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Transcendence of fabric with Shi Cashmere

But it’s a natural process. When I design a collection I stand in front of a mirror and drape the cashmere cloth on myself and it just flows.
Shi Cashmere

Although fashion is fast-paced in its intrinsic sync with cultural shifts, textile composition has always been an element left behind with a tendency to plateau. This realisation has catalysed one designer's need to innovate cashmere leading to the fibre's revolution in the 1980s.

Reading: Transcendence of fabric with Shi Cashmere
Written by Shi Cashmere
28.04.2022

Shi, the designer behind the eponymous label, whose pieces are now in the permanent collection at the V&A, had an uncompromising vision that challenged the fabric quo of the times. She crystallised this through cashmere and silk jersey garments ranging from gargantuan knitted dresses to Persian draped trousers, all infused in an androgynous element democratising her brand to all genders.

Rather than striking a trend-focused comfort of conformity, Shi’s textiles defy transience and embody sustainable permanence. The clothes become mediators between one’s self and the fabric, which lives and grows with them, maintaining shape and texture through the years.

As one touches the fabrics a sense of serene comfort is elicited briefly, yet movingly. The bias cut offers another dimension of life to the garments, which move naturally with the wearer and abound in fluidity.

We spoke at her new Marylebone store cladded in Clive Arrowsmith prints featuring her previous collections. Some deconstructed, some oversized, always permeating in an elusive element captured through Shi’s tangent with the Middle East.

Can you walk me through the process of creating your own brand in the 1980s?

Coming back 12 years later, after my studies at CSM, I realised that everything was different in fashion in England, except for the cashmere. I went to Scotland where all the big factories were and I saw these antiquated machines and quickly realised that nothing has changed in the production of cashmere. So I placed an ad in the local paper, found a local knitter and went to see him in Scotland. I arrived at this huge shack that he called a factory and it was freezing cold. I vividly remember this fur coat I was wearing and the way in which water started dripping from the roof, down my nose and then on my beautiful fox coat. But Scots are hardy, they don’t notice.

He asked me what I would like to knit and surprised by my ideas, he said it made no pragmatical sense. They were used to knitting these tiny things back then, but my designs required huge amounts of cashmere and they were not cost effective at all. The workforce gasped when I cut the cashmere fabric on the bias and binned the waste. It felt like sacrilege to gather that amount of cashmere thread that fell on the floor and recycle. But I treated cashmere in the same way as silk jersey.

No one wanted to produce for me in Scotland for this reason, and that is when I found a tractor base in a farm that changed the course of everything. They asked ‘are you crazy’, and I said ‘yes, but no one would rent me space’.

As the business was starting to flourish, a farmer advised me that a very large grocery shop was available to rent so I jumped at the chance, went to Scotland, signed the lease and we were in.

When we got the premises all my employees came along and we washed the floors and walls and disinfected everything, as it used to previously be a food shop. Then we had moved all the machines and there was our factory. Then I got another call from the farmer offering me an adjacent shop which I took as well. We knocked down the wall between the two in an oval arch and suddenly we had an L-shaped factory.

I had a little shock when my first piece of cashmere was knitted and it came off the machine, as it looked like a piece of oily cloth. The cashmere is coated with a film of oil to keep it strong as the yarn is so fine. But then it was washed and it was the most gorgeous-gorgeous thing that I have ever seen and I was hooked.

 

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We had a nice corridor which I turned into a canteen for my staff where we would have lunch and coffee. It was nice, it was really fun, no one who worked there thought it was my business, it was everyone’s business and we were so excited to start something from nothing. I was very lucky, I had wonderful workers, they were very good people.

The press said that I had revolutionized Scottish cashmere and were mystified how I, being so small, came up with these huge bias-cut sweaters. Suddenly, to my amazement, I was exporting to Hong Kong, Japan, Switzerland and all over the States, not to mention Harrods and Fortnum.

I had two fabulous guys from New Jersey, who would always be the first in the queue to my shop, always ordering the most avant-garde designs. It was so exciting and most encouraging.

How do you conceptualise your collections?

When I started, I divided my designs into very loose oversized pieces and small linear ones; a contrast between a nomadic style and very feminine body-hugging forms.

I went to the North West of Iran, where I saw these men wearing these incredible pants made out of camel hair, tiny strips of camel hair all sown together, and they had these kimono type jackets, very tight, also in camel colour. Around their waist they wore tightly knotted cumber bands made out of yards and yards of colourful fabrics, like shocking pink, emerald green, turquoise, often golden flowered motives. It surprised me how these men who were so tall and masculine and walking very erectly were wearing such feminine-inspired clothing. It was beautiful. They were very ahead of their times and I found that frankly charming.

So, I went to the bazar and bought the same camel fabric to make one for myself. Instead of the colorful cumber band, I wore it with a silver belt made from a piece of silver harness (probably from the Mogul era), which I had found in the bazar and made into a belt. I used to wear these at parties in Iran and everyone thought I was crazy, when everyone was wearing Gucci, Pucci etc. But I just felt good.

