Curious to learn about the person behind the thought-provoking fashion brand oB Wear and how this initiative explores playfulness, longevity, adaptability and the ritual of everyday dress, we returned to Bristol to meet with the wonderful seamstress and fashion designer Milly Melbourne at her studio at Estate of the Arts, the newly opened artists’ space located in the heart of Bedminster.
Wearing a yellow, yes, a very yellow raincoat, Milly welcomed us with a beaming smile and gave us an initial tour of her newly refurbished studio space that she shares with Tallulah Pomeroy ‒ her longtime friend and fellow creative we met at the end of last year when their studio was still a work in progress. After admiring the studio’s interior decoration and the recently finished blue wooden flooring, Milly invited us in her colourful living space of her yellow, yes, very yellow campervan where we had the pleasure of meeting Bear, Milly’s partner and the man behind so many skillfully executed jobs inside the campervan and the studio. A stream of velvety warmth flows from this multicoloured microcosm as we sit down with Milly and Bear, enjoying a hot cup of tea and hearing about their travels around Europe, their stay in Berlin and some of the perks of campervan life.
We then returned to the studio, where Milly showed us around her creative space and told us about the inception of oB Wear and the philosophy that informs her vision. By thoughtfully exploring the relationship between body, garment and ritual, Milly has become part of an undercurrent of forward thinking designers and individuals who are working towards reshaping the future of fashion industry. Indeed, Milly’s garments actively invite the wearer to playfully dive into their own reflection, to immerse themselves in the pond of a genderless, free flowing oneness and to engage in a tactile, almost sculptural dialogue with this other layer of their skin.
After convincing Bear to try on one of Milly’s latest garments, the couple gave us a tour of the rest of the Estate of the Arts space, passionately telling us about its exciting growth and the wealth of talent that this space is hosting. We said goodbye just as the rain started coming down on Bristol and drove away still chatting between the two of us about the yellow, yes, the very yellow raincoat and campervan, the mindful relationship between garments and human bodies and the wonderful couple we had the chance to meet and converse with.
Who is Milly behind oB?
Nottingham born seamstress and clothing designer from a big silly family. I recently founded my small clothing label oB this year.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I have lots of fragmented memories of childhood which all seem to circle around being encouraged to be adventurous or mischievous! A funny one is when we visited monkey world in Dorset with my grandparents, we were in a woodland part of the park where there were no monkeys. My grandad, being the cheeky man he was, called me and my sister over saying “come on girls watch this, let’s point up there and pretend we can see monkeys in the trees and see what happens” as we started to point and pretend, darting our gaze and arms, leaning into each other saying “did you see that!?” Curious people started to gather around us trying to spot what we were looking at. We found it so hilarious as person after person joined the group to point at the swaying branches. We three casually left the small crowd that had gathered, leaving them to stare at the monkey-less trees!
Have you always wanted to be a fashion designer?
I’ve always wanted to make things with my hands and create. The craft of making and altering clothes came really naturally, it was so satisfying to start learning the skills. I still find the practice immensely satisfying and mediative now, the breadth of techniques seems endless and I feel I’ve always got more to learn and practice. My grandma taught me when I was young, she’s been making clothes for herself and for our family all her life, her enthusiasm for it motivated my interest. I went to study fashion and clothing design at college in Nottingham and at Falmouth University, having graduated three years ago.
Although I did use to squirm at the ambition to become a fashion designer. I loathed the big industry of fashion; it was so destructive, striving to become cheaper, faster and broader with products that were scorched of any meaning. I was more inspired and passionate about the undercurrent of designers, companies and individuals who are working towards a more responsible and positive future with the objects we make, buy and live with. There are a lot of really exiting steps being made in fashion industry today which is shaping the future for good. I feel very at home being a fashion/clothing designer. I bloody love the work!
oB... How did you come up with this name and why is it meaningful to you?
oB comes from ideas floating around “object with body”, an area i seem to be most drawn to. While I was founding oB I was living in St Ives, Cornwall. Not far away there is a collection of three ancient, thought to be Neolithic/Bronze age, stones called Mên-an-Tol. Just three satisfying shapes that sat within an unmoving and barren field. One of the stones is circular shaped with a perfect hole in the middle and the other two are small vertical stumps placed in line with the hole, they kind of looked like my oB!
