Renowned painter, spirited colourist and one-time textile designer Frances Hodgkins was always ahead of the curve.
Fittingly, her fabric designs have been reinterpreted for today by an equally forward-thinking woman, fashion designer Kate Sylvester, and are worn here by contemporary creative Veronica Crockford-Pound.
Frances Hodgkins fashioned self-portraits in still life. Instead of painting herself, she filled the canvas with her favourite things: her beloved beret, decadently draped scarves, sweet flowers and smart kitten heels. Stand-ins for her true self, they reveal layers of her personality in joyfully mastered strokes.
Like many New Zealanders with a love of art, Kate Sylvester grew up admiring Frances’ works. The remarkable expatriate, known in Britain as one of the most important modernist painters of the 20th century, brought a fresh perspective and Kate loved the femininity of her work.
Yet it wasn’t until the fashion designer first laid eyes on the late artist’s textiles in March 2018 that she began to discover the full power of Frances.
The serendipitous encounter occurred when Kate was visiting Te Papa Tongarewa for an entirely different project, after being commissioned to make a waistcoat for Michael Parekowhai’s Détour installation.
To show her the wider context of the collaboration, curator Megan Tamati Quennell took Kate on a tour of the archives and it was there she revealed Frances’ rare textile designs. They were more than 90 years old, with pencil grid lines still visible on the gouache-painted paper, but Kate knew she could turn them into finished fabric for her Autumn/Winter collection.
“It just seemed such a waste that they were hidden away under layers of tissue not being seen by anybody,” says Kate. “I think it’s really exciting that Te Papa is open to these partnerships.”
Kate acquired a licensing agreement to work with four, out of the eight, fading textiles for her Frances story. “And I was thrilled. It was a great use of the collection,” says Megan. “It’s the intersection between fashion and art.”
With a career spanning five decades and several art movements, Frances was a singular and determined artist. Born in Dunedin in 1869, she grew up in an artistic household and set sail for Europe at the age of 32. Never settling down and always searching for her next masterpiece, “She was always moving on and obviously incredibly excited about the new,” says Kate.
“Oh my gosh, what a thoroughly modern woman!”
Known for her bold use of colour and economy of form, Frances designed textiles for the Calico Printers’ Association of Manchester for a short time in the mid-1920s, to satisfy both her love of fashion and her financial needs.
Although Te Papa’s unique collection emerged from a British estate, there’s no telling how many other designs are out there due to lost company records.
At first, Kate thought she wouldn’t dream of redesigning the archived textile prints, given the preciousness of Frances’ work, but as she got to know the avant-garde artist, it seemed necessary.
Frances had a flair for dressing, wearing bright jackets under dark coats with scarves piled on top. It’s an eclectic style that wouldn’t look amiss on today’s streets and runways. “I thought with what’s happening in fashion at the moment, it was so contemporary,” says Kate.
“You know, Frances would have totally changed the prints herself. They would have evolved and changed with the times… We really felt like we had her approval to play with them and have fun.”
The collection begs the question: ‘What would Frances wear now?’ Kate’s answer is feminine silk dresses mixed with cheeky checked coats, leatherette staples and a number of standalone scarves to be tied around the neck or head like the sitters in Frances’ evocative watercolours.
Kate’s own singular perspective has been imprinted onto the textiles and modernised in invigorating colourways from cyan blue and maroon to rosy pink and gold.
The prints are delicately scaled down for feminine dresses, while single elements are blown up for effect on graphic knits and tees.
So how should modern women wear the new pieces? “I’d just love for them to take their cue from Frances,” says Kate. “Be bold with them. Throw as many on as possible. Layer them all up.”
To bring Frances’ independent spirit to life, Kate asked videographer Veronica Crockford-Pound to model her favourite looks for Fashion Quarterly. A friend of the brand, who first worked for Kate as a model in her teens, Veronica is on an artistic journey of her own making.
“She has such a strong sense of self and a strong vision of what she wants to do,” says Kate. “What we want to see is more and more women living their lives like [Frances].”
Happily, the artist’s work is finding a new relevance 150 years after her birth, striking a chord with a post #MeToo audience seeking out powerful women’s stories. Frances Hodgkins: Her European Journeys is opening at the Auckland Art Gallery in May and has inspired another formidable woman, Karen Walker, to design a Frances-approved capsule collection.
Kate has found inspiration in art throughout her career, from her early 2001 collection ‘The Kiss’, based on Gustav Klimt’s painting, to the 2007 surrealist show ‘Art Groupie’ and 2016 ‘A Muse’ range. It’s often not the work, or the masters, that attract Kate’s attention, but the fascinating women behind them.
Despite her interest, the designer doesn’t consider her clothes to be fine art – they’re made to be moved in. Megan, however, has other ideas.
“As all good artists do, Kate used the textiles as a reference and reimagined them,” she says. “It’s her creative response to these works – and I think Frances would have loved it.”