Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
Gill welcomes us in, apologising for the chill and settles us down on a decadent red velvet sofa. Her place is actually two places: one showroom where Gill hosts consultations with clients and displays dresses, and a workshop next door, where the ‘mess’ unfolds. There are dresses everywhere: wedding dresses, ballgowns, cocktail dresses. An aqua-blue, satin, one-shouldered number hangs on the back of a door expectantly, as though it’s about to be put on and waltzed in. It’s amazing to know that all the dresses have been hand-made by Gill, for a specific person. The dresses feel alive in a way that is so different from the cloned garments hanging limply on a rail in a high-street store. Each dress has a story; a special reason it exists. And all of them will be enjoyed, which is something that is dearly important to Gill. She is a dressmaker with a big heart and her dresses are made to be worn; worn until they are worn out. She talks to us about why she thinks we need to value clothes more and about the dress that made her cry.
How would you describe yourself as a maker?
I’m a dressmaker. I make all kinds of attire: from wedding to workwear. I do about sixty dresses a year. I also make suits, trousers, jumpsuits, underwear.
How did you start making?
I’ve always made things. My nan was a dressmaker and my mum knits and crochets. Sewing is in my blood. I’ve been dressmaking since I was six. I used to make jeans into mini skirts for my friends at school. That was my sideline. It just continued from there.
I can’t shop. I go into shops and see a rail of ten dresses that are all the same and I’m just not interested anymore. When I go out to a party I want to be the only one wearing that thing. Once you’ve had that you can’t really go back. It becomes addictive.
Apart from being unique, what’s great about hand-made dresses?
They are designed around the client. I never use commercial patterns and cut individual patterns for everyone who comes in this room. That’s a unique experience in this day and age - although it used to be how everyone got their clothes! People are astonished. They think they’ve been wearing clothes that fit but when they actually wear something that’s been made for them it’s a very different experience.
It’s about having something unique that makes you feel comfortable and confident. A lot of people feel like they don’t fit into commercial dress sizes and that makes them feel like they’ve got something wrong with them but that’s not it at all! It’s the clothes that are the problem. That’s really hard for people to understand because of the way clothes are produced now and the way our culture is. Confidence and feeling comfortable in your own skin are so important.
What was the most exciting dress you made?
There’s been so many exciting dresses: I’ll never forget my first catwalk collection for a L’Oréal show or my sister’s wedding dress, which was made of sixty metres of silk organza in three different shades of ivory. It was a total labour of love!
One of the most special commissions I ever did was for an amazing woman called Lettie Fox who’s paralysed from the waist down. In July, Lettie married her soulmate and I made her a dress that fitted around her wheelchair. She’s got scoliosis and we designed this really structured corset which enabled her to sit up straight and be comfortable. The NHS version of this is like a horse’s saddle - I wanted to make Lettie something as beautiful as she is.
Her whole life she’s been called things like 'deformed' by doctors and people she respects. That must be awful growing up and hearing that all the time. She’s so gorgeous and I really wanted her to feel that on her special day. She almost didn't get married because she was so worried about what she would wear and she didn’t want to just wear leggings.
We had nine fittings and actually made the dress twice as the first version had lots of issues when she put it on in the chair. It was a hard but an incredibly rewarding experience. She looked amazing and wrote me the most amazing letter. It makes me cry thinking about it. It’s a real privilege to be able to work for people in that way. Fashion can be so flippant but when you’re actually making as well as designing you can make things that work better for people. That’s something you just couldn’t get off the peg.
What places have inspired you?
Being here on Stokes Croft (Bristol, U.K) really inspires me. It has its fair share of problems but it’s also a very creative area. Every morning when you come to work there’s always some new artwork on the street and there’s a real hub of creative people. It’s a great place to be.
One of my favourite places on the planet is Glastonbury Festival. I think it’s absolutely amazing. I’ve been every year since I was eighteen and always managed to get some kind of working ticket. In recent years I was doing costumes for a venue. I’d sew everything before then just go and have the whole weekend off there. I think that place is incredible. It’s so magical!
Also, my nan’s sewing room. She had a little bungalow and sewed in this tiny box room. It was like a cupboard really. She just had her desk in there with a sewing machine and it had this funny smell, like a button jar - you know where your mum or nan put all the loose buttons chopped off old cardigans, just in case. I remember thinking that place was magical as well.
What place do you think makers have in the modern world?
I think people have really lost touch with makers and that’s a shame. The just think things are made in these ethereal factories in China. Machinery has a bigger and bigger part to play but there are still people operating those machines, particularly with apparel. Everything you buy is still made by somebody. Yes it’s often cut by lasers but every line of stitching will be done by a person with a sewing machine. A lot of those people are badly treated.
People know sweatshops exist but they always think it’s just shops like Primark. All shops use sweatshops. All of them. There is no transparency in the supply chain and it’s properly awful. It’s endemic modern slavery and because everyone uses it you can’t really make a business survive without it and that’s awful.