There are some myths around them about crawling through the hole numerous times would cure bodily ailments. But I thought even without the myth, because the hole appeared big enough to pass your body through you felt inclined to clumsily give it a go. People were drawn to engage with the rocks, touching and admiring their formations from different angles, kneeling down so they could see another perspective through the window of the hole. I became very excited as I started to create a connection and related it to how I wanted to make clothing: objects that encourage your interaction. I eagerly took it as a sign and therefore oB’s appearance is inspired by these rock shapes.
How would you define the oB style and vision?
oB is playful and has its vision in provoking curiosity and sharing its process.
I want oB to create beautifully made objects that invite and encourage slow, thoughtful interactions and experiences through their wear and use.
Crafting useful clothing that keeps giving over time.
Open to any gender and creating sizes that adapt to all different body shapes.
We love your focus on the space between being naked and fully clothed. What is a garment in your opinion and how would you define the relationship between the garment and the body?
I’m so interested in that limbo space ‒ the ritual of dressing our bodies ‒ the processes, play and movements we go though to get the cloth around our limbs. We do it every day without thinking about it, but I’ve found it so fun to be more aware of it and design clothing with that ritual in mind. Watch yourself the next time you get dressed or undressed! See the practised way you handle the garment and the texture of it against your body. How do you feel about this object?
A garment in my eyes is a moving wearable sculpture that keeps changing its form with our interaction. They are like friends stuck to our skin. They are so much a part of our everyday lives that they become symbols and extensions of ourselves.
Where do you source your materials from and what are the criteria behind your choices?
I source my materials from a mix of places and people, mainly supporting small UK suppliers who gather some really interesting and high quality materials and really know their stuff about textiles. I spend a lot of time gathering samples and tend to choose materials that have something to their character, be it organically grown, hand woven, naturally dyed, fair trade, fine craftsmanship or something with a story.
What is the most frequent question that people ask about your wrap dresses?
How do I put it on!? But I love that, I like how it’s not obvious and you have to discover them a bit and find your own ways to wear them. It’s so great seeing how everyone wears them differently and has their own preferences. I learn so much more about the objects from the people who wear them, seeing people wear them keeps me going!
What was the greatest challenge that you had to face as a young designer and entrepreneur?
I think actually taking that jump to dedicate my full attention to this work. I’d always tried to balance it with working many other jobs and it was too much pressure. It was in the confidence of taking that jump from being in more reliable work and of working for someone else when your future can be more foreseen to the uncertainty of working for yourself. The obstacles are many, every week! But I really learn and allow them to shape my vision. I think today you’re surrounded by a fizzing frenzy of information and the urge to compare to other designers and companies and get distracted by it all is always tempting. Staying strong and being patient as you focus on yourself and your work is a challenge for us all!
Tell us about your Berlin experience. Why Berlin and what was the most valuable lesson that you brought back home from your time there?
Berlin drew me in the moment I visited, I had a friend out there who welcomed me into the city so easily. When I think back to Berlin I think about all the people I met there more than the city itself, they were all like little chisel marks! Shaping me in some unexpected way! When I lived there I shared a studio with an amazing artist called Corrie Barclay, she’s really into combining movement, body, interactions into her work, so we were on a really similar wavelength and it influenced my creative work at the time, we got into gestural painting on cloth which we turned into clothes.
I think the ethical fashion scene that thrives there really gave me that incentive to push my yearning to set up my own label. I worked with two very inspiring one-woman companies. I helped make some beautiful underwear made from reclaimed materials for a company called Anekdot and assisted an upcycling design company called SICA. Simone Simonato, the face behind SICA, really is a natural entrepreneur and uses her work to inspire others. I always cycled back from work there feeling really bright eyed and motivated!
