Karen Casper has an individual style and a spectacular air about her. There is a real sincerity to her work which merges futuristic invention with classic Victorian characteristics, fusing traditional techniques/media with contemporary counterparts), and her original ‘Miss Coral’ glow in the dark piece is a true incantation, which was recently exhibited at the Lace and Fashion Museum in France (see it glow here! www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAMYIm5Dseo). Having her work featured in numerous exhibitions, having pieces worn on the X Factor tour, and having had her work shown internationally, Karen Casper is no stranger to creative hard work. When it comes to a Karen Casper piece, the fascination is all in the detail; the dainty, delicate and delectable detail with Artisan work, hand crafted beautiful pieces. Karen talks to us exclusively, talking inspiration, the industry and idea thieves, whilst catching us up on her latest creation, her Victorian inspired mourning veils.
“I grasp inspiration from everything around me, such as museums, galleries, historical references. I look in obvious but I also find, and seek it in more unconventional places such as mouldy, forgotten vintage pieces which I hunt out at boot fairs and create a new identity to redundant textiles. I love to see what other people can create with my pieces. It’s strange to think that something I have made could inspire someone else to go on and make something of their own. I adore photography especially the dark, edgy and avant-garde; the more ominous the better! In organising a fashion editorial shoot this enables the body to become the plinth for my designs and demonstrate the context to the piece and ultimately bring the work to life. I am a ‘sharer’ of development and ideas as I am passionate and excitable about textiles and through my educational journey I would blog about current projects I was working on. However as a designer I understand we sometimes gain inspiration from other creatives, however there is a distinct line between gaining inspiration and turning your ideas into something that is unique and has your own personal style to just literally copying. Now that I am carving a career in the textile world I have unfortunately felt it necessary to remove my blog that had sampling/development and ideas that I still haven’t even taken forward myself.
To date, all of my work is personal to me, as it has stemmed from an experience I have lived through. My designs have many layers both metaphorically and physically. My work is often 3D with a life of its own, tactile and a story to tell. People like to get up close and really look at it, seeing how it’s done. Often people ask “did you really do that all by hand?” which is a real compliment. Yes! A real person sat over a sewing machine for hours on end and physically created a unique piece, and I think that is part of the magic to the work. I just want people to interact with my pieces and that’s a really special element to my designs that sets me apart from others. My designs are for looking, touching, wearing and admiring. They’re for everyone, as well as for me.”
Karen tells us about her latest creation, her Victorian mourning veils collection. God forbid, but she makes us wish we had a funeral to attend just so we could wear her one-of-a-kind veil.
“The starting point for my Master’s project which is inspired by Victorian mourning, triggered from the nursing of my terminally ill Mother-in-law and her blessing to pass away at home which is what the majority of society did in the Victorian period.
The high rate of disease meant that the Victorians were at peace with death and forming a healthy relationship with it; one that has seemingly disappeared from today’s culture. Children were part of the death and funerals – they even had a mourning doll that could be an equivalent to today’s Barbie doll! The Victorians were known for taking poignant death portraits if someone died, especially of their children. There are some really powerful images online of parents holding their dead children. They would treat death as a celebration of life and dress themselves up to look glamorous for the portraits. I chose the veil as the textile I would be inspired by and the female wearing it. The veil would be heavily embroidered creating an anchoring down of the drowning female. When visiting Norwood Cemetery and viewing the hand crafted elaborate memorials I wanted to capture the beauty and elaborate aesthetics within the piece also. The upper classes mourning garments I have sourced as inspiration/research are heavily embellished and embroidered – this was part of their culture at that time today we still see lace veils worn within certain cultures. There is a taboo around death today in general in society today compared to the Victorian period. When researching I came across death cafés that are becoming popular where people talk about death and its surrounding issues but death will still be a subject that is avoided, however bizarre that is, as it affects us all eventually. Perhaps my contextual Victorian inspired veils will remain a costume piece for now, purely for catwalk, editorial and exhibition purposes, rather than being worn at funerals.”
Tell us more about your take on Victorian mourning veils.
Using black and grey tones the embroidery design is inspired by the growth and decay of moss growing on the Victorian gravestones, I drew inspiration from during a visit to an exhibition at Norwood Cemetery. The heavy design is anchoring the female mourner down and drowning her due to her loss. Two embroidery stitches were used to create the intense embroidery; moss and chain. The moss stitch is a temporary stitch which can be unravelled and represents the fragile nature of the female at this time in her life, whilst the chain assisted with the creation of a lace appearance.
The veil was then hand embellished with sequins and crystals to reflect the light. Certain fabrics were used to either absorb the light (crepe) or reflect the light (satin) during stages of mourning. After one year and one day the female was permitted to introduce the colour palette of purple into her attire and so graduated purple shades were applied to create a bleeding effect of the female’s tears. Both the moss and chain stitch were used, however the moss stitch was secured with an overlay of chain stitch. The veil has been embellished with broken vintage pearl jewellery that echo the symbolism of pearls used in Victorian mourning jewellery to signify tears. From the embroidery to the embellishment of the veils the Artisan and craftsmanship was a important part of the design process. Creating unique labour intensive conceptual pieces is the signature of my practice.
With whispers about very high profile collaborations and a rare hunger to achieve, this designer’s career is well onto the road of success, and she is most definitely one to watch, if not stalk with bated breath. But Karen hasn’t always been so confident in what she was creating.
“When leaving university to venture into the working world I had absolutely no confidence in my work. It would be fair to say I felt very lost within myself and the self-doubt crept in. Therefore when the first acknowledgement of my work occurred by being commissioned by the Whitworth Art Gallery I started to really believe in myself once again. I then gained international recognition when I was selected as 1 of 22 artists/designers to exhibit at the ‘Lace and Fashion Museum in Calais, France.
Everyone needs that break, even if it is something small and seemingly insignificant, it can really decipher between an artist giving up or carrying on. This is why I try to be very encouraging and celebrate all little successes in life. It’s so hard to get a break in this industry and it really can crush you, so grab life by both hands, live for the now, don’t worry about what opportunity you may or may not get tomorrow, and seize what’s in front of you now. Also be prepared for an abundance of knock backs I believe (or maybe hoping), hard work and determination pays off. From my short time in the textile industry I have learnt very quickly that it’s extremely competitive and it’s crucial to stand out from the crowd and create a unique identity.
For someone who hadn’t sat in front of a sewing machine until I was 31, I think I am not doing too badly. I am a firm believer in pimping yourself and your practise out, whatever your field. I am constantly sending industry people tweets and letters to try and get noticed. Ultimately, the dream is to be producing avant-garde couture for prestigious names.”
Words by Loo Loo Rose