‘I think my views on lingerie and design have never really changed that much. I’ve always had singularly focused thoughts in my mind.’ Says Tabitha Dukes, as precise and practical when talking about the art of lingerie as she is when executing her designs. Having graduated from London College of Fashion in 2014, after studying Fashion Contour, Tabby did a bout of work experience at the world-renowned Alexander McQueen Couture studio before becoming a design and production assistant at Myla. At the prodigious age of 22 she was one of only two Lingerie Designers at Coco de Mer, the luxury lingerie store founded in 2001 by Samantha Roddick, where she continues to work today. Twin caught up with Tabitha to talk gender fluidity in lingerie design, matters of size and the magic of material.
Your designs vary with each collection. Where do your concepts stem from and what is your creative process?
I look for inspiration everywhere. I based one project on the glasshouses at Kew, for example – I was completely in awe of the beautiful cast iron, giant structures that were surrounding these really delicate, beautiful flowers and so I created a concept for a collection based around that. I mainly focus on the shapes and forms in the surrounding world. I did a collection that was all inspired by scallop shells. I looked into fractals, which are patterns in nature, like a cauliflower or a snowflake, in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales. I became obsessed with scallop shells, my house was littered with them and I created a whole collection that repeated the scales with Sophie Hallette lace. I ended up cutting out fragments of the lace and dipping them in PVA glue to set them, in order to mimic the shape of a scallop shell – I tried to use resin but the texture was never quite right.
Architecture is also a really important influence for me. Lingerie is so structured and architecture is the same in its degree of and I see so many similarities in it that way. That being said, I also take a lot of note from historical womenswear, especially corsetry and the use of form in fashion through the ages. Couture and catwalk looks influence me to a certain extent, but I find that I less and less look to trends for ideas.
Where do you research?
I use libraries and museums a lot. I have a membership to the V&A so I find myself using the archives there. Exhibitions there are also of great use to me. ‘Savage Beauty’ was possibly my favourite exhibition of all time – I think Alexander McQueen was – and still is – my biggest design inspiration, simply because McQueen himself created such amazing concepts behind his collections, something which I think can be lost in today’s designing, especially in lingerie. That’s something I’m really passionate about; I always try to have a strong concept before I start working.
Do you think your own sexuality comes through in your work? Is that something you find important to your design process?
Sexuality has to come into designing lingerie, I think. And I’ve always felt I’m quite a sexual person so I do really enjoy being aware of that process, designing erotic items appeals to me. But I would say the real focus of my designs is to empower the wearer – it’s not so much about impressing someone, but about making you feel amazing. I think of it through the idea of power through dressing – what you’re wearing underneath can make you feel amazing on the outside. So in terms of my designs being affected by my sexuality, I think it’s more in terms of employing a sexual independence, a confidence, no matter what your orientations or preferences might be.
I’m interested in the level of gender fluidity that comes with designing lingerie. Obviously one assumes that lingerie is specifically designed just for women but could you translate that work, those concepts, into design for the male form, or a transgender form?
It’s a concept that has always interested me and is definitely a challenge for future lingerie design. It’s something I’ve been approached for many times, often at Coco de Mer, I will have men asking me why there aren’t more beautiful designs for men. It’s not necessarily just gay men, straight men are interested too. Again, sexiness and sexuality doesn’t distinguish itself based on orientation. Like I’ve said, wearing something beautiful can really change the way that you feel and I think we should broaden that access in lingerie design! The way I design for women, in terms of accentuating the female form, I am very interested in designing in the same way for a man.
Do you think you would change the materials and the shapes that you use if designing for the male form?
I think the fabrics wouldn’t differ dramatically at all. I firmly believe silk is one of the most beautiful and universally lovely products to design with – it’s a lot about the feeling against your skin, which is also part of the way it makes you feel. If you have soft, sleek material against your skin I always find it teases out the sense of beauty in the wearer. I would be interested in employing more ‘masculine’ laces, if you can picture what I mean, I don’t see why lace should just remain for females I can see lace being translated into menswear. An interesting point of reference is Nick Knight’s project ‘Boned’ on SHOWstudio, in which Knight photographs male models in lingerie designed specifically for the male form. I’m obsessed with the designs and with the concept. I think that’s quite amazing and I’m so interested in that Nick Knight described the garments as lingerie rather than just as underwear. I think it’s unfair men are so restricted in their undergarments, I don’t see why they shouldn’t represent themselves through their lingerie as well. I would love to one day design a range that would be focused around men as well.
How much are your designs focused on the practicality of designing for women?
Lingerie is quite different from designing Womenswear, in that the technicality of it is pretty much the most important thing overall. Obviously you want the garments to be beautiful but they do have to fit and support your body, but I’m also very keen to be creating designs that are seen as artworks, I almost see lingerie as a kind of sculpture in this way. I want to create garments that translate the body into a piece of art, so for me it’s a lot about balancing the beauty of the object with the technicality of the piece. I think a massive gap in the market is creating these pieces for a wider range of forms. It’s hard because if the lingerie is a structured item, with wiring or boning or whatever, after you go above around a 34DD the whole technical process has to change. But I think that creating pieces that seam as delicate and beautiful for all sizes would be an interesting challenge, ideally in the future I would start my own line. I would like that to fill the gaps in the market to create lingerie for all shapes, sizes and sexes.