September 08, 2013

Scarfing Down a Helping of Orwell + Austen

Jessica Schuhle-Lewis, creative mind behind Orwell + Austen, with her stand at the Piccadilly pop-up shop
             When I think scarves, I think chunky, practical, and imposing, but they have been granted a new lease of life thanks to the 2012 launch of Jessica Schuhle-Lewis’ fresh new scarf brand, Orwell + Austen. The cashmere and silk scarves blend saturated candy-color hues and eye-catching prints to form lust-worthy outfit centerpieces. A pop-up shop in Piccadilly opened for a limited time, today marking its last day. Multiple brands were featured, displaying leather goods, clothing, and even tea sets. However diverse, I decided to head down to focus on Orwell + Austen and meet the artist behind the brand’s whimsy.

              Schuhle-Lewis’ section in the pop-up shop was recognizable by the scarves’ distinctive inkblot-like patterns and graceful placements. I was immediately struck by how playful and youthful the scarves were. The tasteful design made even the blacks appear uplifting. On drab winter days, these are the scarves that you want to perk you up, but by the same token, these are the very same scarves that will add zest and character to any summer ensemble.

             Upon meeting Schuhle-Lewis, her passion for her scarf line was undeniable. She has lived in London for 11 years, so will have witnessed a flurry of fads and trends emerge and fade with the ever-changing fashion scene. That’s why she has created something durable and essential. Schuhle-Lewis was more than obliging to speak to me about her vision and motivations. She had a soft demeanor about her to match the softness of her products, not needing to push her message, because she truly believes in what she is selling and she has every reason to.

             I would like to give a big thank you to Rosie Burn and Jessica Schuhle-Lewis for making this interview possible.

Laura Rutkowski: Your scarves are very eclectic and versatile. Where did you find inspiration for the prints?

Jessica Schuhle-Lewis: The first set of prints, so the Leo and the Lily print and the Inca print, came from animals, so they’re all slight variations on quite traditional animal prints. The Lily is almost like a leopard print, but it’s crossed with moths and butterflies as well. Some of the color inspiration also came from moths, which I don’t like in real life, but I love their patterns. The Inca is like a deconstructed snakeskin, so I took snakeskin print and took a really small part of it and blew it up a little bit and then the most recent one, which is the Linden one, is more of a line drawing.

I was in Marrakesh at the Yves Saint Laurent garden, and he [Yves Saint Laurent] used to send out love postcards to key customers every Christmas, I think it was, and one of them is this really cool almost line drawing with a snake twisting around it and I really loved it, so I took a picture of that and then loosely based my design really loosely on that. I flipped the design a few times as well and that’s how I came up with the Linden one. I guess I just see things that I like. I use Pinterest a lot. I’ve found it really useful to find old patterns or textile things and just play around with them a little bit.

LR: What drove you to be interested in designing scarves opposed to any other clothing items?

JS-L: Well, because I had the legal background [Schuhle-Lewis was a lawyer], I didn’t go to fashion college. I grew up in a family of artists, so my dad’s an artist and a poet. My brother’s also a really good graphic designer. He does beautiful illustrations and things like that. I’ve always drawn and painted since I was little. I love fashion, but I don’t know how to make the perfect shirt. I don’t know necessarily the fit and through what I’ve been doing, I’m learning a bit more of that through the people I meet, but for me, because I’d always drawn and painted, a scarf is kind of like an actual canvas. 

LR: Oh yeah, it works with everything pretty much.

JS-L: Exactly. I love wearing scarves and I just thought, I really want to make a fashion piece, but I’m not going to pretend that I know everything about the structure of fashion, so I thought take what I know and apply it. 

LR: Describe your ideal Orwell + Austen girl to embody your brand. 

JS-L: I think she’s quite versatile to be honest. When I initially started doing the scarves, I was thinking more of a city girl, because I was a city girl, and when you work in the city, there’s very much a uniform and if you want to differentiate a little bit, but you can’t go crazy, a scarf’s a good way to do that. Then, as it’s continued, I have an idea of the type of brands that she would buy and the type of things she would wear. I think she would mix high street with high-end accessories - bits of Céline, quite simple pieces. Again, quite a simple base uniform, good quality, but likes to mix up things with accessories, so likes a fun scarf.

LR: I like doing minimal outfits and then if you add a scarf, it finishes everything off.

JS-L: Yeah exactly, and I love contrast as well, so I’ve been doing a few Polyvore things to show how I would wear it or I’d love customers to wear it. So the new Linden one, that turquoise, I found this gorgeous cashmere by Bora Bora, a mustard sweater, and it looks so cool with the really bright turquoise and the mustard, but then everything else is quite simple - androgynous accessories, a white shirt.

LR: A lot of fashion houses are known for their scarves and making really high quality scarves, so is there any one brand that you really want to emulate or that you particularly like?

