‘I guess the feeling that all of this wasn’t just a dream will hit me in the end’
As a final year Fashion Design student in University for the Creative Arts in Rochester I participated in a couple of fashion design competitions and BFTA Design Competition ’18 was one of those that caught my attention the most because I have never worked with fur before I thought that I should give it a try, also because I specialise in menswear and I rarely saw fur being used for it so I took it as a challenge for myself. After being selected as one of the 8 finalist from across the UK the passion and belief that I can actually win it grew bigger and right before graduating I found out that I became a winner of the BFTA Design Competition ’18 and little did I know that it was just the beginning of an adventure that I hadn’t even dreamed of.
As a first place winner, I was awarded with a trip to Studio NAFA in Toronto for a week-long workshop and it was my first trip over the ocean so the excitement was hitting the scale. A wonderful director of Studio NAFA Daria McWilliams was the one who clearly informed and provided us with all the details about the trip and workshop prior it so there was absolutely nothing to worry about as just to count the days to this amazing trip.
On the arrival to Toronto, every student was settled in a great Crown Plaza hotel just 7min away from the NAFA studio. Each of us was sharing a room with another student which was amazing because it made us all connect with each other really fast. I was lucky to be sharing a room with a wonderful designer Pilar from Argentina who has already established her label.
The very first day, at 8:15 all of us still not knowing each other gathered in the lobby of the hotel where Daria met us and took to the Studio NAFA. Each day we were given the NAFA guest passes to be able to enter the building which already made us feel a part of this. The studio where we were working was amazing. It was a huge and very spacious room with an area for presentations, big tables for work, a part with sewing machines, an area with all the furs, fabrics and trimmings and an area with big and soft couches to sit at relax with a cup of morning coffee. At 8:30 we had breakfast every day getting something new, always with fresh fruits on the side and at 9:00 the workshop began. At first, we were welcomed by Rob Cahill, a Senior VP of International Marketing and at 9:15 we began our self-introductions. In total it was 15 young designers from 20-31 years old, coming from New York, Russia, Greece, Canada, Italy, Argentina, China and Spain and it was absolutely amazing to hear about achievements of every single one. Some have already created pieces for celebrities, worked as costume designers for the TV Shows, participated in REMIX and had their own exhibitions. Therefore, I was absolutely sure that everyone who was selected to come here is incredibly talented and I was so excited to get to know everybody even more and start working with them. After presentations, Daria introduced us to NAFA Marketing Endeavours highlighting the history of NAFA, ethical sourcing, the responsible choice, NAFA Marketing and Initiatives. It was incredible to hear that North American Fur Auction (NAFA) is the oldest fur auction house in the world. Headquartered in Toronto (the Studio where we were) roots trace back to 1670 to the historic Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) which was created to market the finest furs from North America and Europe to the world. For over 345 years, NAFA has continued to provide and to market the largest collections of wild fur and the finest collections of North American and European mink to the global fashion community.
After that, we got introduced to Toronto-based designer Farley Chatto, who started creating at the age of 14, did bespoke, was passionate about making everything by hand, was the guy who created the grey cashmere beanie for Dior (also seen in the movie Dior and I). At the age of 18, Yves Saint Laurent was his first client. Moved to Italy, worked for Signore Armani, then moved to Paris and eventually came back to Canada and still works for Chanel, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton and runs his own lines: Farley Chatto and My Wild by Farley Chatto.
Farley introduced the project that we will be doing and overall was an amazing and inspiring person who told us to think of a fur as an art, to break the walls, challenge ourselves but most importantly taught us that everybody who works in the fur industry has to respect the animal that gave up its life for our use.
The project was called ‘Modern Masters’ and with the inspiration, provided furs, materials and knowledge that we will gain in the next two days we were meant to combine 2 or 3 of the existing techniques and create a new one. The outcome had absolutely no restrictions except the size. You could choose to create two fur plates of 8”x10” or one 11”x17” or one 17”x20”. And also for the final presentation, everybody had to individually answer the question: “Being a Modern Master means_____?”.
