Celebrating LFW: an interview with Fashion designer & Maker Nafisa Tosh

Ella
14th September 2020

To celebrate London Fashion Week 2020, which looks very different this year, we interviewed someone who has been in the business for over thirty years. Nafisa Tosh runs a studio in London and has worked with the most renowned global Fashion Houses. She wears many hats - a tailor on shoots, red carpet events and at London Fashion Week and Paris Fashion Week as well as a womenswear designer and maker for private clients. Clients have included Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Moschino, Alberta Ferretti, Hugo Boss, Jasper Conran, and Amanda Wakely. 

We wanted to know how this year has affected her business and get her advice for young designers looking to find work in one of the most competitive industries.

BB: It would be great to talk about your background in fashion and how you got started?

Nafisa Tosh: I learnt to sew from a very early age because my father was a tailor. I would follow him around and he would give me scraps of fabric, so I learned how to sew. As I got older I would help my dad, and became a sort of tailor's assistant. By 16, I could tailor a men's jacket completely. I went on to get a HND in fashion, despite my father telling me it was long hours- it was poorly-paid, it was known as the rag trade. He did everything he could to put me off but it's in the blood, so what can you do?

Widows of Culloden 2006 A/W Lee made me pleat a roll of McQueen tartan fabric to create this piece. Took me a whole weekend to make the CF points meet up at the bodice, then I punched Lee when he styled it with a belt backstage at PFW.

BB: And how exactly do you work with clients now?

Nafisa Tosh: I have a small studio and private clients who I design and make for, which is really creative. I work directly with them, so choosing the design to suit the occasion, the fabrics, so they're completely exclusive to the client. In the past, I've worked for designers such as Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Jasper Conran, Elizabeth Emanuel, Antonio Berardi, Giles Deacon, Christopher Kane, Amanda Wakeley, Eley Kishimoto, and Preen.

I've been working in London since the mid-'90s, and it's changed considerably. When I go in and work for a designer for London Fashion Week or Paris Fashion Week, I go in about three months before a collection and work in-house, so I'm part of the team in the run-up to the show. Sometimes you work directly with the designer on a particular sketch. I specialize in heavy construction, so lots of corseting, lots of attention to detail. I'm quite a patient person, and I actually really enjoy very fiddly design with technical cutting.

When I'm working in-house with a designer, usually the designer works out who's good at bias, or corsetry, or tailoring, so on and so forth, and then they'll give each sample machinists a set of sketches. So you'll get about four or five showpieces to make for the collection tailored to your experience and what you're good at.

With my private clients, they'll either have a ball or an occasion to go to- so they might want a dress with a train, or they might want a easy-to-wear winter coat, for example. I'll source fabrics, I'll create a mood board, and that's how it all starts.

BB: Which part of the process do you enjoy most?

Nafisa Tosh: I love the whole process. I love sitting down with a client, getting some images together. The one thing I never want to do is to copy somebody else's design. I'll start with an image sometimes or a fabric reference, and then sit with the client and go over it. We adapt it to them, to the occasion. I have some great contacts that I've built up over the years, and they don't mind dealing with me. I'm small fry, I'm not going to order hundreds of meters of fabric. That is what my clients love as well, that I can get them exclusive fabrics that nobody else is going to be wearing.

BB: What have been some standout moments for you in your career?

Nafisa Tosh: Standout moments for me would be working for Lee McQueen, (Alexander McQueen), and Paris Fashion Week. The Widows of Culloden Collection; it was so creative. And then, Sarabande. That was an amazing time for fashion and for me. Just before I left college I made a list of three designers that I wanted to work for: Jasper Conran, where I freelanced for about 13 years. Bella Freud, who I went on to do a film with. It was directed by John Malkovich, and it was called The Hideous Man. And, Alexander McQueen.

I've been really lucky to have been in the right place, at the right time. It's always been a positive experience. I've learned so much from each designer. Great designers have great teams.

BB: How has the industry changed over the years?

Nafisa Tosh: The London fashion industry has really changed. Firstly, about 15 years ago a lot of the manufacturing left the UK, and went to places like the Far East, and China, and India, so a lot of the showrooms and sample rooms shut down. One of the first jobs I had was as a sample machinist in Oxford Circus. If you didn't like the company that you were working for it, you could just pop out in your lunchtime, walk around Great Titchfield Street, Great Portland Street, Soho, and there was always an advert for sample machinists. You could pop in, have a quick chat, go back the next day to do a trial hour and then find another job. It was really easy. But those jobs aren't there anymore, which is a real shame.

BB: Social media has also had a big impact, have you embraced it?

Nafisa Tosh: Social media, for me, has had a really positive impact. A friend of mine started my Instagram account, which I didn't see the point of because I thought, "Who wants to see what I'm doing?" But it's helped me find work. As far as designers go, I think it's a positive experience. It just depends on how that's handled. I don't want to say too much about people ripping each other off but that's also a reality.

BB: You run a studio, and you employ freelancers. How has lockdown affected your business?

Nafisa Tosh: Lockdown affected my business quite hard at first because I wasn't allowed to go to my studio. My building was shut for two to three months, and everything just closed down. There were no photo shoots. I wasn't able to do fittings with clients. Everything was on hold, and I've had to adapt the way I work.

Together with my freelancers (I have a freelance pattern cutter, a sample cutter, and then a girl Friday) we had a massive tidy up in my studio. I've given a lot of fabrics to some charities that I work with to make masks for my local community on the South Bank. So it’s been more about helping each other out as much as you can and looking out for each other, just in small ways.

During lockdown, like a lot of people, I was bored out of my mind so I asked my husband, who works for the NHS, how I could help.  He said, "My colleagues need hand sanitiser and hand lotion because they're washing their hands 70 times a day." So I contacted my friend Michelle Humphreys, who's an amazing manicurist. She got together a few of her girls and we organized in total about 500,000 tubes of cream for all the London hospitals and hospices. We were featured in Scratch magazine and I was bombarded with hand lotions, hand creams, hand sanitizers, hand masks, everything, as well as other treats so then we started donating to local hospitals, hospices, care homes. It was fantastic.

Widows of Culloden 2006 A/W This was grouse feathers, hand stitched onto organza panels so that house model Polina made the dress look as if it fluttered on her. Adjusting this, nightmare.

BB: Can you tell me about your mentoring work? Is there any particular advice you have for young designers at this moment in particular?

Nafisa Tosh: I’ve worked with a couple of charities mentoring young people since 2012. It's a really difficult time for graduates so my advice is build up your skillset. Learn how to pattern cut, sew. One of the projects that I used to set my studio assistants when they first joined me was to get a garment and cut it in half. Take one half apart and trace a pattern, look at the construction, look at the stitches, look at the seams. You can do this with an old jacket, maybe from a charity shop, so you learn how to tailor. You can refer back to the other half as a reference.

With the half you deconstruct, look at it, "How can I replicate this with calico?" or whatever. Build up your skillset because if you've got a skill, like myself, if you can sew, if you can pattern cut, if you can drape, if you can hand finish, if you can embroider, people will always want those skills. No matter where you are in the world, people always need pattern cutting and sewing skills. And I'm busier than ever.

Thank you Nafisa!

You can follow Nafisa Tosh on instagram to view more of her work.