What is Estate of The Arts and how did you come across it?
Estate of the Arts is a new hub of studios and warehouse units in Bedminster, Bristol that are now being renovated. It’s a huge and exciting space which my pal Tallulah Pomeroy came across as we were hunting for a big space we could share together. I think it will really become a thriving destination in the area. It's going to have an amazing variety of people working there.
Who do you admire in your industry and why?
I really admire the big messages echoed through the fine craft of Francli Craftwear. The founders were on my design course at Falmouth, I helped them do some sewing from time to time and had so much fun working in their barn studio that overlooked the Cornish green fields. I got a taste of what day to day work might be like working on my own brand so it really inspired me to stand on my own two feet and stick to my passions. I really look up to Francli and especially love how they have always involved the local community to inspire their work.
In short here are some others that I really admire!
Atacac ‒ a very forward thinking company, their open sourced clothing platform is genius!
Li Edelkoort ‒ Trend forecaster, seeking, gathering and storytelling rich, poetic and thoughtful craft and design in different cultures and individuals.
Sheltersuit ‒ empowering design, creating adaptable jackets that turn into sleeping bags.
Bonne Life ‒ doing one thing well, universal and timeless pieces.
Nadine Goepfert ‒ for her ongoing thoughts and harmonious play with sculpture, art and textile.
Franz Erhard Walther ‒ for his monumental work exploring relationships between bodies and cloth.
What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
You are a campervan dweller. Tell us more about the pros and cons of campervan life.
I think one of the best things about living in a van is that it gives you the flexibility to experience living in lots of different places. It's a cosy little home on wheels that is always changing its garden! It makes me feel way more self reliant and engaged with my surroundings. It’s comfortably uncomfortable, it doesn't let me get lazy. You are inevitably outside more and slows life down, making the small things feel really rewarding. Like making the tea on the stove, listening to the radio, putting the fire on, hearing the birds hop about on the roof of the van in the morning. The small space really gets you thinking about what objects you do surround yourself with, and it highlights the things that are useful or meaningful from the tat that just clutters our lives. There's definitely little hindrances from day to day but you get used to dealing with them. It’s harder to establish routines as you’re always on the move and changing daily life, sometimes you park somewhere really noisy and right now it’s been getting pretty cold!
What was the best gift you have ever received?
This big grey floppy cardigan my grandma knitted me years ago, it’s like wearing a big grandma hug! It’s so comforting and always reminds me of home and to enjoy some downtime.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm currently in the transition of setting up the new studio so I’ve been juggling wood work with sewing! It’s been really fun to get all sawdusty and start creating a space from scratch.
What does the future hold for oB?
I think oB's future is to open out in ways so that people can be more a part of it, through collaborations, taking on feedback, hosting workshops and events. I am very happy to let it grow slowly from gathering more interpretations and explorations on the relationship between body, object and ritual. I love the idea of incorporating more people’s take on the subject. I still feel there is a lot of learning and shaping ahead and really not sure what it will look like in a year’s time! One thing I am set on is that I’d like the new studio/workshop to be open for people to come visit and try on oB in the room they are made!
What about your personal dreams and ambitions?
I always daydream about one day going on some sort of quest researching the way people put cloth on and around their bodies, which would hopefully take me to all sorts of corners around the world! I’ve also never ever pushed myself that hard physically so I think I need to test myself one day with some big physical challenge. I think my ongoing ambition is to cultivate more day to day mindfulness and personal understanding.
And now a Yes or No Max Frisch question: If you had the power to put into effect things you consider right, would you do so against the wishes of the majority?
Can you recommend us:
A book: Moowon Book of Stories: Vanishing Arts. Hidden Places. Singular People. by Mona Kim
A song: Blessings, Sampa the Great
A film: La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) 1946. The beast’s voice and style is great!
A dish: making a big vat of hummus and serving it hot with tomatoes, aubergines, good bread and oil, it’s a really fun and messy sharing dish.