London label Nocturne taps into Chinese artisan craftsmanship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 8:00pm

Tucked away in East London's hip fashion enclave in Dalston is a design studio that draws together the unique artisan skills of southern China with the cool contemporary fashion style for which London is renowned.

Nocturne is a fashion label founded many years ago in the Pearl River Delta and undergoing a metamorphosis. The concept is about the artisan spirit and what the team call "our 'asiate' aesthetic: that of Western design and Eastern craft".

In London, Catherine Howkins, formerly from Paul Smith, heads up the design team in creating a collection which this season is inspired by Brazilian artist Lygia Clark and her use of geometric, bold patterns, combined with the ancient Chinese game of tangram (for the graphic patterns) and Yunnan landscapes.

The resulting collection features dresses and jackets made from uniquely woven fabrics, embroideries and bold handcrafted jewellery, which display the particular skills found and nurtured many decades ago by a charismatic Frenchwoman in southern China.

Claudine Bertinotti-Lenoble arrived in Hong Kong with her husband in the late 1970s. She had been raised in a medieval French town where clothing manufacturing was its lifeblood. Craft was in her heart and she found her imagination was immediately fired up by her new surroundings.

She launched her fashion manufacturing business Affirm Heart in Hong Kong with a clear strategy to carefully produce high quality garments with crafted embellishment, and began producing clothes for major high street and well-known designer labels in the UK - labels noted for their embellished detail.

Having found its niche the contract business continues to thrive and Nocturne was launched as its in-house label.

"We didn't want to set up a 'factory label' competing with our own customers," says her son Laurent Lenoble, now CEO. "We wanted this project to be an expression of our values."

He explains how during the 1980s and '90s fashion manufacturing underwent massive expansion in the region. "We've gone from being at the forefront of an industrial revolution, happening before our eyes, as the rice paddies gave way to factories in the early '90s, to becoming the centre of global supply chains, to the specialisation of industry now, as the more low-cost manufacturing migrates to other countries in the region."

Now in her 70s, Claudine Bertinotti-Lenoble remembers how she met a young woman in Hong Kong called Salina who had a great knowledge of Asian culture and local dialects, and an adventurous spirit. Together they took to the road: "We sought out villages in our province to discover the true crafts."

As Affirm Heart was based in the Pearl River Delta, "it was natural for us to travel to the villages near Shantou and Chaozhou. The village farming community had houses and families that were masters in embroidery and pearl work."

Some of these crafts were nearly lost in the Cultural Revolution because of the disinterest of the younger generations.

"We had the appetite to overcome challenges with relish; we found our place in the complex landscape," she says.

So now a younger generation who have learned the skills collaborate with Catherine Howkins on the Nocturne collections.

Some have been with Affirm Heart for many years and, under Howkins' guidance, rather than replicating historic designs, these ancient methods are being reimagined, giving the craft a new modern context.

Laurent Lenoble explains how they have created a unique identity for Nocturne, "bridging cultures and savoir-faire. We have a role to play in preserving a spirit of craftsmanship here in South China and we came to the conclusion that this asset of ours would express itself best through Nocturne."

In 2011, the family realised it needed to reposition Nocturne. As the name suggests, it was originally an eveningwear brand, but after much soul-searching when Catherine Howkins arrived it was decided the label should evolve in a more casual chic direction.

It was the right move. The collection's biggest accounts are in the US, selling through stores such as Anthropologie. It is also available at Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong and Midas Dream in China.

Jewellery has always been a key part of the collection and it moved to centre stage because it is where the Chinese craft can be easily expressed, and Howkins enjoys keeping this expertise alive.

"The skilled artisans in China are formidable in their ability to craft beautifully exquisite clothing and jewellery by hand. It is second nature to them and that is inspiring to any designer," she says. More importantly, our customers express a genuine interest in how the brand evolved."

The collection features hand crochet in jewellery; while clothing uses hand weaving, crochet, Chinese paper folding (like origami) for silk organza fabrics, and a hand-brushing technique for fringed textures on a dress. Trends may come and go, says Howkins "but beautiful craft transcends and we have developed an audience for this".

It is an achievement that gives Claudine Bertinotti-Lenoble great pleasure. "Seeing this [craftsmanship] evolve further to more generations with access to a wider audience via Nocturne is something I am very keen to see nurtured."