Fashion and Tech: The Digital Age Revolutionises Fashion and its Applications in the Heart of Belfast (Part O2)

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Emma Knight. Photo Source: Emma Knight Design, Facebook

Shauna Graham, Contributor.

An interview with Emma Knight- Founder of Emma Knight Design. A unique cutting-edge jewellery design company based between Belfast and Barcelona.

Shauna: Would you like to tell me more about yourself in terms of how you came to be interested in fashion, in particular, jewellery design as seen on your site?

Emma: I think my earliest memory of fashion is when I inherited a big trunk of clothes and jewellery from my great, great Aunty Bet when I was about 7. She was in her 90’s when I knew her and one of those glamorous eccentrics that would always be looking so elegant – a bit of an Irish Audrey Hepburn. I remember she was always wearing red lipstick, tailored clothes in silk or maybe fur and hair perfect. I remember going through her collection of jewellery (which I still have) and being amazed to realise that she had made much of the jewellery herself. I think that’s when I became curious of fashion. Since then, I have always kind of dabbled in fashion making my own clothes in my early teens, making my own formal dress with my grandmother, doing work experience with a seamstress. Only in very recent years have I been able to form a business out of this interest.

I have been keeping an eye on the laser-cut jewellery scene for a few years now, which has been developing quite rapidly. There are some exciting brands out there that have emerged in the past 10 / 15 years or so. A couple of years ago, I began playing with some reclaimed scraps of Acrylic plastic in my dad’s workshop and the ‘Emma Knight Design’ brand was born. I wanted to develop a brand that explores new concepts, new materials, and balances between the playful and the formal, that is minimal enough to wear most days and also of high quality.

Shauna: Tell me where you’re based and if you have your own studio or premises to work from?

Emma: My base at the moment is a little all over the place to be honest! A few years ago, I did something mad while travelling and fell in love with a Spanish boy. As a result, I’m currently balancing between Belfast and Barcelona. Barcelona is great for inspiration with some excellent design boutiques and some of the best Jewellery Art Galleries in the world; while Belfast feels like a fresh new canvas to explore. There are so many creatives and very talented designers taking advantage of this new era that Belfast has reached.

For studio space, I’m lucky to be able to claim a little corner of a factory near my home in county down. I also work there part-time when I’m in town. I have permission to use their laser machine, which has become quite central to my design process. I also have a little studio in our house just outside Barcelona which I’m trying to organise at the minute.

Shauna: Have you been formally trained as a designer; and which school have you attended if so? If you have attended such places, then how did that time influence your work?

Emma: I haven’t been officially trained as a designer; but designing is definitely in my blood. There’s a bunch of product designers, engineers, makers, crazy inventors in my family so that’s certainly influenced the way I think. In 2010, I won a scholarship to study Fine Art in Chelsea College of Art and Design, and UAL (University of the Arts, London where most of my practice was focused on sculpture. This helped tune my awareness of aesthetics and materials; while outside of college many of my friends tended to be studying fashion design, in St Martins or Fashion Management in LCF (London College of Fashion). During Uni, there was plenty of experimenting going on with clothing; but Hackney was where I drew my main fashion and design inspirations from. Hackney has got to be the fashion capital of the world. There are so many fun little pop-up boutiques sprouting up everywhere there too. Everything kind of slotted together about two years after I graduated though, translating my sculpturing into jewellery-making made sense. A very good friend of mine taught me some silversmithing techniques, about a year ago, and things started to shape further.

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‘Jewellery piece from Emma Knight Design.’ Photo Source: Emma Knight Design on Facebook.

Shauna: What inspires you to create these unique and quirky designs? What’s your target market for these, and do you feel your jewellery has some stand-out qualities from other brands? These really stand-out as pop art for me by the way. Really cool.

Emma: Yes, I would say my background in fine art is definitely a big influence in my design aesthetic. I would describe my work as the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth meets young David Hockney. There are also the colours of the Mediterranean merging with the forms and materials of county down. For example, the granite of the Mourne Mountains, the pebbles and shells of Murlough beach, Aqua marine of the sea in spain, and those browns, pinks and beige of the toasted land. Young people aged between 18 and 35 would be the people that enjoy my work most. People that are interested in something modern; a little alternative for every-day wear or sometimes for special occasions. People appreciate the fact that the jewellery is hand-made, high quality with sterling silver and is still affordable. My stockists tend to be Art Galleries and craft boutiques – people that appreciate something a little away from the mainstream.

Though there are some laser-cut jewellery designers out there which I completely worship, who use this particular aesthetic successfully, I’m trying to avoid the plastic look and feel; by my choice of materials and through blending in silversmithing, I try to make the plastic invisible, while also including a little extra sparkle. I haven’t come across any other designer that combines Silversmithing with laser-cutting in their work in this way.

Shauna: Have you been involved in many projects, or are you a completely independent designer, in terms of both business and creations?

