Menswear designer Nicci James creates knits inspired by spaceships and childhood and now works in "the factory of the future"
Even before graduating from the Manchester School of Art in 2014, it was clear that menswear designer Nicci James would conquer space and time. Her work was showcased at Graduate Fashion Week in London, and even won her a design award in Ningbo, China. After this tour de force, James tells The Skinny, she moved on to Knyttan, a small knitwear label in London – “or the Big Smoke, as my brother calls it.”
“Knyttan are an amazing company; their concept has excited me since I first found out about them back in November,” she says, her background as a designer specialising in knitwear shining through when she enthusiastically describes Knyttan’s design process. “They use Stoll machinery that exists in factories all over the world, and have created new software that allows them to produce individually customisable knitwear that the customer can interact with. This means that you can design your own unique piece of beautiful, high-quality knitwear that hasn’t come off a production line, but from Knyttan’s completely transparent factory of the future.”
The future also plays a role in James’ celebrated graduate collection called spaceAGE heritage. James says the range was designed for “the explorer of an alternate future,” mixing “sci-fi predictions from 1950s comics, early Everest expeditions, sci-fi landscapes and traditional British tweed.” Asked how one translates tweeds into something new, James explains what about the woolly weaves caught her eye. “It was the traditional tweed patterns that I manipulate. I used a dogtooth and a herringbone, playing with scale and colour to produce something nostalgically futuristic.”
"I asked the children at my old primary school to draw what the future would look like, and they came back with the most fantastical pictures" – Nicci James
Apart from this clever marriage of two seemingly opposite notions, James included a real and personal element of nostalgia. “One wonderful source of inspiration for this collection was my trip into my old primary school. I showed the children some pictures and asked them to draw what the future would look like, and they came back with the most fantastical pictures of monsters and spaceships. The lines in their drawings were so uninhibited and charming that I took these straight through into my collection as embroidery."
With the show over, the prize won and the job landed, James has some time to reflect on her achievements so far. “There is truly nothing that compares to seeing your hard work shown like that on the catwalk. It is such an emotional experience.” Apart from that, James highlights the importance of having the support of a known force in fashion. “Harris Tweed sponsored part of my final collection, donating authentic tweed for my use. I later found out that I was using some of the same fabric as in one of Vivienne Westwood’s previous collections after seeing it in one of the stores… It was a surreal moment to see it, and it be a beautiful womenswear coat rather than my men’s trousers!”
All these ideas from the past make one wonder: what in her own past brought James’ ideas to grace catwalks across the globe? “Growing up, my mum was always encouraging me to do practical things and we often did little bits of sewing for the teddies.” Her mum’s career as a florist brought James into close contact with the aesthetic side of life from an early age. “She always made a huge effort to dress the house up for special occasions like my birthday and still does! Christmas takes a very long time to decorate but it is always so beautiful and wonderful – decorating with her is such a special thing.”
The move into fashion was not always an obvious one for James, who confesses to sometimes hating clothes (“...which is, I suppose, why I prefer to design in the menswear realm”). And yet fashion is where she happily finds herself after doing her art foundation at a community college in her native Liverpool, and a BA in Manchester. When asked about her choice of schools she says: “I didn’t plan to stay at home originally; I had great plans of moving to London to study when I was first applying to university. In retrospect, staying in the Northwest has allowed me to grow at my own pace, away from the ultrasonic speed of London, and prove that I can push myself and produce really great work without the ‘London’ badge.”
The Northwest will miss Nicci James, who already has a lot of perspective to offer onto the world of fashion. For now, she is enjoying gaining experience at Knyttan, but we will surely hear from her again. “There is a small dream that I am nurturing of one day doing a master’s and entering that creative freedom of producing a full collection, and perhaps one day I will achieve that dream. One thing I have learnt is that that it is OK to take things at your own pace and enjoy the journey, so that is what I am doing.”