Vernon Lee, ‘The Refined Rebel’

On September 24 2020, H&M Studio will launch their A/W Collection which takes its inspiration from Vernon Lee and David Bowie. The collection blends ‘old world elegance’ with ‘70’s disco’ stylings and includes garments that combine ultra-masculine and hyper-feminine tailoring.  The pieces were styled for the campaign by a coterie of H&M muses, including Celeste, Barbie Ferreira, Veronika Heilbrunner, Alton Mason, Mia Kong and Young Emperors.

H&M Studio Concept Designer, Linda Wikell, talked to Sally Blackburn-Daniels about her research and inspiration for the collections.

SBD: How did you come to find out about Lee? Did you read any of her works, or were there any images of her that particularly inspired you?

LW: “I´ve lived in Florence myself and wanted to take inspiration from the city´s relationship to art, appearance and dressing. I was also curious about the history of the British community in Florence and in my research around it I stumble upon Paget/Lee and she immediately caught my attention in many ways. I only knew some titles of her works, but I didn’t really know much more. What fascinated me most was her strength in standing up for who she was and what she believed in, and the courage it must have taken to dress and live across what was expected back then. Visiting Palmerino is now on my bucket list!”[with regards to images] there are two pictures of her that I especially liked, one where she sits on a wall in Sestri, Italy, wearing a heavy outdoor garment. The other one is a portrait by Andre Noufflard where she is looking out a window and is dressed in a heavy wool jacket– partly a source of inspiration for the big coat in our H&M Studio AW20 collection.

SBD: As you may have seen, Lee’s work has recently been part of a #ReclaimHerName campaign, in which ‘A Phantom Lover’ has been republished under her birth name Violet Paget. This choice has received some push back from Lee scholars as she was known as Vernon in both her personal and public life. Your collection plays with fluidity, with garments, silhouettes and fabrics being simultaneously ‘masculine’ and ’feminine’. How important was it to you to play with the social constructs of gender in fashion?

LW: “Very important. It’s a highly relevant subject. Who decides what´s feminine or masculine, and who should or can wear what? I hope we can take part in the opening of minds and encourage our customers to dress without limits and have fun with this collection.”

SBD: The collection brings together icon David Bowie with Lee (a pairing that absolutely delights me, and one which I never thought I would see in my lifetime!); Bowie is known for his ever evolving approach to fashion and his ability to create trends, whereas Lee’s style was steadfast, with an attention to detail. What made you bring them together?

LW: “We were very inspired by them both for their courage and refusal to fit in to a certain box -created by others, their time and society. It was not so much about trends as it was about the strength in individuality and the right to express yourself, and they both feel “current” in that sense. I think Bowie also put a lot of attention to detail in his artistry (his dressing, videos and music) that was very inspirational.”

SBD: H&M muse Alton Mason said of the clothes in the campaign that ‘I feel like the clothes are timeless, and they reflect the past, the present and the future. There’s this all-black suit and there’s this turquoise suit that I loved […] I felt that I could wear them anywhere no matter what time of day and for any occasion, whether it’s casual or something very elegant and chic. I really felt like myself in those clothes’. For me, Lee’s work plays with this idea a lot, how objects are themselves of a particular time, but exist throughout time, and are timeless. In fashion, I think that this is fundamentally important, as it suggests sustainability (something that I also think is important to muse Veronika Heilbrunner). Is sustainability in fashion important to you?

LW: “I love his quote and somehow felt that we had succeeded if he felt like that. We thought about the word “timeless” and what it means. Normally you´d (automatically) think of something a bit classic, traditional or low key and maybe not something so colourful. But there so many other ways something can be timeless – and still be statement piece.  Here I think there´s a little connection to Paget/Lee´s idea about the spectators’ “empathy” to a piece. We wanted to wake or trigger something in the wearer – nostalgia, joy, and maybe hope.

Sustainability is extremely important to us and is present in every step of the work process.

We want the pieces in this collection to be just as fun and wearable now as many seasons ahead. As a company we are also encouraging our customer not only to dare to mix and match new and old but also to take care of the clothes you have for many seasons to come.”

SBD: The images show a collection that is carefully pitched in terms of ‘modest’ fashion which is a huge growth area. Of course, this is entirely in keeping with Lee’s own dress sense, and her refusal to overly sexualise the female body – was this a conscious decision?

LW: “It was not really conscious. We don’t put any value in what someone might consider sexy or “ok” to wear. Our aim is that anyone who dresses in our collection should simply feel good, on their own terms.”

The collection’s focus on gender fluidity, timelessness and refined rebelliousness surely reflects the Lee we ‘know’. If you haven’t had a chance to look through the collection, please do, and Tweet us with your thoughts!


Sally Blackburn-Daniels

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