Wednesday, 29 January 2014


I was going though a box of bits the other day and I found a tiny beaded sample. The sample was for the bodice of the last gown of Christian Lacroix's 1996 Spring/Summer haute couture collection. This was the very first thing I ever made for Mr Pearl on a cold dank day in January 1996, sitting at an ironing board for a desk in a cramped Arnold Circus flat kitchen, off Shoreditch High Street. It was the beginning of a working relationship that endured for the next 10 years. 
This was the second time I'd encountered Mr Pearl. A result from a call, on his behalf, from jewellery designer, Scott Wilson, asking if I would be interested in working on a piece for the upcoming couture collections. I jumped at the chance. 
I had first met him in an attic in St John's Street, Clerkenwell in 1994. This was Erickson Beamon's workshop where I was employed at the time making and designing fashion jewellery. There were nine of us[one of whom was the above Scott] squeezed into a room of Lilliputian proportions, where all wall space was lined from floor to ceiling with box after box stuffed with beads- sparkling Swarovski crystal beads, glass beads, vintage beads, plastic beads, metal beads, opaque, clear, frosted, smooth, faceted, every size, shape and hue.
One day a slight man appeared in the doorway of this chaotic cave. He was impeccably tailored and immaculately groomed, scented by Floris, with his waist clinched by a tan leather waspie that accentuated it's 18" circumference. He came to where I was working and, looking over my shoulder at the crystal earrings I was constructing, breathlessly breathed 'How Exquisite'. This man was Mr Pearl.


There's a tale about a bitter rivalry between two Belle Epoque Parisian courtesans, who on hearing they would both be dining at the same restaurant one evening, decided to try and out do one another. The first made her entrance wearing every jewel she owned to gasps of her fellow diners- the second made a later ingress, not only adorned head-to-toe in jewels but was followed by her maid carrying the rest. This story and a Lacroix scribble were the inspiration for what went on to be a couture bestseller- we ended up making five [including the original] unheard of for such an expensive gown.
I made what Mr Pearl referred to as sweets, encrusted jewels assembled from a myriad of Swarovski stones and beads and seed beads. Around three hundred of varying sizes. I then strung half into opulent swags, adding hanging teardrop crystals, to adorn the front, shoulders and hips, petering out at the back. The rest were sewn onto the bodice so the effect was that of a jewel box being thrown over the wearers head and landing randomly. 
This bodice sat above a thirty metre hand-woven silk/metallic cloud of a skirt and was shown to much acclaim. It was a reply to the appointment of John Galliano at Givenchy, that the old-skool couturiers could still cut it, and ushered in a period of renewed interest and creativity in haute couture.
The orders for this gown were from the world's wealthy. Private individuals for personal occasions, weddings,anniversaries etc.The last one we made was for an Arabian princess in 2002, by which point Mr Pearl had relocated to Paris. I made the sweets in my mothers music room in her house in Camden, where I conversing after a serious illness. I then went to Paris to work them onto the bodice.
It was May, and thinking I would skip around Paris in my summer finest hadn't bothered to bring a coat. It turned out to be as cold as a penguin's bottom so Mr Pearl leant me a beautifully tailored tweed overcoat that had once belonged to Bunny Roger. So there I was in a lawn dress swamped by a massive coat and ,due to a broken toe, limping in battered aged Adidas Gazelles two sizes too big. I must have looked like some bizarre emirgre.
By day I sat beading in Mr Pearls workshop, a stones throw away from his beautiful 16th century apartment behind Notre Dame -the bells, the bells, they were so close that every time they tolled one's spine would rearrange it's self. At night I would have either a picnic in my hotel room on the Left Bank, that mainly consisted of patisserie and wine, or I would eat out on the allowance that Pearl had so generously given me where I would be plied with free Calvados from over attentive proprietors.
We went on to create other opulent pieces for Lacroix like the black bodice below. I made spidery, spinally jet bead and crystal flowers with tiny drops like tar tears, which were attached to the decolletarge. 

In Mr Pearl's new location of Leroy House on the Balls Pond Road we had been discussing 'En Tremblant', an early 19th century trend for setting jewels on tiny springs, especially on diadems, so when the wearer moved the precious stones would quiver and sparkle seductively. Pearl was very keen to do a piece that incorporated this and some metal star shaped sieves he'd found in Paris. On his return from a meeting with John Galliano about the designers Spring/Summer 97 Circus Collection and armed with an still of Gina Lolobrigida from the film Trapeze for inspiration [one of my favourite films...incidentally] I saw the opportunity and turned to Pearl and said 'What about stars on springs'.

The Showgirl Corset for John Galliano 97.

I spent two weeks with the help of Scott Wilson beading diamante stones onto star shapes set on springs, in an array of sizes. These were sewn onto a midnight blue satin corset. It was so intense that two days before the deadline I slipped a disc and was rendered completely immobile. I felt so bad I'd let the side down that I burst into tears on the phone to Pearl. His reposte was that 'a bit of tight lacing would sort my back out'.

