A Nicholas Coutts Retrospective.
A Nicholas Coutts design speaks volumes for originality, craftsmanship and authenticity, forming part of a newer contemporary fashion collective in South Africa. His work simultaneously delved into and transcended trend, gender and medium, is instantly recognisable and contains an intrinsic relevance that seems to not only intensify with time but is more so of this time. That’s why the South African fashion industry suffered such a profound loss when the designer died unexpectedly at the age of 27 in May 2019.
A Design Academy of Fashion graduate, Coutts stepped onto the local design scene in 2013, winning the ELLE Rising Star design competition with a collection characterised by textured bodycon separates wrapped in hand-woven scarves, generous in their length and width. The scarves would quickly become known as his brand signature, embodying its fundamental design pillars of craft, texture and a forward-thinking outlook on heritage. Coutts would often cite the textile designer and pioneer of the 19th century craft movement, William Morris, as a core inspiration, mentioning their shared belief that handmade pieces have a sense of honesty far beyond that of anything machine manufactured.
“He was a trailblazer,” says Jackie Burger, a judge and driving force of the ELLE Rising Star initiative as then editor of the publication. Coutts’ aesthetic had an element of surprise, subverting the futuristic mood that often characterises new-talent design initiatives of the sort. “Nick delved into heritage,” Burger explains. To her, he represented “that dualism in design: Someone who went back to heritage, indigenous culture and craft, and paired it with a vision.”
Fellow Rising Star judge, the renowned multimedia fashion journalist, Malibongwe Tyilo, agrees that Coutts was a standout from the start. “Everyone went absolutely crazy over the textures,” he says, praising particularly Coutts’ effortless command of chunky knitwear and other heavier winter fabrics. “A lot of the time it can be slightly more expected to do boxier shapes, so I really love that he was taking materials that would ultimately be for an Autumn Winter collection and brought them to a form fitting place. It was a sexy winter, basically.”
Burger was particularly impressed with the business plan Coutts submitted as part of his Rising Star entry. In relation to his supply chain and use of local resources to create his fabrics, “he tapped into female community culture, the idea of women getting together with the skillset to create something.” She rightly pegs him as a feminist and environmentalist, working those values into the fabric of his designs back then in a way that rivals the often-superficial way global brands attempt to do today.
Part of Coutts’ Rising Star prize was the opportunity to design a capsule collection for Mr Price. Given the slow, intricate nature of his core designs, it’s particularly impressive to see how he translated his love of hand-made tactility into a fast-fashion retail ready collection for an accessibly priced brand without sacrificing his love of texture and infatuation with nature. The former manifested in pleats, and the latter in a metallic jacket inspired by the pearlescent exterior of the African dung beetle.
Metallics were the unifying message of his second collection shown at 2014’s Africa Fashion International (AFI) Cape Town Fashion Week. His collections thereafter, though unmistakably high-end, seemed edited and designed for function in a considered way that proved the value of his time spent at Mr Price. “It has to do with the ego of the designer,” says Burger of the way Coutts integrated the accessible principals of his retail training into his luxurious offering. “You can either integrate it or say, ‘well I’m just doing it but it’s not really important to me.’ Nick always came across as an incredibly humble person who would consider every opportunity in terms of the bigger picture.”
“He did what he said he would do which is very rare for fashion designers,” attests South African Menswear Week (SAMW) founder and director Simon Deiner. “So for us, if he asked for something different, we bent over backwards because he delivered consistently.” Coutts would show five menswear collections at Deiner’s SAMW, the first of which was a collaboration with fellow Rising Star finalist, Lukhanyo Mdingi.
The Mdingi Coutts Autumn Winter 2016 collection had its first runway outing at the Generation Africa showcase at the Pitti Uomo tradeshow in Florence alongside fellow South African label, AKJP, and two Nigerian designers and then a month later on home turf at SAMW.
