While many young British designers are known to focus on the avant-garde, the London-based Alice Archer, 31, is building a modern women’s wear business around a very traditional art: embroidery. But her intricate threadwork — which she applies to every dress, skirt and coat she designs — is more high-tech than her customers might imagine.
Archer’s studio, which is underneath a West London boutique called The Place London, is strewn with color charts, art books and reels of thread; there, she shows T how she maps out each individual stitch with a computer program. She then feeds that design into a digital embroidery machine, which sews the image onto fabric, whirring away with up to 12 threads while she observes with a watchful eye. Each design can take a week of painstaking programming, and yet old-fashioned methods would be even slower; without this software, she says, one person could not deliver a heavily embroidered, 20-piece fashion collection each season.
For fall/winter 2016, Archer’s designs include a blood-red velvet suit, a black leather dress and a series of pencil skirts — all embellished with roses, daisies and chrysanthemums. In her work, she says, “I want to see really beautiful colors. I want the embroideries to be quite sculptural, and the shapes of the garments to be really flattering.” In the past, she has also combined threadwork with prints: for one dress, she transferred a detail of a woman’s cheek, taken from the 19th-century painting “The Surprise” by Claude-Marie Dubufe, onto white, floral embroidery.
Archer could have applied her craft to interiors or art, yet fashion, she says, is “what I desire. I want to wear these clothes.” She has designed only three collections so far — but she put in a decade of training and practice first. She took an art foundation course at Central Saint Martins, earned a BA in fine art and textiles at Goldsmiths, and an MA in textile design at the Royal College of Art. Between studies, she spent three years running the London Embroidery Studio, and spent one season as a design assistant at Dries Van Noten. She has also often worked on the artist Tracey Emin’s embroidered artworks. (“She draws on a piece of calico, and then we sit on a beanbag all day, hand-embroidering it,” Archer explains. “It’s a really nice job.”)
She designed her first fashion collection in 2014, after the former Browns CEO Simon Burstein spotted a design that she had done for the shoemaker Caroline Groves, and invited her to create an 8-piece capsule line for Browns. From their first encounter, her work struck him as innovative: “I thought there was something really very modern about it, and I felt that I could guide her,” he recalls. When he sold Browns in 2015, he opened The Place London in Connaught Village and set her up with a studio. (Both Browns and The Place London stock her brand, and Barneys in New York and Los Angeles will pick it up this fall.)
Archer is still relatively new to the process of designing the garments underneath the embroidery, but she finds it “more and more enjoyable.” She uses the pattern cutter Linda Woolcot, who has worked with Margaret Howell and Victoria Beckham: “She’s really experienced,” says Archer of Woolcot, “and really gets the romantic side of what I want to do with the shapes.” The brand is inspired by the likes of Keira Knightley, Lily James and Daisy Ridley — “the English rose with a twist” — and to this end, Archer’s designs are luxurious and feminine, but she tempers the ladylike quality by including casual, everyday silhouettes. An embroidered, red-checked shirt is one of her best-selling items. On the day T visits, she is wearing a flowery denim dress: “You can machine wash it, and the embroidery’s quite robust, actually,” she says. “You don’t have to feel precious in it. I quite like that.”