Getting the ‘Fred’ Finish

After designing Gaga’s infamous Telephone hat, Fred Butler’s star is on the rise. Liam O’Brien asks just how you turn paper and plastics into fashion

Lady Gaga in the ‘Telephone’ video

Lady Gaga in the ‘Telephone’ video

Making a fashion shoot look decent is a fine art. Of course, getting a good stylist (expensive) and working alongside the best artsy photographers London has to offer (very expensive) is a start, but as editorial cutbacks grow in today’s fashion industry, editors are using homegrown talent to produce bizarre yet delightful pieces to add humour to shoots and to avoid both the cost and monotony of another beautiful spread that could, like so many others, be entitled “here is a beach at 7pm”.

Fred Butler first came to this contributor’s attention as I was flicking through the leftfield monthlies Dazed and Confused and iD (not so monthly any more). Lo and behold, some marvellous accessories and headwear that took the harsh, prism shape, and made it into something playful and tactile: a thousand colourful prisms and textile ephemera all sort of jumbled together in a jocular spirit, hanging beautifully nevertheless off the models’ bodies. Though Butler’s designs keep evolving, I can still spot one of her pieces a mile off.

Butler graduated in Fashion Design from the University of Brighton in 2003, immediately setting to work on her unique line of bespoke pieces. While she was a student, however, other fancies occupied her mind, and she admits: “I spent more time making props and clothes for parties than doing the degree.”

The longest I ever spent forging a costume from cheapo Boyes material was two hours making a black jumpsuit for Toga D, so I wondered how making outfits for just a few occasions took up so much time. Clearly, Butler was not engaging in normal fancy dress: “The most fun was a ‘Rainbow Brite’ doll costume. I used a stiff silver ironing board cover from the £1 shop, which was the perfect fabric, and sewed covers for my buffalo platform sneakers. I reused that look in a competition on SHOWstudio [a fashion website specializing in live coverage of catwalk events] for which I won a Nick Knight print of Leigh Bowery and later became a contributor for SHOW. So in retrospect it turned out the parties paid off better than the qualification!”

The hat took four days to make and was very satisfying to construct. I really geek out about the technique and high-quality finish. I have one of her t-shirts with it emblazoned on the front. It’s so surreal!

Her personal style has retained the spontaneous nature of the student dress code, yet gained immeasurably in sophistication: Butler is a regular on fashion street style blogs, including In spite of this, she claims to hate shopping.

“I can’t ever legitimize spending money or time on the activity. Luckily, clothes find me. As my wardrobe is split into monochromatic looks I know what items I need to acquire to complete an outfit. If I ever spot them I just snap them up. The other amazing luck I have is that I get beautiful clothes donated to me from designers who are friends. I love being an ambassador to spread the word of incredible talent by wearing it out and about everyday.”

Butler has found a new base in up-and-coming Dalston, and is now established as part of the East End’s circuit of young creatives. Her experiences in life are integral to the design of each of her collections, and as such continually evolve and incorporate new ideas. She finds a new material to base her concept on every season, and her design process is informed by hard graft and experimentation with 3D shapes. Though her “USP is using anything unusual”, she confesses to “regularly returning to plastics. My absolute fave ‘Fred’ finish is a reflective spectrum irridescent foil.” While this particular foil is often thought of as a low end product, often adorning tacky Halloween outfits and petrol station-bought flowers, its look in Butler’s work is transformed into something undoubtedly high-end. This choice and the effect it has are deliberate: “I combine unexpected materials with the use of craft techniques to create multifaceted surfaces. By layering up these textures my aim is to always produce shapes and patterns that have never been seen before, as if they are from another planet.”

Having barely left university, Butler received her first commission from Kathryn Ferguson, now a director and curator of the Bird’s Eye Fashion Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts: “We were put in touch through SHOWstudio but later discovered that I had moved into her flat in Hackney when she had moved out! London is a bizarre family tree with six degrees of separation.” Crossing the threshold of the fashion industry proper, Butler made some paper accessories for a Tank Magazine shoot, and thus began a special relationship with the fashion press, seeing her feature in everything from heavyweight tomes Vogue and Elle to Wuw and Parq. Each commission requires its own schedule: “[It always depends on] How much time I get given! Most jobs are very short notice with tight deadlines. My work is extremely labour intensive so this just means long days and little sleep. It’s such a glamorous job! Sewing to birdsong at dawn chorus…”

When I ask which works Butler is especially proud of, she declares, “Everything!” Yet she has a soft spot for her work with a large London department store: “I recently did the window scheme for the concept store at Selfridges, which was a real achievement due to the enormity of the space to fill.” Anyone who has paid even the hastiest visit to Oxford Street, or Selfridges’ competitors in Knighstbridge will know that they are the class of the field in dressing the windows, turning them into a fully conceptualised fashionscape and the target of hordes of photographers.

Butler made silver crowns to adorn the heads of the mannequins, but “there was no way of checking that I would like the way it looked until it was actually installed, which we had to do overnight whilst the shop was closed. Thank God it turned out the way I had imagined it in my mind. It was a massive responsibility. What an honour that they trusted me to do exactly what I liked. Selfridges are a fantastic team for helping launch new talent.”

Butler’s numerous works for stylist supreme Nicola Formichetti led to the creation of her first iconic work, and have given her the chance to springboard into the big leagues. When Formichetti became Lady Gaga’s personal stylist (you may notice the jump in the increased ‘artsyness’ of her outfits after he was employed), he began to involve young British designers in providing bespoke clothing and accessories for her considerable wardrobe. The result for Butler was producing the marvellous blue Telephone hat that Gaga sports when poisoning everyone’s food in the music video. The experience clearly thrilled Butler:

“Nicola’s assistant Anna Trevelyan asked me to make a telephone hat. I drew up a few sketches and made the one they selected in that specific beautiful blue. The whole experience has been phenomenal. So often I make things and they aren’t used. It was an unimaginable surprise to see the press shots emerging and then the revelation that it was a feature of the final edited video. I had absolutely no idea when I was making it that it would get such immeasurable exposure.

“It took four days to make and was a very satisfying object to work out how to construct. I really get into geeking out about the technique and high quality finish, which I’m thankful for since seeing the close up shots! Now I have one of her merchandise t-shirts with the image emblazoned on the front, which is so surreal!”

For the moment, Butler is concentrating on expanding her bespoke portfolio while simultaneously constructing a Spring/Summer 2011 collection that will be more closely scrutinized than anything she has ever produced before. Her collection will be captured in film, a medium with which saw her gain accolades in the last round of London Fashion Week: “I collaborate with director Elisha Smith-Leverock and stylist Kim Howells to preview each collection in a film. Last season we were appointed Number 1 in the Business of Fashion’s [a popular website] Top Ten Fashion Films for our one minute short, commissioned by Diane Pernet for her A Shaded View on Fashion film festival selection.”

New Gen sponsorship has meant that Butler can continue to produce a collection each year, but you feel that she will soon outgrow this essential support system for the capital’s network of design talent. Butler is gradually building a recognizable brand for herself, the chief foundations of which are spontaneity, hard work and the unique manipulation of a range of materials.

Middle and bottom: Butler accessories; images by Elisha Smith-Leverock

One comment

  1. Shorten your article

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