Coutts and Mdingi proved they’d held South Africa’s name high on the global stage with a contemporary, sophisticated collection inspired by the local landscape. Mdingi’s minimal cuts gave the collection its sophistication, and Coutts’ luscious woven details its overall feeling of cosy luxury. Tyilo calls it a “beautiful marriage” of designers who both care very deeply about texture and take pride in celebrating the South African landscape.
With the designer’s following three collections, Coutts hit his stride as one of the must-sees on the Menswear Week calendar. “Nick had this craft aesthetic that no one else had,” says Deiner, adding that when his team quantified the fashion week’s runway image downloads, Coutts was always in the top five brands of the season.
The Spring Summer 2017 collection was a play between urban and natural references, foregoing chunky scarves (and their integration into coats and shirts as done in the Mdingi collab) for denim jacquard, embroidery, check fabrics and metallic ring embellishments. Making use of the aforementioned elements, every piece felt elevated without sacrificing an intrinsic casual wearability. “I remember when I saw this I thought, ‘okay, that is Nicholas’ proposal in terms of how to take his love for texture and dimension and bring it to a more affordable level’,” says Tyilo.
Autumn Winter 2017 and Spring Summer 2018 delved into 70s leisurewear and Cape Town’s queer nightlife respectively. Coutts’ creative direction was evident from runway to campaign in his selection of models, photographers, and settings to do his designs justice. Wherever the season’s inspiration took Coutts, the final product would always be unmistakably his.
Whether in their literal form, or woven through his collections in more conceptual ways, Coutts’ scarves were always at the core of his design. “When you live in a country like South Africa with limited access to fabric, how do you then bring in your signature into the fabrication of the garments?” asks Tyilo. “That’s something I think he really did well, by bringing through all of that handwork.” He quite literally wove (into) the fabric of the pieces he created, making every piece unmistakably bound to the hand of the late designer and the context in which it was created. Burger saw the scarves as a cross-cultural garment, reverberating in the cloaks worn by eastern philosophers and blankets in traditional South African communities: “They just have incredible symbolical value.”
His penultimate collection was an unexpected switch back to womenswear. Autumn Winter 2018 at AFI Cape Town Fashion Week was arguably his best work, unparalleled in its sophistication and the way it pushed Coutts’ aesthetic into the future. The designer wove a heavy multicoloured tapestry inspired by a birds-eye view of the local landscape, scanned it in and printed it onto light-as-air silk separates, dresses and bags that felt as rich in their instant connotations of beauty as they were in design narrative.
Next season, Coutts debuted his Loom Chaise. The eclectic lounger, inspired by the form of a hand-weaving loom, was a collaboration with Southern Guild co-founder, Julian McGowan. Having worked with the gallery during its launch on a limited line of leather products sporting similar prints to his AW18 collection, this was Coutts’ official furniture design debut. “That kind of hand-made, beautifully imperfect nature of his work,” is what drew McGowan to Coutts. “The tactile nature of the work, its colour and vibrancy, made people happy.”
McGowan emphasises the importance of longevity in his relationships with designers like Coutts. Product often sells better as the designer grows their portfolio and fosters a sense of familiarity. “He certainly had all the requirements,” says McGowan who was looking forward to the next chapter in their collaboration.
Coutts’ final collection, Autumn Winter 2019, debuted at SAMW before jetting off for an encore at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Inspired by the Western Cape Fynbos that populated his favourite hiking trails, the collection bloomed with colour and a certain masculine warmth that felt unintentionally autobiographical.
Any question about the future of his career trajectory quickly leads to discussions around the South African business of fashion and its lack of infrastructure to support designers. “What always breaks my heart with designers is the market we are in,” says Tyilo. “So many people who are absolutely brilliant at what they do have limited opportunities to give us the [type of] high-end product that would be so great for the industry.”
Cut short, the Nicholas Coutts story is one of profound potential, lacking only in the type of success the local industry is not yet built to offer. One thing is certain – he has offered a glimpse into the future makings of local luxury fashion in South Africa, and quite possibly a pathway to meet global fashion on our own terms.
Runway Images by @sdrphoto and AFI
Loom Chaise image via Nicholas Coutts Instagram