Lily Branfield is the young London designer changing the way we see underwear with her new brand, Stratum…
The first thing you notice when you walk into Lily Branfield’s studio is the five foot tall stuffed giraffe, sitting quietly in the corner by the window:
‘That toy giraffe is called Clementine and she was my original business partner. […] When I was too pussy to do the tough emails Clementine, who had her own email address and who was me but with a tough personality, would reply’
Branfield is the designer behind Stratum. We sat down with her in her homely London studio to discuss everything from luxury pants and the environment, to the realities of being a young woman in fashion.
Elle Ayres: Talk me through the name STRATUM:
Lily Branfield: I don’t like my name and the thought of seeing it when it’s really not about me, it’s about the garments, creeped me out. I wanted something with a clean masculine sound that looks balanced visually. I was thinking about the brand values and how I want to treat underwear as just another layer (which is what STRATUM means) of clothing. It’s not this secret, shameful or fetishized item. I really wanted to go for an ambiguity between whether it’s underwear or outerwear because the idea came when I was working for a company where I was the only woman in my team and the youngest by twenty/thirty years. You know how work shirts are always quite sheer? If I wore my nice bra it had lace and ribbons and bows and underwire and cleavage and that’s not really the look I wanted to go for in the office but if I wore my plain everyday bra it was this grey sad droopy number with ugly straps and clasps and that’s a bit ugggh. I wanted to make something that didn’t have any bra identifiers so there’s no hooks and eyes, no lace or under wiring. One has a racerback.
EA: What’s next for STRATUM? Do you have any plans for a presentation at London Fashion Week?
LB: We’re branching out into women’s wear that does the job of underwear as well. We’re going to be doing these little structured tops and the whole collection is going to be inspired by the film ‘The Heathers’ which is my all-time favourite film. I would like to do a show but unfortunately it costs minimum around sixty grand which I do not have, and I’ve the done the designer brand show room section with brands I’ve worked with in the past and trade shows are just becoming more and more dead. No one’s buying in London anymore. So the plan is, we’re going to try and get a collaborative showroom in Paris for fashion week and use a comedy cane to hook buyers in from the street *laughs*. The collection at the moment is probably going to be the core collection to be updated seasonally but with the seasonal stuff I want to push forward more. The new collection has items which are pants, bra and a top in one so you could style with a skirt or trousers. All completely smooth silhouettes. We like the idea – and it might sound a bit odd – that when you take it off you’re naked. I’ve done a lot of research into the evolution of underwear in relation to norms in society. I get more and more creeped out by the idea that underwear is the final frontier, the last stand between a man and sex. That’s actually why lace is so alluring, because apparently it triggers the old hunting instincts of when men would watch for deer through long grass, the conceal and reveal, you can see but you can’t see. I just thought it’s a lot more powerful to be in one thing.
EA: What I think really comes across with the core collection is that it’s sexy but completely not sexualised, assertive but understated, was that intentional?
LB: Yes! Thank you! I’m so glad. I struggled for so long to try and get that across. I hate hate hate the majority of underwear shoots. It’s either soft focus girl, she’s sitting on the edge of the bed so innocent, ‘when will the man come to ravish me?’ or she’s got red lips, dark eyes and big hair as a silken boudoir temptress. I just thought, why can’t she be herself? And have sex sometimes when she wants to? It was quite difficult to figure out how to do a photo shoot because we needed to make it seem normal that she’s out and about in her underwear. I really didn’t want it to be a shoot in the bedroom because then the implication is you’re either getting dressed or about to have sex. I get so pissed off with the objectification of women, the male gaze, the if you do that it means you want that, who’s made up these rules? In the campaign shoot the model isn’t wearing any makeup (would you believe?! My god she’s so gorgeous) and half of the images are completely untouched on film because we just wanted her to be herself.
EA: You identify STRATUM as an ethical and sustainable brand, in what ways is this integral to what STRATUM is?
LB: For me the most important thing is integrity. Which I think means you’ve thought through all your decisions so you stand by them and you don’t have any prickles on your conscience about what you’ve done. That doesn’t mean you’ve got it one hundred percent right and it couldn’t be better but it means you’ve tried your best in every situation to do the best you can. So what I really wanted to promote was body positivity and a feminist angle through the shoot. Concerning sustainability, it was sort of a coincidence actually. I was trying to find the nicest fabric that’s good to your body. Bamboo is naturally antibacterial and works moisture away from the skin so it’s really good for your vagina basically, which is what you need for underwear *laughs*. Then when I looked into it a bit more I realised it’s a lot more sustainable and environmentally friendly than cotton. It uses less water and less harmful chemicals to turn a bamboo plant into a fabric and it’s also a grass which means it pops back by itself, you don’t have to replant it. It’s something which I’m keen to keep as much as possible but I would say the main focus is the ethicalness of how the garments are produced which is in London by skilled workers for fair wage in safe conditions and that’s never going to change. Well I might change the location but I’m never going to change the ethics of how it’s produced. And also the feminist angle. I’m really individualistic and I just want everybody to be themselves, do their thing and not be fitted into these preconceived moulds.
Is that what your tagline ‘underwear for the unafraid’ channels?
We were trying to think of a way to sum up the concept of, basically, fuck you. Fuck you underwear. Unafraid to think of your own comfort above your looks. Unafraid to be a sexual being and feel sexy without all the accessories. Unafraid to wear it out as a top, to wear it under a jumper, to not wear it at all. Be unafraid to think of yourself first, figure out who you are and then stand by it and not be swayed by what anyone else thinks.
