Meet Katie Roberts-Wood, founder of her eponymous label Roberts | Wood, whose unusual scientific approach to clothes, seen in her innovative use of fabrics and construction methods, comes from her decade-long medicine studies. However, her brand is not only characterised by her analytical way of thinking; her creative and more sensitive side comes out in her nature-inspired designs meant to show the strength that can be found in anything and everything that is feminine.
Could you please present yourself briefly?
My name is Katie Roberts-Wood and I established my brand Roberts | Wood in 2015, shortly after graduating from my MA at the Royal College of Art. The brand was started from an obsession with how clothes are made and how making them can be approached differently and in totally new ways. I'm particularly interested in the ways that hand-craftsmanship and technology can be used together, and I've evolved a language of construction techniques that are unique to Roberts | Wood. We create pieces using a blend of pattern-cutting innovation and integrating textiles into the actual construction process of the garment.
After studying medicine, what sparked your interest in fashion? What prompted you to work in this industry?
I always knew I wanted to work in a creative industry but I was not always really into fashion. It could have been anything creative. I just loved making things. I think I decided I wanted to devote myself to making clothes after seeing an exhibition about Yohji Yamamoto. Something about the sensibility and quiet yet overwhelming beauty of those clothes was so affecting, I didn't know fashion could do that, I fell in love.
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Could you describe your brand in five words?
Emotional, individual, intelligently designed womenswear.
How has your creative process changed now that you have a successful brand that stocks at Dover Street Market? Do you have your customer in mind during the design process?
The first collection was picked up by Dover Street Market in three locations (London, New York and Tokyo) and I definitely had in mind a customer who would shop there. Three years later, and we stock internationally with about eighteen stores in about ten different countries, so the customer becomes ever more diverse, which I think is amazing when you think that all the pieces are designed, conceived and made in our tiny studio in London. I think what our customers have in common is a strong individuality and the desire to dress first and foremost for themselves. The process has not fundamentally changed, it is always driven by creativity.
Your work seems to be full of apparent contradictions, as you analyse two seemingly oxymoronic aspects – for example, nature versus science –, but you end up finding the synchronicity between them (hence the name of your first collection, Synch). In your latest collection, Kinderschema, you played with the concepts of strength and femininity. Many wouldn’t put these together, especially those who are less progressive. However, you stress that both can coexist. This leads me to ask you to elaborate on this, as you have said ‘cuteness is an evolutionary advantage. What do you mean by that?
Kinderschema refers to the physical characteristics, such as those possessed by baby animals, that actually act to protect them by initiating a biological response in the adults of the species, compelling them to protect the young, ‘cute’ animals. I was intrigued because I often think that attributes or features representing 'cuteness' are perceived as weakness or the assumption that the thing or person shouldn't be taken seriously or has no substance. I wanted to subvert that idea by looking at 'cute' features as a strength or advantage rather than disadvantage. There's no reason why something cute can't also be strong, intelligent, resilient, etc.
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Transparency is a recurring element of yours, as well as ruffles, bows, and the layering and repetition of textures, what makes you keep coming back to these?
These types of references (bows, ruffles, etc.) are typically attributed as cute and feminine but are always used in the collections in a way that is subtly subverted or not as it seems. Bows are not purely decorative but actually very functional, in fact quite utilitarian, so I like to utilise them as fastenings, playing with scale and distribution. Ruffles are never 'just ruffles', for example, my signature 'hand-linked' ruffle technique on sheer silk organza; I invented a way to integrate the ruffles into the garment without any stitching at all, using special cutting and construction techniques.
Design elements are never just decorative despite the apparent contradiction. Here, the construction and textile become part of the same process rather than merely surface decoration. With these pieces, I am essentially quietly saying there is always more to it than meets the eye. But it can also be a beautiful thing. Transparency is a tool I keep coming back to as a material property that I think embodies the split ideas of ephemerality/permanence and vulnerability/strength.
My obsession with repetition in design is a way to satisfy my appetite for intensive construction whilst somehow still achieving the feeling of minimalism. One form or action repeated over and over produces a special kind of minimalist/maximalist dichotomy. I find that visually appealing - I think this links strongly to the repetitive patterns found in both science and nature.
Why do you choose to use atypical construction techniques?
Pursuing new construction methods is the only way, I believe, to create something fundamentally new. It also opens up potential new possibilities. If we aren't researching, experimenting and pushing, we won't know what's possible or what can be done better or more sustainably in the future.
I’ve read that you use Fermat’s spiral as inspiration and that you usually have it hanging on your mood board, (along other with images of nature). What draws you to it?
It goes back to the idea of these miraculous patterns in nature, (for example, growth and structures of plants) and that idea of repetition again. It's simplicity and complexity wound together in a mind-boggling way. Although I am a scientist by training, I find it suggestive of something very mysterious and magical, which is also what nature means to me. Take the murmuration of flocks of birds, for example. This hypnotic and magical behaviour is based on what can almost be described as mathematical rules. But the result is something that we perceive as almost unreal or magical. The unexplained nature of everything around us can be more inspiring than trying to dissect and understand every little thing.
“The unexplained nature of everything around us can be more inspiring than trying to dissect and understand every little thing.”
I have read that you are interested in the idea of sustainability. Why do you think it is particularly important to apply this to the fashion industry? How can we see this in your brand?
It's such an important subject and, at the same time, I think it's so overwhelming trying to deal with this huge idea as an individual and as a designer. I think the emotional connection we have to material things is a huge factor in determining how 'disposable' we find them to be. I'm interested in how, as a designer, I can help to foster a more meaningful and long-lasting relationship between people and their clothes and slow down the 'churn' of garment production that does hand in hand with disposability.
Not over-producing is very important to our brand. We are making very limited numbers of each design. I recently took part in the Fashion Open Studios initiative for Fashion Revolution Week, at the Sarabande Foundation, where we are in residence, which I think is a great way to invite the public to engage with and connect with how clothes are made and who makes them. It's really encouraging to see how something like Fashion Revolution is gaining such momentum. 
I see that you make a point by selecting models of colour and women that do not fit the cookie-cutter beauty mould, which is the opposite of what is mostly featured in fashion. Why are you moved to show diversity and inclusivity in your brand, and why should we see more of this in the industry?
This is not necessarily to make a point, it's just the way things should naturally be, and hopefully we can continue to be better at this. We see ourselves as an inclusive brand and it's good to hear that that shows through. We believe our clothes should be timeless, ageless, and for a diverse range of people. We don't fit the 'fashion brand' mould very well, and I don't see what we do as necessarily being fashion. It's more on the fringe of this idea. We don't think the concept of trends applies to what we do.
Where do you see your brand going in the next five years?
Hopefully, we will still be inventing and creating. The first stage is to sustain ourselves as a business and then see how far we can go.
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