You may or may not have heard of Slim Barrett, but you’ll have certainly seen his work. The man behind Victoria Beckham’s miniature wedding crown, Diana’s famous jewels and numerous notable collaborations with Chanel, Versace and Galliano (to mention a few), usually prefers to keep a low profile.
Fine artist and master metalworker Slim Barrett is one of the most established and acclaimed jewellery artists in fashion, having frequently been published in almost every major fashion magazine since the eighties and working with a high-profile roster of clients on a regular basis. Chanel, Ungaro, Versace, Montana, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Janet Jackson and Madonna have all requested his handiwork. This man has worked with the greats. Oh, and he is also a proud Guinness World Record holder, credited with creating the most valuable contemporary tiara in the world.
An airy ex-photography studio in central London, Slim’s workshop has been graced by pretty much every London editor without exception. Hammers of every kind, vices, tweezers and pliers line the walls; rhinestones, jump rings and chains are catalogued with precision. Upstairs is an Aladdin’s cave of his creations. Barbarella-like metal bodypieces, his signature crowns elegantly studded with jewels and cascading neckpieces fit for supernatural Goddesses- all embossed with a proud ‘SB’.
Entering the workshop I see the familiar sight of Slim quietly concentrating at a green worktop scattered with bits and bobs. He peers up through his loupe and nods, newly skinned head (he had a long grey ponytail on our last encounter) and buttoned up Fred Perry polo. ‘I’ve been working on this same necklace for a week… just trying to get the catch right. It’s driving me mad!’ he says in his soft Irish tone. Taking a break from fiddling with that necklace, Slim joins me for a cup of tea…
First of all, I actually want to ask you where your name is from? Is Slim your real name?
No, it’s a nickname I picked up when I was about 14, because I was slightly chubby as a kid. A couple of mates of mine called me Slim and it stuck.
So, lets start from the beginning. How did you get into metalwork?
I went to Art College and I specialised in sculpture and 3D design. Metalwork…it’s a very good question actually. I think it was just moving into jewellery and I just started experimenting with things and it came naturally to me. As a medium I find it very easy to work with.
I first came across your work through hearing about your collaborations with other designers, and your commission projects…
I’ve done lots pieces in the past for lots of designers. Versace, Ungaro, Chanel, Lagerfeld, Galliano, Katherine Hamnett…they’re all different. It’s challenging. Physically it’s challenging because you have to work so quickly to a deadline and a panic. It’s just the nature of the fashion business. If you’re doing things for catwalk shows it actually gives you an adrenaline rush and you can get on with it. I go and I get a very broad brief- there’s a picture in the person’s mind of what they’re trying to achieve but the briefing is very vague and its because they are depending on your creativity. They’re asking you to come up with something that adds to what they’re doing. So far everyone has been happy with what I did for them!
What was the first big collaboration that you did?
Myself and [my partner] Jules were sitting in a cafe in Camden and Jules was wearing a piece of jewellery that I made. The owner of the café came over and said ‘where did you get this?’ She went away right away and got a telephone number and she said ‘ring this man. You’ll have 15 minutes of his time right – he’s very important.’ He happened to be a designer, Jan Van Velden, and we went to see him and he really liked the jewellery. He asked me to do things for his catwalk show. He was a couturier based in London and one of his clients was Princess Diana. I did work for him, and within about a week he had put me in contact with Bruce Oldfield. Bruce basically commissioned me to do more pieces for him. So it was doing work with these two designers plus Princess Diana…
Did you ever work with Diana?
I didn’t deal with her directly, it was purely through the two of them. From that I had Harvey Nichols and Harrods and boutiques in Knightsbridge wanting to stock the things that I’d done. Basically all of this happened within about 8 weeks. At the time I wasn’t even thinking about being a jewellery designer!
When was that?
I’ve been doing this since 1983. I sat down with Jules and said ‘will I actually do this’? And so we made a decision to start doing it. I did wholesale up until 1998-1999 and then I stopped. I’ve always done commission work for people anyway but I decided to back off from the wholesale activity and concentrate more on doing private commission work and doing it for companies. Also doing consultancy work.
I know you have worked with Karl Lagerfeld quite a lot over the years, most recently on creating metal body armour for the Pirelli Calendar. How did your work with him come about?
I think it was about 1998, 1999. Karl wanted something for his own collection, and he wanted knitted sterling silver mesh which didn’t exist. I tried to do it with knitting needles, knitting machines but the wire wasn’t suitable because it was not flexible enough. I had to find a bijouterie company that could actually manufacture wire that was as small as thread and flexible enough for me to actually use to do this. Anyway it took about a month and a half to 2 months. Eventually I found a stocking manufacturer who was willing to let me use one of his machines. I was using knitting machines that they used for making nylon stockings. There was a lot of technical fiddling to get it to work but after many attempts I got the machine to accept the wires. I did one sample that was very small and I took it to Paris, and Karl loved it and asked me to do some headpieces using the technique in 18karat gold for the Chanel couture show. So I came back to London and I did headpieces in gold mesh and went back with them.
That sounds very labor intensive!
The way it was knitted you could literally roll it up like fabric or squash it in to a ball. He also wanted it for the finale of his show for Lagerfeld so I spent 5 days and 5 nights working in an atelier in Paris with Jules and 2 guys from our studio. We all decamped over to this studio in Paris with the baby- I think Lincoln was about 18 months at the time. When Karl heard that there was going to be a baby in the studio he sent down a chaise-longue for the baby to sleep on. We were working day and night, it was absolute mayhem but everything worked perfectly. It was an overlayer on dresses that were being used in the finale so we decided rather than trying to do it here and then sending it over to Paris it was best to actually do it as a couture type thing- everything was built for the models.
