Derek Lawlor is lead designer of Alastair White and Gemma A. Williams’s new opera production, Wear, showing at this year’s Tete-a-Tete Festival at King’s Cross. Wear is an immersive sci-fi experience, which fuses together fashion, art, opera and contemporary music. Here, Derek discusses his passion for textiles and knit work, the inspiration behind his costumes designs for the opera production and his close collaboration with composer, Alastair White and concept director, Gemma A. Williams.

When did you realise design was your calling?

I’ve always been interested in design from a young age. My dad is a carpenter so I grew up helping him in his workshop, watching him make the most intricate furniture. At school I studied art and design and a lot of my influences came from architecture and furniture design which was definitely an influence from my dad. I went on to study art foundation in Brighton where I specailised in Fashion and textiles. It was at this stage that I knew I wanted to create my own fabrics. I went on to study my BA in Textile Design at Central Saint Martin’s where I specialised in knitted textiles.

Upon finishing my BA I was fortunate to get on to MA Fashion at CSM being taught under the incredible Louise Wilson. Louise allowed me to realise my vision, my Masters allowed me 18 months to develop my cord work knitwear. Louise was very supportive and gave me the confidence to start my own brand.

Where does your passion for textiles, fabrics and knitted material come from

I’ve always been interested in Fashion and Textiles, buying fashion magazines from a young age I was always fascinated about the fabrics which the garments were made from. It was only whilst studying Textile Design I was able to explore weave, knit and printed textiles. I chose to specialise in knit as I really enjoyed the process from start to finish. I treat the fabric as my canvas which then I work in to. I can’t wait to take the fabric off the machine so I can push the fabrics further through manipulation and my cording techniques.

Do you have a preference for working with a particular medium or all of the above?

Being a knitwear designer, I get to create lots of different fabrics by experimenting with different yarns. The cord work technique is signature to my brand and recognised as a process I’ve used in each collection over the past several years. Textile Design is key to my design process. After creating my fabrics, I use draping to explore how the fabrics can be pushed in to garments. It’s only once the cord-work is applied the fabrics come to life, sculptural forms are created.

Derek Lawson’s Designs for opera production, Wear.

Is this the first time you’ve showcased your work in an opera production or theatre production?

I’ve been really fortunate to work with the Royal Ballet previously but this is the first opera production I’ve been involved in which I’m really excited about.

What types of things would you say are significant for creating designs for an opera production that has a narrative and strong message?

I think it’s really important that the garments translate well with the narrative in order to push a strong message. The expression and movement of different sounds will be really important in this performance and we have carefully chosen garments that through structure and form will express different emotion that the audience will experience.

Wear is an opera about time travel and fashion. For Wear what was the inspiration behind your costume design in this production?

The costumes used have been chosen from my archive collections and in particular my AW09 MA collection. The garments were the beginning of my journey as a fashion designer which felt very relevant for this production. Next year I will be celebrating 10 years of my label, each collection I produce is timeless. We’ve created new pieces to fit in to this collection which follow the narrative perfectly.

In terms of the design, what types of information did you need to know and study in order to create the final costume? 

I’ve worked closely with Composer Alistair White and Director Gemma Williams from the very beginning so I have been able to see the story evolve.  It was really important that the garments sat well with the narrative. Each garment has a particular statement. The collections are sculptures in there self, when worn the fabrics and embellishment in the garments come to life. The embellishment and cord work have movement which when worn by different characters in the opera will be dramatic.

What has it been like working alongside and collaborated with director and concept, Gemma A. Williams and Alastair White?

I’ve been fortunate to have my work in exhibitions which Gemma has curated previously. Gemma has worked on many successful projects and worked with incredible designers, I respect her expertise and knowledge. This is the first time I’ve worked with Alistair White. Since the beginning of this project we’ve had lots of exciting conversations, working with such a talented composer has been an incredible experience, the way we interpret both music and fashion together has been very organic. For both of us this has been an exciting new journey, there’s been lots of similarities in the way we can talk about fashion and opera, the process of making can be similar in an unusual way.

Derek Lawson's designs for Wear

Design illustrations by Derek Lawson.

On a day to day basis, how does what we wear and what we consider to be ‘fashionable’ become an integral part of ‘time’ and human history?

I think what we wear as individuals is very personal, we create our own style, wear what we feel confident in and dress for a purpose. Clothing is of era and we can associate certain memories, genres, movements from fabrics and style. I myself create garments that are timeless. I see my garments as pieces of art – once worn they can create confidence. The fabrics and garments that I make are not seasonal therefore allow them to be worn at any time and styled with other pieces.

What do you want the audience to feel when they look at your design on stage?

I want the audience to feel like they are in the studio, can feel the design and making of the garments. There will be knitting machines and fabrics being produced through the performance. The audience will be able to feel the emotion of creativity and through sound will be able to interpret the creative process. The audience will be able to interact and look at garments on display but also see the garments come to life once worn by the performers.

As a designer, what is the most gratifying part of what you do?

As a designer, I have been very fortunate to work on lots of different projects. From designing for the Royal Ballet to working with design houses such Marimekko, collaborating with talented designers such as Natalie Coleman, Margaret O’Connor and Jayne Pierson. I’ve exhibited my work internationally including Guangzhou Fashion Week in China and most recently showcasing my work at Jakarta Fashion Week representing the British Council.

Most recently I’ve worked on the knitwear for two films, Murder on the Orient Express and Mary Queen of Scots. I continue to be a lecturer at Central Saint Martins which I love as this is where it all started. I suppose I’m a bit a jack of all jobs for the different projects I’ve worked on but this is what keeps in excited and motivated, I would be bored if I was just doing one thing!

Do you hope to design for more opera and theatre productions in the future?

I’d love to design for more opera and theatre productions in the future. I’m very excited to take part in this performance and see it come to life. Like any collection I create or project I take part in the story is never over, it will create new ideas which I hope can lead to new projects.

Wear is showing at The Crossing, 1 Granary Square, King’s Cross, London, N1C 4AA on 8.00 pm as part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival on Friday 3 August. Click here to book your tickets now. 

For more information about Derek Lawlor, click here.