Renowned for her dramatic paper installations, Zoe Bradley’s latest collaboration with Harrods is designed to leave you all a-flutter. Here, I meet the artist to find out more.
When you look up, the swarm of iridescent blue butterflies are dancing above your head. Their delicate cobalt wings move and drift with the air. It’s an intoxicating sight. It’s also a surreal one, as this exotic scene – more commonly found in a Costa Rican cloud forest, perhaps – is, in fact, located in one of Harrods’ busiest entrance halls.
Designed by paper artist Zoe Bradley, the chandelier installation is the centre-piece of the store’s new Social Butterflies summer project launching this month [May]. Incorporating pop-ups, activities and exclusive products – many with leading British designers – Zoe’s work will no doubt be one of the main attractions.
“I was thrilled to have been asked,” says the 44-year-old designer. “After all, Harrods is an iconic store. My aim is for visitors and shoppers to feel like they have been transported to a tropical place. To be pulled in by nature. The piece is huge so it means you get to see if from all different angles as you move around the store. I want shoppers to feel they are being encompassed by butterflies.”
Having been given a brief that simply read “Swarm of Blue Butterflies” – Zoe researched different species and settled on the Morpho Butterfly, renowned for its amazing blue pigment, as her inspiration.
“The next thing I did was to visit the space. When you enter Door Five at Hans Crescent, it is very impressive with lots of Art Deco details, so I wanted to do it justice. In effect, the space itself was a great starting point. It is like art gallery, except in a retail setting.”
Zoe’s relationship with retail is not new, of course, having worked with major brands, such as Louis Vuitton, Dior and Tiffany & Co (to name but a few), but it was her very first job with Alexander McQueen that set her on her path.
“I trained as a fashion designer at Middlesex University but kept getting frustrated with the movement within fabric,” she recalls. “So, I started experimenting with paper – it’s more structural, which was very much the appeal, and I began sewing it and treating it like a textile. Then – in a classic case of being in the right place at the right time – I landed my first job as an intern with McQueen.”
She pauses, before she continues: “Looking back, I owe him a lot as he really encouraged me to do my thing. It was the mid-90s and an inspirational time – he had just started as creative director at Givenchy and there was just a steady stream of visionary people – such as Katy England and Sam McKnight – coming through the door. I was in the midst of it all and loving it. In 1999, I even worked on his Show Number 13 – widely regarded as one of his best. This was fashion but it was also art.”
Eventually, inspired by McQueen’s maverick approach, Zoe left to set up on her own. One of her first projects was creating show pieces for Japanese designer Michiko Koshino. The bold and theatrical outfits were created out of pleated paper and were among the first of their kind at the time. She soon began to attract the attention of the movers and shakers in the industry.
“It was 2005 and I was asked to make a range of paper pieces for the Christmas windows for Liberty. At the time, a shop’s windows were a big thing – with all the major brands trying to out-do each other. Now windows are full of products – but then they were much more artistic. In fact, when the windows were unveiled to the public – everybody on the pavement cheered and clapped! It was a pivotal moment for me and it was my springboard into working with major brands.”
Inspired by flora and nature, as well as art and architecture (she cites Zaha Hadid, Anish Kapoor and Tom Dixon among the names she most admires), Zoe soon became known as the go-to artist to create bespoke and dramatic paper installations. There’s the 3.5m dress, for instance, made of red paper roses, and commissioned by New Town Plaza in Hong Kong, as a tribute to Princess Diana.
Or the shimmering, multi-coloured floral piece for the British House at the Rio Olympics. From shop windows – her list of names reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of Fashion – to advertising campaigns (think: black dragons to showcase Chopard’s jewels and pleated backdrops to sell Dior’s J’Adore perfume) – Zoe’s has worked with some of the world’s most famous retailers.
Having recently decamped from London to a farm in Wales, the rural setting has become the perfect place to fuel inspiration. “I do a lot of travelling for work so living here is perfect to ground us as a family. It’s also great to have some time out from the hectic pace and, of course, it’s ideal for our two children as they can be free. I’m out with them as much as possible – studying spider webs and hedgerows – and exploring the coastal paths around here.”
While her body of work up to now has largely been in paper, her latest piece for Harrods has actually been made in Perspex.
“It was certainly a departure for me. I usually use paper with a special metallic finish, which is weighty, but looks fragile, like silk. It has become my signature style. But for the blue butterfly chandelier, we needed something slightly more permanent.”
Boasting 4,000 butterflies mounted on a metal frame, the chandelier is extra-large (at 5x3m) with, says Zoe, the whole process taking months of planning, sketching and collaborating.
“My challenge is always to create something unexpected from the original 2D sheet form into a magical 3D sculpture. I hope I have done that here. We used to cut everything by hand, but nowadays digital technology and laser-cutting has revolutionised things. It means I can get beautiful definition and movement, which is important, especially for pieces like this.”
With most of Zoe’s work being transient by their very nature, her next step, she says, is “to create a Zoe Bradley collection that people can buy and keep. Sculpture that stays,” she says with a smile. “The world of lighting is of particular interest.”
“I’m not an artist or a sculptor. These jobs you do alone and I work collaboratively. My job has always been to turn people’s expectations around: to get headlines, to get people talking.”
Go and see the butterflies and you’ll see what she means.
The Zoe Bradley installation at Harrods runs from 15 May to 23 June 2017 at Door Five, Hans Crescent. www.Harrods.com/SocialButterflies
This feature is also published in the May 2017 issue of Kensington & Chelsea and can be read here