Meet the Designer: an interview with Charlotte Garnett

by Ilana Lever on

Co-founder Ilana sits down with British Designer Charlotte Garnett, the first in our young designer’s initiative, to talk about how her work has helped her cope with her own mental health, how art was her outlet and why she wants her work to help others.

IL: I'd love you to hear a bit more about your story, and the inspiration behind the collection. Tell me about your childhood.

Charlotte: I grew up in Newbury, in Berkshire, small town living. I went to an all-girls’ private school which is a stressful situation to grow up in when you are not a typical private school kind of girl. That’s where I first started suffering from mental illness, and that’s where I realised I’m not like the other kids here. I was a super emo, gothy teenager, so in a preppy private school it didn’t match up.

IL: In terms of mental health, were you aware of what mental health was at that time?

Charlotte: We started to form a group in the school of all the outcasts, and we started to notice the thing that made us all outcasts were various mental illnesses. Only a few, who could afford private treatment, got into treatment, the rest of us helped each other. That’s where this underlying thread of needing to create something for myself started, by creating a community of teenagers, trying to support each other because there was no other support. You know, the things we were facing were very serious, my best friend developed osteoporosis from her eating disorder. We had to help each other, it was by necessity.

IL: And do you think there’s sufficient support within the medical system?

Charlotte: Absolutely not. I first became aware of having depression at age 7 and I had an eating disorder aged 12 so I’ve been struggling with it for a long time. My mum, being a lovely mum noticed straight away, and started taking me in to the doctor’s for self-harm, and they just didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t get taken seriously for a very long time, didn’t even get onto the waitlist for the eating disorder until I was 16, and then I was on a waitlist for 4 years. By the time I got to the point of going to the specialist clinic, I was told I wasn’t thin enough to be on the waitlist - as if your thinness has anything to do with your mental health. It was almost four years until I got any sort of help, but I had an immediate need to help myself, which is what I was art. Instead of keeping a written diary, I kept an art diary, and I would pour all of the awful imagery in my own head into artwork. I had this big binder of a horrible artbook, which could never be displayed because it was my inner turmoil, but that was my outlet.  That’s how I started, art was synonymous with mental health, because art was my outlet.

Charlotte Garnett

IL: What was your medium?

Charlotte: It was drawing, I was a painter, and drawing artist. I don’t know if you can use the term ‘artist’ when I was 13/14; any sort of tormented thing in my head went straight down onto the paper. It could be as raw and awful as it was on the page, because I would close the book and put it away.

 Charlotte Garnett design sketch

IL: So art for you was this intense form of self-revelation and self-expression. Did you also get experience something deep and personal from other artists out there, and if so, who or which piece of work really spoke to you?

Charlotte: It was a big mixture. Back when I was a teenager I was into old master’s, like Reubens - mostly religious paintings - it was the realism and the gore that came with post-Renaissance paintings. Once I discovered Jenny Saville that changed the game for me. That art was raw - it was almost daring people to say something against it.

IL: Can you tell me about your move from fine art to jewellery

Charlotte: So the benefit of going to a private school is that I had a very small class size in art, and my art teacher was the best. She made it happen for me. In my final year, we got given the theme of danger, and I decided to create a cabin from the Titanic in the basement of my school. I got completely obsessed, literally wood panelled, built doors with a gramophone, it took over my entire life. I used to put myself in the cabin and put the gramophone on and read the letters from the passenger I was researching. That’s where I started to make jewellery. I made the pieces of jewellery that I found on the paperwork from the woman I was researching. I started to go more multi-disciplinary: I froze my mother’s wedding dress in waxes and resins, and the art teacher brought me in a kiln so I could start testing out more traditional jewellery techniques, and go down the tactile route with three-dimensional objects. I wanted people’s experience of my art to last, and have a much bigger impact, and realising that if I could put my art into jewellery for people to wear then I could get that feeling to last.

IL: Could you tell us about how you moved into jewellery professionally?

Charlotte: I did a foundation diploma in High Wycombe and then I moved on to St. Martin’s. At St Martin’s I did BA jewellery design and I learnt traditional jewellery means of making things and learnt how to design properly.

IL: What's your favourite piece of jewellery that you’ve either seen or worn?

Charlotte: There’s two different routes. One, there’s the treasure trove piece of jewellery. It’s a big chunky gaudy necklace, made out of skulls, which is made out of base metals, that my friend found at a car boot sale for a quid. Not particularly well made, but I love the weight of it on my neck and the way it twists. When I’m not wearing my own jewellery that’s what I’m wearing. Two other pieces that changed it for me were Stephen Webster’s Zodiac necklaces. That was one of my first sightings of some properly designed jewellery as a teenager  thinking that that was really something else, and then the Shaun Leane McQueen pieces, because I didn’t even recognise that as jewellery, as I didn’t think that jewellery could be body adornments.

Shaun Leane McQueen

One of Shaun Leane's iconic McQueen pieces

IL: What do you think is the most common misconception about the jewellery industry?

Charlotte: That it is very glamorous and straightforward, and that you need to be able to either make or design. People just starting out have the misconception that they just need to be able to design it, and have it made that’s fine. But that’s not the case, you need to be able to know if it’s going to wear, sit properly on the body, weigh the right amount but also you need to be able to know about business as well.

IL: One of the things I’ve learnt about this business is how difficult the life of a jewellery designer is upon graduation, because unlike an artist, you don’t have a gallery to go and exhibit in, so how did you overcome those early, very difficult challenges, business and marketing and all of that.

Charlotte: I owe a lot to Sarabande Foundation. Sarabande made that possible for me, and I’m not sure I would have made it out the other side if it wasn’t for them, because the studio crisis, everyone knows that it is a real problem. For jewellery you come out of uni and you need to buy all of the machinery, and on top of the price of a studio rent, you then have to be able to afford all the machinery and the gold. So, Sarabande made it possible for me. Without their subsidised studios, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it: I worked three jobs that first year. Even in a subsidised studio to be able to afford to kick start it. The confidence factor as well. It is an over-saturated industry, with so many mass made pieces flooding the fast fashion market, it becomes incredibly difficult to keep yourself, let alone make a living. Without them I don’t know what I would’ve done.

IL: What is the best piece of advice anyone’s ever given you?

Charlotte: The thing that always springs to mind when people ask me that is when I met Shaun Leane for the first time. I was at a dinner where he was showing some of catwalk pieces, and I was asking him about how he went from that to the commercial success that he is now, and still being able to have one foot in each of those lands, because generally you have to chose. And he said, go for your biggest possible idea, go for the largest iteration of that and the most ambitious and bold version you can, and then take it back, never start with your most modest version.

IL: Can you tell us a bit about your collection for Motley?

Charlotte: All of my collections centre around mental health. When we started talking, I was on holiday in Greece, and I’d had a bit of a mental creative dry spell and having done my previous collection, I’d put heart, soul and everything into it and Greece kicked it off again. Not just the architecture, but also the museum was like a treasure hunt; I kept seeing tiny treasures in the backs of the cabinet that nobody seemed to be paying attention to called Spindle Balls. They were the little pieces that went on the end of the spindles when they were spinning yarn to keep a counter-weight. They all had a repeating pattern, and they were all very ornate for spinning objects. I became obsessed with finding them, and that started the beginning of the repeating shape, which took shape in all the different pieces in the collection. Once I’d had a go at home, I turned up a couple of test pieces.

 Charlotte's Spindle earring design

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