From the sound of it, Paula Gerbase was a rather particular child. Aged six, she recalls, her lifelong preoccupation with the power and potential of clothing was fired when her family moved from Brazil to Baltimore. “There was a big Amish community there,” she says. “That was probably the first time I thought about clothes because they were so distinctive looking. There was something so beautiful about seeing groups of people in uniform, handmade, but all cut from the same cloth.” Aged ten, she read about Savile Row and became infatuated. “You start to learn that there is a street in London where the craft of tailoring has essentially lived for a very long time,” she recalls.
By the time she was touching adulthood, at 17, she had decided – to the chagrin of her mother – to apply to study fashion at Central Saint Martins in London. Once there – to the bemusement of her classmates – she determined to work on Savile Row. “It was just the most uncool thing you could say. Everyone there wanted to work for Alexander McQueen, understandably, or John Galliano, also understandably, because there was just so much excitement around them. But all I wanted to do was go somewhere where they would tell me I knew nothing and teach me from scratch.”
After five years spent on tailoring’s fundamental thoroughfare, Gerbase had notched up stints at Hardy Amies and Kilgour (where she rose to become head of design). Chief lessons, she recalls, included discovering the importance of the iron over the sewing machine. Pressing a jacket while sewing it allows you to shape the garment with complete precision: “you go on the iron and you sculpt with steam.” Once armed with this knowledge, she says, she felt free to create anything.
Since 2010, Gerbase has been under her own steam. Her label, 1205 – named for the day and month of her birth – shows collections for both genders at London’s fashion weeks. Like their author, the clothes are both intensely focused and rather particular.
Her star rose first in womenswear. And because she often deploys the tailoring expertise gained during those formative years on Savile Row, the cleanly cut jackets and painstakingly proportioned trousers of her first few collections earned 1205 a reputation as a label for androgynously inclined minimalists.
From behind her vast, spotlessly white desk, her signature blunt fringe swept up and away from her face, Gerbase rejects the notion – but concedes that her yen for menswear informs her work for women.
“I’ve always worn men’s clothes because they were better made – I was always disappointed going into women’s stores.” Pointedly, she adds: “Plus I think it’s a little minimalist in thought to call me minimalist.”
Gerbase is referring to the painstakingly thought-through detailing that is functional, rather than decorative, in her designs: a little nylon elastic cuff inside an otherwise tailored sleeve, for example, to keep it in place and insulate from the cold and wet. “That’s not minimal thinking, that is someone who has gone through quite a long process to think about the detail and then hide it,” she says, illustrating the point by exposing the fine work of her own jacket sleeve.
She finds it frustrating that the culture of womenswear traditionally lionises prettiness, whether through embellishment, print or embroidery. A mastery of structure holds at least as much appeal to Gerbase. “If you look at Balenciaga back in the day it was about tailoring: it was beautiful and it was sculpted and it had substance. It didn’t lack any femininity, I think, but it’s a different kind of femininity.”
We are in her Clerkenwell studio, beside a rail of her clothes, most of which are in her favourite colour: navy blue. Why? “Because it can be so rich and so cold, there are so many different tones,” she enthuses. It also, she adds, enables her fabric handiwork to be seen at its best.
Function, not frou-frou or frippery, dictates her fascination with fabrics too. In recent collections she has worked to develop “poor” materials – synthetic fabrics or treated cottons – that resemble much more expensive “rich” materials but which have the added advantage of being more resilient and protective. Her autumn/winter 2016 collection features a polyester that looks and feels almost exactly like silk, but which is hard-wearing and waterproof too: this, in Gerbase’s eyes, makes it not a compromise but an upgrade.
Her philosophy might be strict, yet her clothes are more typically soft than severe. This year’s spring/summer collection focused on sinuous, asymmetrically cut silhouettes: dresses with twists of material at the hip and shoulder. It represented a fresh step beyond the “traditional” tailoring metier from which Gerbase’s work began. Her menswear might often appear suit heavy, but the construction and fabrication of her jackets and trousers make them flexible and featherlight: they feel more like tracksuits than business suits to wear.
Since 2014, Gerbase has had a second job as artistic director of John Lobb, the Hermès-owned English shoe company. Here, as in all her work, she delights in exploring the boundaries of uniform, tweaking and updating some of the classics in the canon of masculine footwear.
When she was six she watched the Amish of Baltimore. Now she is 34 Gerbase’s greatest delight, she says, is observing committed wearers of 1205: there’s nothing more satisfying, she adds, than seeing her clothes being inhabited so lovingly that they become bruised and softened through use and wear. “I want people to live in the clothes, to feel so much like themselves in them that they put them on, forget about them and get on with their day.” Clothes so perfectly fit for purpose that you forget you’re wearing them? In fashion, that loudest of arenas, Gerbase’s quiet certitude is tantamount to a radical position.