Of all the over-used or misappropriated terms floating around the world of fashion, “craft” is surely near the top of the list. But Alice Archer’s work harnesses digital programming to disrupt the sedate world of hand embroidery.
A skirt Archer made last year has 702,114 stitches, using 5,453 metres of thread. The delicate embroidery on her clothes might look as though they are painstakingly stitched on an old-fashioned embroidery frame. But the key to Archer's work is the computer, which allows her to adapt the labour intensive craft of embroidery to the modern world and keep up with the cycle of the fashion calendar. “There would be no way I can show full collections of heavily-embroidered clothes each season if I were doing this by hand,” she says.
To show me how she bridges the gap between her artistry and the commercial demands of her work, Archer introduces me to her friend “George”.
It takes a rare level of affection to give your digital embroidery machine a pet name. In this case, though, it seems entirely justified; George allows Archer to bring the ancient traditions of embroidery into the 21st century. “It can work with up to 12 different threads at a time,” she says. “It takes a really long time to programme patterns into the machine – that process takes the most time.”
We met at her studio on the ground floor of The Place London, a boutique owned by former Browns CEO Simon Burstein, in West London. It can take weeks of meticulous programming to make one of Archer’s elaborately embroidered dresses, each featuring a unique combination of print and embroidery. Every single stitch is put into a software program, called Ethos, where the patterns are converted into JPEG images for the machine to stitch. Then, the samples, along with the magic code, are sent to Italy, where they are made into garments using traditional embroidery machines.
The designer often uses both digital printing and embroidery on one piece of clothing, where she embroiders patterns on top of digital prints. “I love the texture you can get from embroidery and I love the colours you can get from print. So I combine the two – it’s literally like embroidering on top of print,” she says.
For her autumn/winter 2016 collection (her London Fashion Week debut), the designer showcased lavish embroideries of botanical flowers and birds of paradise onto feminine silhouettes including floor-length skirts and silk robes. And it is clothes – not art or textiles, she stresses – that Archer wants to make. While she studied fine art and textiles (fine art and textiles BA from Goldsmiths and textile design MA at the Royal College of Art), she says, “I want people to wear these clothes, not just look at them.”
Still, art remains a rich source of inspiration. She holds out a fabric sample (used for one of the dresses from her latest collection) with a digital print of a woman’s cheeks, taken from the 19th-century painting “The Surprise” by Claude-Marie Dubufe. “I love the colouration of that painting. From a distance, you can tell that it’s a face but up close, it just looks like rosy pink flowers. So it’s a tromp-l’oeil effect.”
They say good design is invisible. And in Archer’s case, the innovation and technology behind her creations is the imperceptible hand behind work that is marked by artistry, individualism and – yes – a thoroughly 21st-century craft.
Interview by Jainnie Cho