Meeting Calm Amongst the Chaos owner-designer Frances Farmer

Designer, Frances Farmer

Designer, Frances Farmer - Credit: Archant

Slow simple style that’s as sustainable and ethical as possible, that’s Calm Amongst the Chaos – a clothing revolution happening in Ringwood

Relaxed soft viscose jersey Frida dress with a "wobbly black and blue stripe"

Relaxed soft viscose jersey Frida dress with a "wobbly black and blue stripe" - Credit: Calm Amongst the Chaos

To succeed on today’s high street you need to take risks and break rules. Frances Farmer, owner-designer behind Calm Amongst the Chaos, is certainly doing that. Frances is rewriting the concept of high street style, designing and making her own collection from a studio behind her boutique.

Chaos (as Frances refers to both her label and store) is calm, cool and chic when I visit. This is arguably one of the most stylish boutiques in Hampshire. With scaffolding poles as clothes rails and a funky interior of distressed plaster and retro butcher’s tiles, it looks as though it should be located in a corner of Shoreditch. Yet here it is in Ringwood - a traditional market town on the edge of the New Forest.

Before you think Chaos sounds too young and hip for me, I am assured by Frances that the age of customers ranges from thirties to sixties. Both Frances (fifty-something) and daughter Agy, a twenty-something student at Winchester School of Art who works part-time in the studio, wear Chaos.

The collection has a Far Eastern-inspired emphasis on the shape of the clothes rather than our Western focus on the body.

Frances explains, “We work in our own way here. I’m quite boho. I’m not a traditionalist and I don’t use traditional patterns. Getting the shape right is the biggest thing. We work on the shape of the clothes, rather than the shape of the body, after all how many of us have the perfect body? People either like it or they don’t, but you can make it work for you – for example wearing one of our big tops with skinny jeans. There are a lot of people who love it, and people are coming from far and wide… Quite a few customers come here from London and they come back again and again.”

Frances is a surprise. I had been expecting this risk-taker and rule-breaker to be loud. Instead she is reserved; a quiet creative focused on reshaping not only clothes, but our attitude to fashion.

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However, the path to Chaos has been a long and circuitous one. After Frances studied fashion and pattern cutting in college, Chaos first emerged as a sportswear brand in Bournemouth back in 1985.

Frances reflects, “It is hard to start a new brand; you need money and life experience.”

She worked in the fashion industry before changing tack completely, gaining a professional qualification in aromatherapy and working as a consultant and teacher for 13 years.

In store: smocks, dungarees and trousers in indigo blue linens and demins

In store: smocks, dungarees and trousers in indigo blue linens and demins - Credit: Calm Amongst the Chaos

But she realised she had to get back into fashion. Having previously worked for a milliner in Wimborne, Frances’ route back was accessories. Her success led to her being invited to contribute to a bridal catwalk show. When none of the bridal gown designers offered to use her accessories, she made six gowns for the show herself, secured her first orders and found herself launched into bespoke bridalwear - designing and making to order bridal, occasion and evening wear from her little studio at home. When the business outgrew her studio, she found an old meat store off an alley at the back of Ringwood’s High Street.

Even then Frances had plans. Standing in the studio beside the cutting table and among the overlockers, sewing machines, tape measures and scissors, rails of clothes and dressmaker’s dummy, she points to the doorway into the shop.

“That doorway was bricked up. I knew if we got the shop we could knock through so when, in 2017, the owner announced that she was leaving and was going to approach other people about taking over the store, I thought, hold on, I want it…”

Daughter Agy picks up: “We had been craving a shopfront for our designs. Otherwise people had to find us by coming down the alleyway and in through the back.”

Frances adds: “Some people didn’t realise we were here or what we did.”

For Frances, having the shop has been a game-changer. When she opened the store in August 2017, she decided to eject bespoke gowns and sell her vintage-inspired bridal creations off-the-peg. In addition, she included a few everyday pieces – items that Frances had always designed and made for herself, influenced by the likes of designers Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and John Rocha. It is a modern, Japanese-influenced, sophisticated, timeless, very wearable style, and a world away from the traditional, fairytale bridal gown.

Frances admits, “I loved the fabrics and making the wedding gowns, but I’m not really that kind of person…

“We put six to eight pieces in the shop; things that you can never find on the high street, a big enough jumper, a pair of dungarees, something different from the norm. In the first week we took a nominal amount of money on these clothes. A year later in August 2018 we took all the bridal gowns out of the shop. We now have 35 different styles in stock and the store is going from strength to strength. We have a following. People come in and spend on big jumpers to wear and say, ‘that will get me through the winter’.”

People are charmed by its originality, as Agy says: “You buy something you love from the High Street and then you see someone else wearing it!”

That is unlikely to ever happen with Chaos. They often make limited numbers: “We love the idea of having a single roll of fabric and making a short run – so there are only going to be 20 and you will never get it again.”

Clothes cut on Monday are hanging in the store on Saturday. When I visit, the spring/summer season is only just being finalised including a colour palette of soft shades and sharp citrus, their own handprinted dotty fabric and new Japanese sweat shirting fabric that Frances is really excited about.

“We like to be more in the moment than work a year in advance,” explains Agy.

With their own studio on-site, they are also able to be flexible, adjusting widths and lengths. Frances recalls that they recently made the arms of one smock top slightly bigger for a customer: “She was dancing around the shop saying I feel 20 years younger!”

Most of the fabrics come from Merchants & Mills, known for sourcing unique, beautiful fabrics from around the world, and The Cloth House on London’s Berwick Street, a company who stock a variety of natural fabrics, such as cottons, wools and linens, with consideration for environmental impact.

Chaos encompasses a more sustainable approach to fashion and has grown into a small team of like-minded people.

“We work as a team. I’m not the boss. I can’t be doing with any of that!” But it is Frances who is taking the risks.

She agrees, “I’ve taken so many risks since I’ve taken on the shop. It’s almost like if you don’t risk it, you’ll never know!”

This has included investing in luxuriously oversized casual cashmere knitwear, designed by Chaos and made in Kathmandu in a small family-run factory. They sold out with one customer buying two, one for riding out on the Forest and another to wear at home. The next investment is an exclusive brand of bags (Frances won’t mention a name): “They don’t put their stuff everywhere. They said they would think about it, looked at our website and came back to us in half-an-hour, saying, ‘We love what you’re doing!’”

But she’s not taking Chaos out of Ringwood anytime soon. She’s staying in the calm of a country market town: “I live in Poulner. If you want to do something like this and have a husband and family and dog, it’s difficult if you have a commute. I can dip in and out quickly.”

Frances’ husband is a great support. Frances says, “He gets a real buzz out of seeing me being successful. He loves the way Chaos is going.”

While we chat he pops into the studio, having just been to the gallops. Now that couldn’t happen in Shoreditch.


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