Colourful, quirky and one of a kind, Berni Yates has been designing and teaching at Central Saint Martins for over 30 years. A pioneer driving forward equality and diversity in the arts, inspiring our designers of the future.
Berni is the brains behind our bold, colourful and totally iconic Rick Rack Yoke jumper, read her story and her inspiration for this best selling marvel.
Hi Berni. Can you tell us a bit about your design background?
Certainly. It was inevitable really that I’d go into knitwear. My father was involved in spinning. His background was in yarns, wools and manufacturing in mills up north. I grew up surrounded by spools of yarn all-round the house so it surprised nobody when I decided to do a Fashion & Knitwear degree at Nottingham Trent.
With my shiny new degree under my belt, I moved to London and launched Berni Yates Knitwear, which was a tremendous success. Better than I’d ever hoped. We showed at London Fashion Week and were selling all over the world – all the big stores in New York, Harvey Nicholls, Harrods, Browns, you name it.
When I had children, I needed a way to balance family life and running a business, so I started teaching at Central Saint Martins (part of the University of the Arts London – UAL). That was 30 years ago, and I’ve been teaching ever since. I love it.
I’ve recently been asked by Kenya Hunt, to be a Contributing Editor for UK Elle. We were chatting about my knitting patterns having been available in the back of the magazine and it span from there. I’m really excited about it!
Tell us about your career and role at Central Saint Martins
I started out teaching hand and machine knitwear – and I still do. My pupils have always been great but early on, they were predominantly white and wealthy. I used to volunteer in my children’s schools in Hackney, it showed up the massive inequalities in young people from poorer backgrounds accessing the fashion industry. The Hackney students hadn’t even heard of CSM, let alone dreamt of going there or pursuing any such career.
I applied for a role in Widening Participation at UAL and became the WP coordinator @ CSM. And was able to design and run access and progression programmes to address equal opportunities.
More recently I became an outreach practitioner for CSM, specialising in running programmes for Fashion, Textiles and Jewellery Degree courses.
Now, as well as teaching, my job is to reach out to students of all backgrounds and show them that they can have a career in the arts. For me it is not only important to get as diverse a range of people into the university as possible, but also to support them on their journey through to careers. There’s no point just ticking the People of Colour or the Social Mobility box if that doesn’t lead to meaningful careers at the end.
I am about to go on a 3-month secondment to the British Fashion Council, where I am currently lead on the education pilar for their D&I steering committee. I am going to be setting up an educational programme in the Northeast, to help young people from marginalised communities’ access and progress into the Fashion Industry, via both traditional and non-traditional roots.
I am also honoured to be nominated this year for the “leader of Change award” people’s category by the British Fashion Council!
How are you inspiring the next generation?
A lot of inspiration comes from other young designers that I’ve worked with. I’ve known most of them since they were 15, so I’ve seen them come through school and university. They’ve now gone out into the world, but they still support our current students, mentoring the next generation of designers. The greatest thing is to be able to go into a school and show a video of, say, Saul Nash or Bianca Saunders or Ibrahim Kamara. All these wonderful black designers and fashion communicators. Young people see them and think, ‘Wow, they look like me!’ That never used to happen. They never thought they could go into this industry. Now young people have real life role models that they can sit up and listen to. I can show designers with British, Asian, African or Caribbean backgrounds working as a community.
So many people go into these artisan communities and show off how they’ve done something ground-breaking with women in rural Brazil for example. Then they leave them. They’ve ticked a box and made some wonderful woven baskets but there’s no legacy. It should be about understanding cultures and communities, be it global or at home. We must respect, not abuse them. The power of my students at CSM comes from that mix of cultures, from collaboration and working together.
What does good design mean to you?
It’s all about creative, original ideas. I’m the first to say that I love anything out of the box – but I also love anything that’s beautifully executed. I spoke to a girl the other day who said she was passionate about becoming a fashion designer. I asked her what she makes. ‘Oh no’, she said, ‘I hate making things’. I said, ‘You’ll never be a fashion designer, darling, because unless you understand the whole 360 of it, you can’t design anything’.
Colour is so obviously important to your style. What does it mean to you?
Colour is about good energy. It makes people feel happy. I even had a bus driver clapping the other day at my colourful outfit! There is so much more colour about now than there used to be. Will I start wearing black just to be different? I don’t think so! I wear a lot of colour and feel that I inspire people to be braver. I’m not saying everyone has to be head to toe in rainbow colours like me. Sometimes just a little splash of colour can change how you feel. It’s incredibly uplifting. I love putting colours together. I feel it’s a gift to be able to do that. Not everyone can.
Do you ever have days when you just want to wear navy?
Those would be my PJ days. Actually, I’m not sure I even have a pair of plain pyjamas. It just doesn’t appeal to me. It dampens my soul. Having to dress down all the time would drive me mad.
As a designer, what tips do you have for building more colour and pattern into designs?
Be brave. I always say to my students, ‘Don’t think, just do!’ Let things happen naturally. Sometimes the greatest designs can be happy accidents. If you drop a load of things on the floor, look and see what’s been created. Play with paint. Experiment until you find your style. This industry will always have a blend of classics and innovative, crazy designs. Things don’t always work but if you don’t take a risk you’ll never know. CSM is all about curiosity, experimentation, pushing the boundaries, and exploring. Nothing is ever wrong.
You designed our iconic, best-selling Rick Rack Yoke Jumper. Where did the inspiration come from?
The Rick Rack Yoke is all about fun, all about movement. I find the top half is almost like wearing big, bold jewellery. I think women like dressing up that top half but don’t always know how.
Yes, it’s quite top heavy but it can be dressed up or down, it works with neutrals or brights, it’s bold without being over the top. I just love the eye-catching yoke.
Apart from the Rick Rack Yoke, which other Jumper 1234 piece are you most excited by?
Personally, I like anything with an all-over pattern – and colourful, of course – but I like jumpers with trims and borders. So maybe a coloured rib to complement the colour of the body, or a small flower motif with a bold rib. Oh, and I really love the tank tops. Again, these are great for dressing boldly but with a plain shirt underneath.
What’s your best piece of style advice?
Be yourself. Show your true identity. You’ll make some mistakes – we all do – but if you feel confident, that’s what matters. People point at me on the bus. I go into schools and the kids are all giggling – but they’re not going to forget me.
At CSM we give advice and guidance to our students, but they don’t have to take it. It’s about having that confidence to be who you are. Art college is a great place for that. You can come in and be whoever you want to be. Gender doesn’t matter anymore. Everyone is wearing dresses. The boys are even wearing bras. I always think, why the hell would you want to wear a bra when you don’t have to? Why?!!! I guess it’s about fashion, not function.
What is your most important lesson when it comes to knitwear?
This doesn’t really apply to jumpers where you have a set shape and silhouette, but when I’m working with fashion knit designers, it’s important that they understand the materials, the drape, the fit. Yes, you can stretch and deform it if it’s lycra or that’s the look you want. However, 9 times out of 10, go with the knit. Let it evolve. Don’t over-complicate it. Let it speak. Let that knit breathe. That drape, whether it’s cashmere, silk or cotton, will dictate to you what the garment will look like.
Jumpers are a bit different because you know the shape and the silhouette, so it’s more to do with colour and proportions. Sometimes I’ve tried to change the silhouette of a jumper but, as you know, the classics always sell best.
The other crucial thing for young designers is to understand their market. Who are you designing for? Jumper 1234 know their client base, their needs and their expectations. This is absolutely key if you’re going to have a career in the fashion industry.
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