A chat with the designer and lecturer – along with many examples of his textile designs.
Alex Russell has just written the first book in AVA’s new Textile Design series, The Fundamentals of Printed Textile Design. He is a senior lecturer on the Textile Design for Fashion course at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.
We met him at Graduate Fashion Week in London on the Manchester stand.
All examples in this post are Alex’s own work.
AVA: Fashion courses have become very popular in the last few years – what do you think is driving that, and will it continue?
AR: Fashion is the area of design that people are knowingly the most exposed to – if you asked a 10 year old what (say) graphic design was they probably wouldn’t know. We all need clothes and of the things we spend the most money on after food and housing is what we wear. Fashion does a pretty good job of promoting itself… It’s a very appealing career; it is very competitive, you need talent but you also need to put in the hours.
AVA: What are the emerging trends in Textiles teaching and development?
AR: The impact of digital technology has been huge, but, interestingly, now some of its novelty has worn off, people are playing with it more, mixing up hand and digital techniques and experimenting with the use of technology in textiles. A similar thing is happening with sustainability – people are realising what a complex and difficult thing it is and this is making people come up with more imaginative solutions. In the book I’ve tried to reflect the changes in the industry which have been big and give a broad overview of the subject, focusing on its contemporary context.
AVA: What do you most enjoy about teaching?
AR: One of my favourites is the wonderful moment when you sense that the penny’s dropped – light bulb moments where you can see someone’s understood something for the first time. I also like the way people who come out of printed textiles courses might have a broader range of roles open to them than has been recognised in the past (for example careers in styling or art direction). It’s important students are aware that skills they have when they graduate can open more doors than they may realise. However, probably the best thing about teaching is seeing how far the students progress from when they start a degree to when they graduate. It’s always amazing.
AVA: Academic feedback tells us that Fashion and Textiles students can be shy about using books, how do you see this, what do your students say?
AR: It’s down to the individual but we do encourage students to use them. In my area, certainly 10 to 15 years ago, it was very difficult to source books on printed textiles as the books at that time tended to be historical or craft based – it has been a welcome change that publishers are now addressing this.
AVA: Are the books suitable for all types of textiles courses…and are they just for students?
AR: The book was written with textiles students in mind but if anyone studying or working in a creative discipline wanted to find out more about printed textiles, I hope it would be very helpful.
AVA: Did you enjoy the process of writing a book?
AR: I could have timed it a bit better – I became a dad, moved house and was running a programme while I was writing it! It was a very interesting experience and I’m very happy with it now it’s finished. I have aimed to be objective and balanced in the book, but also reflect the changes I’ve seen happen in industry in recent years.
AVA: Who are your favourite designers?
AR: It’s a hard question… it changes all the time. I do like designers who aren’t afraid of using a bit of colour… Barbara Brown, Etro, Marimekko (and a lot of other Scandinavian design too), Paul Smith. Although my own taste has obviously influenced the book, I worked hard to make sure it is not just a reflection of what I like. I included as wide a range of styles as possible – and of course tried to make it as contemporary as possible too.
AVA: What was your first job in textiles?
AR: My very first textiles job was part-time teaching (when I was doing my MA) but around the same time I started freelancing. The first good break I got was working in theatre productions and for a couple of years I did a very varied range of work including textile art. Then I lectured full time for seven years. In 2001 I went back to full-time freelance design, and focused on print and pattern design for fashion and interiors, although I also did quite a lot of illustration and trend book work.
AVA: Have you always wanted to be involved with textiles?
AR: No, I came to textiles as a career when I discovered a bit late that I didn’t want to be an engineer! I started off doing a degree in electronic engineering, but realised very quickly that it wasn’t for me, so I did an Art Foundation. I had an art teacher when I was 13 or 14 who got me into screen printing and I have always done lots of drawing. Once I started the Foundation, textiles was the area that best suited all the parts of design I really wanted to work with.
AVA: What are the important dates in the calendar for everyone involved in textiles?
AR: From the point of view of students reading the book, I’d recommend a couple of trade fairs: Heimtex in Frankfurt in January for print and pattern for interiors, then Premiere Vision in Paris in February and September for fashion – those are the two biggest in Europe. In general it is good to be as aware of trends (in all of the creative industries not just fashion and interiors) as possible.
AVA: Where is the best place to start if you are looking for a job in textiles? Do formal qualifications really help or do students also need to be getting internships or other work experience?
AR: Any experience or internship is good and will definitely help – it doesn’t really always matter if it’s in a different part industry from the one you actually want a career in. The good thing about getting a degree isn’t necessarily the qualification; it means you should have a portfolio to show – ultimately that’s what will get you started. Graduate portfolios don’t always have the variety and industry awareness that employers or clients are looking for – these are vital. On top of that my advice is this: don’t be scared or shy of getting in touch with big names. A lot of companies are looking for new talent all of the time and the biggest hurdle can sometimes just be having the confidence to pick up the phone.
AVA: How do you feel about the fact that most students can’t afford to purchase pieces of designer fashion? Have labels become more important than innovative style?
AR: The value of anything is how much people are prepared to pay for it. Often you’re paying more for the quality of the materials, the garment construction or innovative design – but sometimes it is just for the brand. Any product has a range of different market levels.
AVA: Where do you go for inspiration?
AR: I sort of don’t really ever stop looking. I always look at a broad range of sources, not just textiles. I look at books, magazines, the internet (increasingly good blogs), especially for graphics, illustration and art direction in general. It’s always a good idea to see what’s going on all over the world and the web makes this relatively straightforward.
AVA: What are your future goals?
AR: I’m hoping to start a major new research project in generative design, part of which will be pushing the possibilities of digital fabric printing. I think there’s a massive amount of untapped potential there. We’re starting a new programme called Textiles in Practice at Manchester in September which will be a great and very exciting opportunity for students.
AVA: Why should someone choose to study printed textiles?
AR: If you enjoy working with pattern and imagery it gives you the opportunity to see your designs everywhere… not just interiors or fashion, but also giftware, stationery, and so on – there are so many different surfaces your work could end up on. You can be creative and imaginative and get your work – quite democratically – into the world. From a designer’s point of view I never get bored of seeing people wearing my stuff or seeing it for sale. I like that print and pattern are everywhere but in quite a quiet way.