The Circus Collection

In 2004 we were commissioned to make another star corset. This time for Kylie Minogue's 2005 Showgirl tour, which was later seen in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum. This piece differed from the original as it was a deep royal blue satin and the stars were sewn flat against the fabric

Above, Kylie on stage.
Below, a detail of the corset showing the beading and some of the stars I made,

I had missed a couple of seasons and on my return found that Mr Pearls atelier had grown from 3-5 employees to 20-25 doing a roster of day and night shifts. His coterie included seamstresses and cutters from theatre, opera and fashion, beaders, embroiderers and a menagerie of extraordinary personalities. During this period I met people like Johanne Mills and Ali Brown who I went on to work with at later dates.
At this time most of the commissions were for perhaps the most extreme intense couturier, Thierry Mugler, with his exaggerated female forms and no expense spared. Mr Pearl had met Mugler in New York some years previously and had worked with him many times, most notably on the designers 'Insect' collection where Mr Pearl had created a gown based on butterflies wings for Jerry Hall.
Mr Pearl brought me in to work on the Autumn/Winter 98 collection where one of the gowns was a beaded tweed sheaf dress with matching scarf and a Donegal tweed coat. I was to make some kind of tassel to edge the scarf. I constructed beaded spiral tubes from seed beads and tiny 3mm crystals which were finished at the ends with a large zeppelin shaped crystal.

Mugler Winter 98/99. 
20:47 is when the beaded tweed comes up and you get a lovely view of the tassels when the model turns around.
Worth watching the whole way through if only for the Cyd Charisse finale.

If there is example that sums up what Haute Couture is about it would be the gown we made for the Mugler Spring/Summer 1999 collection. Black cobweb lace edged nude chiffon in a dress that looked so fragile that if you touched it it would turn to wisps of cloud but belied the amount of labour that went into it's construction and the quality of craftsmanship.
At this point I'm going to start raving about Sally's* chiffon seams. Anyone who has ever sewn this fabric knows what a contrary creature it is. It slips, slides and snags but Sally's French seams were beauty incarnate to behold, unseen flawlessness as they were on the inside of the garment.
The black lace edging was beaded but also had beaded lace inserts made by my good self and a little team Mr Pearl and I had assembled. I developed a method of freehand beading so any shape, however abstract, could be made. We would get paper patterns of the cutouts from the lace and would have to reproduce the shapes exactly to size.
The lace panels were sewn, with upmost care as to not bruise the silk, onto the chiffon gown by white-gloved hands, and connected by black beaded lines. 50 5mm jet crystals acted as buttons down the back opening, each accompanied by their own hand fashioned silk loop fastener.
I also constructed a tiny trim made purely from bugle beads and jet crystals that edged a matching mask that was stuck to the model's face.
It is this attention to detail and craftsmanship that is the true essence of haute couture. Perfection , inside and out, from the fabric- often hand-woven, always hand-embroidered/beaded- to the fit to the making and all hand-finished- hems to button holes- with the aim to create a garment that is unique every time. No sticking crystal stones on with a glue gun on to a garment as the model is just about to hit the catwalk [I have seen this happen].

*I must apologise for not being able to remember Sally's surname. She was the most incredible seamstress and came from working with Deborah Milner.

Back detail of lace chiffon gown
Iman in Mugler.

Some bead lace samples. We also made a wedding dress using this technique entirely for the bodice.

The next Mugler couture was the last one we worked on [and unbeknown to us was also to be the last Thierry Mugler couture collection ever]. The mood was much subdued. Mr Pearl had decided to move to Paris so was shutting down his London studio. We knew we would, as a group, never work together again.

In between the couture collections there were other commissions with Mr Pearl from a wedding dress for a Rothschild to jewelled papal robes for pickled puppies for an art exhibition in Paris, but the most opulent and phenomenal was a gown for Isabella Blow.
An under dress of the palest lilac ombre dyed to deep lavender silk chiffon was topped with a seed bead encrusted external skeletal cage from which numerous peal-strung Swarovski strands swagged around the hips or hung in tassel clusters to the ankle. The beadwork mirrored the graduated colour of the fabric going from crystal to silver to light amethyst to deep violet. There were also Swarovski swags draped off the shoulders.

Above, the late Isabella Blow in her Mr Pearl gown.
I also made her necklace, cuffs and the dragonfly that's in her mouth.

The last piece I worked on was a corset for Swarovski Runway Rocks, shown in Mumbai and London in 2008. It was inspired by those wonderful photographs of Indian Maharajas bedecked in their specially commissioned Cartier jewels. Mr Pearl arrived for a meeting at my flat with a beautiful delicate, detailed, pencil drawing of what he was envisaging, boxes of Swarovski, and a bottle of gin. I set to work creating a very ornate necklace, amulets, chocker and hip-swags as well as four crystal tassels. 

I feel very privileged to, not only have worked in couture during this exciting inspired period [I look back on this extraordinary body of work with amazement], but more importantly to have been able to have worked with Mr Pearl. He was incredibly generous to me and trusted me to go off and just create. At the start of every job Mr Pearl would say 'Jessie, is it possible to.....?', and I'd think lordy what has he got in store this time- it was always challenging,  especially as Mr Pearl would go for beads smaller than grains of sand that no human made thread would go through. I always had to use my brain and the more difficult the request the more rewarding it was when I cracked it [although the orchards made from seed beads from the last Lacroix job nearly finished me off]. Perfectionists aren't the most insouciant to work with [sometimes when things got a little too pressured I would pop down to a pub on Essex Road for a quick gin to steady my nerves} but I learnt a huge amount about aesthetic placement and that execution is just as important as concept. As Mr Pearl once said to me 'You know, Jessie, everything has it's perfect place and you keep going till you find it, do you see?'
I've only talked about the commissions that I worked on, a part of Mr Pearls phenomenal body of work. I hope that one day a curator has the foresight to exhibit his work all together because what ever your taste is there is no denying, especially when we are becoming more and more homogenised and less interested in originality [I'm amazed at the amount of appropriation that's going on in design at the moment], that Mr Pearl has a unique vision.