Why tapestry’s rich traditions are winning over designers

A model wears a tapestry-inspired outfit backstage at Etro Spring/Summer 2023 © Penske Media via Getty Images

Technical fabrics and athleisure might dominate everyday wardrobes, but the ancient art of tapestry — or at least the appearance — is providing a foil to utilitarianism. At the Paris shows in September, tapestry effects appeared on floral suits in the spring collections of Paco Rabanne and Dries Van Noten, and on baseball shirts at Marine Serre. In Milan, Etro introduced it on a fringed mini dress, while some of London’s brightest rising stars wove it into their own offerings — Charlotte Knowles sent out dresses and leggings in damask-print jersey, while Chopova Lowena repurposed vintage textiles featuring fairytale forest scenes reflecting designer Emma Chopova’s Bulgarian heritage.

Tapestry has roots in Ancient Egypt and the Inca empire, where it was used it to shroud the dead. The Ancient Greeks and Romans used it to decorate their walls, and in China it was used for garments and to wrap precious gifts. William Morris called it the “noblest of the weaving arts”.

Authentic tapestry, by strict definition, is an intensely intricate process, hand-weaving warp and weft threads together on a loom to create visible designs on both sides of the fabric. Yet, as a term, it has grown to encompass numerous techniques, among them needlepoint, damask and jacquard.

An 18th-century decorative tapestry of Beauvais, France
An 18th-century decorative tapestry of Beauvais, France © Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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model walking down a runway in a tapestry suit from Paco Rabanne
A tapestry suit from Paco Rabanne Spring/Summer 2023 . . .  © Yannis Vlamos
model walking down a runway in a tapestry bomber jacket from Louis Vuitton
 . . . and a tapestry bomber jacket from Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2023 menswear show

The resurgence of tapestry can be attributed to a renewed interest in traditional crafts, says fashion historian and co-curator of the V&A’s recent Fashioning Masculinities exhibition, Marta Franceschini.

It has arrived as “we are negotiating our position between digital and physical”, she says. “The styles emerging are a mix of historical references to reassuring traditions and creative interpretation of what the future might mean.”

The Napoleon Room in Schönbrunn Palace
The Napoleon Room in Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, with tapestry after designs by Hyacinthe de la Peigne © Getty Images

model wearing a tapestry-inspired suit from Dries Van Noten
A tapestry-inspired suit from Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer 2023 . . . 
model wearing a dress by Marine Serre
. . . and a modern take from Marine Serre Spring/Summer 2023 © Arnel dela Gente

“Fashion is cyclical and trends come and go, but we are moving away from a throwaway society at last and towards a greater appreciation of durable pieces that have been crafted and which underlie this trend,” adds the fashion business consultant and author Carolyn Mair. “Fashion has been led by street style for a while and it seems that now is the time it can take back control. Potentially we are tired of instant gratification and inauthenticity.”

Stylist and editor Gary Armstrong has set up search alerts on Vestiaire Collective and other second-hand retail sites for the William Morris-inspired tapestry shoes from Jonathan Anderson’s 2017 Loewe collection that he “kicked himself for missing out on”, as well as 1970s vintage tapestry coats.

“It’s an artisanal version of what fashion can be that has been lost for a long time, particularly in menswear,” he muses. “Sportswear, technical gorpcore and the hiking aesthetic were based in revolutionising garments to be performative. Tapestry feels like the opposite of that. It feels luxe bohemian; [think] mid-2000s Olsen twins meets Mick Jagger in Performance if it were a coat — that’s what I want.”

Tapestry is working its way into interiors, too. Influential decorators Beata Heuman, Rita Konig and the late Robert Kime have all championed the tapestry renaissance in headboards as well as hangings. Products with tapestry effects have been popping up in retail settings, too, via online homeware marketplaces Glassette, ABASK and Collagerie.

painting of a woman in front of a piano with wallpaer in the background
Tapestry-inspired wallpaper in Giovanni Boldini’s ‘Portrait of Mary Donegani’ (1869) © Hulton Fine Art Collection
A chair made by Walid al Damirji using upcycled textiles
A chair made by Walid al Damirji using upcycled textiles

The London-based designer Walid al Damirji was one of the first of his profession to champion upcycling fabrics when he launched his brand By Walid in 2011. Sourcing offcuts of historical Aubusson tapestries and intricate needlepoint fabrics and transforming them into footstools and cushions alongside a ready-to-wear clothing line, al Damirji describes his work as “rescuing” rather than reusing.

“For me, it’s the love for distressed and thrown-aside pieces,” he says. “The cleaning takes for ever and the packing takes longer — not to mention the unfurling and so on — but then you have pieces that really have a story.”

Al Damirji has been surprised by the number of younger customers engaging with his aesthetic. “It’s not as niche as I thought!” he laughs. “They all write to me on Instagram and say, ‘Can you tell me more?’ [They] really do respect the need to protect tradition.”

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