The sequins you see on some of my garments are inspired by the tradition evoked by these Persian embroideries that I own. Going back 200 years, it was common for girls as young at 8-9 years old to embroider fabrics which they end up taking with them when they get married; they would put these on the wall or above the fireplace. They would add these sequins because they believed they would bring luck and wealth, which usually meant lots of sheep and goats.

But it’s a natural process. When I design a collection I stand in front of a mirror and drape the cashmere cloth on myself and it just flows.

 

How has your upbringing influenced your design?

I was born in Iran. The houses were lovely, yet surrounded by these tall walls; you didn’t really go out except to visit your relatives. Socialising was done mostly within the family, I come from a family of 7 children; everybody had so many children and that in itself was enough.

No, it didn’t feel isolating. I think it was lovely.

Dressmakers would come into the house and would make all of our clothes. They would come and make our sheets and pillow cases and everything for the mattresses; every summer they would take everything apart; cotton wool was flowing in the air like clouds.

I learnt a lot from them, you see. We had dolls, but I had taught myself how to make my own rag dolls. When the hairdressers came and cut our hair, I kept it and sawn it on the doll. She had the same mattress we had and the same embroidered sheets. All of this I had learnt from the dressmakers who would come into the house.

01. Carla Bruni for Shi Cashmere

Tell me about the landscape at CSM in the 1970s.

There used to be no fabric shops, so I was sourcing these from dilapidated old curtain shops. There was Soho market at the back of Central Saint Martins which would sell all sorts of things like vegetables and sometimes fabrics. I was always short-cutting through Soho market to get to CSM and one day I saw this guy with a wheel barrow who had this incredible lime-green fabric, it felt like striking gold at the time. I saw this fabric twinkling at me and went closer, it simply wasn’t like anything I had seen before and I snapped it up. I made myself a dress with cut-away shoulders and with the bits and pieces left from the cutouts, I made spaghetti straps which I bunched up into a knot and let it flow from the neckline – it became the spaghetti dress.
Everyone would stop me on the streets to ask where I got it from.

 

I think the yarn fabric specialists should have more credit than designers, because they’re instigators, they say ‘look at this fabric’ and the designer says ‘yes, that will do’ but the direction comes from them, not from us.

My sister had her clothes made at the time by designer Norman Hartnell and I remember she took me to lunch one day to meet him, and I was wearing one of my dresses I made from this hessian material I had found in a curtain shop. It was very earthy and simple, and I remember Norman asking me where I got the dress from. I didn’t dare say that I had made it myself.

However, I love what is happening in the industry now, textile people come out with most creative beautiful things. I think the yarn fabric specialists should have more credit than designers, because they’re instigators, they say ‘look at this fabric’ and the designer says ‘yes, that will do’ but the direction comes from them, not from us. I would even go as far as to day they deserve more credit than we as designers do. And they’re getting better and better.

Your garments are now part of the permanent collection at the V&A, how did the transition of the brand into popular culture in the 80s and 90s happened?

Everything began with the lime green dress and then I started doing evening wear, lots of dresses, some of them reversible even. There was this one dress Princess Ann bought at Fortnum & Mason, and then there was the movie ‘Countess from Hong Kong’ with Sophia Loren where one of my dresses was worn. But back then, the aspect of ‘who and how wore it’ wasn’t so important.

It didn’t feel as much as a commercial success as it felt like pride and appreciation.

What are your plans for the future?

We have just opened this new store in Marylebone which is very exciting. The identity of the brand will stay the same because we want to continue delivering clothes that last forever; I keep getting told that I’m a bad business woman for doing that. But it is very special when a customer who bought something from you 20 years ago comes back and the item still looks brand new.

Even today when I go to the factory, we have bails of cut offs that are waiting to be recycled and I’m always foraging through them and taking things out. And then I create something out of bits and pieces, and I enjoy that, it’s part of creating. I love the fact that you can create something out of nothing. I would never retire; I think it’s like waiting for death.

I would never retire; I think it’s like waiting for death.

Your garments are now part of the permanent collection at the V&A, how did the transition of the brand into popular culture in the 80s and 90s happened?

Everything began with the lime green dress and then I started doing evening wear, lots of dresses, some of them reversible even. There was this one dress Princess Ann bought at Fortnum & Mason, and then there was the movie ‘Countess from Hong Kong’ with Sophia Loren where one of my dresses was worn. But back then, the aspect of ‘who and how wore it’ wasn’t so important.

It didn’t feel as much as a commercial success as it felt like pride and appreciation.

What are your plans for the future?

We have just opened this new store in Marylebone which is very exciting. The identity of the brand will stay the same because we want to continue delivering clothes that last forever; I keep getting told that I’m a bad business woman for doing that. But it is very special when a customer who bought something from you 20 years ago comes back and the item still looks brand new.

Even today when I go to the factory, we have bails of cut offs that are waiting to be recycled and I’m always foraging through them and taking things out. And then I create something out of bits and pieces, and I enjoy that, it’s part of creating. I love the fact that you can create something out of nothing. I would never retire; I think it’s like waiting for death.

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Designer
Shi Cashmere

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