JS-L: That’s a tricky question, because I kind of also started the scarves because I love a lot of the prints that come from the fashion houses, but I wasn’t that enamored with the quality. For example, Alexander McQueen’s skull motif, it’s super cool, but his 245 pound scarf is a modal mix and modal’s a synthetic fabric and I think if they can get away with having a cheaper fabric because of the name, I almost feel like if you’re buying that, into a luxury product, you should really be getting a luxury fabric as well.

I love McQueen, but I think I haven’t really seen that much on the designer end that’s at the 250 to 300 price point that’s actually cashmere and not cashmere mix, which is where you take 90 percent modal and you put 10 percent cashmere in.  All of my scarves, the lighter ones, are 70 percent cashmere with 30 percent silk, but no man-made fabrics. It’s all natural.

LR: What is your favorite way to style a scarf?

JS-L: It depends on the season. I really love to get cashmere sweaters. I love silk shirts and a really loose big scarf keeping you cozy. In the summer, I tend to tie them or fold them a little bit more, tie them not like a tie, but in a bow - a little more chic, a little more close to the body, as opposed to really loose.

Kerry O’Brine shows how to style one of Schuhle-Lewis’ scarves in the pop-up shop using a sweater from her own clothing line
LR: How does your line represent your artistic abilities and interests?

JS-L: I just think I’m quite eclectic. I love color. I love pattern. I love print. I don’t want anything to ever be too simple, so I think it represents those aspects of me - my love of color, love of pattern, love of print. Natural fabrics as well are so, so important to me. I love good quality. I know that it’s hard because people have budgets and it’s sometimes difficult, but I always think buy the best that you can afford.

LR: A scarf is something you always wear and come back to.

JS-L: Exactly, and as you wear it, it gets better and better. Good cashmere, the more you wear it, the softer it becomes and you can pass that on. It represents the artist in me. It’s almost like I’m always wearing one of my pieces of work – around my neck or however I style it. They’re so personal to me as well. They really do feel like my little babies and when you put them out there, you’re really worried what people are going to think, but I love them all, so I feel like I love them, I hope I’ve got good taste, and I hope other people love them.

LR: They have sort of a modern twist, which is nice because they’re simple, but interesting.

JS-L: I think if you’re going to buy a quite expensive scarf, mine are I’d say mid-price, I think you want something as well that’s going to be a little bit more than just plain. You want something a little bit fun. You want people to look at it and go, “Wow, that’s unusual.” That’s what I’m always trying to think of.

 LR: How does it feel to see your finished product out and on display?

JS-L: It’s really cool. I’ve never actually done the display before. We’re in Wolf & Badger and they usually take care of that side of things, but it was so fun to have it all set up. It’s a bit of an eclectic collection at the moment, because you’ve got a mix of newer seasons and older seasons, which to see all of the stuff that I’ve done and what I’ve achieved is kind of cool because I think when you’re doing it, you’re not necessarily thinking, “Wow, I’ve got to this place, I’ve got to that place.” You’re just dealing with the everyday, but it’s quite nice though. I feel quite proud.

LR: If you had to choose one scarf, which one would you pick you as your favorite?

JS-L: It changes a lot. Over the summer, I was absolutely in love with the Inca in Sea + Sand, the blue dip-dye one. I wore that so much. The Inca in black and gray now I’m wearing more. They’re not out yet, but coming out in the next couple weeks are two Lily prints I’ll show you later and there’s one that’s really red with just black and there’s another in khakis. I was wearing one of them yesterday because the weather was obviously a little bit cooler with a really cool purple-pink sweater and lovely contrast, so I think every time I do a new one, that becomes my favorite.

The new Autumn/Winter collection includes the red and green scarves seen here with the Lily motif in a bigger style

LR: What is in store for the future of Orwell + Austen? What do you hope to achieve with your brand?

JS-L: We’re just turning our focus now to going into some big department stores, places like Liberty. I spent the last year just figuring it all out a little bit, getting Wolf & Badger stocked is good because you get lots of customer feedback and because they’re all limited runs, I can change things up quite easily and take feedback, so people wanted slightly bigger, so I’ve done slightly bigger and playing around with color a little bit more, but I’d love to be in somewhere like Liberty. That would be my dream. I’d just love to keep designing and keep evolving. Eventually, I’d like to add maybe some clothing pieces of some kind one day down the line, but like I said at the beginning, I’ve got a lot to learn in that area, so I’m trying to take tips, but that would be my dream. 

             Visit the official Orwell + Austen website here to see the variety of scarves on offer. Look out for an upcoming collaboration with Rosie Fortescue of reality television series, Made in Chelsea, fame. The designs have already been completed and Schuhle-Lewis told me that we should be prepared to see the inclusion of geometric prints.

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