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Despite having worked with established high-end labels like Simone Rocha and JW Anderson, emerging designer Clare Payne set her eyes on realising her own slow fashion brand. With Marina Hoyer, she talks about leather as her choice material and why everything she creates is hand-crafted and made-to-order. 

Words By Marina Hoyer

November, 25th 2020

At the age of eleven, Clare Payne picked up her first ever Vogue magazine, brought to her by her mother. As she flipped through the pages, she stumbled across a leopard print coat — and fell in love. “From then on, I just wanted to be part of all this. I had no other career choice in mind than fashion,” recalls the now grown-up designer. 

In pursuit of her dreams, the Cambridge-born woman went to Kingston University London to study Fashion Design, graduating with a First Class Honours in 2012. From then on, her impressive vita reads household names like Simone Rocha and JW Anderson as well as small and exclusive sustainable luxury brands. While the emerging designer highly values the opportunities for growth that several years in prêt-à-porter fashion offered her, she ultimately wanted to follow her own ambitions. In January 2020, Payne launched a conceptual luxury label focusing on high quality, elegance and sustainability.

Courtesy of Clare Payne

A driving force behind the release of Clare Payne — the brand carrying the designer’s name — was the young woman’s desire to tackle problems within the industry. Her chosen route to this is through slowing down fashion and allowing consumers to fall in love with the products they already have. Payne’s recipe for success focuses on one key ingredient: longevity. “What we’re trying to do here is reignite passion for the beauty of the item and for it to be unique. I’ve worked for lots of brands where we would be designing up to eight collections a year. That’s no longer in my interest. No one needs this amount of product. What we need to do is to reevaluate what is a beautiful necessity,” states the London-based entrepreneur.

For her last project, Payne collaborated with sustainable swimwear brand E.Macbean, designing and handcrafting three pieces in the style of art objects. “We collaborated on a leather flipper, a leather swimming cap and a beach bag. It was about interacting with the items in a different way; about taking the essence of swimwear that we know and recognise, and developing it into suddenly having a real high-value, precious quality,” says Payne, explaining her approach that instils a unique, bespoke appeal in the brand.

Courtesy of Clare Payne

Courtesy of Clare Payne

This appeal is also reflected in the Brit’s own apparel. Her designs feature clean lines and an aesthetic that is contemporary, yet classic. She elaborates: “We do not follow the pattern of commercialisation. Although we like our products to be well received, it is not in our interest to sell thousands of them. We are not afraid to provide a narrative or an aesthetic that takes a step back — that almost takes a stand — and evokes a different emotional attachment to each single piece.” The core of Payne’s approach lies in making the most of the material she sees in front of her, taking its natural characteristics and allowing them to have a voice.

To do so, the material of her choice is leather. Although she appreciates vegan alternatives and says she would never shy away from them, Payne has always been interested in real leather. “Leather is a really elevated and precious material,” she says. “It holds a real value and it’s also very time-consuming to tan a skin, to colour it. Especially vegetable tanning, which we are working with, can take a year per skin. And I genuinely believe that it’s right to show such devotion to the whole process. Although animal skin is a byproduct of the meat industry, it holds no less value than the living being it came from in the first place. The important thing, though, is that it’s managed correctly.” To ensure this, the emerging designer only works with tanneries either in the UK or in the EU, whose use of chemicals is strongly regulated. “Veg tan barely has any chemicals. It relies on natural processes in order to tan skins, hence why it can take so long. Vegetable-tanned leather is a biodegradable material. If we use our knowledge of traditional techniques and combine it with modern society’s advances in technology, we can replicate our heritage on a larger scale and take advantage of the incredibly low environmental impact this process has.”

To change the fashion industry, Payne also puts high hopes on future generations. Therefore, she actively contributes towards elevating education about sustainable fashion. In a current project, she cooperates with a university where she is teaching the next generation of designers. “These students need to learn early on how they can make a radical change, so that the future sees less waste and less of this mass landfill consumerism,” explains Payne. Just as with environmental consciousness, the idealist sees social responsibility as crucial in fulfilling her vision. She urges brands to put the welfare of their textile workers at the forefront of their agenda: “These problems have been caused by the Western world but are occurring in countries of the Global South and in areas of absolute poverty. Now, it is up to key players within the fashion industry to lead the mission of change.”

Courtesy of Clare Payne

The sustainability ambassador speaks out passionately against cheap, off-the-shelf clothing that capitalises on underpaid workers: “My vision is that the consumer will see our pieces as a lifetime investment. It is not something that we’re encouraging to be replaced each season. If you love it, you may buy it again in a different variation, but the idea is that these pieces can be repaired and have a lifetime of use. We work closely with tanneries to make sure that this objective is achieved. Everything that I do is cut and hand-stitched by me, and everything is made-to-order. All this means that we also have reduced stock levels. What I can’t stand is when a product is pushed into store and potentially sits there for the sake of it. That’s a huge amount of cost; a huge amount of consumption and unnecessary landfill. We believe our way of modelling the business is the way to go because we can have a real control with that output. We can respond to what customers are saying, which products they favour. You’re very much able to individually pivot to those needs.”

Clare Payne’s collections encompass tailored and handcrafted luxury items and strongly oppose the mentality of the fast fashion industry. The visionary does not believe in short-lived trends. Instead, her brand encourages customers to buy timeless made-to-order products that they find beautiful and will keep finding beautiful year after year.