A textile and embroidery designer who has worked with prestigious fashion houses such as Chanel Couture, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Betty Jackson, brought her expertise and passion for fashion to a specialist art and design college to inspire the next generation of artists and designers.
Mixed media textile and embroidery designer and artist Karen Nicol recently visited Cleveland College of Art and Design (CCAD) at the university-level campus in Hartlepool, where she spoke with students from Textile and Surface Design and Costume Interpretation with Design degree programme on her career as a self-employed textile designer.
Specialising in art, fashion and interiors at her London-based studio, Karen has developed a stellar career, creating fashion and art pieces for clients as diverse as investment banks in Hong Kong and London, Shell UK and Liberty London, as well as interior projects for the Pope, the King of Qatar, George Bush and the Thai Royal Family.
During Karen’s presentation at CCAD, the Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art talked about her early days setting up as a freelance designer and how she built up a business which also includes solo shows and exhibitions in galleries around the world.
The students were able to view over 100 creative portfolio images which demonstrated the versatility and diversity of Karen’s embroidery and mixed media designs, as well as get up close and personal with some of her design work over the years.
During the lecture Karen, who was awarded the Royal Designer for Industry in 2015, expanded on her career as a self-employed textile designer working in fashion, interiors and gallery and the differences and similarities between the different fields.
Learning what it was like to work in a small studio with no advanced technology and the challenge of being creative with what you have – as Karen did in her early days – she enthused the students to look everywhere for inspiration and collect it for future work.
Karen said: “My biggest influence was probably my mother who was a totally self-trained flower arranger, Chinese brushstroke artist, teacher, painter, embroiderer, milliner and dressmaker. She believed she could try anything.
“My inspiration comes from everywhere and I carry a camera and notebook with me and plunder everything for ideas, not necessarily for what I’m working on at that time but to store for the future. Anything from a plant to car boot buys to museums and beyond, I make a note of anything that attracts me visually. Then it all mashes together into some kind of hot pot to try to do something that I’ve not seen before.
“I like to illustrate the enjoyment of exploring new materials and the importance of developing an idea or material to keep learning and moving forward, so I wanted to explore that concept with the students.”
She stressed the importance of collaboration, with the students discovering a diverse range of projects which the artist has collaborated on with different designers, alongside the importance of timing, deadlines and costing of work.
Karen continued: “There have been so many projects and clients and I’ve been lucky enough to have enjoyed most of it. I like working in the way that I do because it changes every day and I’m involved in so many different things. I really enjoy trying to find new ways of doing things, I love the excitement, adrenalin rush and challenge of getting a new job to design my way into.”
The leading designer was also able to impart a wealth of advice to the students on the benefits of gaining work experience and those considering a career in textile and fashion design.
“What I told the students is that you have to be totally passionate about it and to be prepared to work hard. You need to be resilient, keep trying, and grab any breaks you get and make sure you make the most of them, be versatile. Never miss a deadline and try to think outside the box.
“It helps enormously to gain experience and make contacts but it is all about the students’ willingness and ability to go the extra mile with their portfolio and their contacts and opportunities.”
Second-year Textiles and Surface Design student Suzanne Treacy, 52, thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and was delighted to meet with Karen to showcase her current work and get some inspiration.
Suzanne, who commutes from a village near Morpeth as well as two days a week in student accommodation in Hartlepool, said: “Karen’s lecture was very inspirational as she’s so passionate about her work and that shines through. She was very happy to share her techniques and processes and to take questions which I found very useful. I particularly enjoyed looking over Karen’s work at the end of the lecture, where she engaged with everyone, answered questions and was so generous with her knowledge.”
Suzanne was also thrilled to have been allocated a private tutorial with Karen. Having been an admirer of her work for a while and since buying her book ‘Embellished’ a few years ago, Suzanne has since been inspired.
Karen’s use of crystal resin in some sampling she did for a client encouraged Suzanne to create her own embellishments with crystal resin for an entry into a national embroidery competition, the Hand & Lock Prize in 2016. Winning second place in the student textiles category created opportunities for Suzanne and – amongst other prizes and opportunities – she was lucky enough to do an internship at Hand & Lock. Working at such a prestigious and long established atelier gave her a fantastic opportunity to see traditional and contemporary embroidery being executed at a very high level.
“It’s fair to say that Karen’s work has had a direct influence on mine in a very positive way. The tutorial went very well and Karen’s advice to me was, in a nutshell, sample, sample, sample. She recommended taking one particular process, fabric or technique and work with it in as many ways as I can. It is valuable advice and I’ll certainly take it forward into my work.”
Hoping to be a freelance surface designer, Suzanne added: “I’ve had a passion for design, and in particular textile design, for as long as I can remember so studying for a BA (Hons) in Textiles and Surface Design is pretty much living the dream! CCAD’s new building at 1 Church Street has fantastic facilities and the lecturers and technicians are all so willing to help and give their time and advice. There is also a great programme of visiting lecturers and research trips.
“Studying a subject that I’m passionate about is hard work but I’m learning so much every day and really pushing myself and that gives me such a huge sense of achievement.”
Jayne Hemmins, Textiles Programme Leader, said: “We are absolutely delighted to have had Karen Nicol come to CCAD. She is an amazing, talented, respected designer and artist who has worked at the very top end of the textiles industry for many years.
It’s a real privilege for the textiles and costume students to have had the opportunity to view Karen’s work, hear her speak and handle actual pieces of her couture embroidery. The department was literally buzzing after her visit”.