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The man who put fashion in the frame
It was the still-life session that gave him away. While the other art students arranged pieces of pottery and bowls of fruit, Richard Nott pulled a black dress from his bag. He recalls silence falling over the room. To him, it seemed a natural thing to paint – beautiful, interesting and full of detail.
But he admits he looks at clothing rather differently to most.
In 1985 he founded the Workers For Freedom fashion label with Graham Fraser as a reaction against the “preppy” menswear styles of the period. Their designs, including the embroidered shirt that would become their hallmark, found an enthusiastic audience and in 1990, they were named British Fashion Council designers of the year.
When they eventually sold the company, Nott saw it as an opportunity to return to painting, something he had studied “hundreds of years before”
but sidelined in favour of what he hoped would be the more profitable fashion route.
On going back to art school, he realised he could combine both passions and he began another successful chapter painting, rather than designing, clothes.
Demonstrating the same fascination with colour and texture that characterised Workers For Freedom’s output, Nott’s paintings of dresses and kaftans aim to put the craftsmanship and art of the garments centre stage.
“I really don’t like our current obsession with celebrity. Most garments you see today have a famous figure inside them and the garment takes second place.
I wanted people to be aware there had been a human presence in these clothes but to contemplate the garment itself, rather than the wearer.”
It’s for this reason he often changes the original colours of the clothes, helping draw the viewer in or give the work more punch. One painting of a 1920s Lanvin dress from Brighton Museum’s archives has been changed from its original pale pinks and blues to more earthy tones, lending it an almost pastoral feel.
A silk and taffeta Vionnet dress from 1910 is now reimagined in black rather than its original white linen and looms spectrally from the wall. The use of his own palette also ties the paintings together. “I still think of them as collections,” he confesses.
Nott is a true fashion connoisseur with an eye for construction and design that borders on the forensic. His work, however, is emotional.
“This is the sixth painting I’ve done of this Balenciaga dress,” he says, pointing to a painting. “It’s a tiny black dress that no one would recognise but it’s so beautiful, When Richard Nott sold his fashion label, he was able to fulfil a long-held ambition to thing.” He moves to another from Brighton Museum’s archives, a complicated brown and white satin cocktail dress.
“The front panel is fitted and the fabric carries on. You fling the front over the back and the back over the front.
It’s almost like a piece of packaging – so clever.”
He spends a lot of time in the hallowed fashion archives of UK museums and galleries, rifling through rails of vintage Balenciaga and Dior with gloved hands. “The first time I went to the V&A, I took all my pencils along,” he says.
“Of course, they don’t allow anything like that there, so I had to take photos. My teacher at art college told me I shouldn’t ever just reproduce a photo, but take loads and use them as overall reference for making my own image. I think that’s the most important piece of advice anyone’s given me.”
Unsurprisingly, he often receives commissions to paint from people’s wardrobes. But he shudders at the idea of having to paint a garment not of his own choosing. Even when working on a piece to hang in designer Bruce Oldfield’s London shop, he said he steered away from the white dress Oldfield hoped he would choose in favour of one he felt more connection with.
Often, he says, the pieces that “work” are not the ones you would think. He describes his excitement at being allowed to photograph the black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s when it came up for auction at Christie’s a few years ago. “I thought it would be brilliant, this graphic, iconic dress. I couldn’t make it work.”
Now resident in Hove, Nott has been working recently with Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, whose fashion collection dates from 1820. Many of the paintings in his current exhibition in his studios in Farm Mews are inspired by garments cloistered in dark wardrobes in the basement beneath the main galleries.
Museums often struggle with the costs of displaying these garments – the Vionnet dress alone needs thousands of pounds worth of restoration – and Nott enjoys bringing them into the light once more through his paintings.
As a designer, the idea of these beautifully crafted garments being hidden beneath the ground is anathema and he is musing on the idea of an exhibition in collaboration with Brighton Museum, where the original garment would be displayed next to its artistic interpretation.
“I want people to look at these garments and think about who made them and how and when they were worn. A dress is something that is part of your life, but singled out, it becomes monumental.”
* Richard Knott’s paintings are on display as part of this year’s Artists Open Houses.
His studio, at Farm Mews, Farm Road, Hove, is open from 10.30am to 5pm every weekend until May 27.
* For more information, visit www.aoh.org.uk or www.richardnott.co.uk