Interview with fashion designer, Helen Bullock

Helen Bullock: Clothes to tap dance in. Interview by Freya Hardy, taken from issue four. 

Helen Bullock is understandably, but undeniably distracted. She has lost her portfolio. It’s almost the first thing she tells me after ‘Hello’ and as we sit down to chat it becomes clear that its disappearance is bothering her. She’s trying not to think about it so she can focus on answering my questions but I can see from her face that somewhere in the back of her mind she’s trying to recall the last place she had it, who was she with? Could it be there?... Could it be there? …Oh God, please don’t let it be there! To make matters worse, her collection is running late – pushed back by fashion week, teaching engagements, door-stepping Parisian fashion houses and various bits of illustration work.

I get the impression that focus is not a thing that comes easily to Helen. She talks clearly but quickly, moving from one subject to another quite suddenly and without warning, like a butterfly. Effervescent.  During our conversation she references Paul Klee’s hand puppets and the British painter Marc Vaux. She tells me that sometimes she wakes up wanting to be an actress, sometimesa tap dancer. And actually, when I think about it, that’s all evident in her work. Her clothes are colourful, raw, primitive, playful and above all joyous . They are the kind of clothes you might imagine Isadora Duncan going bat shit crazy for if only she were around to wear them.  I have as many daring outfits in my wardrobe as anyone else. Most are profoundly uncomfortable, forcing me to shrink and writhe and squeeze myself into them.  But none of my clothes dare me in quite the same way that Helen’s do. You expand into Helen’s clothes. They ask questions of you, they dare you to be a braver person - the kind of person you might dream about being – a person detached from reality in the nicest possible way, a girl who is free to move, to dance to her own glorious beat.  A one-woman carnival.

Could you tell us a little bit about your work?

It’s hard to define at the moment because I am doing quite a few different things. I always begin with shape or colour. That’s kind of what leads it. I did one collection under my name when I graduated and I’m working a new collection now. It’s very late. It should have been out in February but I’ve had illustration jobs to do.  I’ve been trying to do samples on a smaller scale so I can understand it a little better and maybe save time and money, but it’s really not worked. I have to have that scale for it to have an impact. My work is very colour based… print based. Silhouette wise it’s always very large, oversized shapes. I kind of treat the garment as a canvas for my prints, it’s a painting basically. I am interested in silhouette and once I have more time to work on the collection I will start to add details but I don’t think I’ll ever be doing anything that’s ‘to the body’ under my label anyway. Helen recently produced a micro collection with Anthropologie under a kind of diffusion line-  H by Helen Bullock -distilling some of her ideas into commercially workable pieces whilst managing to retain the expressive mark making of her walking canvases.

Who do you design for?

I don’t think it’s really for anybody until it’s left the print room. I think I design for myself more than anything.  I have to want to wear it. I have friends who are starting to show an interest. They keep pestering me to make bits for them but I’m still quite surprised by it, because all my friends are quite different from each other. The people who are coming forward and saying ‘we want to wear that’ are all quite diverse but they are all quite lively, quite physical people. I think you need quite a personality to wear my clothes. You can’t be shy and retiring. Julie Verhoeven ( the artist), she’s been really great. She has a lot of my stuff at the moment, and I do sometimes have her in mind. My course director got so mad at me, asking me ‘what is your market?’ and ‘where will this sell?’ but I just don’t think like that and in the end she just said ‘you just need to design a dress for Julie’.  I don’t really think I’m talented enough to design for someone though. I think that takes a certain skill, but I was really pleased when she wanted to wear my work. It reaffirmed that I was doing the right thing… People that are fun and lively and artistic. Creative, good people.  Helen giggles a charismatic giggle.  It’s really important that it doesn’t just become … print is really everywhere at the moment. It has been for quite some time, and I’m trying to make it feel different to a regular piece of clothing. People say they want to put my clothes on and play, and I think that’s kind of cute.  That’s exactly what I want.  It should make you feel happy wearing it.

How important is comfort to you?

Yes, that’s really key. Massively. I hate feeling restricted by an item of clothing. I want to feel empowered by it. I want to feel confident and able, not able to move in a sloppy way. You almost feel a bit naked in my clothes. And for me that gives you confidence, so although my clothes kind of take over - they can wear you - you’ve got that space around you, you’re also yourself a lot more and it’s quite freeing.  There isn’t much of a silhouette, butI wore one of my pieces to a weddingand I made it a little bit shorter and the neckline a bit softer and it actually feels quite sexy.  You feel quite feminine, with a pair of heels on, and it hangs with you. Comfort is very important.

There seems to be an African influence in the shapes, is that deliberate?

It’s not intentional, but it comes up a lot. I wish I’d travelled more – I haven’t been away properly for about two years, but I do look at a lot of layering, and things that hang, and there is quite a tribal influence. I look a lot to India and Pakistan, I love to feel that kind of colour… I do have a lot of Kaftan kind of dresses from Dalston and Shepherds Bush – a lot of African print.

Are you a colour collector?

Yes, always. I photograph a lot of things… I saw a lady the other day wearing a lime green coat and a contrast green shoe and then I got on the train and I was going past Battersea power station and there was a complete contrast, a pale, powder ice kind of blue… I love putting together random combinations.  I look, I take photographs. Sometimes I just write words down and that will trigger memories.

Is that where you start from?

It is, yes.  The colour is the most important thing, but I’m always forgetting that. Nothing can start until I’ve got my colour composition going because that is what’s exciting about the work, the relationship between the colours. The work can’t start until I have that.

How important to you is the physicality of screen printing?

I think it’s really important. I don’t have my own empire yet, partly because I want to do lots of different things. I keep thinking should I just try and get a proper job in a fashion house but things start to happen when I’m in the print room and I’ve actually got that space. It depends on my mood and everything about it is really physical. I just can’t imagine being sat at a desk, being confined to that. 

You think that would be taken away from you?

Yes.  I think so. There wouldn’t be the facilities for me to do that. Ideally I’d like to work with houses but in a print studio, in collaboration with them. I think that shows through my work because if I go and meet anyone they’re like ‘we’d like to work with you in the future but we just can’t see you sat in the studio’.  I make a big mess, I like mixing colours myself, that’s really important.  I feel energised by the actual process, and yes, the physicality of it.

So what do you want? What’s your ultimate goal?

I want to be as I am now but more productive.  I’d like to do more collaborations, and I’d like more regular illustration work. I think all the things I do are separate but linked, and I’d like to keep on going that way. I want to keep it small - a friend suggested I produce limited editions, so every garment I do I only make about ten of. I don’t want to be getting into production and the business side of things so much. I want to keep it contained.  I want it to still have that personal touch, so they continue to feel like one-offs. As soon as it becomes more mass then I think it loses something. Perhaps I’ll do homeware, somebody recently said my stuff would look good on, like, a sofa.