Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,
Bernstock Speirs (one part Paul Bernstock, one part Thelma Speirs) have been creating their well-crafted yet whimsical headwear for over three decades. Especially known for their veiled beanies and bunny ear baseball caps, the two designers have become so well-versed in working as a duo that they even finish each other’s sentences.
In the comfort of their Brick Lane flagship store and design studio, Bernstock and Speirs discussed their latest menswear collection, ‘accidental’ foray into the world of millinery and the evolution of the fashion industry.
What was the inspiration behind your most recent men’s collection?
Paul Bernstock: Last year was our 30th anniversary and we did an exhibition showing work we’d done from the 80s. Some things really came from that actually, didn’t they?
Thelma Speirs: Yes, it felt right again. Our millinery is also inspired by elements of traditional menswear and turning those clothing aspects into a hat.
P: We did some thick knits with satin which were like quilted flying jackets. So quite often, we work differently from other milliners whose work tends to be more sculptural and fanciful. We studied fashion design and have always seen our designs in relation to fashion. A lot of the techniques we do are more clothing techniques than millinery techniques.
When it comes to your designs like the baseball cap with bunny ears, are those creations about not taking fashion too seriously or just going all across the board with your brand?
P: We don’t do occasion hats, it’s about being relevant to seasonal stuff that is going on and although we do have a range of customers, our brand is quite youthful.
T: Hats aren’t really that serious anymore, are they?
P: If you start going to the more serious side, then you get into the big glamour thing. We never felt like we wanted to do that, it doesn’t excite us.
T: The bunny cap is a prime example of ours because it does have a function, but it’s kind of funny. You could wear it for an occasion but you could wear it to the corner shop, it’s utility-like.
P: We’ve always been interested in utility clothing, the detailing, that there’s a functionality and something integral about the design — it’s not just about being decorative. We more often take things away rather than add, because we like it to be the…
T: Bare essence.
P: The simplest, barest version of what it can be.
T: Bunny ears of course are essential [laughs].
P: The bunny ears came from a collaboration with Peter Jensen, whom we’ve worked with for quite a long time.
T: In 2009 we did the first bunny cap. We really liked it but didn’t think it would take off because it’s so humourous, yet we sold loads of them.
P: Sometimes with those things it’s hard to know. It’s a fine line between people thinking it’s a joke shop kind of thing and getting it right.
T: But you get it right through the quality. It looks serious in the way that it’s made.
You’ve done a lot of designer collaborations. What is the process like of already working as a duo and then bringing another person into that equation?
T: It’s really good because you can throw in other ideas. The person can have ideas that can inspire you so much. We like to work with people that have a similar aesthetic, people like Peter are a primary example because his clothes are lighthearted but of a really good quality. We fit well together.
P: It can also be weirdly isolating working in fashion where usually everyone keeps their collection a secret until it’s shown, but that’s the nice thing about doing collaborations, apart from the fact that we also found really good friendships through them. It’s that support aspect as well, fashion is a tough business and obviously really competitive, but actually, you can get a lot from just having that working relationship. You share a lot of things, help each other and ask each other for advice.
How do you two compliment each other in the design process?
T: Paul is a really good maker of things, so he can figure out the technique. I’m quite good at editing things after Paul has worked them out.
P: Thelma is quite good at saying no when I’ve made something [both laugh]. No, Thelma is really good at editing which is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. Editing is a really difficult one to learn because your first instinct is always to show more so that there’s a chance that people are going to like it more.
T: When the collection starts we just talk about ideas or fabrics and then it all comes from random discussions. We don’t do a mood board.
P: The fact is that we work together every day, do a lot of social things and travelling together, plus live in the same house, so we see a lot references together.
During the 31 years that you have been a part of this business, how do you think has millinery changed from being something classical to more daring and humourous?
P: We started doing hats because we wanted to create something together, it was quite accidental. We found a pile of old straws, sprayed them with car spray paint and it just happened from there. There was also a nightclub movement going on. Our generation wasn’t able to find the clothes that they wanted in shops, there was not much going on fashion-wise. A lot of it was people coming from art schools with not much money because the country was coming out of the recession, so it was hard times and people were customising and making their own stuff. The first time around it partly came from that, the fact that people were wearing hats in clubs as part of dressing up. That is what has started happening again on the club scene in that last 7 or 8 years.
T: In the early eighties it was definitely coming from the punk ethic of doing your own thing. The energy was in London.
P: There were no support systems like NewGen around then. There were no possibilities of getting sponsorship deals, it just didn’t exist. It was about somehow doing it yourself and calling in the help of friends.
T: People did shows and didn’t pay the models or people to do the hair and makeup, they were trying to do it themselves.
P: In some way, I think the support thing is slightly a poisoned chalice.
T: You get scared to get out of it. In the end you’re getting sponsorship and doing these shows, but at some time you’re not going to have that support forever. It’s really expensive doing a show, not many people in the London gang can do it without that extra help.
P: It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? On the face of it, it should be good.
T: It’s because there are new people coming out all the time and they want support.
P: It’s scary, there’s so much product now across everything, that feels like a big difference. The first time around when we started doing it, we got invited to this big showcase in New York by Susanne Bartsch. She took a load of people over and basically all the American stores started buying us all and coming to London to buy because it was exciting and interesting, but also there wasn’t as much stuff available back then, whereas now it’s really tough. There’s much more happening in the U.S., a lot more homegrown talent and the bigger labels cover all the bases, from the main line to the diffusion lines and accessories.
T: Then there’s the celebrity thing which wasn’t around then.
The internet wasn’t around then as well.
P: Obviously the internet has a big part to play. Maybe things have changed since the recession but everything is available and attainable, even if only through credit, you can still buy it. When we were growing up, things weren’t as accessible. You had this desire for things which weren’t that available so you did something of your own. Everything has become so easy to get and throw away.
T: And easy to find out.
P: When we were at college we would go to Paris and try to get into the runway shows, it was amazing because you wouldn’t be able to see those images otherwise. We would also read Suzy Menkes’ reviews.
T: She only did about three pictures.
P: That was the only way to get that information, but it made it more…
T: Exciting. But things can’t go back. Tom Ford really tried to make that happen for him by not letting any photographers into the show but it’s like going back culturally for everyone. People just ignored it a bit. I can see what he was trying to do, but I don’t think it worked.
Having had a big anniversary recently, what are you looking forward to in the next decades to come?
P: First up, we’re doing a talk at the V&A in the summer.
T: Last year we spent a lot of energy on doing our retrospective. We’re hoping we can reap the rewards and carry on.
P: Our veil beanie seems to have had another take off, so we’ve got a lot happening from that and started selling to a lot of new shops. But we want to keep it niche and special.
T: We don’t want huge shops or loads of staff, we’re really happy to keep it quite small.
That is something about hats in general, you don’t buy them in the same way that you would a pair of jeans, it’s a really considered thing.
T: It is, isn’t it?
P: It’s funny because trends take a long time. We actually stopped doing hats in the early nineties and had a break because we always saw them sitting alongside fashion. Then suddenly everything changed.
T: Because of the web.
P: But it’s also a confidence thing. People are getting used to wearing them and it being a part of their wardrobe, whereas for quite a long time they didn’t think about it. Obviously for cold weather there was that protection aspect, but it is gathering momentum and feels like more and more people are doing them. Also going back to that desirability thing, I think that there’s a longing for things which are more specialised and feel like more craft and care has gone into them. People are getting that more and more.
T: They also want it to be more individual.
P: And of quality. In terms of our label, it was always important that it was made in England because we don’t just want to send it somewhere. It’s about quality control and making things that have a lasting value.
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