Text: Alec Coiro
Photo: Elisabet Davids
VPL was not a lingerie line and neverbefore is not athleisure. Victoria Bartlett — the designer of both — has always already moved beyond any box people try to put her in. In the case of neverbefore — her new line — Bartlett has particular freedom because she has partnered with Stella Ishii, the visionary behind the showroom The News. neverbefore is one of two in-house brands at The News, and I was lucky enough to invite myself over to the classically lofty Soho showroom space for an interview with both women.
Being “the house” behind the house brand, Ishii was already in the house when I arrived, so I used our one-on-one time to ask her how the partnership with Bartlett came to pass. “I wanted to do another line,” she tells me, “and I thought of Vicky because we’d been friends for such a long time, and I liked her sensibility, always have, and I was a big fan of the early days of VPL when everything was going back to relating to body movement.” After only a few minutes with her, it was already clear that this answer is emblematic of what sets Ishii apart; she thinking about a designer’s style goes a level deeper than just taste and personal relationships. She gets to the core of Bartlett’s designs and sees their special relationship to human anatomy. As Bartlett, herself would later tell me, “I was always fascinated with the body. For me, it’s the geography and the science of it all that always attracted me, and I converted into the design.”
It’s about the way a body moves the clothing. In some instances this means the clothing will fit the form of the body, but — importantly — this is not the only way the idea is put into practice. The clothes in this collection are clothes that sway with you and mesh that breathes for you. The point of neverbefore, and really the point of clothes in general for Bartlett, is to conform to how the body moves. And the point is most certainly not for the wearer to conform to the clothes. The idea of having outfits for different activities is almost anathema to her. “I really don’t believe in outfits for things. I hate the idea of a uniform for something. I think it’s a way of being told; a brainwashing thing where people need to be told what to do.”
Another insight Ishii has into Bartlett as a designer is her special way with color. “And color!” She exclaims. “I always like Vicky’s sense of color.” And then It’s interesting to hear Ishii expand on color because she herself doesn’t engage with color for the same reason that Bartlett embraces it. According to Ishii, “I struggle with it because it doesn’t come to me so naturally. Color has a lot of emotion and a lot of feelings to it, and I don’t always want to express that.” But such is the philosophy that Ishii has developed for The News where different designers compliment each other without overlapping. Ishii has another in-house brand called 6397, which she helms herself, and the idea is for the more black-and-white pallet of 6397 to compliment the colors of neverbefore. Overall Ishii’s idea is that “The same woman who would buy that would also buy this, but it’s something very different.” Bartlett agrees that color is emotional, and provides a colorful collection for the woman who would wear 6397 when in a colorful mood. But the point she goes on to make is more profound than just color is cheery. She explains that “Color imbues happiness, but it’s something people have a hard time with, especially in western culture. Colors a hard thing for people. It’s easy to put on black, blue, and white. But it’s something people are learning more about as we’ve come into a more colorful world in the last few years probably because of what’s happened. Everything’s a response.”
I really don’t believe in outfits for things. I hate the idea of a uniform for something. I think it’s a way of being told; a brainwashing thing where people need to be told what to do. - Victoria Bartlett
It’s clear from the almost political undertones of the way she talks about color, that the colors in neverbefore are not bright, primary colors for color’s sake. If colors are emotions, there is an emotional intelligence behind the designs. This connects all the way back to the 1920s for Bartlett, “For me one of the biggest color references was Bauhaus. It was the most radical time the most revolutionary time in terms of change and people really creating drastic changes. And they did these desaturated colors.”
After we talk for awhile, Bartlett guides me through a closer look at some of the pieces. The collection itself is wonderful. It’s very young without forcing it. It’s a collection that literally anyone regardless of age or gender could wear and both feel good and look good, so it’s hard to see the mark that’s being missed. It all works together as a whole, which should come as no surprise given Bartlett’s design philosophy. “For me, it’s like therapy; getting to this harmony and finding something that works.”
If you’re like me, then you were also charmed by the name VPL, which — in its perfectly restrained amount of cheekiness — suggested a designer with an ear to match her eye. So I was curious about the name neverbefore, which I found to be just as compelling a name, but in a more beguiling sense. The story behind the name is actually fittingly charming. The people at The News had just been labeling everything Bartlett was working on with NB for “New Brand” and so Vicky and Stella reversed engineered a name to fit the abbreviation. That’s the short version of the story anyway, but it encapsulates the easy way that the partners allow the line to allow itself to come into existence, which in turn reflects the way the clothing lets the body tell it what the design should be, which seems like an eminently sensible way to make clothes.