Earlier this year I was selected by Scottish Book Trust for one of their 2018 Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowships alongside Jenni Fagan, Theresa Muñoz and David Keenan. Funded by Creative Scotland, the Fellowship involves spending all of November at the Hôtel Chevillon in the small French village of Grez-sur-Loing where Stevenson frequently stayed throughout the 1870s. This is a dream opportunity for me, especially as it will give me focused time to work on a novel inspired by the life and work of Aberdeenshire-born fashion designer Bill Gibb.
Following my Fellowship announcement, I was awarded Creative Funding by Aberdeen City Council in June to undertake preliminary research on Gibb in advance of my residency. This funding has allowed me to conduct interviews across Scotland and in London, as well as many hours of archive research. While I have a background in academia and I did a fair bit of digging around archives at the National Library of Scotland for my Muriel Spark 100 project earlier this year, this is the most extensive and far-reaching research process I’ve ever carried out.
The biggest highlight has been meeting Gibb’s family who’ve been very welcoming, including making me his favourite meal – mince, tatties and skirlie! His middle sister Janet has been particularly patient and helpful in answering random questions that crop up as I dig around archives trying to make sense of often conflicting and contradictory press cuttings. It seems there’s already a lot of fiction at play when it comes to Gibb, but I’m hoping to get close to the truth of his story, as much as there will be creative license at play given I’m writing a novel.
In London, I also met his former partner and collaborator Kaffe Fassett, the world-renowned artist and textile designer who was recently awarded an MBE, and who, at 81 years old, still works full-time on new designs in his home studio which is so colourful and uplifting. In Edinburgh, I interviewed Rosalind Woolfson, a former fashion PR for the likes of Bruce Oldfield, who worked closely with Gibb during his final years in fashion, and who also introduced McDonald’s hamburgers and Center Parcs to the UK across an illustrious career.
I’ve enjoyed all those little ‘aha’ moments where connections are made and missing puzzle pieces uncovered while searching through the biggest Gibb archive at Aberdeen Art Gallery’s Treasure Hub, making connections with his contemporaries in Central Saint Martin’s archives and looking through links local to Fraserburgh at the town’s Heritage Centre. Staff at all of these archives have been so welcoming and helpful, and I even reconnected with two of my primary teachers who volunteer at the Heritage Centre which was a nice surprise.
One particularly exciting aspect of this additional funding is that it gave me the time and confidence to approach Gray’s School of Art to look into any ways I could learn about what studying fashion and textile design involves so that I could get a better understanding of what Gibb may have undergone during his studies. Following these discussions, they decided to make Gibb the focus of their third year’s Industry Project. In exchange for providing a talk on Gibb, I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on their seminar discussions where students have explained their own path from initial ideas to final design for garments and textiles inspired by what they’ve uncovered about Gibb online and during a visit to the Treasure Hub.
I’m also in the process of looking through Gray’s own Bill Gibb archive which includes some of his final dress designs and paper cuttings. In tandem with this research, I’ve since been commissioned by Look Again Festival to create a new interdisciplinary work for the 2019 festival, funded by the Scottish Funding Council, which will celebrate this archive and involve working further with the fashion students at Gray’s.
Research can often be a very solitary, thankless and dull undertaking, but working on Gibb has led to so many inspiring and collaborative connections, like my new links with Gray’s and Look Again, and I am grateful to Scottish Book Trust’s RLS Fellowship and Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Funding for giving me the time and space to get so much done before I head to France today! Fingers crossed I find my writing flow on retreat in Grez-sur-Loing…