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BG Conversation: Peter Pilotto

Peter Pilotto is a brand with one name and two designers, Peter Pilotto and Christopher Devos. Asked if they flipped a coin to name the line, they laughed and said that Peter started it, then Christopher joined him. These two mixed-ancestry Europeans studied in Antwerp and then set up shop in London. Are they Belgian/British/Italian designers? Let's simply call them worldly. Glenn O'Brien spoke to them and their friend and collaborator furniture designer Martino Gamper in London. Everyone seemed to have just arrived from a world tour.

GLENN O’BRIEN: Hi, this is Glenn.


GOB: Your lives seem hectic. Where were you traveling?

PP: Coordinating this conversation was complicated. We were in Brazil on the way to L.A., and Martino was in Finland on the way to Japan. It’s been quite crazy.

GOB: Have you spent much time in Brazil? Peter Pilotto | BG ConversationWe’d been there once, and we were there now a week. We did two days Rio, two days São Paulo, two days Brasília. It was work, so it was pretty intense, but it was amazing.

PP: We had a store event in Brasília, and it was so great to see the customers and how they embraced our work and how the colors were so right for the place.

GOB: I can see Brazilians going crazy for your colors.

PP: It’s quite funny, because, obviously, we’re based in London, which is a much grayer place, but maybe it is especially here that you need the kind of colors that we do. It’s interesting how colors can appear to be different in different places, and yet they somehow work well in very different places.

GOB: I find that British men have more of a sense of color than Americans. Even the very tailored fellows are not afraid to wear strong colors.

CDV: You often see guys with orange pants or the most amazing colors walking down Mayfair or whatever.

GOB: Some of your designs remind me of the colorful way soldiers dressed in the eighteenth century. Like the Beefeaters today. And some of your designs have a bullfighter’s “suit of lights” look to me.

CDV: We’re based in London, but we studied in Antwerp, so I think there’s a kind of mixed influence. London has embraced us, and we’ve become British by being here and now are considered British designers, but I don’t think our work is so influenced by British culture. I think it has to do more, maybe, with the fact that we are so international. I mean, I am half Belgian, half Peruvian; Peter is half Austrian, half Italian. So I think we’re not so referential.

GOB: What are your visual influences?

PP: I guess it’s rather an eclectic mix of things that fascinate us. We design all our prints and color combinations, so we look a lot at paintings, and we’re interested in tactile effects and shapes that would be used to create one shape in a surface in a painting . . . It’s really interesting to look at all the time. But I guess our influences are almost a kind of curiosity cabinet . . . I mean, we’ve been inspired by trips we have taken and things that we see, but we like to look at things in a slightly different way. One of our favorite prints was inspired by microscopic images of butterfly wings. In a way, a very classical thing to do is to look at nature for inspiration for prints, but then actually we just look a little closer, and we find something unusual within something that is quite familiar. That’s what fascinates us quite a lot. It’s about taking an unusual viewpoint. The first couple of collections were quite nature-inspired, but one wouldn’t necessarily see that directly. We like to twist things a lot and give a certain process to the investigation of a design.

GOB: You may think this is crazy, but your most recent collection reminded me of the dazzle ships, the camouflage from World War One that was created by modernist painters — painting warships, not to hide them, but to distort them so that you couldn’t tell what the real shape was or what direction the ship was moving in. Some of your prints and your color combinations really play with the shape of the body and the shape of the garment; they sort of play against it, almost cubistically.

PP: I love the dazzle ships. I don’t think we ever referenced them directly, but that’s what’s so great about each of the prints, that you can see correspondences . . .

GOB: While we wait for Martino, tell us how you know him.

PP: When we got a little space inside of Dover Street Market, we needed something for the space, and we were introduced by our mutual friends. Martino collaborated with us, creating a rail to display our collection. It was so great to meet and to work together, we immediately became friends. Then soon after, we did another collaboration with Martino’s wife, Francis Upritchard, who is a sculptor and painter.

GOB: How did you collaborate?

PP: I guess the work of both Martino and Francis is germane to our styling. So many aspects of it. I mean, we were very taken with the concept of Martino’s 100 Chairs. He created 100 different chairs in 100 days, and the concept of putting these mismatching elements together to create something new with familiar things was very exciting. And then, on the other hand, there is the color sense that both of them have in all of their work. There’s something in the work that is extremely appealing. And then, when I see how Martino works, and how he actually takes materials in his hands, that’s when the magic happens. The creativity is there, more so than if he simply drew a design. It was great to be in his workshop and to have ideas, and then we push them together with this hands-on approach . . . Yeah.

GOB: His chairs are fantastic.

PP: Yeah. Once in a while, I look again at the chairs book, and it’s so fascinating and inspiring.

GOB: Do you own their work?

PP: We have a couple of drawings of Francis, but nothing of Martino yet.