I also wanted to ask you about Versace….
I did little crowns. Silver crowns with little crystals. That was my ‘do little silver crowns’ brief.
Speaking of crowns, didn’t you do Victoria Beckham’s crown?
Yes, Victoria came to see me and asked me if I would like to do her crown for her wedding. She came to the studio about six times for the fittings just to work everything out properly. We used diamonds and 18 karat gold. It was a good project. The publicity generated from that was just mind boggling. And it still is- even when it’s mentioned now! In 2007 we went on a road trip in America- we did ‘Meet The Fockers’ with a camper van and all that stuff. We did about 2500/3000 miles over ten days or whatever. We stopped for petrol and Jules went in to pay and started talking to the woman behind the counter. It came about that I’d actually done Victoria Beckham’s crown and she was like ‘No waaay, can I meet him!?’
When Karl heard that there was going to be a baby in the studio he sent down a chaise-longue for the baby to sleep on. We were working day and night, it was absolute mayhem but everything worked perfectly.
I’m always fascinated by craftsmen that haven’t had any formal training… did you ever shadow anyone or look at a particular jeweller and work with them? Did you make a conscious decision to focus on a certain aspect or did you want to learn everything?
No no, it’s a curiosity thing more than anything else! There are so many things to learn that if you are going to try and go to do the whole lot your brain would explode. I should always be a student and learn new things all the time. I made a decision a long time ago that if there is a point on a job where you don’t feel comfortable from a technical aspect, you just pass it on to someone who is a specialist in that area. My specialist thing is the actual creative and artistic aspect of it.
Lets talk a little bit about your aesthetic influences. You’ve done collections inspired by Baroque and Celtic artwork for example…
I put that down to my art background. I went to college in Ireland- I did four foundation courses at the same college rather than doing a degree. The person who was doing the course actually trained at the Royal academy and the Slade so his training was classical, but he wrote his own course based on the Bauhaus teaching methods. I just really liked the structure of the whole thing- the way that he married classical skills with conceptual thinking processes. Plus the way that the Bauhaus had a certain thing about design principles so it was all that married together. My brain is a sponge for info from every where. It keeps the process exciting!
I think my influences are a lot to do with that thing in college plus my Irish background. I’m a romantic at heart. The town I come from has a Norman castle in it….there’s lots of influences I had when I was growing up as a kid. I also have a sort of conceptual alphabet that I use when I’m thinking that direct my thought processes and that’s purely from the college in Ireland. I think it gave me a methodology of how to structure my thinking processes and it gives you a grounding to work off. Apart from that I just have an innate eye- it’s a natural thing that I don’t force.
Your repertoire spans not only jewellery, you are also very much a fine artist…
Yes that’s my background and I continue to do that. For me as a creative person I just want to mish-mash the whole lot together and I tend to block things together as project based things rather than ‘I’m a jewellery designer and I’m actually just going to make collections of jewellery every year etc etc’.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Fortnum and Mason have asked whether I would be interested in doing an exclusive range for them. It started because I worked on the movie The Young Victoria and recreated the state crown and the scepters . Essentially the imperial state crown has stayed the same with regards to the overall iconography but the sizes and the gem stones have changed so I had to do a lot of research to figure out what went where, and then scaled everything accordingly. There were no visual references anywhere so I spent about 6 weeks sitting in the British Library doing research to figure out how to make these pieces. From doing that, I had an idea about a year and a half ago to do something to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I’m working on a collection that’s loosely based on references from the research I did.
You were out of work for a few years following an accident. Do you think the break has changed your perspective on things?
An awful lot. It’s not treating lots of things too seriously like I would have in the past. Not being able to work for three years was very frustrating. Now being back at work again in some ways its like I’ve landed on Mars. There have been so many technical developments in the way people are working and its like doing catch up. There’s certain things to do with computer aided design and 3D things…it’s to be expected.
You’ve got your techniques and your own way of working though…
I mean, the CAD thing is going back to the drawning board, it’s a thing that I have used very slightly in the past, but for me I want to learn the technical aspect of it before I take it any further. I don’t just want to do a drawing and give it on to someone else and say ‘here do that for me’. I want to use it as a creative process. David Hockney’s doing it at the moment- he’s using an iPad. I’m getting there.
I know recently you’ve been working with scientists…
Well a friend of mine approached me for my creative expertise. I’ve been working with people from the University of The Arts London, Cambridge University and Northumbria University. Her particular project was to do with wellbeing through nano technology. I can’t specifically say what, but it’s to do with improving people’s quality of life. I see that in the next five to ten years there is going to be a major boom of all these areas. I think it’s going to be the equivalent of when computers arrived on the scene. From my perspective anyway. I see it as a natural progression. I was talking to someone the other day and I said that a lot of the creative stuff that’s being done with computer aid is still in its infancy. Its baby stuff as far as I’m concerned and so much is going to happen. It’s exciting, I love it.
Do you think that’s going to be something you’ll be more involved with in the future?
I’d like to. Definitely. You have to change your attitude towards creativity and how you are actually going to do things. Technological advances with regards to 3D printing for example. It’s not only to do with being more efficient or making more money, necessarily, it’s also about how you can actually use your creativity to do something constructive as far as I’m concerned. If it’s just making someone a piece of jewellery for a special occasion that makes them happy then that’s being constructive. That’s the way I think!