Emma: I wish I could be a completely independent designer; but it will be a little while until that’s possible! Being able to work in a part-time job in Northern Ireland is handy, but there are times when I’m honestly fed up being a factory worker by day, and jewellery designer by night. I can’t wait for the day I can be fully independent. In the factory I work in, now and again I do get to help-out fabricating some mega fun projects though; and get to influence in the designing a little. A recent project was making a few props for the ‘Superman series’, Kryptonite with ‘Warner Brothers’ which is being filmed in Belfast. I can’t say which props we made; but when it’s released in a few months, try and see if you can spot the plastic props. By the way, they aren’t allowed glass on set (wink wink).

Shauna: I’d like to talk about how you create these pieces, and what’s really involved in this process? Has the influence of technology affected your design process in any way? If so, give me some of the benefits for your business, please.

Emma: The laser machine is the base for most of my designs. You can achieve such beautiful clean lines with it, so elements can also slot together beautifully. It’s also nice to be able to create replica components repetitively. Though, plastic is getting a bit of a bad rep at the moment, you have to admit it is such an incredible, versatile material. I’m exploring a new type of plastic at the moment that is infused with stone which is again, lovely to work with. It looks like stone, is cold the touch like stone but has the same properties as plastic. It can be very difficult to merge Silversmithing with plastic but if you get the design right, the silver really transforms the piece. It seems to complete the jewellery. Along with quality, the hand Silversmithing adds a little character to the work; each piece is slightly different.

Shauna: Would you say the manufacturing side of the process in Belfast has been limiting in any way for you as a designer?

Emma: I’m really lucky to have free access to the facilities I use; so I have to admit I do have it a little easier in this area than many new designers in Belfast. I’m also lucky that I don’t have to rent machine use or outsource the manufacturing from day one. There is a great spot in Belfast called ‘Fablab’ which has similar equipment available, with very helpful staff and very affordable membership. I would definitely be making use of their tech if I needed an alternative.

Shauna: Do you believe fashion and technology truly have a place together, and has Belfast truly explored this avenue of design fully, do you think?

Emma: Fashion and Technology are pretty inseparable are they not? It’s really exciting what’s happening right now with new materials, new techniques which are being developed. I listened to a radio programme recently that was discussing printable clothing, which you can recycle- you can shred a pre-printed garment and then reprint it into something new! How cool is that?

Technology has made fashion more accessible also. This being said, I feel we have to be conscious of the ‘throw away culture’ which technology has created. Before the industrial age, there was much more care in creating clothing and accessories – they lasted longer. It’s very rare to see a jewellery shop these days who actually make their own wares; and so many stock, mass-produced jewellery made elsewhere in the world. These mass-produced items are less quality with less originality. Hand-made Craft seems to be dying or changing into something else. This is another reason why I try to include an element of Silversmithing in my work.

Looking at fashion and technology in Belfast, things are exciting… there’s a great powerhouse of women and men who run ‘Belfast design week’ that throw events throughout the year. I’ve been to a few of their talks and would listen to the podcasts they run. When I’m going through an awkward time, they are always a massive confidence boost. I would love to see more fashion design and craft-making events in Belfast too. It would be amazing to see what would happen if ‘Fablab’ collaborated with ‘W5’ for an evening of fashion workshops for adults.

Shauna: Have you been inspired by any local designers who seek to create similar stand-out pieces?

Emma: Among the laser zappers, there’s a brand new Belfast designer called ‘The Wee Jewellery Co.’ who has been really killing it. Quite different than my work (more rockabilly, 50’s), but I really want to mention her. Her designs are so much fun; and must take so much time and care to make. She uses such a beautiful collection of strong, bright, colourful acrylics in each piece too, and definitely isn’t afraid to shock. You’ve got to check her out!

There’s also the designer Rachel McKnight who I would say paved the way for the laser makers in Northern Ireland. Along with many stockists here, she is a very respected designer within the fine art jewellery scene and would exhibit across the world. She makes these incredible couture pieces using thin, folded discs of polyethylene. They look like a merging of tudor neck ruffs and coral or sea anemones -so incredible and delicate looking. She is very experimental in materials and processes too. I respect her a lot.

Another local Jewellery brand, I admire which solely uses silversmithing techniques; and is ultra-modern and sleek is ‘Isle Jewellery’. Their Instagram feed always makes my heart tingle! It’s run by a couple of sisters based in both Japan and Northern Ireland. Their pieces are very high quality, luxury and minimalist made in silver and gold. You can see the influences of Japan and Ireland in their designs. The Giants Causeway mixed with the minimalist character of Japanese architecture and furniture. Big respect to them for being able to work between two lands! Setting-up a business is tough, even more difficult when you’re balancing between two continents! I would love to meet them some time and ask for some tips. I hope to reach their stage of success one day.

Shauna: What are your ambitions for your business and give us some insight into your design aspirations for the next few years?