After a healthy lunch full of greens we went to visit Parkinson’s Mink Ranch which was about an hour drive from Toronto. The area where the ranch was based was like in those American movies, far from the city, surrounded by green fields and peace. At the gate, to the ranch, we were given long plastic disposable shoe covers in order to protect the ranch environment from the bacteria brought from the city. The Parkinson’s Mink Ranch has been ran by the same family for decades and they used to grow minks of different fur colours but now they focused just on black minks as brown and other lighter colours take longer to grow and require more food and treatment. At the moment there are more than 40k minks in the ranch. We were taken to their sheds, learned about different sizes of mink, how they are paired, vaccinated and taken care of. We saw how the food for them is prepared in a separate shed with lots of cheese and shrimps and then were talked through how the furs are being rated and sorted.
Every day we finishwd work at around 16:30 or 17:00 and also NAFA provided us with a travel card for public transport and a cash allowance for dinners and for us to explore downtown after class.
On day 2 we started a morning class with Senior Fur Technician John Kehagias who grew up in furrier’s family and been working with fur ever since he was a little boy. He taught us about available types of wild furs and ranched furs. Showed physical examples and described features of beaver, muskrat, racoon, red fox, grey fox, coyote, fisher, sable and mink furs. After that together with Farley they demonstrated and reviewed the traditional skill techniques used in fur garment manufacturing: let out, skin on skin, intarsia, feathering and wave technique. The samples that were shown were absolutely incredible and I realised that there are so many things that you could do with the fur that the possibilities seem infinitive and also the fur industry creates only 3-5% of waste and is eligible not only for recycling but is up-cycling too.
Right before lunch Farley showed us how to make patterns while working with fur which seemed quite similar to regular pattern cutting just required to take into account a couple of rules: fur has no stretch or ease, therefore, darts and shoulder ease are cut out; there are no seam allowances while working with fur; different then on regular pattern cutting working with fur you always have to think in 360*; always consider the hair length of the furs that will be used and give allowance for the movement of the body. Then Farley talked us through Fur Trends for FW 2018-2018 and all together we in detail analysed pieces form catwalk describing what furs and techniques were used.
After lunch, everyone got a white robe with NAFA logo on it and John did the introduction on how to operate the fur machines. And the first exercise to make us feel the machine and get comfortable with it was to take a blank sheet of paper, fold it to have a folded edge and use the machine without the thread just to make it poke holes and see how straight your stitching line is going. After that John showed us how to correctly use the fur knife and then we took two little stripes of fur and with the threaded machine now we had to join them. At the end of the studio there was a big box with little scraps of furs, therefore, using it we could practice our sewing skills as much as we wanted and John was the greatest to always give advice and come to help.
Now when we learned about types of furs, techniques of joining them, how to use the machines and knew the latest fur trends we were ready to begin working on our own new technique plates. We were provided with a big range of different fabrics, furs and trimmings, there were even clippers and glue gun so we literally could go as creative as we wanted.
Day 3 was fully left for us to work on our pieces. The studio opened at 7:30 every day so we could come early and start working. We had big tables to work on and each table was for 4 students to share. I was working with my roommate Pilar, Valeria from Italy and Alba from Spain. In general, this year’s class was so friendly and as Daria said later she was surprised at how quickly we all connected and were happily working together. And it is true, even though everyone was working on their individual piece we kept on sharing our ideas, giving advice and helping each other which made all this experience absolutely amazing. Also, Daria, Farley and John were incredible, always there to answer all our questions, to help us and just to make sure that we don’t forget to stop and eat. During the day we were working together and in the evenings (sometimes in groups sometimes all together) we were exploring Toronto which made us feel like a little family, therefore, I truly enjoyed every single minute there.