When you are sewing for sixteen hours a day, in a hot room, particularly in the summer, you can get an inkling of what it’s like to work in those factories. The difference is I earn a living wage and go home to a nice house with food to eat. Some of these people are earning slave wages, have whole families to support, and they’re living under tarpaulin or sleeping under sewing machines. They’re working twenty to twenty-two hours a day just for Westerners to buy t-shirts they may or may not wear and will throw away after they’ve worn them a couple of times at best. It’s absolutely horrendous and the only thing that will change that is if people stop wasting clothes.
The fact that we’re so detached from the people that make and produce our food, our clothes, our gadgets and everything else, perpetuates slavery and hardship. It perpetuates the gap between the rich and the poor. If people were more connected they’d understood things should be valued more because someone is working really hard and therefore products shouldn’t ever be treated as throwaway.
What place would you like to make the world?
I would like for people to adopt a more minimalist attitude in their consuming of things. We throw away tons of clothes every single year. People think donating clothes to charity shops is good but it’s not good at all. It’s better than putting it in landfill but what happens to the stuff that isn’t sold after several months? It gets shipped to Africa. Then people think: oh that’s good. But it’s not good because the only way some people can make a living is by making clothes for local people. And now the local people are just going to collection places and getting clothes for free so these industries are being destroyed.
I always say to my customers if you’re not going to wear it thirty times - don’t buy it. Because if you do you’re just perpetuating that industry of throwaway fashion. My motto is: buy less, value more, don’t waste clothes.
Iwhat motivates you when the going is tough?
Dressmaking is backbreaking work but my clients keep me motivated. Some have been with me for over a decade. I feel really grateful that they keep coming back and allowing me to keep doing what I love and they love what I make and that gives me enormous satisfaction.
I often have a moral struggle with fashion. In Stokes Croft you see a lot of homeless people, a lot of whom have really bad problems - then you’re making a £4,000 dress that someone might wear once. That’s tough. But that’s how much it has to cost because it’s so labour intensive. I barely get by. But when you do something for somebody that feels really important, and isn't not shallow or superficial, it’s a nice antidote to all that. When I make a dress for somebody and they start crying because they are so happy with it, and when people tell me they’ve never felt beautiful before, or that they went out wearing something I made and got loads of compliments and had a really good time - that’s just amazing. When I’m helping someone with confidence and feeling good in themselves that’s invaluable and I really appreciate being able to do that. It's wonderful to know you’ve made someone that happy.
The Clothes Bank
The clothes bank is a nickname we’ve coined for Gill’s place. The building her workshops are in used to be a bank (although it is now full of musicians, filmmakers and jewellery importers) so we thought the name fitting, particularly given Gill’s struggle with the consumerism of the fashion industry and the gap it perpetuates between rich and poor. Her showroom feels very couture, with leopard-print rugs on the floor, gold mirrors, a beautiful fitting room and the arched windows, in which Gill’s dresses are displayed. These windows are what made Gill buy the space even though she could ‘categorically not afford it!’ Next door, her workshop has sewing machines, an industrial ironing station, a cutting table and reams of fabric. There are also lots of sentimental objects, most of which have been up-cycled by Gill’s mother who seems to share Gill’s ethos of buy less, value more.
Where do you make?
Here in my workshop on Stokes Croft (Bristol, UK). I’ve got two rooms: one where we make everything and one where I do design consultations with my clients so they don’t see the mess! Finding this was a complete accident. I was looking for a studio but everywhere was four times my budget. I heard about this place through a friend of a friend. Initially I just had the workshop but then the fitting room became available. I did the sums with dad and we decided I categorically could not afford it, under any circumstances. I signed the next day!
It’s a magnet that my Mum gave me and it says: Find a pin pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck. It's for picking up dropped pins. She found the magnet in a charity shop and engraved it herself. I’ve had it years. My mum is always looking for things to up-cycle and brings me something every time she visits. She also knits all the time. I once asked her for a pair of wrist warmers and she came in with about forty in different colours! The wool is recycled. She buys jumpers with holes in from charity shops and unravels them. She’ll just give them to people she meets for lunch. This year, she knitted my siblings and I Christmas bunting with six triangles, one for each of us, to remind us of family There is so much labour involved but she loves it, and it’s so special because of that.
These scissors are handmade in Sheffield by Ernest Wright & Son. My Dad got me them for Christmas one year. The guy who makes them says each pair is a jewel because they’re completely handmade and every pair is different. They’ve got a lifetime guarantee and they are super, super sharp. These scissors are reproduced in China. They’re the same but completely different. These just feel so much more special to use. There are so few people who make things any more.
I use them every day, I don’t keep them for best. They are a tool and should be used for the purpose they were made. I think it would be awful to keep things in a box and not use them. That’s how I feel about my dresses too. If people just keep them for best I’m always disappointed because I want them to be worn until they’re worn out! Then they will be valued.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.