Arlette Ess’ strikingly detailed prints have an almost physical quality. From a pack of intertwined slumbering dogs to a school of graceful Koi fish, the designer’s works bring a seemingly tangible sense of movement to a flat surface. “I’m very drawn to the shapes and forms that build life, and to the mythological and symbolical meanings we attach to animals,” she explains. Although creative since she was a young girl, she didn’t anticipate a career as an artist. Yet after falling into modelling and working with some of fashion’s biggest names, she turned her attention to print design, studying in London before working with Alexander McQueen. With her work garnering acclaim internationally, she now concentrates on her art full-time, with the natural world and the narratives we construct around it, her ongoing source of inspiration. “Our lives are stories, and everything around us is a tool for storytelling,” she says.
Can you tell us about starting your career in fashion as a model?
Modelling happened to me by accident while I was living in Paris. It took me to some amazing places and featured some very glamorous moments, including walking in a Chanel Haute Couture show with Naomi Campbell and featuring in a fashion story with Catherine Deneuve and Kate Moss! I often felt like a total alien in those situations, but I love adventure and being a chameleon - modeling definitely ticked those boxes. Once I was at a rave in the middle of nowhere in South Africa during a total solar eclipse - I think at some point a lion walked into the enclosure. On another job in Brazil I got up very early to swim in the ocean, and the beach was totally deserted except for me and a lone white horse – it may as well have been a unicorn! I was very lucky to have had these experiences, but the other side of the coin looks quite different and I would always recommend a solid plan B to any aspiring model.
You then went on to work with Alexander McQueen...
I loved the experience, it taught me a lot about work ethic and process. However, I wanted to do more than just work for a big fashion house so I started designing for myself on the side.
You were one of the winners of Hermes’ Grand Prix du Carre compétition. How did it feel to receive such a prestigious, highly competitive prize?
The competition was advertised in a newsletter I was subscribed to and several friends also sent me the link which was nice. I have always loved Hermès so I jumped at the opportunity. To be one of the winners was such an amazing feeling. It created a huge sense of relief of sorts, giving validation to my life choices to pursue a creative career. It felt like pure merit, as opposed to getting something through personal connections which is so often the case. For self-employed creatives, frequent self-doubting is almost unavoidable, and winning a competition of this calibre really made a difference. It gave me a boost of trust and confidence on top of the joy of being able to work for Hermès.
Your Koi print features in the debut collection for GREIGE Prints, how would you describe it?
Fluid, contemplative, mysterious.
What is the story behind the print?
Koi are a somewhat ‘man-made’ animal, fantastically patterned and coloured fish bred from originally muddy brown carp. I love everything about them, the outrageous varieties which earned them the name ‘living jewels’, the mythology attached to them (they are simultaneously a symbol of courage and overcoming obstacles, and bring prosperity and peace of mind) which makes them cherished by so many people. Apparently, they are like pets, they recognise people and build a bond with them. There are competitions that rank the Koi according to the ‘artistic merit’ of their patterns and colours, and the winners are traded for incredible sums. Recently the most expensive Kohaku (a red-and-white Koi variety as featured on GREIGE Prints) was sold for the equivalent of 1.9 million dollars!
You work mainly in pen and ink - what draws you to this medium?
I love the simplicity of it. Indian ink is so effortless, just charcoal particles and sometimes shellac. It is waterproof and lightfast. And the dip pen, it’s just a piece of metal mounted onto a piece of wood. What counts is your imagination.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I think inspiration is something that always works away in the background, processing all that you take in. I pay a lot of attention to the natural world.
What does the future hold?
I will keep creating and venturing into new territories with new ideas. I recently read somewhere that creation is an act of willpower, and that’s totally true.
Early or late riser?
I like the idea of an early riser but I’m naturally more of a night-owl.
Coffee or tea?
Tea. It gives me a boost of euphoria, whilst coffee stresses me out.
Your favourite place to holiday?
Ideally somewhere I haven’t been yet - the world has so many places I’d love to discover!
Beach or pool?
Dining alfresco or indoors?
Alfresco, especially if it’s hot and muggy! I like humid heat, the relaxation, the glow and feel of lightly sweaty skin… It mystifies me that I seem to be the only one!
The one item of clothing you would never give away?
I have a few items of clothing I have owned for more than ten or twenty years. They are all relevant to my identity at specific points in my life. I don’t wear them for years and then one day they’re my favourite item again.
What does slow fashion mean to you?
Buying things which are ‘you’ and make you feel and look good, rather than following trends. I only buy things rarely and therefore choose something very special which really gives me a thrill.
Describe your interior style?
Eclectic, found, beautiful objects.
The work of art you would most like to own?
An Egon Schiele or an Aubrey Beardsley drawing.
Appreciating existence, feeling love and respect for every living thing including yourself!
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