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V&A / LCF Research awardee Naomi Bailey-Cooper discusses snakeskin and sustainability

Written by Rosie Higham-stainton
Published date 25 April 2017

Like fur, snakeskin and other animal skins are a big, and contentious, business. Now, one of LCF’s PhD students Naomi Bailey-Cooper is exploring artificial alternatives to this kind of exotic and much loved embellishment. Supported by V&A, through funding and research facilities, Naomi has garnered much success and talks to us about how she ended up here, her impending residency in the Amazon and why PhDs aren’t that scary.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, where you’re from and what you were doing before the PhD?

I grew up mainly in or around the Cotswolds, surrounded by picturesque fields and countryside. When I finished school, I craved something completely different so I moved to London, originally to study Art Foundation at London College of Fashion, and I have been here ever since. That was almost 12 years ago! I never dreamed I’d be in London this long but it has been the best city for my work and relevant study. I went on to complete BA Fashion Design Womenswear at Central Saint Martins and started a Masters at the Royal College of Art but left after two terms, as it was not right for me. During that time and since, I have been involved in long-term research projects for brands such as Gucci and Burberry and I have gained business start-up experience as well as taking on self-initiated projects and commissions. I now live in a green area in south west London with my boyfriend, so I have got some of that countryside feeling back!

Naomi Bailey-Cooper

What’s your PhD about?

My PhD is about developing alternatives to exotic animal materials such as fur, feathers and reptile skins. I am a huge animal lover so for a while I have been looking for a way to bring that interest into my work. The focus of the PhD is those materials (fur, feathers, reptile skins) used as decoration, my PhD title being ‘How can embellishment deliver an alternative to the decorative and seductive notion of exotic animal materials?’ There are a lot of faux furs and exotics on the market now but they are largely engineered aesthetic alternatives and I think there is a lot more that can be tapped into! So a lot of my research is talking to industry who use and love exotic animal materials, discovering what the appeal is, and applying those findings to the development of alternative textiles. Depending on what those findings are, what I will end up making may look nothing like fur, feathers or reptile skins but satisfy some other association. That is what makes it particularly interesting.

Does your PhD have a practical element to it? Do you make things?

Yes I am practice-based which means what I design and make will constitute a large part of the final PhD submission. I am researching the subject through practice – so I am using those findings aforementioned, or research, as a ‘design brief’ and then experimenting with different techniques and materials to see what fulfils that ‘brief’. What I make is effectively textiles for fashion.

How does sustainability come into your work?

My PhD is not about sustainability as such, but it comes into my overall work as much as it is relevant and important for any designer now. A large aspect of my previous design work was about exploring biodegradability as something that could be environmentally friendly and I am still very interested in that. Within the PhD I am really guided by what the ‘research’ tells me. For example, if people associate sustainability with the appeal of exotic animal materials then of course that is something I will explore and try to satisfy.

Who is doing sustainability well, in fashion?

For me, the most important thing is creating something someone wants to wear and is beautiful in its own right without having to be marketed as sustainable. I think there are some fashion companies who have focused a lot on creating a sustainable supply chain and using sustainable materials, but have not necessarily created something beautiful or something which people will treasure and want to keep for a long time. In my opinion, there is something about bespoke which is sustainable because it sustains hands-on, often culturally important skills, and both the creator and client have a respect and understanding for that product and what has gone into making it.

What excites you about doing a PhD?

I love doing a PhD! People suggested a PhD to me for years when I was struggling to find a place where I could explore my ideas and I am glad that I finally listened, because it is perfect for me. The way I explain it to friends who have done or are currently on a BA or MA design course is that it’s like doing a uni project or your graduate collection but you do it for at least 3 years! Of course it’s not exactly the same as that but for me, that’s why I love it. When I studied previously I felt so pressured to turn projects around in weeks when I really wanted to explore a topic properly and invent something new. I would always end up with a huge sketchbook and early material developments and then a few very rushed ‘final designs’, which I hated. In fact, when I was on my BA I struggled with the structure so much I hatched a plan in my head to request to do all the projects on the degree course under one theme, so that I could tick the boxes of having completed all the different projects but really just continue to develop one idea over three years. I didn’t get the courage to do that in the end and perhaps it would have made me too narrow too early on!

Did you always want to be a designer?

Yes, I’ve wanted to be a fashion designer since I was a teenager and have always been really driven and focused. I didn’t know exactly what the best route for me was until I was in it – and I’m still figuring that out! Over the years my work has naturally become more textiles-based, but still within the realm of fashion. I’ve always been drawn to the arts and as a child my favourite subjects were art and drama.

This PhD is LCF funded via an V&A / LCF supported scholarship. What role has V&A played in your research?

The V&A /LCF supported scholarship is such an amazing opportunity, as I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. The V&A has also played quite a large part in my research as I have been granted access to their amazing archive at the Clothworkers Centre, which has inspired my PhD in various ways. In particular, I have been in close contact with one of the leading curators there who has been so generous to me. She has offered feedback and support, sent through a lot of relevant reading and has helped me reach out to other museum and industry archives, as well as personally giving me a tour of the fur and feathers store at the V&A which was incredibly inspiring!

You’re about to go to the Amazon to do a residency – can you tell us a bit about that?

It is the AER which stands for ‘Art for the Environment Residency’ which is chaired by artist Lucy Orta. This year they offered a residency with LabVerde, an art immersion programme in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil and I was lucky enough to have been selected. I will be there this summer to explore the rainforest with scientific experts and other international artists and makers. The focus of the residency is to explore the connections between science, art and the natural environment and produce a response to the environmental issues in the Amazon.

What is an average day like?

An average day…that’s hard to say because every day and every week is different. Doing a PhD is like being self-employed, you set your own working hours and to-do lists. I would say up to 50% of the time I work from home, as I have a small spare bedroom-turned-studio to work in. Otherwise I work at the John Princes Street site in the PhD room or the library, at the Lime Grove site (it is the nearest to where I live) in textiles open access or the computer room there. I’m also at Central Saint Martins at least once a week because I work there part-time in a research group called the Innovation Insights Hub. It varies but at the moment I’m doing about 50% design and make work and 50% writing and analysing as I’m coming up to confirmation (a second year deadline where I have to submit a 10,000 word document).

How can universities make PhDs more accessible and less intimidating?

PhDs are shrouded in mystery it’s true, particularly arts-based PhDs and I’m not quite sure why that its.

People tend to think I spend my time reading and writing, being very ‘academic’ and not doing anything creative, which is not what it’s like for me at all. I think especially in the field of fashion, where practice generally means producing a collection of garments at least twice a year (and often a lot more) and you’re guided very much by trends and budgets rather than your own creative ideas, it is hard to imagine how or why you’d spend longer than a couple of months on a concept.

But I think for anyone who believes that they have an idea that could change that system or that would take more initial time and investment, a PhD may really suit you. Not that I am trying to sell it! I didn’t really fit into the existing system but didn’t want to give up on my ideas which is why I found the PhD a perfect environment (I suppose I’m also really stubborn and I stick to my guns). I’ve seen people treat an arts PhD like it is a business incubator or they do a PhD part-time whilst also working freelance. So I think a PhD would be more understandable and appealing when thought as being aligned to that type of working.