‘With the ability to transcend, birds do not allow borders to dictate their travels; they identify themselves by the feathers they carry.’
This statement perfectly encapsulates Bird Skin, a label founded and run by designer duo, Luke and Ali. Their textured, colourful pieces speak of far flung places and of lives well lived. We caught up with the pair to find out more about the design process, winning awards, and addressing the realities of the fashion industry.
Leiden: How did Bird Skin come to be?
Luke: Bird Skin was initially a much-needed outlet for two creatively frustrated individuals who wanted to do something artistically fulfilling with their free time. We started off using antique textiles we had sourced in our travels, and worked on some hand-embroidery patterns, just playing around and seeing what silhouettes we could come up with to turn them into clothes.
We got a great response very early on based on our own hack photography we had done with some model friends. That encouraged us to really take our journey of creating more seriously and dedicate as much time to it as we could.
How do you approach the design process?
L: It’s a collaborative process for us. A lot of discussion takes place and our concepts sometimes evolve drastically even during the process of actually making the garments. Other ideas are clear right from the start, but there’s no strict winning formula.
Tell us a little about your aesthetic.
L: Our aesthetic is dramatic and up-front. There’s colour and there’s culture in our pieces. It’s hard to pin it down to one aesthetic as we go through phases of obsessing over one idea or theme that seems to permeate many of our pieces at any given time.
From what or whom do you draw inspiration?
L: Ali grew up watching artisans hand-crafting, embroidering and weaving their magic. Later on, an obsession with western fashion was married to this love of all things hand-made, traditional and full of colour.
You can see the heavy cultural hand in many of our designs, and it’s not always specific or limited to one region — people are sometimes confused about where they’ve seen certain elements of our designs before. We love that people of all different backgrounds can relate to our work.
We do pay attention to what’s happening in the fashion world, but we never give too much thought to being on-trend.
Bird Skin was one of two finalists from Australia to be selected for the Hand & Lock embroidery prize in London. Out of thirty-two international participants, you came second. What does this award mean to you and your label?
L: Hand & Lock is one of fashion’s oldest and most prestigious institutions. To be recognised by them for our work is such a huge honour — no less because Hand & Lock represents the spirit of couture we hope to embody through our work.
The prize we received from Hand & Lock is quite literally a work of art — a gorgeously detailed thread embroidery depiction of the company emblem. Needless to say, it’s framed and proudly displayed in the Bird Skin studio.
How important is this level of detail and craftsmanship to your label?
L: Detail and craftsmanship go a long way, but for us it’s really just about creating pieces that speak for themselves. It’s those little details that make the wearer feel on top of the world. It doesn’t need to be a complex, all-over embroidery pattern (though we love those too!), it could be as simple as a fascinating textile people have never seen before, or a colour that really hits you hard.
You also specialise in recovering and restoring antique jewellery. How do you source your pieces and what is involved in the restoration process?
L: Our pieces are often sourced in our travels, from bazaars, vintage markets and collectors, to name just a few places. The restoration process sometimes involves replacing lost stones and polishing metals, or can be as simple as repairing a faulty mechanism. We also love making pieces more contemporary or individual by combining them with new elements and other exotic pieces.
Tell us about your latest range of fashion slogan tees. What inspired each slogan?
L: Our latest range of slogan tees was created in response to some of the realities and difficulties of the fashion industry we find impossible to ignore. Speaking to models and influencers, it felt like those experiences reached all levels.
Some of the designs are quite overt. ‘Token Black Model’ speaks to racial minorities being treated as commodities in the industry. ‘Bring Your Own Foundation’ is self-explanatory for models who turn up to shoots and runways with a skin tone outside the limited commercial range carried by make-up artists in Australia.
Some of the t-shirts are more light-hearted, like ‘Fake Followers’, but it still underpins an ever-growing cultural obsession with perceived influence and popularity.
What do you think needs to change within the fashion industry to make it a more inclusive place?
L: This generation is probably the first in a while that has all the tools to enact social change in the area of body image and self-esteem. All of these platforms which are currently doing damage to young men and women can actually be put to positive use.
How do you incorporate sustainable and ethical practice into your label?
L: As we’re a small enterprise, we have an equally small footprint, but we do what we can. We’re big on up-cycling, re-fashioning and re-imagining retro and antique pieces, and we have a bit of a ‘patchwork’ aesthetic at times, which minimises wastage. We often incorporate accessories into garments, and we’ve even created a dress from antique bed sheets. Nothing should end up in landfill when it can be saved, and certainly not works of art or labours of love.
How would you like to see Bird Skin expand in the future?
L: We just want to keep doing what we’re doing and continue enjoying every step of the process. The spirit of our label is that of exclusive, adventurous couture, and we never want to lose that. We’ll relish whatever opportunities come our way, but we’re not too hung up on what the future looks like.