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IN CONVERSATION WITH FRANCES PRYCE LEWIS

Join us for a Q&A with the South African designer, where we learn all about the inspiration behind her ethereal, effortless and elegant designs. 

Art Director, Photographer:

Kat Kotze 

Writer:

Kat Kotze 

Fashion Designer:

Frances Pryce Lewis 

Model:

Hannah Erasmus from Twenty Model Management 

During high school I took art and design as subjects. I think I was a lot more experimental at the time, exploring different mediums and really trying to figure out what my style was.  I would create these massive pieces with collaged elements, abstract brushstrokes and then embroider into it. My art pieces always focused on the use of colour and texture and took inspiration from nature. I loved art and always thought I’d end up studying Fine Art after matriculating! At 17 I started working as a sales assistant at Topshop on the weekends. I still don’t know how I managed this whilst juggling homework, cultural activities and sports… Yet, I think it was this experience that really opened my eyes to the possibility of fashion as career. 

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I got introduced to your work before the influx and overwhelm of social media, there weren’t much posts or pictures of your work to be found at the time. All I know is that one day, everyone at school was talking about this girl who had stunned the crowd with her designs at the St. Cyprians Annual Fashion Show. A video was making the rounds, and all through our lunch break we replayed it with envy. Beautiful, pleated high-waisted skirts were paired with shimmering, abstract paints and gorgeous, glittering beads and embroidery. 

Much of that collection appeared inspired by nature, so although it was the closest thing to ready-to-wear Dior we had in Cape Town at the time, it was also distinctly Capetonian, drawing inspiration from our fynbos and seascapes. 

Can you tell us a bit about those early years, how you got into designing and what your process was like before your fashion education? 

I remember watching my mum embellishing my sister’s ballet costumes with complete fascination at 13 years old. Shiny sequins and beads were individually sewn onto layers of tulle and organza. Sure enough, my mum taught me how to sew and by the time I was 16 I could make my own dresses to wear to parties. 

During high school I took art and design as subjects. I think I was a lot more experimental at the time, exploring different mediums and really trying to figure out what my style was.  I would create these massive pieces with collaged elements, abstract brushstrokes and then embroider into it. My art pieces always focused on the use of colour and texture and took inspiration from nature. I loved art and always thought I’d end up studying Fine Art after matriculating! At 17 I started working as a sales assistant at Topshop on the weekends. I still don’t know how I managed this whilst juggling homework, cultural activities and sports… Yet, I think it was this experience that really opened my eyes to the possibility of fashion as career. 

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There is such a freedom in your pieces during that time. I wonder if you still feel that spontaneity when designing? Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time at art school, I do miss the playfulness with which I approached my medium in my younger years.

Did you ever find FEDISA restrictive in that manner? And what was the most valuable lesson you learnt in the course? 

Perhaps, but FEDISA also taught me how to refine my design style and focus on precision and detail! A valuable lesson I learnt was how to think commercially about my work Today, we have all these resources available to learn from and look at, whether it be Pinterest, Instagram, fashion magazines, Vogue Runway or The Costume Institute. Although fantastic for mood boards, I can imagine that these must be quite overwhelming as well. 

How do you interact with these resources and ignore all the ‘noise’ so as to focus on your own work? 

When working on new collections, I love getting inspiration from previous fashion periods. I also look to nature for inspiration, drawing emphasis from the colours and textures of flowers and plants. I try to avoid designing according to current fashion trends. Rather, I design for myself and the design style that I love. My work is an expression of myself and the clothes that I want to wear. 

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Soon after you graduated from design school, you had the opportunity work at Ralph & Russo in their Haute Couture Embroidery Department. What was it like working for such a prestigious brand in such a fast paced environment? 

What an incredible experience it was! I still feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with such talented couturiers. The passion, dedication and countless hours that are spent to perfect every couture dress is truly a unique form of art.

I’ve heard that the overtime at these companies are crazy and that, although you learn an immense amount, you do suffer mentally and physically from the strains of the job. This appears to be a combination of poor management and the constant desire for new products. I find that in most creative industries, there is this toxic notion that you have to ‘suffer for your art’.

Can you expand on your experience at Ralph & Russo and what you learnt about the industry in terms of fast-fashion and consumer demand?

I became aware of the true cost of fashion – even in the luxury fashion sector. Worker’s rights are often taken advantage of just to meet the customer’s needs. There is an expectation to work ridiculously long hours, at the expense of your mental and physical well being, to meet often unattainable deadlines. However, the amount of knowledge, insight and skill I learnt is invaluable. The experience of working with a team of couturiers from all over the world on high profile and celebrity projects was exciting. 

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You made your way back home just before Lockdown in 2020 and finally launched your own label, Frances Pryce Lewis. Your designs are always expertly tailored and beautifully detailed, as well as a reflection of your own personality, preppy and fun. Every now and then, big over-sized bows and frills find their way into the collection, adding a frivolous quality that somehow never seems immature. I would go so far as to say that your pieces are the perfect combination of on-trend and classical, total keepers for any wardrobe.

Your collections are small and carefully curated. How does this slow-fashion experience compare to the fast-pace of London, and why do you think it is important for all labels to be as sustainable as possible? 

Living in London was truly eye opening. I didn’t realise how bad consumerism really was. It is just too easy and cheap to buy a piece of clothing from a fast fashion brand! The ‘wear once and move on’ mindset has to change. Each item I design and make is timeless and expertly handmade to last. It is so important to me that my customer knows the journey their garment has been on from start to finish. Every garment is made in very small quantities, meaning each piece is truly unique and individual. My pieces are individually sewn by me with time and care, ensuring that they last for years to come. 

I think it’s vital for every brand to be as sustainable and ethical as possible in order to better the future, but I also believe that consumers need to make more of a conscious choice not to support unethical or fast fashion brands. Brands need a lot more support from local consumers in order to implement greater sustainable practices! 

The current sustainable fashion market in South Africa is very small and a lot of small businesses are trying their best. There are many limitations here, such as sourcing materials made locally. I think a lot more needs to be done in the local fashion industry to improve this as a whole. However, there are numerous things local fashion labels can do to be sustainable such as producing in small quantities, employing local seamstresses and patternmakers and sourcing materials from local suppliers. 

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What’s your go-to statement piece?

My black hand-beaded Starlight Blouse from the A/W’21 Collection.

What’s the best book you’ve read this year?

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Any recommended reading for those interested in pursuing a career in fashion? 

  • Alexander McQueen Blood Beneath The Skin by Andrew Wilson
  • Fashionopolis: The Price of Fast Fashion
  • The Future of Clothes by Dana Thomas
  • #Girlboss by Sophia Amoruso

How do you spend your days off? 

Art Galleries, a trip to the beach or Kirstenbosch, or surrounded by family and friends. 

When can we expect the new collection?

The new collection AW’21 will be dropping online in a week!

What are you wearing right now?

The 100% Cotton Lina Dress in white. She is my go-to essential!

Is lounge wear here to stay? 

Gosh I really hope not!

You can find Frances Pryce Lewis at the Neighbourgood’s Market on Saturdays at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, or visit her studio by appointment in Gardens, Cape Town.

@franceprycelewis
@katkotze
@theluckykatchats
@hannah_erasmus

FRANCES PRYCE LEWIS: Join us for a Q&A with the South African designer, where we learn all about the inspiration behind her ethereal, effortless and elegant designs.
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