«The technique is just a tool. I do something you’re not supposed to do with fabrics». The French textile designer and president of the knitwear brand Malhia Kent, Eve Corrigan, discusses the art of her craft
Each year Eve Corrigan and her team at Malhia Kent produce over 5,000 new designs. To meet this demand without compromising on originality, she takes inspiration from the everyday: strawberry jam becomes a tweed of deep red nylon yarns embellished with glistening sequins; the dust from your vacuum cleaner is a weave of mottled, glittering greys interspersed with streaks of colour.
Despite Eve Corrigan’s refusal to reiterate previous collections, and the apparent limitations of the traditional hand-operated loom, her instrument of choice, finding new ways to be inventive poses difficulty. She ascribes her ability to innovate to her lack of formal training, and her practice is a struggle to remain free and un-blinkered in her creativity.
«The technique is just a tool. I do something you’re not supposed to do with fabrics». An example Corrigan provides is inventing a method that allows her to weave sequins together rather than stitch them individually onto fabrics. Usually this would cause too much damage to the weft, but by developing a new type of yarn she found a way.
At the beginning of her career at Malhia Kent, her approach caused problems, especially when dealing with her manufacturer, a family of three generations that stuck to tradition. She knew they regarded her with skepticism. This naive, unqualified blonde from Paris was in the wrong place. What could she possibly know about textiles? Corrigan admits that early on she knew very little about different clothes and fabrics, but her knowledge of the fashion industry — she had managed and designed a label for twelve years and had modeled before that — told her that tradition was going out of style.
She saw the old-fashioned tweeds they were producing – typically grey and black, occasionally with a bit of light pink — and wondered why they couldn’t incorporate some of the brighter, more imaginative materials they had in the factory, like feathers and sequins and synthetics yarns. It couldn’t be done, they told her — impossible.
Because Corrigan uses modern materials that are harder to weave, she has to use much older styles of looms that run more slowly. «I’m not interested in quickly mass-producing five-euro textiles». Spurred on by her encounter at the factory, she made her first samples by hand, meter by meter, and took the designs she came up with to that year’s Première Vision, a textiles trade show in France.
She had expected Malhia Kent’s stand to go unseen. She and her mother had even booked a table at their favorite bar in preparation for their commiserations afterward. When she arrived at her booth at the fair she saw it was packed out with buyers making deals to take swatches of her fabrics back to their labels’ studios. «Our stand was just too small. We had to find an extra table and put it in the walkway. Armani was there, and because Valentino wanted to see what Armani was choosing he came too».
Corrigan told me the story of her predecessor’s first proper sale, to Coco Chanel. Michelle Kent, who was half-Italian and known as ‘Maglia’ to her friends (Italian for ‘knitting’, hence ‘Malhia Kent’), was unrelenting, Corrigan reminisces. «She was in training to be a lawyer but she stayed up at night weaving. One day she walked into Chanel’s studio and barked at the secretary in the lobby, demanding to see Coco. Coco, who could hear the racket from upstairs, came down to find out what was going on: ‘What’s all this noise? What do you want? Who is this woman?’». Michelle got her to look at the fabrics she had painstakingly woven, and promptly sold them.
She put her legal training on hold and went to work with Chanel. She stayed there for ten years before starting her own textiles studio. When she later became ill and began searching for somebody to replace her, she came to Corrigan. Kent used to tell her: «I like you because you don’t know about weaving. You will use the technique to do what you want, and not do what the technique wants you to do». When Kent’s illness became terminal not long after, Corrigan took on responsibility for the business.
Among the fabrics Malhia Kent produces today are hyper-saturated tweeds of electric pink and neon green and blue, Albers-Esque weaves of block-colored stripes and geometric shapes, and playfully embroidered jacquards showing sunbathers, cactus plants and circus performers. In Corrigan’s north-Paris studio, housed within a neoclassical villa on the banks of the Seine, a core of senior designers and stylists is supported by a rotation of inexperienced but curious apprentices, usualll, girls between the ages of twelve and fifteen. Corrigan encourages them to be as imaginative as they can and to make whatever comes into their heads. Nothing they do can be wrong. She wants them to think in the way she did when she first started.
Her motto, she tells me, is try, try again, fail, try again, and then succeed. She remembers a young girl bursting into tears one morning after seeing a fabric she had spent the whole day before designing. It’s terrible, she cried. It’s nothing like what I wanted. Later that day, Alber Elbaz, then the creative director of Lanvin, came into the studio and happened to see the sample, still on the table. Somebody had decided to cut it up and stitch it back together into a patchwork. He bought it and made it one of the studio’s triumphs that season.
Corrigan divides her work between her ‘right brain’ (her design practice) and her ‘left brain’ (her management of the business). Every design the studio has produced is kept on record, in a database system she designed and coded herself. «We keep everything», she stresses. She became interested in databases after the birth of her daughter, Alexia, who today is her main business partner. She wanted to keep track of everything they did and everything they bought, and how much it all cost. It served no purpose but she found it interesting to see a top-down view of their lives as consumers. This interest led her to study computing and information technology, practically unheard of for women at the time, let alone one working in fashion.
Her home office during the Covid-19 lockdown comprises an array of computer screens that allow her to monitor and work on her archives while checking emails and taking part in video conferences with her colleagues. For her, it is this ability to catalog obsessively and to see everything at once, that elevates her practice above her competitors. Everything the studio has ever done is available to view at the click of a button. Today in lockdown, it is a massive advantage to have all products available as photographs that you can send to your clients. «It will take the other studios three years to catalog their designs. With me, I did it from the very first fabric».
Corrigan is dedicated to high fashion, though she insists on altering and modifying all the clothes she buys. «I never wear them the way they are sold. A dress might become a skirt for me and a skirt might become a dress». The only big industry shake-up she has witnessed in her career was when the Chinese market got going, producing kilometers of fabrics at cut prices. But the loyalty of certain designers to her, and her commitment to high quality, kept the business stable. Maybe you don’t make as much money, but I leave those problems to my left brain.
What motivates her in the creative side of her work is enjoyment, and she gets this above all from engaging closely with fashion designers whose ideas inspire her. Nobody is too small for her to work with, whether it’s Galliano telling her to make fabric based on her own hair — dark at the top and progressively lighter and curlier towards the bottom — or a dieting Karl Lagerfeld fantasizing about a breakfast of jam and marmalade on toast, or even somebody like Benjamin Benmoyal, a recent graduate of the Central Saint Martins’ fashion design course.
Through his designs, Benmoyal expresses his nostalgia for the pre-digital age by creating fabrics from VHS and cassette tapes, interwoven with recycled yarns and other environmentally friendly materials that provide structure and subtle coloration. He had experimented with these ideas throughout his degree, always weaving by hand, on a loom he had taught himself to use. To figure out how to produce the same textiles at scale for his first ready-to-wear collection, for Autumn-Winter 2020, he enlisted Corrigan. «He came to me with two bags full of these tapes and told me he wanted to turn them into a fabric. And I said, yes, why not? We’ll try.»
Whoever Mahlia Kent’s Eve Corrigan works with, she sees it as her job to make their ideas and emotions a reality in fabric form. «They are dreaming. They need help to achieve what they want. I would get bored if they just told me, ‘I want a fabric with two black yarns and one red’. I love it when they don’t think immediately about their collection and ask me instead to dream with them».