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Nicholas Coutts is Cape Town's Connoisseur of DIY

Most are familiar with the basic elements of arts and crafts: glitter, glue, crayons, and scissors. When done with care and love, handmade arts and crafts projects have resulted in many a memorable Father’s Day cards. For Nicholas Coutts, a 26-year-old Cape Town-based designer, the affinity for DIY is significantly more fulfilling and dramatically more refined. Upon reflection of his work, Coutts quotes William Morris, curator of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement that removes itself from the parameters of manufacture based construction, in place of a more honest and authentic interpretation of design through hand-made works of art.

Coutts’ embodiment of the Arts and Crafts philosophy is reflected in his performance of a one-man-show; he has single handedly (with occasional help from 1-2 local artisans) wove, stitched, and designed prints for his namesake label, all in a makeshift studio located in the rear of his suburban home. His solo act is not an anomaly among the large community of South African designers who lack adequate resources to support larger operations in comparison to their Western counterparts, yet they still actively compete and thrive in artisanal global design. Coutts’ androgynous collections of both mens and womenswear, as well as oversized one-of-a-kind mohair scarves, have trekked down the runway at Pitti Uomo and been recognized by Elle South Africa, which awarded him the Rising Star Award in 2013.

This week, Coutts opened his studio to MILK.XYZ to discuss being inspired by his hometown of Cape Town, his latest Spring/Summer 2018 menswear collection, and the emerging contemporary design scene currently bursting in South Africa. Check the full interview below, and peep the gallery above for an exclusive look at Coutt’s “alternative” lookbook, shot by the designer himself and modeled by Sergio Acevedo.

Where does your love for texture and knitted fabrics stem from?

My final year at fashion school I wanted to standout and have a unique selling point and my mom was like, ‘why don’t you start weaving your own fabric?’ She said she could teach me. From there I entered the Elle (South Africa) Rising Star competition when it was still happening. I ended up entering it and winning it in my final year. Ever since then I’ve been developing. I’m going more into interiors. My passion is, obviously, design and doing garments, but I do want to start getting into doing decor. I’m collaborating with a furniture designer called Liam Mooney and we are just developing some product.

How does your process differ when designing for men compared to designing for women?

With men the silhouettes are quite simple. With women I can be a bit more extravagant and take it to another level but still keeping it clean. I don’t want to interfere too much with the silhouettes because the texture is so intense. So doing more pieces that are just maybe a panel of the woven, and keeping it asymmetrical. I’m not really the Jacquemus of South Africa, but I want to be the Dries Van Noten of South Africa.

How would you describe the creative scene in Cape Town and in South Africa in general? In what ways is Cape Town reflected in your work?

With all these new designers in South Africa I think we’re creating a new African aesthetic. And it doesn’t have to necessarily be African print, or taking African print and reworking it and making it your own. I think it’s just a mash up of different cultures. I mean Cape Town alone, it’s like a melting pot of cultures. Just to take inspiration and respect those cultures and kind of create something beautiful from it, which I think I do.

Where does your brand fit within South Africa’s fashion landscape?

I’m finding it quiet hard to place myself in the South African retail section. I mean, I’m building my client base. I have a lot of private clients, which is nice. The Southern Guild is perfect now for scarves, but they don’t really do garments. That’s why I’m going into decor, because people are a bit more attracted to it because they don’t have to wear it. People are quite nervous or not that brave. No one really does what I do in South Africa, so it’s kind of a new thing that people are getting use to I guess.

Can you explain the meaning behind your SS18 collection?

This it the first time I’ve actually played with volume and just made everything a bit bigger and just a bit more masculine, but also quite clubby, underground, with the patchwork. It was inspired by the queer culture going out in Cape Town. A bit grungy. It always starts with the fabric. I kind of choose the fabric and it kind of evolves from there. The queer culture in Cape Town is quite experimental, quite underground.

How do you come up with the concepts for your beautiful visuals?

I basically sit with the stylists and sit with the photographer and we are like ‘how can we make something really beautiful?’ We shot our (AW17) collection in Red Hill, which was about an hour outside of Cape Town, at 4 o’clock in the morning, that’s why the light is so good. One shot we were shooting in the bushes and 40 baboons came to say hello and we had to hide in the car for like 30 minutes. But then their were rangers shooting paintball guns. It’s a big walking spot. It was quite scary.

What do you wish to communicate with your designs?

I want to communicate originality. I want to communicate craftsmanship. I want to create something new that outsiders looking into South Africa will be like ‘wow, that’s amazing,’ and ‘that’s original.’ I think the fashion industry here is quite saturated with the same thing. I mean most people just shop at Zara and Topshop.

Images courtesy of Nicholas Coutts; model: Sergio Acevedo

Stay tuned to Milk for more international fashion.

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