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Photography by Andrea Moret.

Opposites attract: Sandra Backlund and Maglificio Miles

An unusual collaboration between one of the most creative and talented contemporary knitwear designers and an historical Italian company generated a lot of interest at the recent White Club showcase.

Sandra Backlund arrived at our knitwear company with a big case full of marvellous samples and prototypes that really amazed us,” Michele Bocchese, sales and marketing manager at the Maglificio Miles recounts. “We have met a lot of famous and talented designers at Miles, but we had never seen anything like Sandra’s pieces. Even my mother Silvia, who’s been working in this field for forty years, found it difficult to understand how Sandra could create by hand those pieces.”

The collaboration between Swedish designer Sandra Backlund and the historical Italian knitwear company Maglificio Miles started after Andreina Longhi, one of the founding members and now chairwoman of the White Club, introduced them. The Maglificio Miles was established in 1962 by Silvia Stein Bocchese. In its early days Miles was just a small laboratory with three workers but it soon turned into a successful knitwear company. At the end of the 60s Miles started an important collaboration with Yves Saint Laurent when model Lison Bonfils introduced Silvia to the French designer. Since then the company extended its portfolio, collaborating with numerous fashion houses and designers, among them also Azzedine Alaïa, Sonia Rykiel, Giorgio Armani and, more recently, Lanvin and Marc Jacobs.

Both Sandra and the knitwear company were busy when they met, yet they decided all the same to do a trial test. “We felt that this was a sort of challenge for us,” Bocchese explains, “it was as if Sandra had told us, ‘my work is entirely handmade and totally based on creative principles, will you be able to reproduce it with your machines?"

Combining the highest technologies available at Miles with Sandra’s ideas proved extremely successful: the four pieces that resulted – all in black and created using two different yarns – are lighter and wearable versions of pieces taken from Backlund’s previous collections, from “Blank Page” to “Ink Blot Test”. Though the pieces are mainly machine-made with only a limited amount of manual work, they still preserve the beauty of Backlund’s original signature designs.
“Creating the four pieces was stimulating for all of us at Miles, from the technicians to the people who followed the machine programming,” Bocchese states, “the way Sandra creates, builds and implements her pieces is really fascinating. I expected this collaboration to generate interest among people who know Sandra’s work, but seeing visitors, buyers and boutique owners stopping in amazement and reverentially admiring the four samples at the White Club trying to understand how they were made, was really incredible.”

Dazed Digital: How did this project with the Maglificio Miles come together?
Sandra Backlund: I’m part of this non-profit organisation called White Club and its philosophy is to get new fashion designers together with Italian manufacturing companies. After they introduced us, we had a meeting and decided to get on with the project rather than wait for the next Milan Fashion Week. We basically decided to do a first test, a sort of trial project trying to do four machine-made pieces inspired by my previous handmade work. We decided not to opt for a proper collection but for just a few pieces as we wanted to give people just a taste of what Miles and I could do together. The feedback was very good and we met quite a few important buyers. Yet when we opted for this presentation we decided we wouldn’t even think about prices and costs as we really didn’t even have the time to do it, so at the moment there aren’t really any specific plans about selling or producing on a vast scale the samples.  

DD: How did you select the four designs that were then turned into the samples?
SB: There was no special selection, even though some pieces I brought with me to the factory were the ones that had previously attracted the attention of potential customers and that had sparkled the interest of the fashion media.

DD: What kind of yarns did you choose for the four samples?
SB: I took advantage of Miles’ knowledge in this area. We tried working with quite a few different yarns, but we still wanted the final products to be very plain, so in the end our choice was dictated by the tests. We opted for two beautiful different wools, one is a wool/cashmere blend which is very soft and nice and the other one is a bit more sharp and gives away stronger silhouettes, but it’s not itchy. Both the wools are much finer than the ones I usually employ when I work by hand and, as a consequence, the samples are not as heavy as my handmade pieces.

DD: Your designs are completely handmade, were you worried this project wouldn’t have worked out for you?
SB: I was scared even just to try it, but when I got to know the experience at Miles and when I realised they could really understand my concept and my ideas, we worked really well together. I was very lucky because Silvia Stein Bocchese worked with me on this project and her interest and knowledge proved invaluable. I also had the pleasure of collaborating with one of the best technicians, a woman who worked with Miles for many years and did all the programming for the machines. She gave me a lot of suggestions as well just by looking at my handmade pieces.

DD: What scared you the most about working with the machines, the lack of control over the final product?
SB: It was actually the thought that I was not going to be able to communicate my ideas to the technicians. I’m so used to work by myself and I always know what I want. In a way I live inside my own brain and never sketch or plan, I just settle down and work. So I thought it would have been difficult to communicate these processes and ideas that I had in mind. Yet at Miles they are very used to collaborate with designers who do not work with sketches, descriptions or with other more traditional ways, but who are more conceptual, so this made things easier for me. The whole process was in a way also facilitated by the fact that we decided to take as starting point some of my handmade pieces, besides I also had access to the company archives that includes over 30,000 knitwear samples and 15,000 swatches. I used the archives to find the stitches that I thought could work with my original silhouette.

DD: Were you happy with the results achieved during this collaboration?
SB: I’m definitely happy that even people who know my previous work are still able to recognise my style, even though the pieces are made by a machine. I think it was a very interesting collaboration and it was also good for me as I’m already working too hard and there is no way I’m going to be able to extend my company and do bigger collections if I don’t get help. I think that it would be a perfect solution for me to do a few handmade pieces as usual and then collaborate with a manufacturer and have more pieces done, rather than having a lot of hand knitters working for me, because I think it would still be very difficult for me to let go. Yet having a manufacturer doing part of the job would mean that I could really let go because there is no way my hands could do the work done by the machines. One day I would like to try and maybe do a full collection - even a small one of maybe 15 pieces - that features both handmade and machine-made pieces. In way it would be like another way of expressing myself because there are times when I would like to do simpler pieces, but it’s difficult to do it because my fantasy often takes over while I’m working on my handmade creations. I don’t know if Miles would like to collaborate on such a collection, but having tried such a project and having realised how successful it could be for both of us I’m not scared anymore of working with a technician or with a knitting machine!

DD: What are your plans for the future?
SB: I feel like I’m heading somewhere new. I really want to continue to develop my designs and collections, but I feel that, by trying this project together with Miles, I have found new hope. Sometimes you need to step out of your working habit and then step in again with a renewed mind. At the moment I’m finishing my Autumn/Winter collection that is going to feature as usual a few handmade pieces, but I feel that, after that, I will be stepping into a new era. This is going to be my tenth collection, so after that there will be something new. I still want to keep on doing my handmade fantasy pieces, but I also want to share my designs with people. At the moment I feel that my designs are just images on magazines and not real pieces, while there is so much interest both from buyers and customers in my work, so it’s frustrating not to be able to offer them something. I also think that if I do pieces that are machine-made and that people are able to buy, the handmade designs will be even more special. I know that I’m heading towards the right path that will eventually lead me to put my pieces out there, but I’m not sure if this is going to happen in 6 months or in 1 or 2 years, also because of the current financial situation. Yet I know I have a strong product and, even if I have to wait for a couple of years to put it out, it will be fine as I will always have my more artistic approach to fashion to lean on while I wait for better times. I feel positive about it and I’m happy that this is what I want to do to develop my business and it’s not being forced upon me by somebody else.