Interview With Designer Hilary Grant

Readers of my fashion musings will know that a few years ago I spent time working at Alexander McQueen as an artwork assistant. Obviously working in a studio with Lee McQueen on the run up to fashion week was as stressful as it was a privelage. But, as well as being inspired by the late designer and his skilled team, which included Sarah Burton, I found myself completely in awe of some of the other artwork assistants and their unique artistic talents. One of the friends I made during my time there was Hilary Grant, who has since forged a career as an acclaimed luxury knitwear designer. She recently increased her existing customer base after displaying at Earl’s Court’s Pulse trade fair, but her accessories can already be found in London, Denmark, Hong Kong Osaka and New York.  I wanted to find out how the experience at McQueen helped her get to where she is now, as well as discovering bit more about the process behind her wearable designs.

We first met working at Alexander McQueen. What valuable things did you take away from your time there in terms of designing and the industry?

It’s so difficult to know where to start as I consider my time working at McQueen to be far more valuable than my years at university. At McQueen we we pushed so much in terms of our design ability and physical stamina working till 11am every night! It was a true education in fashion and textile design and I still gain a lot from the experience from reminiscing and reevaluating things I did there. The things I value  the most was learning how how engineer pattern, understanding the rules of pattern, and proportion and that you can achieve amazing things if you work hard enough. 
My final year collection was very different to the style at McQueen, more frivalous and colourful but I never really felt it was a true reflection of myself or thing kind of designer I wanted to be. I treated my internship like an MA and used that time to be absorbed in another aesthetic and learn from it. It was the most exhilllerating and surreal time of my life!

When did you know scarves and knitwear was going to be your concentration?

I specialised in knitwear at university, and it was always an area I was interested in. I love that in knitwear, pattern is as much of the structure of the fabric as it is the surface design and always wanted to come back to knitwear. I think it was a case of being patient till I felt I had developed an aesthetic that felt true to me and that took a little time.

Starting your own business is notoriously hard and stressful. What has been the most difficult aspect and what would you do different if you were to start a business again?

Starting up and running a business is equally the most exciting and terrifying thing! But that’s always what I wanted in a job and I love it. Keeping your cash-flow healthy and financial planning is always difficult and not always very fun, but it’s essential.

By the information on your site it doesn’t sound like you will rely too heavily on trends. How will ensure your pieces are desirable to fashion followers each season?
Colour and pattern is what sets my products apart. My designs aren’t about dictating to people how they should look, I want people to buy my accessories and wear them with whatever they want and that’s what excites and inspires me. I love street style photgraphy and seeing how people wear the same styles in different ways. I think you can design clothing and fashion that is relevant culturally and visually but not necessarily directly relating to trends. I hope to think my accessories are a more subtle than that.

How long did it take for you to get the quality where you wanted it to be? How many different production processes did you experiment with?

My first season was produced entirely in-house and produced on a domestic knitting machine using punchcards and the fairisle technique. This quality was fantastic, as all of the pieces were designed with the constraints and capabilities and of the machine in mind.  To keep up with demand out collections are now produced with a knitwear manufacturer in the Scottish Borders. The pieces are produced using a slightly different technique, giving a slight rib to the reverse of the knitting and a much sturdier fabric. It’s so important the products are of the highest quality so I’m delighted with it.

We can buy knitwear accessories on the high-street for under a £10. In a time where we are watching the pennies, can you explain why one should invest in what of your pieces?
The quality of manufacture and aethetic values are what you pay for when you buy one of my pieces. The people who make my scarves make a good living wage and you pay for that. When some one buys one of my scarves they’re buying something really special, and ultra practical and something that will last a long time and still look great after many winters.

Your pieces are extremely wearable and classic. Were you ever tempted to go down the shock or ultra modern route in the hope to gain a lot of fast press?
I think it’s just important to find your own aethetic and do something that you can do well.

Hailing from Scotland, how important was it that it informed the aesthetic and manufacturing?
I love Fairisle knitting, but I’m really conscious that my designs aren’t just re-worked versions of Fairisle. To do that would be like re-writing a chapter of a book. Instead I want to learn from the technique in terms of colour proportional,  the rythym and proportion of scale. With knitwear manufacturing always informs the aethetic and it’s something that’s really exciting to explore. 

Things like architecture also feature in your inspiration. Do you have a sketchbook with you, or do you take pictures on your phone?

I do, all the time. Knitwear is all about pattern and texture and I can be inspired walking around the city as much as walking around the countryside and the fields.

How would you describe Scottish style?

It’s very varied and I think there is definitely a different from city to city. Glasgow is very flash, lots of people dress in black and it’s all about the right labels. I think not enough people in Scotland dress for the weather and that doesn’t mean you can’t look stylish.

How much do you consider environmental and ethical issues?
I make an effort to ensure that my production and raw materials are sourced responsibily. Our distribution is set up so that orders are dispatched straight from the factory too.

Can you describe the environment you work in when you are sketching ideas?
I’ll usually sketch where I can relax, I’ll sketch ideas in bed and I usually work on the floor. I use my phone all the time to collect inspiration and I’ll print those out and photographs of people, art and landscapes and compile a mood board. I’ll work with a Wacom/ tablet to draw out ideas for designs on photoshop and develop them into repeat patterns.
Who are your personal style icons?

I love how Michelle Williams dresses, an obvious one, but I’ll always enjoy Susie Bubble style and outfit posts. I’ve followed her blog for about 6 years now.

If you could pick one person you’d love to see wearing a scarf who would it be?

I’d love seeing anyone wearing my pieces! It’s always really exciting to see how they wear the scarves, what they wear with them. 

The favourite accessory you own?

Well it’s certainly nice to have lots of samples to wear if I’m cold around the studio. I’m really looking forward to being able to wear the pom hats from my collection- but apart from that I love my brogues. 

Your favourite designers?

I love what Folk do, their aesthetic and design principles. I also really like Margaret Howel, Alexander Wang and labels like Sessun and Humanoid. 

What trends do you love and what trends you wish would disappear?

I actually don’t mind what people wear. Taste is so subjective and I who am I to be offended by what someone else wears. It’s nice when you see people in clothes they look good in and I think you can tell they feel good in them as well. 

Favourite red carpet or movie use of an accessory?

The costume design and styling in Never Let me Go I thought was really beautiful and subtle.

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