Part Dior New Look pagoda hat, part Darth Vader’s helmet, milliner Zara Gorman’s ridged black plastic and wood creations are impossible to ignore. “They do have a wearable factor about them,” she says, “even though they are perhaps rather severe.” Gorman, 36, began her career in marketing but turned to hatmaking almost six years ago, working as an assistant to royal hatter Philip Somerville before studying the craft at London’s Royal College of Art. Last June her graduate collection stood out for its mixture of elegance and ergonomics, and since then she has exhibited her wares in Milan and during London Fashion Week. Finely fluted and crenellated, cascading ziggurat-like from the crown of the head out over the face, the hats are made by melting featherweight plastic on wooden molds and then vacuum-forming them—a process that owes more to industrial product design than to fashion. “I’m influenced by Japanese designers,” Gorman explains, “by the cleanness of the lines, the innovation of their work.”
Two years ago, while working as a designer for Sean John, Edward Buchanan discovered that his favorite Milan knitwear factory was getting clobbered by its competition in China. “A lot of their clients had left them,” says Buchanan, who initially sampled the small workshop’s magic when he arrived in Milan as a designer for Bottega Veneta in 1995 and later employed the factory to produce his own label, LeFlesh. In an attempt to keep the company’s doors open, Buchanan launched Sansovino 6, which takes its name from the workshop’s address. The first collection, for spring 2010, was a love letter to the craftsmen’s technical skills, but the designs—for both men and women—were based on intelligence culled from 10 very cool friends, including Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci and model Lea T. “I asked them for their favorite items in their wardrobe,” says Buchanan, who then reconceived each piece—from a sharp-shouldered T-shirt to a blazer and a military-style anorak—as knitwear. This spring he has taken on the world of jeans. Indigo knits, washed and distressed by an Italian denim specialist, have been used to create unisex cutoff shorts, jackets, and various pant silhouettes. The five-pocket boot cut could be mistaken for a stylishly worn-in pair of Levi’s, but done up in fine-gauge cotton knit, it feels as snuggly as sweats.
“I never want to be just one thing,” says designer Felicity Brown. “It’s the collaging of two opposite ideas that interests me.” Certainly, Brown’s spring 2011 collection breaks the boundaries of conventional women’s wear, embellished as it is with hyberbolic adornments that seem to creep up the wearer’s neck and threaten to eat her alive. At a time when tailored separates are enjoying a renaissance, the designer didn’t include a single pair of trousers. “Looking back at the Fifties changed my direction this season toward something more glamorous,” says Brown, 34, who graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2000 and had stints at Loewe, Mulberry, and Lanvin before starting her own line last year. Recently she moved with her husband from the UK to the United Arab Emirates, where she’s finding plenty of inspiration. “The desert is so peaceful and calm, and London is so busy and active,” Brown says. “I’ve decided to look next at the bedouin women who lived around the Gulf in the early 20th century.”
“I have the impression that fashion has had it with uniformity,” says Alberto Marani. “People keep telling me how tired they are of mass production, that they want things that are made almost individually by a designer, not just carbon copies.” The Paris-based designer’s spring collection certainly fits the bill. Made up of rainbow-hued sweaters and simple satin dresses, some of the line’s 20 pieces are spray-painted by hand to resemble an artist’s canvas. Marani—who grew up in San Remo, Italy, and studied fashion at Paris’s prestigious Chambre Syndicale—got his start when he was 19 with Gianfranco Ferré at Dior and went on to work with Christophe Decarnin at Balmain and Peter Dundas at Pucci. He launched his eponymous label in 2004, and last fall he attracted attention with a collection printed with photos of the cardinals’ offices at the Vatican. The son of an architect who was a friend of Le Corbusier’s, Marani sees a parallel between designing buildings and designing dresses, and dreams of one day creating his own store. “I think clothing has to fit into an environment,” he says. “Ideally I’d like to create the environment, and then design the clothes to fit in it.”
Wanting to be more than just a flash in the pan, Marlon Gobel did what no other designer had ever done before. He sent Diane von Furstenberg, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a note asking permission to launch his men’s wear line. “I went before the Jedi Council to find out if I had anything to offer,” he explains. As it turns out, he does. His fall 2010 debut collection—12 looks that referenced the future from a Sixties perspective—was bought by Bergdorf Goodman and displayed twice in its windows. Not bad for a newcomer, but then Gobel, 34, who spent seven years at Thom Browne and Michael Bastian, is no neophyte. “I took my time learning what I needed to know—from tailoring a suit to producing a show,” he says. Indeed, both skills were evident last September when the designer staged his spring presentation in New York. It featured style archetypes (the three-piece banker suit, the snap-front cowboy shirt) tweaked with a dose of humor: a tuxedo done up in khaki; a button-down printed with corporate jets. “I wanted the presentation to be colorful, elegant, fun, different,” Gobel says. “I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing.”
Just as fashion seems to be softening up after seasons of stark minimalism, along comes Thomas Tait with his clean and angular vision for contemporary women’s wear. The 23-year-old designer says his goal is to create the building blocks for a modern wardrobe. “It’s about understanding what is a great trouser, what would be my ideal coat,” explains Tait, a native of Montreal and a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins. “Because I’m just starting out, and because the collection is only 10 or 15 looks, I’m not going to jazz it up with prints or something.” Instead, Tait focuses on architecture: Trousers are structured with double-bonded-wool side panels and bits of foam; jackets feature exaggerated shoulders that jut to the back. “I’m more interested in a three-dimensional world, where things are seen in action,” he says. “That’s one thing that is important to me—bringing back the value of seeing things in person, as opposed to online or in a photo.”