Last year was a big one for Catherine Teatum and Rob Jones, aka Teatum Jones. In February, they became the first Brit label to scoop the International Woolmark Prize, whose past winners include Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.
Their path to the prize was pretty clear. Picked by a panel of judges including W’s Stefano Tonchi, Roland Mouret, Dylan Jones, André Leon Talley and Tim Blanks, the collection was bold, polished, and infinitely romantic.
Ribbed knits, windowpane check column dresses, sweeping blanket capes and jacquard shirts with flared cuffs were inspired by Foxford Woolen Mills, founded in 1892 by an English nun, Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, to help people of Foxford, County Mayo overcome famine by creating an industry of woven blankets and shawls.
‘We looked at border embroidery on traditional Irish blankets from the late 1800s and magnified them up to 500 per cent so they became oversized geometric designs,’ says Catherine. ‘We also looked at domestic kitchen tiles from the same time and played with the idea of scale.’
Mills, nuns, kitchens, blankets: none of these usually find expression on the catwalk but, since the label’s inception in 2009, Teatum Jones has expressed a profound interest in human stories and in people who forge ahead in the humblest of places.
‘On a very basic level, we’re fascinated by people,’ says Catherine. ‘And it’s not necessarily fashion topical or style icons who find their way into our work. It’s a quite British thing of loving the underdog.’
The duo thrive on research. ‘We always try to get to the source. If that person is still alive, we will try and find them, interview them and get inside their heads.’
In the case of SS16, that was Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee. ‘We wrote to Leymah and said “you’re all over our mood board. We’d love to talk to you,” says Rob. The collection melded African-themed fabrics in joyous pinks with modest materials in pure white in a show that addressed, quite consciously, issues of poverty, migration and female oppression. AW15 derived from Northern Soul, not simply its shapes and its music, but its political underpinnings. Teatum Jones are not afraid of difficult subject matter.
Their vision – and this is no doubt behind the Woolmark win – is lent physical gravitas by the label’s passion for new fabrics and historically laden artisanal processes. ‘For the Woolmark Prize, we introduced wool into everything we do,’ says Catherine.
‘We’d been working with a French guipure lace mill for three years and re-introduced it to merino yarn, which it hadn’t used for 130 years,’ says Catherine. The result for the Woolmark Prize was a staggering Merino lace; Teatum Jones also worked with artisans in Italy to create a stretch wool fabric, onto which they bonded the lace.
What does winning the prize mean for the label? ‘The biggest thing isn’t the cash prize, it’s the retail partners – the top ten department stores around the globe,’ says Rob. ‘We’ll be flying to David Jones in Sydney, Dubai etc … A small brand doesn’t have the budget to fly out to every store we launch in so to be able to do that on this scale, to see the local customer and get to know them, that, for us, is priceless.’