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Textiles report: David Eaton, Eyefix

Founder David Eaton has made Eyefix the place to look for prints.

With a client list that sounds like a fashion who’s who - Marks & Spencer, Uniqlo, Jenny Packham, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret among them - Eyefix is the go-to firm for vintage and original prints.

The business possesses an archive of about 200,000 prints categorised by style and era and is seen as one of the world’s leading vintage archives, so it’s not hard to see why leading fashion designers and retailers look to Eyefix for inspiration.

Weathered tomes and drawers filled with immaculately preserved prints line the walls of the business’s London studios in Great Suffolk Street, near Waterloo. “The oldest book is from 1807. Napoleon was still alive,” says founder David Eaton, as I examine the collection, adding that this is just one part of his horde, with the remainder stored at his Sussex home.

However, the company is very much designing for the present. While the textiles end of the fashion sector traditionally works one season ahead of the clothing selling season, Eyefix has not been untouched by the speeding up of the fashion industry and constant demand for newness among consumers seen in recent years. Instead, much of its work is now in-season, in tandem with clothing. “We used to work that far ahead, but trends move so much faster these days,” says Eaton. “Our business is 12 months a year, because there aren’t two collections a year, there are 12. And many companies have even more than that. So we need constant ideas, continual updates. Our Contemporary Collection works very close to the season.”

He adds: “Zara will produce a collection every six weeks; from buying, to design, to selling it. They have to have new product all of the time. There is normally a monthly print run of about 200 new designs [in the Contemporary Collection]. We are getting more and more contracts.”

At this point we are joined by head designer Anna Vening, who brings with her some of the mood boards Eyefix has created, illustrating the spring 14 trends. “We’re working on a Mexican theme, mixing and matching different patches and patterns, and Kenzo did a big catwalk on water and the fisheries, which we thought was quite interesting. So we’ve created a mood board with all of these water textures,” she says.

In a fiercely competitive market, prints have become a key differentiator, says Vening. “We’re now combining prints to take it to that next level. We are finding that more and more the higher-end brands are bringing lots of prints into the mix, because the high street brands are ripping things off so much quicker and so much better. So they are looking more at multiple prints on a garment [to make it more difficult to copy] and more expensive. So a garment that is £2,000 will have 10 prints on it as opposed to one.”

Eaton previously worked in advertising for Spanish Vogue, but found his way into the silk trade following a chance meeting with an Italian silk manufacturer at a party in Como in 1984, who later sent him to the Far East where he made contacts and met his former business partner Byong Young Jeon, setting up Eyefix in 1985 (Jeon had previously established Eyefix Korea in 1983. The partnership with Eaton lasted until 2009). He has never looked back; today the print specialist has around 500 fashion clients worldwide.

Eyefix has been weaving and printing onto silk during that time, and although it has since diversified into printing onto cotton and sourcing polyesters, silk remains its focus. Eaton adds that production is usually done in South Korea. “We don’t print in China simply because we’ve never had the ultimate control on the product. If you’re not there it tends to wander a little bit and the colours aren’t quite right. If they come to Eyefix customers expect it to be absolutely perfect and that is why we print in South Korea.”

Eyefix’s success is based on a combination of experience, expertise and discretion - Eaton is reluctant to name its customers and has a policy of ensuring that no two brands, designers or retailers have the same design. Eyefix essentially sells vintage print designs - which are in fact original paintings for use in textiles - to fashion firms. Brands and retailers can also log into its archive online to view and buy prints.

Eyefix has a team of nine - along with freelance support - and offers colour and trend consultancy, forecasting trends up to 18 months before they hit the high street, CAD services including modifying colourways, colour separation and repeats, and also creates designs specifically for brands.

It also launched the Contemporary Collection in October 2011, a service in which its designers create original print collections, with a new range of designs ready for production every two to six weeks. These are then sold as global exclusives to customers on a one-time basis. The collection was an immediate success and was utilised in Jean Paul Gaultier’s resort 13 collection. It costs several hundred pounds for an exclusive vintage or original print.

“Our prints are very much on trend and [clients] know they are totally exclusive and that we won’t tell anybody about what they have bought. And it is uploaded instantly to your computer and then it is out of the database so no one else can see it,” says Eaton.

Beyond offering print design and consultancy services, Eyefix works with high-end specialist textile print mills in the UK, as well as in France, Italy, Portugal and the Far East, which offer screen, roller and digital printing. Eyefix’s digital printers use Mona Lisa Printers, which Eaton says print to the highest digital specifications, achieving the best quality.

“Now that digital printing has come in - Italian machines with Japanese dye stuff - these machines can be bought by the Koreans, by the Italians, by the English, so we can print in Macclesfield a lot more now. There is a big movement to bring production back to the UK and Europe because it is faster to the shop floor,” Eaton explains. “A lot of new garment companies are starting up in the North, it’s all coming back, and the good thing is the skills are still there. There are still ladies and guys up there that have the sewing skills and people want a Made in UK product. The Chinese will pay a lot of money for it.”

Eyefix also offers a vertical service, having restarted producing garments for its customers at its partner factories in 2011. “The financial crisis hit everybody, particularly on the production side. Everyone rushed off to the cheapest point which left us stranded a little bit. But now people’s experiences of Far East manufacturing have been mixed. We’ve been in the Far East for 30 years and know what we’re doing. So we’ve got back into garment manufacturing big time, approaching customers and saying we’ll start again,” he says, adding that it manufactures in South Korea and Vietnam.

Eaton is reluctant to reveal the company’s turnover, but says it grew 23% year on year for 2013, and that it has increased every year since the business started.

Building on Eyefix’s impressive archive remains his passion. “We get offered a lot more archives now. People know I buy them and I go all over Europe. There is even an archive in South America that I’ve just found. So you do find them. And they are generally beautiful, beautiful paintings.”

Pulling out a floral print he bought years ago, Eaton says: “This is from 1847, but it can be brought up to date. This is what I love about the archive, you are taking something that was designed nearly 200 years ago and yet people are putting it into a contemporary look and product. So it’s not a museum, it’s working, generating ideas, and encourages designers to think about design and colour.”

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