of his time travelling in Europe, presenting to clients and discussing possibilities. But the majority of clients like to visit the Design Library in person. They arrive with a detailed design brief, a storyboard, a concept, or just a vague idea. “A client once came in, held her arm out, and asked us to sniff it,” Hamilton tells me. “’I want something that looks like this smells,” she said’. She was in the process of designing the packaging for a new perfume. Denham and Hamilton make suggestions, samples are displayed, and the client is left to decide. Serendipity may also play a part, as with Alexa Chung’s Gala outfit.
The client may borrow the design for a few months, but it is licensed to them for two years, and for the rest of that period it’s locked away. The resulting design may be a fairly close copy of the original, but more often than not imagination comes into play and the original is reinterpreted. In the US, for example, the 1960s Bianchini-Férier print above was eventually transformed into the Nike leggings below.
Denham tells me that the growing popularity of sports and leisurewear — intensified by the pandemic — is having a great influence on current design trends. Art exhibitions, music, film and social movements also play their part. The recently opened Africa Fashion exhibition at the V&A will almost certainly lead to an increased interest in pan-African textiles. At the same time gender fluidity has meant that men’s fashions are becoming far more flamboyant and colourful, thanks in no small part to the singer Harry Styles. Most of us will never get an invitation to the Met Gala, or even visit The Design Library. It works only with the trade, and sad to say isn’t open to the public. But at least when we buy a frock or shirt from the best known name on the UK high street, we can take pleasure in a pattern which may well have been inspired by a design in the Wells Street Library.
A glimpse of the Design Library collection can be found in the book PATTERNS: Inside the Design Library, by Peter Koepke, published by Phaidon Press.
Sue Blundell is a playwright and lecturer in Classical Studies. sueblundell.com