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Waterfront Festival

Daniel Hanson

11 June 15 words: Alison Emm
"It doesn't matter what you do in life, the most important thing is to make sure you're bloody good at it"
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Photo: Ash Bird

Stepping into the large house on Nuthall Road that Daniel has made his work base, there are scarves, dressing gowns and kimonos hanging from railings, door frames, and suspended from the ceiling. From plain fabrics to swirling paisleys, delicate silks to the softest looking cashmere – you can’t help but imagine how special you’d feel wrapped up in one.

Being shown into the kitchen to get a cuppa, my eyes were drawn to the pictures adorning the walls. One half of the room had shots from the Not A Fashion Shows held in Nottingham for two years for NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service, of whom Daniel is a trustee), showing a variety of people in their own personal finery; from fifties to gothic, belly dancers to beekeepers. Everyone who had something to say with their style was allowed to celebrate it. As a self-proclaimed hater of traditional fashion shows, he was obviously proud of these events, but doesn’t see himself doing it again, “I might guide a very energetic person to do another one. But I wouldn’t take responsibility for it myself.”

Adopted and raised by an Anglican Bishop, Daniel left home at fifteen with little clue about what he wanted to be, “I had the freedom to do what the hell I liked.” Working in shops, mainly in Victoria Centre, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, he found a nice sideline in altering clothes, taking them home and fixing them on his girlfriend’s mother’s sewing machine. Wanting a bit more from his work, he found himself in the Careers Office in Ilkeston being told he should continue working in retail. Decidedly against this, he visited Derby Art College, “They talked me through all the various courses; graphics, ceramics, photography, and then they came to fashion and said, ‘I don’t suppose you want to because they’re all girls.’ I could think of nothing more wonderful than being on a course with all girls.”

Sold on the idea of studying side by side with the fairer sex, he took a place on the course to gain a diploma. “There were only twelve in our tutor group. My tutor gave me immense encouragement in my higher education. He’d sit and draw, guiding us around things for inspiration. We were introduced to film, literature, music, mood drawing... A whole range of things that run parallel to fashion came into our projects.”

Not everyone can just pick up a needle and thread and make something that would be recognisable as clothing – I asked Daniel how he came to discover his talent for making garments. “My mother taught me to sew labels on clothes for school, and she also taught me something quite unusual in those days – how to knit. When I recognised that I could earn some money altering clothes, I taught myself how to sew. If your mind works in a certain way, you can construct a wall, a door, a pair of trousers, a canoe. The mediums you’re working with are different, but the principle of making is parallel.”

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Tengu Monk outfit from 47 Ronin

By the time he finished his course, it was the eighties and prospects were different to those nowadays. “I was one of Thatcher’s children, we were the first generation that could do anything. I was male in a female world and there were jobs. I got a job running a design department in a jeans and sportswear department which made 40” bottom jeans and leather waterfall with leather stitching in the pockets. I worked there for about five years, doing what I’d learned at college.”

So how did he go from the basic casual wear to designing some of the highest quality dressing gowns in the world? “I didn’t want to work for other people any longer. I went off sick for a week, got all my dressing gowns out and thought I’d like to do a collection.” His love of dressing gowns developed in his late teens and twenties, “Second hand shops were always part of my life growing up. When you’re given so many things you loath as a child, you look for things you love when you’re older.

“What I found were Tootal patterns: Tootal produced the most lovely, simple, small prints on viscose cloth used for scarves, dressing gowns, ties, pyjamas. So I got a collection of dressing gowns. As students, they were part of our ensemble.” Besides the obvious comfort factor, he explains their appeal further with a dressing gown made out of Indian blankets. “The wonderful thing about the garment is that it doesn’t matter what the cloth is designed for, you can always make a dressing gown out of it. We used blankets, silk, velvet, silk jacquards, cashmere, chiffon... a dressing gown is an empty canvas.”

