The ever-changing face of fashion is exemplified through a unique label that combines digital origins and clean styling with an ethical commitment.
Charlie May, a Young British Designer with a strong minimalist aesthetic, began an eponymous label in 2011, building on a profile that had emerged from the popular blog Girl A La Mode. Since then, her designs have featured on London Fashion Week runways, become a favourite of style editors across Europe, and are now on offer in cities across the world. With a focus that is firmly placed on “silhouette, fabrication and colour,” the directional pieces revere simplicity and represent a decisive step away from fast, disposable fashion.
An acute awareness of the role of digital promotion and commerce has helped the label to reach a global audience fast. This was not initially deliberate: when the blog was started in 2008, May never imagined it would help when she started the company three years later. Nonetheless, over the years it has contributed to a large online following and a wealth of significant industry contacts. “Being at the forefront of digital in the early years, whilst watching other big fashion houses at the time trying to get a grip on social media, was very interesting”, she says, explaining that “developing organically is key and I feel so lucky to have grown an audience over the last nine years that has seen me go from a student, to an intern, to a designer with her own label.”
This level of business acumen does not, however, come at the expense of traditional design skills. May is quick to point out that the two aspects have always gone together: “I began teaching myself how to sew and sell products I’d made online even before I studied Fashion Design and pattern making in the traditional sense.” University provided the opportunity to hone the craft, before turning to the practicalities of running a business. But those early days of selling online had clearly helped. Creativity alone is no longer sufficient for success in this competitive field, and this is an approach that is extended to the developing business, suggesting that “it’s not enough to just be a very creative individual if you don’t know how to market that and to reach your potential. I don’t think anyone has a traditional job anymore; we all have multiple roles within the fashion industry and I expect my team to be able to be hands-on with any project that comes up day to day.”
This involves being adaptable, as the fashion world responds to advances in technology, and also constantly learning new skills. May’s experiences with Japanese collaborators, who are “always at the forefront with digital support,” have been especially helpful in this regard. “They were shocked when we first started working together and I was still drawing my patterns by hand!”
Although the label has garnered significant press attention over the years, May believes the rise of social networks such as Instagram mean the role of the traditional media is no longer as critical for young designers: “It’s enabled practitioners to take their audience into their own hands. You don’t need to rely on being on the covers of magazines to get your brand out there. A unique perspective and a fresh idea is all you need to propel you to a customer base in any corner of the world.” These digital platforms are allowing young British designers to stake their place in the competitive, fast-changing fashion industry, and reach global audiences through their own volition, no longer waiting for publicity in print. Nonetheless, some constants remain. As with so many pre-digital predecessors, May’s first collection after graduating “was created part-time in my living room and took a year to perfect.” At university, she had been fascinated by organic forms, and focused on “rusting silks and decomposing suede leathers.” This interest evolved in combination with “all the inspirations that had been building up.” The designer acknowledges that the work became “a lot more grown up and experimental” as 10 key looks were put together, which were then showcased with a short film that intended to share inspiration and emotions with other creatives. These looks are still a major feature of May’s practice today. Her favourite piece was an asymmetric white silk georgette shirt dress, which is “still very much Charlie May DNA.” The fact that six years later items from her first collection continue to represent a key part of her design vocabulary highlights the timelessness of these minimal pieces. May “loves a muted palette” and is excited by putting together “unusual colour combinations, such as a soft dusty grey compared to a bright Sakura pink,” as featured in the last Autumn / Winter collection.
The company’s aesthetic reflects a core belief that clothes should be cherished forever. The notion of fast fashion and its environmental impact is something that wholly scares May, and it is a global concept that the label continues to rally against: “We all need to consider what it means to be a part of the industry and think about what we can do to make a change.” She calls on the whole industry to “wake up and realise what it’s doing to the Earth.” This is reflected in the work of the company, which is establishing more sustainable methods of manufacturing garments, particularly when it comes to knitwear. Having recently spent time in Peru, the designer met “Andean alpaca farmers who weave and knit their own yarn. They live two hours outside of Cusco in the heart of the mountains and they live very hardy lives. I find working with these diverse communities so rewarding; the women I met are all incredibly inspiring and dedicated to their craft, which has been handed down throughout the generations.”
