Last year, when I spoke to Standing Ground’s Michael Stewart after his Fashion East debut, what really struck me about his work was how it went against the grain of today’s current fashion climate. The pace at which fashion expects its emerging talents to work see’s an emphasis on virality and gimmickry with designers looking more so like master marketers than artisans of exquisite craftsmanship. Consider Stewart’s sophomore collection a much welcome palette cleanser to the trite tactics that so often proliferate London Fashion Week. The modern-day couturier didn’t veer away from the essence of his LFW inauguration. On the contrary, Stewart’s sophomore collection was a triumphant evolution of the ideas that made his debut so special to begin with.
‘I don’t need to think about a story’, Stewart tells me when I visit his Sarabande studio in Haggerston days before Fashion East’s A/W 23 show. The Irish-designer joined Sarabande – the foundation set up by the late Lee Alexander McQueen to foster emerging talents with subsidised studio space – as a designer-in-residence in December. ‘I’m more so interested in beautiful fit and form, and really pushing that as the thing I want to show’. And that’s exactly what he did. Stewart’s fluid silhouettes are defined by his use of as few seams as possible he pushed that idea further this season. There was an immense confidence in the simplicity of the show’s opening looks with the only detail being padding on the hips, creating a gestural silhouette propelling the models forward.
While this gestural approach to design follows his S/S 23 collection, an entirely new proposition introduced this time around is tailoring. Crafted from Donegal tweed, a material Stewart tells me ‘was a popular couture fabric in the 50s and 60s’, are two floor length single breasted coats. ‘You can mould wool in really beautiful ways,’ he explains. The styles are shaped to the body with sharp shoulder pads and the hip padding that runs throughout the collection further accentuating the hourglass silhouette. ‘They’re beautifully shaped. You can see the wool has a very sculptural quality.’
The fluidity that defines Stewart’s work is thanks in part to his use of jersey. ‘There's always going to be jersey in my work’, he says. Still, that isn’t stopping him from exploring the different properties of wools, velvets, and satin. ‘Obviously you can make something beautiful out of calico or any basic fabric but it's nice having access to exquisite fabrics.’ While a proven master at draping with jersey, satin was his fabric of choice this season for creating sculptural detailing that gives the appearance of being wind-swept. While not as immaculate as his jersey work, it will be interesting to see how he further develops these ideas in the future.
This newfound access to resources is thanks in part to the support system he has in place this season with both Fashion East and Sarabande providing financial assistance and business mentoring. As a Sarabande designer-in-residence Stewart was able to source deadstock fabrics from Alexander McQueen as well as receive advice from Sarabande CEO Trino Verkade on further developing his made-to-measure model. Something that should only be fuelled by the growing number of red carpet appearances Standing Ground has accrued, with Jourdan Dunn, Sabine Getty and actress Ellie Bamber all wearing looks from S/S 23 to various premieres since Stewart’s Fashion East debut.
Of course, the biggest support, Stewart tells me, comes from Kildare Village who Stewart has reconnected with since his years as a student. Part of The Bicester Collection, the Dublin-based retail destination have a long history of supporting Irish talent and initially provided the designer with a bursary to attend the Royal College of Arts in London from 2015 to 2017. A longtime partner of the CNMI Sustainable Fashion Awards, the Bicester collections have long shown a commitment to supporting the next generation of talents around the world.
While the support he’s received this season means having access to resources he would otherwise struggle to get a hold of, Stewart tells me it comes with a new set of challenges. ‘Holding back on things,’ he explains. ‘I'm ambitious to introduce certain elements of my work but i’m also not going to show something half-baked’. Missing this season are the sculptural, metal adornments of last season. ‘But, I’m developing them and I have great ideas for them but that takes time. I’m holding them back because I want things to be right’.