From classic 1940's twin-sets through to 80s bejewelled bat-wing numbers and fluoro 90s lycra-mix band-aid dresses, knitwear in its endless forms has been a constant fixture in fashion throughout the decades. It's recurrently moved in and out of favour over the years as various designers, notably reigning 'queen of knitwear' Sonia Rykiel (who proved knitwear could follow any trend), have revealed their enduring obsession with all things knit from season to season.
While remaining an uncontested wardrobe mainstay, the last few years have seen knitwear pretty much resigned to sweaters, scarves and cardigans lining shelves at Gap – if it wasn't for devoted grandmas and op-shoppers, innovative knit might have faded from view altogether. As a reaction against the predictability, and neglect, of knit through the Noughties, a handful of visionary young designers over the last few fashion seasons have shaken off the mothballs and taken knitwear in a whole new direction. Designers Louise Goldin in London, Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy in LA and Sandra Backlund in Stockholm are at the helm of the recent resurgence in knitwear, redefining knit with experimental and fashion forward approaches to construction and design. Using traditional techniques like macramé and crochet alongside unconventional materials, these designers are re-contextualising knitwear, highlighting its versatility through garments that are alternately romantic, edgy and even risqué.
"I don't feel that one has to look at knitwear as being simply a cardigan or jumper," explains Louise Goldin, a New Generation sponsored designer renowned for her experimental designs. "Starting with the yarn, you can decide on the texture you want – it could be drapey or structured. There are so many techniques you can experiment with – the possibilities are endless when it comes to knit, so there's no need for me to make simple jumpers."
Taking knitwear out of its usual confines and directing it towards what she describes as her "future vision", Goldin's debut collection for S/S08 did the unthinkable – imbued yarn with sex appeal. Meeting somewhere between sultry and cyber, Goldin's form-fitting sportswear inspired knits took shape as everything from summer dresses, tunics and jumpsuits to hoodies and bodysuits, with not a hint of cardigan in sight. Eskimos, or more precisely "Space Eskimos", inspired her cohesive, print-heavy A/W08 collection that aimed to, "move forward the revolution in knitwear with gorgeous, sumptuous Inuit and Eskimo inspired prints, forms, furs and fabrics. I wanted to fuse these two themes to create something quite different and interesting. The collection followed on naturally from S/S08 through a process of evolving and experimenting – through taking what I learnt from the last collection and applying it to this one."
Describing her signature style as, "looking towards the modern, the future," Goldin explains that much of her practice involves refining and evolving her aesthetic through a process of trial and error. "Knitwear is so unpredictable and exciting. I design the garments before I have created the fabric, so it's pretty experimental, and I never know what the pieces will end up looking like," she says. "My actual signature is the knitwear itself, and its style, the modern graphics and modern yarns. The experimental fabrics I create through the knitting machines are very distinctive. A good sum up of my style would be; signature fabrics inside constructed pieces."
Goldin's distinctive aesthetic is a product, in part, of her experience working as head designer for a knitwear company in Brazil, while undertaking her MA in fashion design at London's prestigious Royal College of Art. Having free reign to experiment, and creating garments for a warm climate as opposed to the European winter, allowed Goldin to view knit in a new light. "Working for the Brazilian company, I started playing around with all different kinds of knitting machines and yarns... I realised the breadth of what I could achieve," Goldin reveals. "In Brazil they love sexy clothes, they're very body-conscious… being around that culture and climate really influenced me, and it is a definite possibility that it influenced my aesthetic," she says, quickly adding "But, I don't try to make sexy clothes consciously, they're a lot more conceptual than sexy I think."
With a poetic style all their own, sibling design duo Kate and Laura Mulleavy's label Rodarte specialises in dreamy, delicate gowns inspired by the romantic past and the "infinite beauty of nature". Since their 2005 New York Fashion Week debut, that saw them win over hard-to-please fashion critics (not to mention icons) Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Louboutin among others, their enchanting designs fusing chiffon ruffles and puffs, tulle and plumes alongside intricate beading and knit techniques have continued to capture the imaginations of the fashion world. A/W08 saw Rodarte experiment with a darker aesthetic, shaped by the sisters' shared obsession with modern Japanese horror films and Kabuki Theatre. Their fragile knits for Autumn, at once girly and gothic, exemplified knitting as a true art form. "Our delicate spider web knits are continually evolving and progressing in terms of colour, movement and technique," the sister's explained from their Los Angeles studio. "Our approach to knitwear really captures our creative spirit, which tends to be an 'anything goes' attitude. The pieces are both punk and lady-like, delicate and hard, whimsical and structured. Our work is often a study of balance, where volume, construction and colour have a complex interplay that we carefully control."
Rodarte's foray into knit ranged from stockings, jackets, cardigans and pretty skirts through to a variety of dresses in a multitude of hues – worn on the catwalk by none other than Rodarte fans Karen Elson and Agyness Dean. Painstakingly constructed using a number of traditional techniques, Rodarte's knit pieces are, "technically very difficult to make. They're all done by hand and, yet, appear to have such an easy and modern sensibility," Kate notes. "Laura and I design knits the same way we approach draping a beautiful dress, every detail is thought out and agonized over. In the end, we always strive to create a 'light as a feather' delicate garment that seems to be spun out of air," Kate says, going on to describe their knit pieces abstractly, and quite poetically, as, "small paintings where every stroke of colour, change in texture and tone transforms the body."
Swedish knitwear aficionado, and last year's Festival De Hyeres Grand Prix winner, Sandra Backlund, has almost singularly revolutionised knit over the last four years with inimitable creations that, like a three-dimensional collage, are assembled around the body without preliminary sketches. Constructing by hand what can sincerely be described as wearable sculptures, Backlund experiments with endless methods and materials including wool, cotton, paper and even glass and hair, to create breathtaking designs caught somewhere stylistically between the distant past and imagined future. "I am interested in almost every traditional handicraft method, but through the kind of collage knitting process I have developed, I've found an ultimate outlet for my ideas and energy," Backlund explains. "I like the way I am building and actually creating my own fabric, while working straight onto a dummy – it is mathematical, yet permits improvisation. It is the real thing, and everything that the fashion industry of today is not. It's very consuming in terms of time and money, and a real trial to ones mental and physical strength, but for me knitwear is the absolute challenge."
Seen as taking knitwear to new heights by fashion critics including London's perennially veiled and black-clad Diane Pernet, who described experiencing Backlund's work as on par with viewing Victor&Rolf's first collection, Backlund takes it in her stride, explaining that she, "tries not to get too concerned with how other people interpret what I do, or what they might expect from me… In the end I create only to satisfy myself." Her creations, only available made to order, are intimate reflections on her own personal experiences. For A/W08, Backlund conceived 'Last Breath Bruises', a "very personal and melancholy," collection inspired by the passing of a loved one.
On the recent revival in knitwear, Backlund acknowledges that like any other fad, it will more than likely pass, but sees the renewed interest in hand-made garments as a positive move towards sustainable design, and the rejection of throw-away fashion. "I think the increase of slow handicraft techniques on the catwalk is a direct reaction against mass production and mass consumption within the fashion business," Backlund muses, adding as a final thought, "This trend in knitwear has been a really good change, both from a creative and an environmental awareness point of view."