28th March 2018

Toast Portraits

TOAST Portraits is a new series in which journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces – some archive, some new –  have stood the test of time. First up – graphic design student Katy Brett …

I meet Katy Brett to talk ostensibly about a coat – but our conversation goes much deeper, into loss, anger and inheritance in its various forms. We meet outside St Mark’s church in Kennington, close to where she lives in Oval. It forms a fitting backdrop, both for talk and taking photos: the vertical stripes of her coat echoing the thick indents in the Greek column beside her.

The coat became Katy’s when her mother died in 2014. It is a dark grey wool, striped with white, its azure silk lining occasionally making itself known, as though high-fiving the blue sky. Her mum, artist Sophie Macpherson, threw it over everything, “but never in a put-together way”, and Katy remembers how it garnered compliments at the school gates. She didn’t understand why she liked such neutral colours then – now she thinks she was ahead of her time.

Later, at her flat, just around the corner from St Mark’s, Katy shows me some of her mum’s work – moored boats, mainly, tipped to one side, some nestled in south coast mud at low tide, others that suggest Venice. The colour palette is a theme consistent with Sophie’s taste in clothes, hues that are washed out or muddied. “She liked things that were decaying, rusting,” Katy says, “the skeletons of boats, Battersea power station, the insides of churches … My parents moved from London to Chichester when she was pregnant with me, and there boats became more of a focus.”

Katy is studying graphic design at St Martin’s and is interested in the design of spaces for the public. She does much the same with the coat as Sophie did before her, throwing it over whatever she might be wearing. Today it is a pair of high-waisted light jeans from Joseph (also her mother’s), a thin white shirt with a whiff of Victoriana, and some black platform boots she found at an exchange shop in Copenhagen. Outside the church, as a strand of black hair falls over her freckled face and a fat crow swoops into a branch above, I am unsurprised when Katy mentions her teenage Goth phase which, she says, sometimes still informs how she dresses. (I’ve long held that Wednesday Adams is a timeless style icon).

The coat – which Sophie would have bought from TOAST in AW12 – is just one of many of her mum’s clothes that Katy has inherited. Three-quarters of those hanging in her room are Sophie’s, from Austrian military jackets to a knitted coat from Oska, not to mention oversized shirts, wool cardigans and Indian mules with toes like embellished turrets.

“After she died, I found myself wearing something of hers every day, though not consciously…” Katy is anxious not to sentimentalise this fact – a reflex to sheath herself in her mum’s things in her absence – but says simply, of the coat, “I feel myself in it. Maybe, because it was my mum’s, it shows a part of me that people don’t get to see.” Sophie’s clothes are an expression of Sophie, and now of Katy – and of Sophie in Katy. I look at Sophie’s paintings on the living room wall, at her battered novels on the shelves, at the woven rugs in the hallway, and think about my own equivalents. Things we inherit can be about more than remembering a person – they become a part of us, plaiting themselves into our lives like genes.

Katy tells me that her degree puts emphasis on being able to communicate something, whatever the medium, and I quickly see that perspective on things is seasoned. We talk about Jean-Michel Basquiat, his beginnings in graffiti and what defacement can lend to a public space – leading us on to the merits of vandalism. For her last project, she made a temple out of paper and asked her classmates to destroy it, publically. She tells me how angry her mother was, and how while most people see anger as negative, Sophie never did, and nor now does she. “It was just her and I guess I’ve taken that on – I feel anger is important and that there are bigger things in life than being precious about buildings. Vandalism conveys of all that – and can bring about things of value.” Like Basquiat, I think, once a street artist whose canvases now – posthumously – gross higher at auction than those of any other American artist.

I can relate this to the rips in Katy’s coat lining, all the more beautiful, somehow, for the history they hold. Oval, too, the at-once grand and grubby corner of London where Katy and her brother live, has – for now – been mostly spared from the lusty hands of capitalism. St Mark’s, with its Grecian façade and cupola, is surrounded variously by smart Georgian terraces and a playground with a butchered fence, a Payless supermarket, the Palace Grill and a coffee shop on the corner which serves cortados from vintage tea cups. “I feel Oval somehow embodies me and my brother,” says Katy, “it’s in between places, and perhaps doesn’t know quite what it is.” I wonder if she does know, though, that St Mark’s sits on a Roman road once called Stane Street, built to link London with her mum’s town of Chichester.

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  • Thank you Katy. This has brought back memories to me. I lost my mum in 1991 when she was still quite young. I remember wearing some of her clothes for a long time after she died. She was very interested in clothes, and enjoyed styling them, which I think I got from her. For a long time I kept one of her dresses wrapped in tissue in a drawer. She wore it when I was a baby, and had kept it packed away when I was growing up. It must have had good memories for her too. A close friend told me to put it on display and enjoy looking at it, which I did. I keep it on a model in my dressing room.
    I have also kept some beautiful velvet and silk pieces which I purchased from Austin Reed in the 90’s. I keep them packed away, as really unsure what to do with them.
    I too have some pieces from Toast which I have enjoyed wearing, and still do. I love the coat.

  • Corrinna Moore

    I can so identify with this. My mum ( Marie Fleming right-to-die activist and author) died over 4 years ago and I found myself wearing something of hers every day.Initially it was to be close to her smell and then as the scent of her subsided to just feel as if she was still wrapped around me. Corrinna Moore, Dalkey, co Dublin, Ireland

  • Oh my word! I loved this coat so much I bought two of them and two pairs of the matching trousers with turn ups, and around 15yrs later they are still commented on. Yep, the silk lining does become tattered and torn, but it just shows how much it is loved. As an artist (retired now) I have always loved Toast’s designs (particularly the early stuff), Katy’s much clearly had a great sense of style, Oska et al. I hope Katy enjoys her mother’s clothes for many years to come. How many current designs will stand that test of time. The late great Victoria Wood also owned one of these coats!

  • Loved reading this, and hearing my home town Chichester mentioned.

  • I love that she wears something of her mother’s every day. Sadly, my mother deteriorated very quickly with dementia. My sister disposed or sold everything and I was unable even to save a brooch or other wearable item. And what a wonderful coat that you can throw over anything!

  • I really loved this story, thank you, Katy. I am probably your mother’s age, and just like you I wear my mother’s coat. I could not describe as eloquently as you have here “plaiting themselves into our sole like genes” beautiful, and not over sentimental.
    Thank you

  • Elizabeth Holden

    Interesting and lovely story.As a mum,grandma and daughter I can relate to all of this.Have made a heritage lampshade from bits of fabric that all have special meaning to me including pieces of my mum’s blouse from the 1940s and 50s,my first introduction to liberty lawn ( Oxford 1973) that became a frill of a long skirt,silk thread from a cardigan I knitted and had to unpick as washed it and hung it out to dry!!!!(literally) etc.I hope my daughter will treasure some of my ” heirlooms” including very early Toast items bought when the catalogue had members of the family modelling the clofhes ( I seem to remember),a Patricia Roberts fairisle sweater knitted in 1981 and also have a beautiful Toast velvet opera coat with exquisite sage silk lining bought around 15 years ago ( so not that vintage yet!!!).Have worn Toast clothes from the start of the business for work,leisure and now retirement activities which include creating arty , unusual greetings cards to see and raise money for the British Refugee Council ( percyboyntoncards on Etsy).The message I get is always try to keep being creative for emotional well-being and creating links between the past, present and the future.

  • This is inspiring – everything about the way this is worn and the associations echo why people buy and wear this brand!