Best Wardrobes in Britain: Phoebe Collings-James


Welcome to the latest highly exciting instalment of Who What Wear UK’s Best Wardrobes in Britain. It’s where we do exactly what it says on the tin: delve into the most fantastical, awe-inspiring and downright influential wardrobes in this fair country of ours. We’re honing in on the women who cause the street style photographers to press their shutters as much as the characters you don’t yet know—the ones who fly under the radar with secretly incredible clothing collections.

As one of London’s leading creatives and someone widely considered to be one of city’s best-dressed women, it’s no surprise that Phoebe Collings-James is courted by as many of the fashion industry’s biggest fashion brands as she is art collectors. After returning to her hometown from a stint in New York, and on the cusp of launching a major collaborative performance piece, Sounds 4 Survival, we caught up with the model-turned-artist in her East London flat to talk about style, the energy behind clothes, her 45-minute attention span for shopping and what happened during her “rude girl” phase…

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Do you have any early fashion memories? We had quite an extensive dressing-up box as kids, so that was probably the first thing. After that, I remember the first time I really started to decide what I’d wear. I remember having quite a big moment in a shop when I wanted a particular pair of shoes that were patent snakeskin with a peep toe—they were completely inappropriate for school. I was probably about 7, and my mum so wouldn’t have gotten them, but one of her friends was with us, so she kind of caved…. My parents were really into fashion, and they had me and my sister quite young—they were very into dressing us and into clothes. I guess I was probably quite influenced by that. Even by the kind of things they’d want us to wear, which would be considered quite boyish things, like baggy T-shirts and bright colours, lots of OshKosh, dungarees, things like that… They definitely went against what their parents’ generation would have wanted two little girls [to wear]. I think my mum especially—even though I hated it at the time and got really embarrassed—would always wear quite funky looks. Lots of pattern and colour, and she always had her head shaved and was dying it different colours. I think I was quite inspired, probably by osmosis, by how clothes can be a way to express yourself.
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Has your style changed much over the years, or would you say you’ve always dressed a certain way? I’ve been through phases, but now I probably dress almost exactly the same, but with a bit more access to different clothes because I work in fashion. From 12 to 17, it was very “rude girl” style; everything had to be tight and specific and emulating particular brands. Even though I wouldn’t have had the brands themselves (like Evisu or Moschino), I’d wear rip-offs. How would you describe your look now? An old friend who I used to work with, Dean Mayo Davis, said that everything I put on looked “like I was wearing a jumper.” I think he was trying to say in a way, I guess, that I quite like wearing heavily detailed or colourful or fancy clothes but quite casually. I don’t like feeling overly dressed-up. I really am quite obsessed with things that have beautiful embroidery or an amazing pattern—something where there’s been a lot of care [put into manufacturing it]. So I think there’s a massive theme, but it might not be a sartorial one.
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So what’s your fast-track to looking casual? Usually with flat shoes. I’m 5’1″ and as much I like wearing heels, I feel like I’m going against gravity and too high up! Wearing trainers or flats, wearing things with T-shirts, or wearing [elaborate items] in the daytime can do it.
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Your role as an artist must create two opposing wardrobes: on the one hand, being practical in the studio, and on the other hand evening events where you might be showcasing your work. How does that work for you? Even though I need to wear clothes that can get dirty, I’ve recently been trying to find trousers and more casual clothes that have something interesting about them, because I’m in them all the time… I just think there’s a way to still feel energised by my clothes, even though I’m probably going to get them trashed with clay. And then with going out, I really like dressing up but still being kind of casual. There’s a Ganni suit I’ve got that has diamanté down it so it feels almost really shitty in a kind of ’80s-suit way, almost badly cut… I don’t know that you’d expect it to be on Miami Vice or Cagney and Lacey, but it’s got this high-sheen and diamanté, and it’s that kind of thing I’m into…. I can get quite anxious about certain social environments—it’s different when it’s a straight-up fashion thing and I don’t actually have to talk to many people—but I think when I have to talk to people, it’s a time to build relationships, and I don’t want to feel trussed up in a pair of heels and a tiny dress, even though I think that looks good.
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Throughout your wardrobe there’s a lot of red—what’s that all about? I guess it must just be a power colour thing. Thinking about the energy clothes give you, I’m just always drawn to red. I definitely have a lot more of it than ever before. Are there other items you find yourself buying on repeat? At the moment, nice bandanas, because my hair is short and it’s just really a handy, practical way of not doing your hair when it’s being unruly.
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Do you have any regrets over the things you’ve worn? More for the boring things, actually. The things where maybe I was being safe or trying to somehow wear what I thought I should wear. Especially when I started doing modelling again, I was quite a lot older—not actually old, but 26—I just think I didn’t know how…. I didn’t have an experience being in public, going to events. I’d gone to lots of events like that, but I’d refuse to have my picture taken; I hadn’t been interested in that for a long time. And I think I didn’t know how to translate myself into an evening look or a public, very specific thing to have to do that. There were lots of moments where I just didn’t feel totally comfortable or know what I should’ve been doing. I was always in conflict, and now, when you realise there are much more serious things [to think about] and you know yourself more, it’s easier.
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What are your shopping habits? Do you shop often? Alone or with people? I’m lucky I get gifted some things through jobs. I don’t shop regularly. I know exactly what I want and need, so if I see something—like the long-sleeved tees I mentioned—I’ll definitely get it. Or I went to Molly [Goddard]’s Christmas sale, and I’ll probably spend more money in one go there than shopping often. I hate shopping with other people. I also don’t enjoy shopping as such. I have probably have about 45-minutes to an hour’s patience—I’ll do what I need to do and then leave. However, if I had loads and loads of money, I’m sure I could extend that! I’d supermarket-sweep it!
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Is there anything on your list right now then? I’m contemplating getting a Bella Freud suit in the sale. I’ve got a skirt suit, but there’s a trouser suit that’s green velvet. I’m going between We need a new bathroom and I could get a new suit. Maybe I’ll wait until the end of the sale; then [the decision] might be taken out of my hands…. Can you remember a particularly big purchase or an item where you saved up and it really meant something? Way, way back, I remember getting a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. I think with my 18th-birthday money—I was very excited about it. They really fell apart, but I wore them to death. They were flat pumps in gold leather with punched stars in them. So not something I’d buy now—they weren’t horrible, but you know!
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What are you most sentimental about in your closet? In some ways, that Christopher Kane dress [pictured in the first shot]. I bought it when I was working at Dover Street Market nine or 10 years ago. It was one of his first collections, and it’s funny because it was when no one was really buying it because the price point was, like, £2000, and people spending that much money didn’t know who he was, so there was always stuff left over in the sales. I’d been lusting after it all season, and I got to buy it at the end. Maybe it reminds me of that time. It’s also completely shredded at the back: I wore it out one night until the sun came up, and walking back home along the canal, I must have ended up sitting on the edge or the canal or something, having a really fun moment. Obviously I didn’t pay £2000 for it! But that one has good memories. Shop Phoebe’s style below…
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