CDV: Well, we own the rail.

PP: Yeah, we own a rail!

GOB: Where are you in London?

CDV: In Shoreditch. We’re just moving to a bigger space a couple of blocks down in the same neighborhood. We live and work here, and Martino does too.

PP: It’s a really nice area of London. It’s kind of rough, but at the same time there are so many interesting people. It is the area where the most young artists live, and there are loads of studios. A lot of designers are based here too.

GOB: An artist friend of mine who lived in Rome for years just moved there.

PP: It must be quite a shock.

GOB: I think he wanted to speak English and drink Scotch.

CDV: We deal with Italians a lot. Martino is Italian. Martino and Peter are both Italian but also Tyrolean, in a way. No?

PP: Yeah.


MARTINO: Sorry about this. Modern communication!

GOB: Where are you in the world, Martino?

MG: I’m in London too. We’re not too far away.

PP: We’ve spoken about how we met and became friends with you and Francis and that collaborating with you is very easy for us, because your work is extremely inspiring . ..

MG: Well, that’s how I met Francis, through collaboration. So it seems like collaboration keeps feeding friendships and marriages . . .

PP: That’s a great way to mix things.

CDV: And we were saying that when we went into your studio and saw you working with the materials, that was really inspiring.

MG: Well, it’s how you work as well, no? You work hands-on too. I mean, you design something, but the creation of it really happens on the piece, not on paper. As a designer, I think it’s so much more interesting and satisfying, and the results are more interesting when you can actually work on the piece rather than make a drawing on a piece of paper that’s a translation of your ideas, and then looking to someone to take that and make something out of it. I prefer the directness. I find it’s that kind of immediacy that’s really interesting.

GOB: So it’s more like musical improvisation than architecture.

MG: Yeah. It’s much more spontaneous. It’s not that we are superhumans that design something and know exactly how it’s going to be. Any idea begins as a translation of your thoughts, and it has to be corrected. In some cases, the ideas are good; in some cases, you have to work more on them.

CDV: What I like about what you do, and what we relate to, is that struggle through which the design becomes a product. For us, it’s getting a product that people can actually wear but that at the same time has the designer’s image. This is something that we have grown into, and, I think, we are working to improve.

MG: Yeah, at the end of the day, we produce work that is going to be useful to people. I think when you actually manage to enhance a thing, you manage to work on and manipulate that thing, I think it shows. You can see when objects are designed purely on paper or purely on computer and in a more fictional way. I prefer when you actually put your hands on it, and then the spirit enters it . . . For me, 100 Chairs was a project where I really wanted to do that. Like, I made in one day a chair, and that was the result of one day’s work.

CDV: Obviously, we are growing, so we find that more and more has to be planned ahead, but we try to get our touch on everything we do. We are under pressure, and being physically present on every garment is getting harder and harder, but we still strive for that.

MG: Oh, the overall collection has very much got your hands on it. Of course, making every piece that way is impossible . . . as it’s impossible for me . . . if I design something for the industry, a chair, I can’t build every chair. But you have to spend a lot of time trying things out and experimenting.

GOB: I think in your collections there’s more diversity than one sees in the average fashion collection.

PP: Yeah. We like the collections to be very rich somehow, and we want every garment to be able to demand attention on its own. We don’t like to have just one designer uniform. Obviously, it’s a collection, and it has one theme, but there are always many varieties within it that we like to explore, because, in a way, life itself is so colorful and varied.

CDV: When we design we start by a drape or a print, and then we put it together, and then we think, “Oh, this could be for her! This could be for this friend, and this could be for that friend.” We just don’t like to have that one woman in mind when we design. We have different types.

MG: That’s a nice idea, that you don’t design for one woman, as much as I don’t design for everyone. I don’t try to design the perfect chair that can work for everyone. You design work that works for different people in different ways. I think that’s very nice. Because, yeah, all of us are different and unique. It’s nice when different clients can find different kinds of pieces, even though it all comes from you. It doesn’t look like they’re all the same.

PP: And a certain amount of playfulness is a very important element in our work.

MDV: Do you think that because it’s always two of you, that it’s easier to have diversity, because there’s two of you? You’re trying to create one idea or one collection, but maybe giving it variety becomes easier when both of you can try to add to it, rather than a single designer who has just got himself and, maybe, will repeat himself? In that case, you constantly question each other; you push each other, you have to . . . Each of you has to give up a little bit, but at the same time, you both push different ideas into it, and I find that quite interesting as well. You always say one person is like half, and two people is like three, when you do something, because the power of two is just . . . You can imagine greater ideas than just one person.

PP: That’s interesting — I don’t know. But the thing is, one is never alone, in a way. BG

The Bergdorf Goodman Conversations are conducted and edited by Glenn O’Brien. 

See Peter Pilotto’s Latest Collection