Story by Cassie Kaye
I met with British designer and artist Emma J. Shipley on a blustery afternoon at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and although even being near the campus makes me break out in hives (like any good University of Georgia grad), I couldn’t pass up the chance to learn more about her introduction to the fashion world and where she draws her inspiration for the otherworldly patterns covering her luxury scarves and ready-to-wear line.
She’s in town as one of the winners of The Guardian and UPS Small Business Export Competition designed to help small British businesses expand to markets in the United States. The room is full of smartly dressed Brits conducting interviews, filming and talking shop with buyers and associates, but any worries I have of being able to focus on my own interview immediately disappear when I meet my interviewee. Her teal hair and mesmerizing shirt (one of her own designs) make her stand out from the crowd, but it’s her kind, calm demeanor that really pulls me in.
It’s the day before she’s scheduled to show her second collection at Paris Fashion Week, and as soon as we start talking runways and how she went from a talented artist to an equally talented designer, the noise in the room fades to a dull hum. Growing up with a love of art and drawing, Shipley studied art and design in college and went on to study textiles for her master’s degree at the Royal College of Art in London, although she was admittedly more focused on the drawing and illustration aspect.
“The drawings were becoming more detailed and taking more time to work on, but I loved translating them into something else,” she says. While taking her drawings off the page fascinated her, she wanted to keep a relatively neutral canvas, so she opted for silk scarves made from the finest Italian materials as a simple background for her artwork. Her original collection of scarves was bought by Browns, a women’s designer fashion store in London, and that kickstarted her foray into the the industry and visits to fashion week in both London and Paris.
Shipley produces two collections per year, but she doesn’t want people to think of each body of work as separate entities — she strives for a level of timelessness in her work, to create products that can bridge not only seasons, but generations. “Each collection is more of an evolution from one to the next, rather than a clean break,” she explains. “It’s more like a new angle on what came before.” Because the artwork aspect of her designs takes a long time to produce, she’ll often update works from previous seasons by remixing them with new graphic elements, fabrics or photography she’s done.
Her illustrations themselves are the highlight of her work. Each collection is typically based around three drawings Shipley creates of images that seem almost familiar, but not. “It’s never quite real, although my drawing style does look very realistic,” she says. “I’m trying to subvert that by creating these half-imagined creatures to stimulate everyone’s own imagination and bring a little magic to the work.” Tigers with peacock feather tails, a clockwork pegasus and foxes with winged helmets and feet adorn some items in her recent collection like creatures from a fairy tale or parallel universe. The combination of surreal elements with Shipley’s use of bright colors sets her designs apart as more than just another elegant scarf or blouse. Her safari-inspired silk pants featuring unicorn zebras and spotted giraffes (a personal favorite) are right on point with this season’s love of flowy, printed trousers.
While her current collections include women’s ready-to-wear pieces, scarves and jewelry, Shipley speaks excitedly about the future and where she wants to head next as a luxury lifestyle brand. “It’s not just about fashion,” she insists. “It all starts with the artistry and illustration, and I feel like that can turn into so many different things. That’s what’s exciting for me.” She hopes to explore not only what her prints look like in different mediums on the body (for example, etching them into leather as opposed to printing on silk), but also the way they would translate onto home goods and interior textiles.
Regardless of where the brand ends up, Shipley hopes to always stay true to a few basic values: to keep the imagination and integrity of her original artwork alive and to continue producing timeless pieces that resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds. And from what I’ve seen of her work and her character, I have no doubt she’ll continue to do just that.