How does the luxury element come into the brand?
It’s come out of the philosophy of treat ya self. I like luxury things not just because they’re luxury but because when you’re paying more you get the aspirational element, the imagery, the story, the care, the craftsmanship, you get the whole thing. I was thinking if I was to treat myself or beg for something for my birthday, there’s so many shoes and scarfs and hats and accessories that I can get. But if I want to treat myself to underwear, the second you go to a luxury price point, luxury finish, it’s all sex orientated. What if you just want to treat yourself completely selfishly for you? It’s comfortable and versatile. A lady said the other day that it’s the cashmere jumper of underwear. It is quite a big out lay but you’ll wear it every day with everything. Like a good pair of leather shoes or a good pair of jeans. We’re going to go forward into prints and embellishments so we can show even more individuality as well.
Returning to the idea of individuality, did you always want to start your own label or did you think about working for other designers?
I’m afraid it was always going to me. I have worked for other people, I was studio manager at Olivia von Halle which is a luxury pyjama brand, for nearly two years and I absolutely loved it. It was amazing and I couldn’t fault her but the whole time I was always a bit itchy to do my own thing. I’ve always wanted that. I got my first job at sixteen as a library assistant and I spent my first pay cheque on waxes and essential oils to make my own lip balm to sell because that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always been incredibly independent.
What has your experience in the industry as a young fashion designer been like?
Pretty negative I would say overall. I’ve been interning since I was seventeen, no fourteen – oh my god I had my first internship when I was fourteen – and some were really excellent. I was Olivia’s first intern, I stayed for nearly two years and got promoted. I’ve also had some really, really awful internships where I was treated so badly. I look back now and think I was foolish. It was only because I was young that I didn’t know how to stand up for myself. I should have just walked out and said ‘no this isn’t right, you can’t treat people like this and I’m not going to stand for it’. It was pretty similar throughout uni, I didn’t have a good time. It’s what has made me really determined to have my own brand, to be successful and to never ever, ever sacrifice having integrity and being kind for success. I think it’s a myth that fashion just endlessly perpetuates amongst itself; that to get ahead you have to be Devil wears Prada. I was and am completely determined to break that chain.
Do you have any advice for people trying to break into the industry and who are applying for internships?
My advice would be that internships in general are really worth it. My internship with Olivia is what gave me the knowledge and confidence to start my own thing, we’re still in touch and we have a nice relationship. But I made a lot of mistakes getting trapped into internships that were dreadful and I would say; intern a lot but always speak to them on the phone or have an actual interview or trial day first. Then commit to two weeks, then if you like it commit to three months and then after three months if you still like it try and see if they’ll pay you. But if something feels wrong and you don’t feel happy just walk away. I had a friend who was interning at a place everyone knows is bad to intern for and she had stomach flu, throwing up every thirty minutes, and they made her come in because it was two weeks before fashion week, and hand embroider shoes unpaid whilst she was being sick into a bucket next to her. They said to her that if she left they’d blacklist her and that she’d never be able to work in the industry again. And it’s not true but she believed it and even if it was, it should be fought against. Also there’s this misconception as well that if you have XYZ big name on your CV as an internship you’ll be more employable, but all it shows other industry insiders is that you take shit. It doesn’t make you special when everyone knows these big companies have a million and one interns. So yeah don’t get fooled by big brands and don’t take shit.
People can buy Stratum online but what about a store?
We have a pop up shop. It’s very exciting, it’s on High Street Kensington and it’s with the London Designers Collective which is a group of emerging designers that come together to do these pop ups because none of us have enough stock or following to have a shop all to ourselves. There’s a couple of women’s wear brands, scarves, hats, jewelry so it’s non-competitive amongst ourselves. I wanted, David Attenborough-esque, to see the customers see my stuff and then see what they like and dislike first hand.
In terms of the core collection how did you come up with the shapes and the decision for it to be all white?
Concerning the shapes, I initially had two pieces. Initially I was hard-core and didn’t want any cleavage but I softened a bit and added Moffy, which is actually named after the model in the campaign because that was her favourite piece. It’s inspired by nineties minimalist luxe in the shapes and then the reason is that it’s all white is because it was meant to be dyed but that did not work. Actually it was meant to be prints but then they didn’t work and then the dye didn’t work *laughs*.
How do you curate your social media and what sort of brand image do you want to communicate?
I mess around on the internet, probably a bit too much, and store up all images that I like. The main point I wanted to get across was a feeling of exuberance and rebelliousness, a colourful expression of self. I didn’t want it to be all boobs and bums draped with some flowers. I think with Instagram you just follow what you like seeing the pictures of. All my posts fit nicely together on the page but when you scroll past on your feed it’s a nice burst of humour rather than ‘buy our stuff’ or here’s a massive paragraph about our brand values.
How do you like to spend your Sundays?
It’s pretty much the same every Sunday, I sound a million years old now. I wake up, I pop to Gail’s to get a nice little treat for breakfast, then my fiancé eventually wakes up and we go somewhere in the car with the dog like Richmond Park or Hampstead Heath. Then we have a really nice pub lunch and come home to watch I’m A Celeb.
Follow Stratum on Instagram: @StratumLondon
Follow Elle on Twitter: @AyresElle
Imagery via @ Stratum London