For May, this ongoing commitment to sustainability also means producing simple and considered designs, with every detail thought through. The strong, digital presence also means that a dialogue is able to be created with customers, so that they are a part of this movement. However, minimalist design is not just about the clothes. It’s a way of avoiding over-consumption and mass production, a “lifestyle of being comfortable with less clutter surrounding yourself and your life. I love to meditate and work out every morning, eating well; it’s self-love.” This helps to navigate and cope with the accelerating speed of technology. A world where “we consume Instagram feeds at a nanosecond per picture” is exciting, she says, but she is also aware that “it can be easy to lose yourself.” Keeping a close eye on her strong brand message and remembering who the customer is crucial.
This means that a core mantra of “silhouette, fabrication and colour” has become something of a mission statement; May considers these to be fundamentals, always focusing on these three elements throughout a garment’s design. In this way, they are linked to the emotions customers feel when wearing the clothes: “The overall design of the silhouette is important to create confidence, the colour relates to mood and the fabrication to comfort.” May focuses on creating excitement and empowerment. “I don’t like how the industry creates fear of not being good enough. I want my pieces to create happiness instead.” Ultimately, the goal is to create an intimate connection and even attachment between the wearer and the garment, one which is far-flung from any notion of disposability or carelessness.
Simple shapes intended to instill confidence are becoming a major feature of modern womenswear, and indeed go beyond it, with androgynous pieces becoming more and more prevalent in contemporary fashion. May incorporates this thinking: “I have always been inspired by menswear and I am drawn inspirationally to a more tailored oversized silhouette.” Although the production of menswear was only introduced to the label last year, May is embracing a more gender-fluid approach and takes this to its logical conclusion: unisex pieces that defy boundaries. “I always wear men’s pieces personally and I have a lot of male clients who wear the women’s also. I am quite inspired by Japanese style and how different it is from the traditional western idea of dressing for your body type. I think androgyny is beautiful and I want to start building the website so that men and women are wearing the same garment in their own style.”
In recent knitwear designs, the focus has been upon mixing “streetwear and hip hop style with luxury.” This translates into items such as “a ribbed merino tracksuit” in a “really thick beautiful yarn with the perfect slouch.” In these pieces, the design offers “elongating silhouettes,” working with “long sleeves that can be rucked up” and “a longer, more flattering length in the torso,” with a side-split worked in for that all-important movement and comfort. May relishes the challenge of creating simple, stripped-back clothing, which, despite its clean-cut nature might actually be “the most difficult thing you can do.” These creative garments are given the distinctive Charlie May touch through small key differences in design and only using the best natural fibre available. As always, the dialogue with customers and individuals is of utmost importance: “It’s important for a woman to be free to move throughout her day in complete comfort and confidence whilst not having to sacrifice what she’s wearing in any way. When a woman feels confident I think it radiates out.” However, the athletic influence is not limited to the featured shapes and cuts. Despite demonstrating a passion for natural fibres, the label will continue exploring technical yarns in sportswear for example, which “has been a huge inspiration on the industry with the active way we all live our lives now. I’ve always used natural fibres but I’d be very excited to experiment with new methods.”
This progressive approach to the business of fashion also has an impact on the nature of retailing itself, with the distinction between buyers and partners often becoming more blurred than in the past. May describes the company as being represented by a “curated landscape of retail partners”; relationships are built consciously and outlets for distribution chosen very carefully. “I think when you have a strong vision of a design aesthetic it makes sense that you want to partner with the stores that have that same brand ethos as yourself. I love to work with boutiques and stores that share my views and have something unique to say with their buying and retail offering.” The whole lifecycle of May’s designs then, is thoroughly contemporary. From the brand’s digital beginnings, to its careful dialogue with customers, this thread runs all the way to the means by which she sells her pieces. Reflected in her minimalist style and philosophy, this ethos is truly forward-looking and inspiring.