Collaboration with craftspeople weaves Welsh heritage into Kingston University student’s collection

Friday, 19 September 2014
A Kingston University MA Fashion student has wowed London Fashion Week crowds with a contemporary menswear collection that lifts the lid on some hidden gems of traditional Welsh craft. Sarah Hellen, who was born and brought up just outside Wrexham, has married her witty take on her hometown  with cutting edge design in a street-style range adorned with exquisite artisan offerings from across her homeland.

The 23-year-old designer’s work debuted on the catwalk at Kingston University’s MA Fashion Show in central London earlier this week. Her short navy woollen jackets, loose cream and grey tops inspired by the shape of a traditional Welsh steelworker’s shirt and a show-stopping black, cream and red full length coat were combined with accessories made by of a band of Welsh artists. One of the most eye-catching items was a large sports bag made from woven willow. Sarah worked with a basket weaver from Builth Wells to bring her designs for the bag to life. The cylindrical carry-all has a navy felt opening which fastens with a handmade copper zip pull. The metal artist who created it also fashioned handmade badges of some of the country’s iconic emblems and other delicate copper details which decorate Sarah’s garments.

Sarah even teamed up with an illustrator to turn legendary stories from the Wrexham local press – such as the man who tried to board a train at Wrexham station with his horse and the riot during the half-price sale in the town’s branch of Poundland – into illustrations embroidered on to her jackets and oversized knitted jumpers.

The fabric used for the full length coat is a heritage check recreated from an original weaver’s pattern by Welsh lifestyle brand Blodwen General Stores and made in one of the country’s only remaining working mills, Melin Teify near Lampeter. The navy, cream and red colour scheme of Sarah’s collection was inspired by a 1970s Wrexham Football Club badge the young designer found on eBay.

Sarah’s pride and passion for the traditional produce of her home country is infectious. “I wanted to create a collection that celebrated Wales’ rich artistic heritage and showed how rural crafts could be used in contemporary menswear,” Sarah explained. “There are so many amazing designers and craftspeople beavering away all over Wales and I wanted to help shine a spotlight on what they’re doing.”

Sarah met almost all of the people she collaborated with, covering 360 miles in two days with a photographer in tow to document her experiences. “My favourite part of making this collection was my rural road trip,” she said. “I visited most of the people I worked with in their studios to see first-hand how they made their products. They were all truly fascinating characters.”

With a project so close to her roots, it comes as no surprise that the fledgling designer got her family involved. Sarah’s mother was tasked with recruiting a crew of local knitters to make socks to finish off the outfits. Sarah gave each of the volunteers a mood board to guide them on the colours to use, but let them create their own designs.

Kingston University MA Fashion course leader Andrew Ibi said Sarah’s immersion in her subject and her extraordinary attention to detail had resulted in an outstanding range of menswear. "This is one of the most thoroughly researched collections I have ever come across as an educator,” Mr Ibi said. “Her dedication to her design signature and her values is a breath of fresh air in a world of celebrity, luxury and fast fashion."

Sarah now hopes to work with her fabric sponsor, Blodwen, on a product for Christmas but full details are being kept closely under wraps. Ultimately the young designer would like to develop her own modernist menswear label celebrating the very best of what her rural homeland has to offer.