Award-winning British artist and designer Zoe Bradley is not your average couturier. She rarely meets her clients for fittings of their gowns, her pieces are commonly only worn once, and some have been “thrown away” after use.
This is because Bradley works exclusively in paper.
Such is her pedigree that her clients for one-off commissions have included the likes of enigmatic Icelandic pop singer Björk and late British fashion aficionado Isabella Blow.
For the recently concluded Milan Fashion Week, Bradley’s latest creation was a full-scale ball gown and headpiece worn by model Suki Waterhouse. The commission, from British Airways, furnished Bradley with carte blanche to interpret the brief of “travel, fashion and style”.
From first sketch to finishing touches, Bradley’s gown took less than a month to complete. About 700 individual royal-blue ruffles made up the skirt of the dress, while a corset of white petals was accented with a sash of crimson, hand-curled roses.
Completing the look was a hat of twisting paper plumes and a rosette of printed boarding cards bearing Waterhouse’s name.
“To create the textile, the paper started out as a flat horseshoe shape before it was laser-cut and folded back on itself many times,” says Bradley. “That creates the 3-D ruffle. The paper also has a metallic finish and an iridescent glow so that it looks like silk.
“It was much like creating an amazing wedding cake – the layers kept increasing and I added more piping. It was certainly a labour of love.”
Despite having travelled 1,553 kilometres from Bradley’s studio in Wales to Italy, the fragile paper gown withstood scrutiny.
“It arrived in half, placed in two three-metre-high cases,” says Bradley.
“A dress like this must go through quite a lot of wear an tear. You need to educate the person who’s wearing it that it will rip or dent if they press on it.
“The good thing is that we can always bring it back to life.”
Responsibility for testing the mettle of the dress fell to aspiring actress Waterhouse, who took part in a photo shoot at Piazza del Duomo in front of Milan’s historic cathedral.
Ensuring the gown’s bold silhouette was maintained, Bradley built the undercarriage of the dress in a lightweight, copper-wire frame with integrated casters. It was then upholstered and clad in paper before each ruffle was painstakingly applied by hand.
It is a distillation designer’s approach to her work which is that of a couturier first and artist second.
In 1997 Bradley graduated in fashion design and went on to become a showpiece creator for the late Alexander McQueen.
She recalls the training received at the hands of the fearless designer as setting the course for her career.
“It was my dream job and I had an incredible education as his apprentice,” admits Bradley. “You can’t conventionally learn what I do, it’s all about taking risks and creating an element of surprise in your work – he [McQueen] really pushed me.
“Now, when I train people, I throw them in at the deep end because that’s what happened with me at McQueen and I’m eternally grateful.”
McQueen was in his prime during Bradley’s tutelage and the duo worked closely on his unforgettable spring/summer ready-to-wear show in 1999.
Simply titled No. 13, the finale of McQueen’s presentation spotlighted model Shalom Harlow standing on a rotating platform. As she spun around, her voluminous white muslin dress was aggressively spray-painted yellow and black by mechanical robots.
Post McQueen, Bradley went on to design hand-pleated dresses and fire-singed paper swimsuits for Japanese designer Michiko Koshino. She also created large-scale installations for stores and brands including Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Louis Vuitton and Dior.
“Commissions can be daunting but I’m always ready for the next challenge,” she says. “I like crazy briefs and difficult parameters.”
No undertaking is too small, says Bradley, and if a Middle Eastern client desired a dress inspired by the Burj Khalifa, she’d be on the first flight to the UAE.
“I’ve no idea how much it might cost but we’re potentially talking about six figures,” she admits.
“I’ve never been to the Middle East but I love travelling to see my work in different places. I also think we’re wise to do an exhibition somewhere now.”
Before a career retrospective, upcoming projects will take priority for Bradley who, once again, finds herself on the familiar quest for creative inspiration.
“I’m always looking for silhouettes and I never know when I’m going to find a new one,” she says. “I find being close to nature often helps. From amazing beaches to the lines in a piece of wood or even the curves of a sand dune – inspiration can often come in a flash.”