At just 23, Claire Barrow may be a slip of a thing, but her imagination – the fuel for her beguiling but ghoulish painted characters – stretches from pagan England to east London’s underbelly. Her cult figures are now the focal point of her exclusive capsule collection for MATCHESFASHION.COM. Three fictional girl gangs appear on three screen-printed leather jackets (they are vegetable-tanned – making them more ethical, not to mention softer, than chrome-based dyes) and clutches. Barrow, from Stockton-on-Tees in the northeast of England, graduated from the University of Westminster in Fashion Design in 2012. She explains, ‘I started doing jackets for friends and taking commissions in my sandwich year [of the course]. Then suddenly I got a big break when Francesca Burns [fashion editor at British Vogue] styled a jacket in Vogue and Mel Ottenberg [O32C magazine’s fashion director] used my work with Terry Richardson in iD’.

Barrow’s bespoke leather jackets have been in hot demand ever since. ‘I was so busy with orders but I finished my degree as I wanted to show my graduate collection on the catwalk so people could see what else I could do alongside the jackets’. She was promptly picked up by Fashion East, the designer initiative that has launched talents including Jonathan Saunders, Roksanda Ilincic and Richard Nicoll, and will present her SS14 show (her fourth collection) as part of their collective at London fashion week this month. The Style Report caught up with her on set at her MATCHESFASHION.COM exclusive shoot.

‘There was a point where I realised you could dress a different way from other people as a means of rebelling. I never thought, “I want to do fashion”. I always did art at school and I’m still like that now; I’m always drawing and my work is somewhere between fashion and illustration. I’m not a great technical artist, I just like having ideas. I wouldn’t want a job that wasn’t creating new ideas.

‘When I started making the leather jackets, I was watching a lot of films with gangs in. I have been into punk since I was about 16 and I used to stitch patches onto my jackets and write the names of bands that I liked on them. This time it felt right to do something more expressive and that showed the personality of the person I was making the piece for, as well as my artistic personality.

‘The jackets are based on being part of a gang. Each of the three designs shows a different gang of painted girls. I was looking at a lot of 1960s and 1970s witch films, like the BBC drama Season of the Witch, which makes a feminist statement as the woman cheats on her husband and does voodoo. The first gang is called the Embers and they are fiery flame girls who like to party. The second gang is called the Jewel Lake Ritual, which I thought sounded like a really cool band name. These girls go into the water looking for riches, but actually they turn into jewels themselves. The third gang is the Earth’s Angels, who are all the angels and people in the city surrounding you. I’m an Embers girl, I think, or maybe a bit of all three!

‘I usually draw straight onto the flat pattern piece. I work with a professional screen printer in east London, called Matthew Snow, who prints them with all my designs. It was a good way to keep the process DIY and make sure the work was done by hand as I couldn’t paint every one myself. Because they are intricately screen-printed and not one-off painted pieces, you feel like you are part of the gang.

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‘We wanted to film the jackets on this new girl band called Skinny Girl Diet. They’re young girls from London, aged 15 to 17, who started a band. I was drawn to them because I thought they looked instantly like a girl gang, like they didn’t give a damn, they were really themselves. Their music is really raw and there are no real recordings of it yet. We watched them live and we thought they were really cool. We filmed them doing a cover in the video of Dusty Springfield’s Spooky, which we recorded on my friend’s boat.

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‘I like to go a bit deeper than just taking inspiration from things I’ve seen, and I think about what’s been bothering me. For my SS13 collection I did an alcohol-themed collection because I felt kids these days are just drinking and there aren’t really any new interesting ideas happening. I made an homage to alcohol packaging and dressed the models in it, as if they were kids walking down the street wearing alcohol. The last collection was an extension of that. I was thinking, “What’s actually new any more?” Everything looks like this era or that era. What can we make that’s new but still DIY and not using computer technology, because that seems to be the future for everything?

‘The hard part is looking after the business. Being 23 and having a business to run as well as doing creative work every day is a challenge. But nothing bad has happened yet! If you ever do work with people and it doesn’t work out, all you can do is really learn from the experience.

‘The thing that irritates me about fashion is that it’s really not taken seriously. I think there are a lot of good jobs you can get out of this industry. The government is not putting enough money into getting textiles back onto the curriculum for school students. They should bring the textile industry back to the UK like it was in the 1980s. Even finding a seamstress is hard for a new designer; it’s such a skill to be able to sew really well. I do make everything in the UK and I’m looking into sourcing all my fabrics in the UK for the future, too. It’s a political thing, I want to make a bit of a statement and show that it can be done.’

Models Safia El Dabi, Reba Maybury, Kesewa Aboah.
Hair by Teiji Utsumi. Make-up by Lucy Bridge. Manicure by Ami Streets.

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