In a world over-saturated with half-baked fashion collaborations, there are very few stories as compelling as that of Mother of Pearl, the British luxe sportswear line founded by Maia Norman in 2010. Rather than using collaborations as a thinly veiled marketing technique, the brand has made them part of their DNA, creating an intriguing alternative to the limited edition model by working with a new artist on every collection. “It’s really [Norman's] world,” explains Amy Powney, the brand’s creative director. "She has such a brilliant network of these incredibly talented people, so it felt organic to both of us that we try to incorporate them as much as possible."
Working with up-and-coming and established talents like Jim Lambie, Gary Hume and Fred Tomaselli, Mother of Pearl has cultivated an eclectic aesthetic all its own. “We don’t just take artists' work and just slap it on the clothes,” says Powney. "Mother of Pearl has its own identity. And then we choose artists that can work with us and fit in. And sometimes it’s not the entire collection, and sometimes they have a bigger impact on it and sometimes they don’t. We never lose our identity when we work with artists, but I think it definitely adds a different level of intrigue to the collections."
Treating each partnership differently, Powney has mastered the art of blending new voices into the line whether it’s through patterns, silhouettes or themes. For this year’s FW collection (which hits stores in August) the designer played an even more critical part in selecting her partner. "I already had sort of a vision of what I wanted, which was something inspired by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, and while I was doing my initial research for the collection I came across this embroidery artist from Brooklyn named Richard Saja," explains Powney, who reached out to the artist via email. "This was the first time that we didn’t meet the artist through our normal channels, which made it even more exciting for me."
Saja, who is known best for his whimsical and often salacious interpretations of traditional French toiles, was receptive to Powney’s idea. "I won’t enter into any project where someone wants to dictate what I do," says Saja. “But, when Amy approached me with this William Morris-inspired idea, it felt like a logical progression of my toile.” With an ocean between their studios, the two makers had to trust one another. Using Morris as a jumping off point for her collection, Powney worked with her British team to develop a monotone base pattern that would serve as Saja’s canvas. "One day I got an envelope in the mail that was stuffed with fabric. The only directive was to create whatever I saw fit," explains Saja. “I had never worked with a symmetrical pattern before because toile is always so narrative. But I liked the idea that my embroidery could inject a little bit of context into her patterns in order to make them feel more like stories."
Saja’s additions include cheeky details like unicorns with flaming manes and small vibrant red stitches, which drip from the necks of deers inflicted by the arrows of psychedelically colored cupids. And while Powney found inspiration in the arts and crafts movement and Saja’s work, the artist looked at racecars when creating his embroidery. "I grew up in the '70s and I get a lot of my inspiration from my childhood," admits the artist. "I knew I wanted to add something that was decorative and dynamic at the same time in order to compliment the spirit of Amy's print, so naturally my first thought was 1970s racecars. In the same way that William Morris works bring the nature inside, flames on a car are an abstraction of reality—a kind of trompe l’oeil."
The finished line featured just a few pieces hand-stitched by the artist, but they are the highlights of the edited collection that is comprised of sporty separates like bomber jackets, sweatshirts, and tailored pants. "It’s this weird hybrid between couture and sportswear," says Saja of the final collaborative product. "The result I think is something that feels fresh and surprisingly effortless."
Detail images courtesy of Richard Saja, all others courtesy of Mother of Pearl