The first half of the day 4 was for us to finish off our pieces as in the afternoon NAFA had a big BBQ in its backyard where we got to see other people who work in the building but in different sectors. After that, we had a museum night as Farley got us tickets to the Iris Van Herpen exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. The outcomes of an artist Philip Beesley and designer Iris Van Herpen collaboration were absolutely stunning. The 3D silhouettes, incredible textures and materials, sound effects and dimensions of the artwork left us all amazed. After that, we also visited the BATA shoe museum and to finish off the day we had a group dinner with all NAFA team! It was such a warm and friendly evening that no one wanted that day to end.
The final day – presentations. As always we gathered in the studio early in the morning and till 11 am we had to prepare our pieces for presentation. Then we hang them all on one of the walls and it happened that I was the one to present my work first. Different from usual, for this project I did not think of a concept first, I just let my eye choose the colour, fabrics and fur and my hands do the work. As I have never worked with fur before I decided to not overthink it but explore and play with it. From furs, I used white long hair coyote, black sheared beaver and red sheared beaver and from fabrics, I used black mesh, red leather, black accordion pleated chiffon, black mesh neoprene and black leather cord. I chose to produce two 8”x10” fur plates in the same colour palette but with different elements. The interesting bits of my plates were where I :
- took a black mesh and put on top of a long hair white coyote fur and hand sew it using invisible thread. Then using crochet hook with a pattern of diagonal lines skipping every second row I pull through the fur that way creating little air spaces between the long hair and making it lighter when you touch it;
- on a leather cord, I gathered a stripe of pleated chiffon and a thinner stripe of red leather and securing one end with a knot another pull through the black sheared beaver to knot it from behind leaving that little piece hanging over the black sheared beaver.
- sewed red sheared beaver on top of the red leather and put a mesh fabric on top creating 3D effect
- rolled long hair coyote fur into pleated black chiffon and tied on end with a leather cord leaving the fur sticking out from another end of chiffon tube
- used fur as a background for an additional detailing of the piece
In the end, I remembered a Greek aphorism ‘Panta rhei’ which means “everything flows”. It follows a saying of Heraclitus; a Greek philosopher: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We cannot reproduce an experience. Something will always be different. Using this I came up with idea that when I chose different fabrics and different furs they were different from what it became now when I used it. I experimented and I played with it and I came up with something new. Concluding it all, my answer to the question of this project was: “Being a Modern Master means to be fearless.”
Every single one of us created a beautiful and inspiring piece and it was wonderful to see how creative we went. As Farley said: “Every year young designers surprise us and take this project to another level and every year we question what else designer will bring next year?”. Everyone was proud of their achievements as we learned a lot and got to create our own techniques in such a short time and we made it! After that, we had our graduation ceremony where every student was awarded with a NAFA certificate and then we closed our little ceremony with a glass of champagne. We took lots of photos, gave strong hugs to Daria, Farley and John, said hundreds of Thank you and simply didn’t want to go.
To finish off our trip to Canada we were taken to see Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-lake and of course, it was absolutely incredible. We took a boat trip which took us to the falls as close as possible and left us soaking wet but it was totally worth it! And oh my, the Niagara-on-the-lake is truly the most beautiful place I have ever been to. Even though the skies of Toronto were already crying because we were leaving the view was still breath taking.
On our last evening, most of us gathered in one of the hotel rooms and spend hours talking and laughing about the moments that we experienced together and how wonderful was this trip. After spending a week here learning, creating and sharing knowledge it was clear that NAFA is committed to working with all industry sectors to support the development and implementation of certified furs in order to ensure that fur remains a fashionable and responsible choice in the future. And most importantly – young designers are the future!
I would like to Thank BFTA for selecting me as a winner of the BFTA competition and giving me this amazing opportunity to see the industry that I have never even though of. This opened to me lots of new opportunities and truly moved me as a fashion designer to a higher level. And of course a huge Thank you for studio NAFA for an incredible workshop and all the shared knowledge.