With his love of classic design, I asked if he’d ever enjoyed the tailoring side of the industry. “I spent years doing hand-tailoring and was besotted with what you could do, the boundaries you could break. Everything everyone had told me you couldn’t do as a manufacturer, you could do with hand-tailoring. But I didn’t really enjoy selling the product, I used it as an outlet for my own personal interest.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s not a fashion designer, “Fashion is the mood of the moment; designers lead through identifying the mood. It’s a transient emotion. I never felt my work reflected that, nothing has a date or time on it – every garment is totally translatable to today. I’m very proud of that. You can hand-tailor a dressing gown or make them like a pair of jeans using the same machinery. You can make it in a hundred different ways, but it always comes out looking like a dressing gown. I’ve spent 25 years exploring.”

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Photo: Ash Bird

It’s a pretty brave move to go from a secure job to starting up your own business, and Daniel remembers that it wasn’t an easy time. “I ran the Fashion Department for Nottingham Trent University and I was getting up and cutting every morning, then teaching, then at lunch I’d do a fusing run – taking the cloth to a factory to have a stiffener put on it – then back to the university to teach, and cutting again in the evening.” It paid off because his first account was with Harrods, “I realised early on not to wait for people to come to me. If you know where your product should be sold, you’ve got to go to them.”

Even with Harrods as a customer, it was still a daunting prospect leaving his full-time role at NTU, “I can remember sitting there, my daughter had been born, and I thought, ‘Shit, what have I done?’ But then an order came through from Neiman Marcus; thirty cashmere dressing gowns. You just need little bits like that and you think, ‘Thank heavens for that, I’ve just covered next month.”

Not your bog standard garments, Daniel Hanson dressing gowns retail from £750 up to about £8,000, with the average being about £2,000. The huge variation in the cost is mostly dependent on the labour and fabric that has been used. “At £8,000, it would be hand-embroidered cashmere. All our cashmere comes from Johnstons of Elgin in Scotland, and they will send the cloth to India, where it would be flown to Delhi, then bicycled to Srinagar.

“Srinagar is an area with a lot of family embroiderers, where each family does a different pattern, so it would be hand-embroidered there and then cycled back down to Delhi before being flown back to London and couriered to Nottingham. It’s not the air miles you pay for, it’s the exquisite work on the gown.” At this point, he nips off to fetch a gorgeously detailed embroidered gown to show me, “This has had 250 hours of embroidery and it isn’t even the most beautiful.”

If you’ve had your eye on one, you may be in luck because Daniel has a unique view of Nottingham as a market. “Here, we sell everything at cost. We’re not looking to profiteer locally. The closer you are to home, the more open you should be in terms of what you put in and get back. Nottingham’s not a market. London begins to be one. New York seriously is one. The price goes up the further away you get. The Japanese work on that model, it’s a very interesting one.”

Having spent time in the Far East in the mid-nineties, he learned a lot, mainly that they don’t wear dressing gowns. “I did a few trade fairs with the British Export Council and stood there for hours wondering why no one was buying my dressing gowns. I realised, eventually, that they didn’t wear them. But I loved going there so I kept going, and found the kimono graveyard. In Japan – particularly in major cities – space is at a premium, so they don’t hoard, there are graveyards for things. I went over and we worked out how to manufacture them. Not how to make them, how to manufacture them. Our company strapline is, that we’re designers and manufacturers of quality apparel.

“We took a garment that was hand-made and learnt how to manufacture it. It wasn’t easy because you can’t show any line of stitching anywhere on the garment, it’s all covered.” This perseverance led to Harrods giving them a hall in the store – the Kimono Hall. “We never made more than four of one design and pattern. We’ve got people all over the world who collect them. I recently Googled “Daniel Hanson Kimono” for the first time and it came up with Clarissa James – Artist. I thought, ‘Who on earth’s that?’

“She had painted a picture of a woman wearing one of my kimonos. I emailed her, she came straight back and we met about a month later. She’d done a whole series of paintings around it. It’s so lovely that it’s been acknowledged as something that’s beautiful, and captured forever in that painting. That’s one of the most exciting things that’s happened in my working life. It’s not about who we sell to or how much they pay, it’s about finding something really beautiful like that.”

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Looking at more pieces, it’s clear Daniel’s inspiration comes from more places than just the Far East. “One of my closest friends is in Zambia, so I go over and collect chitenge fabric. As you go around this building, every cloth hanging at a window is designed to be worn in the bush. The blankets come from India, the cashmere comes from Mongolia. I love understanding the way different cultures have evolved; you have to look at history to be able to understand the behaviour of people.”