My brand is still at its very early stages, but my dream would be for ‘Emma Knight Design’ to become more global. I want ‘Emma Knight design’ to reach design shops and museums across Europe. How cool would it be to call into an art gallery like ‘The Guggenheim’ or ‘The Tate gift shop’ and see my work on their shelves? I have a few stockists in the UK and Ireland at the moment – some art galleries and shops in Oxford, Belfast, Newcastle County Down, and Dublin – but need to expand further. The plan is to approach some new stockists in Barcelona over the next few weeks.

I’m also very eager to reach that stage in the business where I’m fully self-sufficient; and have my very own laser machine. Having a laser machine would mean much more freedom to experiment when those creative juices are in full flow – midnight laser-cutting maybe? I need to expand my silversmithing skills too. That bridge between silversmithing and laser-cutting needs to be crossed more! There are other plastic processes I want to experiment with – CNC cutting, Vacuum forming… there is so much more to play with.

On top of that, I would love to have the opportunity to experiment in some creating one – off couture pieces for a runway, or feature in a gallery maybe. Collaborate with a clothing designer or artist possibly? There really is so much on my to do list!

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Kerry McCullough. Photo Source: ‘The Wee Jewellery Co.’ on Facebook

Introducing Kerry McCullough – As a new Belfast-based entrepreneur with a vibrant and colourful approach to design that really catches the eye. ‘The Wee Jewellery Co.’

A designer who’s taken a fun and light approach to jewellery-making, while incorporating her love of the 1950s rockabilly feel into her company. Kelly makes each individual piece as bold and bright as it can be, which can be make these both striking and surprising. Her company has been formed from a love of what’s different; as Kelly has always had a love of ‘unique and alternate fashion’, and combines this with a love of ‘working with her hands to create’ the weird and wonderful that her company has on offer today. Some of her pieces come with a clear political or social message, which some may find controversial, but pieces that could always offer the chance of striking up an interesting conversation within the city. A lot of her work has been influenced by her time at university of Ulster, wherein she particularly enjoyed experimenting with plastics and resin for her unusual designs. Moreover, she has a preference for using laser-cutting in her design process, as she promotes the technique as a way of getting clean cuts, precision and speed, which no doubt frees up more time for our designer to experiment with more innovative ideas of design, and brainstorming on her latest project to add her own brand of quirkiness.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t draw inspiration from other famed designers in her field. Like the other leading ladies in fashion and tech, Kelly draws inspiration from figures like Emma Knight, Rachel McKnight, and Jess Brandt. Further to starting her own brand, Kelly encountered problems sourcing a good local manufacturer for her own product design. Therefore, a true need exists for local manufacturing hubs in Belfast for other artists attempting to branch out into these illustrious industries. As outsourcing wasn’t an option for Kelly, due to wanting to be present through the whole process, she opted to use ‘Fab Lab’s’ own fantastic facilities as they are a tech resource centre for community work in the city, and her own university’s facilities for the production of her own original designs. Through time it became possible to purchase her own laser-cutting machine and work from home through the ‘Go for it’ programme, in order to, ‘stay on top of trends and current affairs as it was the obvious next step,’ for the Belfast-born designer. Kelly is a fantastic talent and a credit to all three industries of fashion, design and tech; which she cleverly combines to create eye-catching pop art and jewellery derived from well-implemented laser-cut design.

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Photo Source: ‘The Wee Jewellery Co’ on Facebook

Students and graduates can learn much from their introduction to these innovative entrepreneurs; and the vast expansion of their creative empires (through the combination of cutting-edge tech and their own unique takes on the design movement) over the Belfast region and beyond. That’s not to say that some individual artists still may choose to make use of their traditional talents, usually passed down through the generations, to showcase some spectacular special work that may not be seen elsewhere in this city. As we’ve seen, there’s a lot to offer in the city that could help future students, in these sectors, continue to grow and perfect their design techniques and skills. There are a range of platforms to showcase their own original capabilities, and to network with like-minded individuals who seem to be all part of one big family, with each aware of their own accomplishments and supportive of them.

Belfast should show more support to these great industries by providing more financial opportunities and places to work for these hard-working and admirable women leaders in the field. Through the introduction of tech, fashion and design has been transformed into a platform of endless possibilities tailored to each original designer’s tastes that may prove to be profitable or not in the long-term. Technology can be used as a force for good in the ongoing battle that designers struggle with. This is to keep up with the high street needs of ‘fast fashion’ to meet consumer demands in product lines, whilst designers also wanting to create clothing that meets environmentally-friendly criteria, such as being sustainable and reducing the carbon footprint to create it. Technology can help to bridge this gap that exists between demands of need and want in the fashion and design industries. It can also help connect like-minded artists together in order to learn from each other and potentially collaborate.

The Belfast fashion, design and tech business had started out as separate industries but emerged as a collective coalition that has changed the face of retail in our city for years to come. With this comes opportunity for our graduates to consider specialising in these areas; and to work together to forming Belfast as a more technologically adaptive business and design hub, with the set goal of nurturing new talent to come.

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