How Niki Jessup fuses exotic birds, gender-fluidity and vibrance into footwear
Originally from Canada, the 2016 graduate from the London College of Fashion's (LCF) renowned MA Footwear program, Niki Jessup, is innovative on many levels. Before coming to London to study and show at the V&A and London Design Festival, she worked in production for Cirque du Soleil, Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens, and Disney. Her leatherwork also extends into bike panniers, following a personal mission to bridge avid cycling with 'dinner-party ready.' Her work is approached with a specific technical interest in leather-working, but it is her conceptual meshing of birds, sexuality and gender conformity which make her a stand-alone artist. Niki's work aims to contrast natural and man-made elements, both materially and on an abstract level. Deeply present in her latest collection "Sexual Selection," Niki transcends gender stereotypes by drawing on the aesthetic and mating practices of birds-of-paradise, giving the wearer the ability to call into question their own gendered roles through a stunning recreation. Yet throughout all this, her work remain beautifully structural: emanating the nature-culture division she dabbles in crossing.
Describe your style of design in three words:
Vibrant, juxtaposed, societal.
What inspired your MA collection ‘Sexual Selection’, and how have you captured the themes in your designs?
My MA collection was inspired by Birds of Paradise. It is made up of six pairs of handcrafted unisex shoes that allow the wearer to seduce their infatuation. I aspired to make the individual feel unique rather than neutral or uniform. The collection was based on materials and craftsmanship, combining traditional shoemaking and saddlery hand stitching techniques with modern materials. Using digitally printed vegetable tanned leather, I used a variety of constructions and stitches for all pairs. I used tones of pink and blue, colours that challenge traditional gender normative codes. The thread creates continuity from one shoe to the next, the imperfections reminding the wearer of our collective humanity but also of our individuality.
What got you into fashion?
I fell into fashion through leather. I always knew I wanted to make shoes, but in Montréal, Canada, there were no footwear courses available. So, I completed a degree in leatherwork at the Centre des métiers du cuir de Montréal, which focused on craftsmanship from a decorative arts point of view. After that, I received a big scholarship to study an MA in Fashion Footwear at the London College of Fashion. This was my first real experience with fashion and design - and I’ve fallen in love with it.
What inspired your decision to focus on footwear?
I always wanted to make footwear design/making because I’ve always had a thing for shoes. Everyone wears them, though people often have different criteria which affects their selection, which is also interesting to me. Shoes are our first point of contact with the ground and they affect our posture, confidence and behaviour.
What would you change about the fashion industry at the moment?
I’d really love to see a change in the mass production of fashion related products. The labour conditions of workers are awful, the quality of the products too. I am a part of this problem, I realise, but I’m making an effort to change my behaviour, both as a consumer and as a brand. We as designers and makers have the responsibility to push towards better societal and ethical choices in consumerism. In more concrete words, with HOTELMOTEL, we are making quality products using quality materials sourced from responsible companies. We are making durable products that are easily repaired and we are making them within the framework of the slow fashion movement, made locally by us and by hand.
You mentioned you were currently working on a new project, HotelMotel could you give us a brief intro to this?
Atelier HOTELMOTEL is a new project I am working on with two great friends, Corinne Bourget, and amazing craftswoman and Andrew Doiron, a self-taught shoemaker. Being concerned with the disappearance of the footwear industry here in Montreal, we decided to join forces and create a leather footwear and accessories brand. All our products are made by hand in our shared studio in the Mile End of Montréal.
Where do you generally find inspiration?
I mostly get inspired by people - I like all kinds of people and traditions and I think that comes through in my work. I would say my work is really a reflection on society that comes out in object form. I’m also really inspired by process and technique. I like juxtaposing natural and man made elements in my pieces, and using traditional techniques mixed with new technologies.
What’s the story behind HotelMotel? Where and why did it start?
The name HotelMotel comes from a brainstorming session with my partners - I had brought up hotel and motel separately, but then we ended up liking the two words together. It fit because in a way they represent the paradox between luxury (hotel) and functional (motel) which we strive to explore in our products.
Describe a typical wearer of HotelMotel’s shoes.
Well, I wouldn’t go as far as saying they are sneakerheads, but they definitely have a thing for shoes. They want to be comfortable but also stylish. They are conceived as casual street wear, but they can jazz up an outfit too.The sneakers are unisex so everyone can wear them - and we offer very small sizes and very large sizes (sizes 34-47), so I mean it when I say everyone can wear them.
What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?
The most challenging part of my creative process is also maybe my best part. I have trouble deciding on a design on paper. I’ve seen my colleagues over the years drawing something up, then making it exactly the way they drew it. I’ve always envied that. My work unfolds as I experiment, it’s a long process, and at the end something comes out that I never would have imagined at the beginning. In a way, I think that’s what makes it unique, so I try not to drag myself down over it.
Do you have any role models and or influences? And how have they impacted your work?
Oh, yes, I definitely have many role models and influences. I was recently reminded of this at the Shoetopia! exhibition, currently held in Detroit, where I am being exhibited amongst many of my favourite footwear designers, including Marloes Ten Bohmer, Benjamin John Hall, Jo Cope, Peter Popps, Carolyn Holzhuber and Chau Har Lee. Each of these designers is a role model for a different reason, whether it be for their perspective of design, their ingenuity or their technical prowess. The footwear community is rich in ideas, design and technical ability.
What’s your favourite piece in your current collection?
Well, right now I would have to say our new sneaker - which was designed in collaboration with my partner, Andrew. To tell you the truth, he designed it and made the patterns, I was mostly there as moral support. The sneaker is beautiful and slick, very minimal with very clean lines. We’ll be keeping this style as our HotelMotel standard sneaker, but we plan to collaborate with artists and a variety of craftspeople to make capsule collections every year. I’m really excited about this!
What can we expect of HotelMotel over the next few seasons?
Right now we are just getting out there. We’ve developed our first collection and we’re already looking forward to what’s coming. We’re happy to be in production mode, and looking forward to some nice collaborations. We are thinking big - not necessarily in quantity but in ideas and design. Keep up with us on Instagram to see our latest developments.