Even with a lot of manufacturing going abroad, Daniel Hanson has stayed in Nottingham, and still holds a factory in Radford. I wondered how he felt about the decline of the UK manufacturing industry. “It’s sustainable at the top end, not at the bottom end. Over the period that I’ve been working in the industry, I’ve seen the demise of manufacturing under Margaret Thatcher. It ran through to the early noughties.”

Daniel sees that general attitudes might be changing, especially here in Nottingham. “One afternoon I was in West Bridgford where my son was skateboarding, and I saw a little girl knitting – the rebirth of youth making things with their hands. I’ve been fortunate in having three children involved in the arts who have the benefits of all their friendships. It’s something that we talk about a lot.

“There’s been a big resurgence in people sustaining their own activities and not feeling reliant on being employed. This year, Nottingham has been called the biggest start-up city in the country. If you can make something – cutting hair, making an omelette, knitting – your life is more sustainable.”

Daniel’s work has been used in a number of films, from Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, to the visual feast that was Ronin47 with Keanu Reeves. “Entrapment was my first film commission. The film had three different producers over the course of its development, so each time the producer changed, the costume mood changed. It went from being fairly theatrical and costume-based to Giorgio Armani copies.”

He wasn’t the only one disappointed about the changes. “My wife was privy to an argument between Catherine Zeta Jones and the wardrobe mistress about one of our garments. She contracts to keep all garments from a film but, because the film had changed producers, previous costumes had to go for sale and she could only keep the garments from the final producer. That was really the most exciting part of doing Entrapment, Catherine Zeta Jones fighting for one of my garments.”

“For the opening scene of Chocolat, we did a brown cashmere dressing gown, which I saw sell on eBay for an astronomical amount of money. But that wasn’t commissioned, it was bought directly from Barneys. We did have discussions for the Margaret Thatcher film with Meryl Streep, but they decided that they would be done by the wardrobe mistress because of all the fittings with the prosthetics and things going on beneath the garment. But the first really big one – maybe the first and the last – was 47Ronin.”

Big isn’t the word. 265 outfits were produced by them for the film – no small task. Daniel seems to relish a challenge, though. “I didn’t know if I could do anything I was asked to do. I need that, to keep me energetic and interested… ‘Oh darling, we’ll need 56 obi bows, these are the shapes we need them to be.’ What is an obi bow? You research it, you make prototypes, mock-ups, and you become the king of obi bows. Obi bows and kamishima and hakama trousers.

“The most beautiful garment we did was for a fight scene. There were going to be fifty Tengu monks and we had the most beautiful pleats in this garment. When you held the sleeves up, they came down in a straight angle to the ground.” He shows me pictures on his kitchen wall of the mock-up designs for the impressively-sleeved pieces.

“It was going to be a massive scene – fifty of them with their sleeves swirling all the time. We took this garment down to Pinewood Film Studios and it was signed off. I was just leaving and Carl Rinsch – the film’s director – ran after me and said, ‘Daniel, have you read the script? These are Tengu monks, they go into a forest, they bury themselves into the ground and they reincarnate as bats! What can you do?’ This was two days before Christmas. I said I’d think about it.

“I spent Christmas drawing sleeves of different shapes, working out how we were going to do it so they were batwing-like. It was a fascinating project because I was totally and utterly outside of my comfort zone, but that’s the only time I’m really happy. Sitting comfortably, I get bored and irritable – I like things that challenge me, and going through the whole process to realise you didn’t wake up one morning able to do it. You draw on the resources you’ve built up. It’s never-ending.“

It’s clear that Daniel’s success has come from being driven. “It doesn’t matter what you do in life, the most important thing is to make sure you’re bloody good at it. If you’re going to teach, be a bloody good teacher, if you’re making dressing gowns, make sure they’re the best dressing gowns. If you’re cleaning toilets, make sure that they’re the best cleaned toilets that you can get. That was my approach to life. No matter the pain, do it well.” It doesn’t seem like Daniel will be retiring anytime soon either, “I don’t see myself as being employed, so retiring from what? I see what I’m doing changing dramatically. But retirement? No.”

Daniel Hanson website

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