6 October 2008

Interview: Lee May Foster of the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium

These days it’s nigh on impossible to buy any decent high street clothing without playing second fiddle to some Grazia-glorified celebrity, spotted paying their dues to Topshop in a vain attempt to retain that “girl next door” allure. And what with every which wagon-dismounting celebrity lending their name to a clothing range (Lindsay Lohan’s absurdly expensive leggings; Lauren Conrad’s pitifully plain “couture”), it’s a genuine relief to discover DIY, independent designers creating apparel for those of us who remain unphased by Agyness Deyn’s usurping of Kate Moss’ best dressed throne. Thrust into the limelight by the Chicago-based online community Threadless in 2000, the trend for independent design has intensified sufficiently that numerous designers have been able to abandon their day jobs, and wholly dedicate their efforts to the creation of exciting, eccentric designs a million miles away from the laughably generic designs of Topshop et al.

One of the frontrunners of the sparsely-populated UK scene is multi-talented Cornwall-based designer,
Lee May Foster, who, at the age of 27, not only commandeers her own line of limited edition jewellery and t-shirts (as Bonbi Forest), but owns and directs the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium, an online store selling tantalizing and quintessential wares of likeminded designers from around the world.

“Originally, Bonbi Forest existed as its own individually branded shop, but after a while, I realized I was struggling to fill the shop all the time, so I decided to expand. Consignment was the most suitable option available, whereby designers send me their things, and I sell them for a percentage of the cost,” says Lee May, sat in her neat white, sunlit studio, a farm outhouse transformed into an orderly haven of mood boards, inspiring CDs (as we speak, iTunes flits from electronic post-rock outfit Mice Parade to Mirah), and treasures waiting to be uploaded to her pretty, scrapbook-style website.

A vast number of Cornish designers draw inspiration from the pervading coastal heritage of the county (here, you’re never further than 12 miles from the sea), but Brighton-educated Bonbi Forest’s illustrations admiringly revere the county’s woodland mysteries, beasts and Celtic heritage. Woodland creatures gallivant through her illustration-based designs with ephemeral intricacy, the elegant lines of her deer motifs are as fleeting as a glimpse of the creature itself, and her charming willowy birds evoke the twitchy effervescence of Cy Twombly and the late Robert Rauschenberg’s work. It’s no surprise that she describes herself as “always having been a big animal fan” – her horse is stabled nearby, birds chatter inquisitively with the fake taxidermy on her windowsill, and the family’s beloved creaky old dog Jay Jay keeps a sleepy eye on proceedings from the conservatory.

Another huge boost to her label has been the creative partnership with Brighton-based musician Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Kahn, who in the space of a year has been nominated not only for two Brit Awards, but also the Mercury Music Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious and culturally reflective accolades. They became lasting friends at university in Brighton, Lee May studying Fine Art Painting; Natasha Film and Music, and combined their respective heritages to establish the band’s mysterious imagery of majestic animal hierachies under the spell of a full moon.

Despite drawing influences from an unfettered Cornish landscape, Lee May has contrastingly also taken advantage of the internet’s many benefits.

“Everyone says with Web 2.0 that everyone can be someone, but if you use the internet wisely, you can start to infiltrate people's ways of life without going over the top. I get customers from all over - Hawaii's the furthest west, and Japan and Australia the furthest east! Without Myspace and Facebook, I wouldn't have been able to reach out to those people as easily, I'd have to have had massive targeted campaigns, which wouldn’t fit with my business ethos.”

With tens of thousands of international visitors to her website each month (that number increasing without resistance), and gaining second place in American website Fred Flare’s Next Big Thing contest (think a higher profile contemporary site, showcasing cutesy clothes, trinkets and fripperies), Lee May is well on the way to realising her dream where the Bonbi Forest Indie Emporium becomes the biggest website of its kind in the UK.

“I’d like to establish more of a community around the site. A “bricks and mortar” shop would be lovely, but there are expenses involved. The nice thing about the online shop is that it runs itself, and that I can spend the rest of the time in the studio, drawing and making things. I love the DIY scene – the idea of people getting really passionate about something, regardless of its commercial prospects. It’s exciting to see creativity utilized in a really positive way.”

No comments: