Neville Bean: Artisan


When Neville Bean was growing up, her grandmother often made her dresses. The little girl emulated “Mocky” (a mashup of Martha and Mother by her infant son) creating dolls’ outfits. At 16, Bean was taught what she calls gorilla sewing “…ok, you don’t have enough fabric, how do you adjust…” and embarked on a path that would feature these skills throughout her life. (Later, she sewed her grandmother a warm nightgown every year on her birthday.)

The burgeoning designer began to create her own clothes and then attire her mother. She learned to adjust patterns. “I made what they call a sloper, which is a body-fitting pattern from which you adjust.” Her parents gifted her a 1900 era electric Singer Sewing Machine, a reconstructed, knee pedal model as opposed to one that had to be pumped. Preferring uncomplicated mechanics, Bean still uses the apparatus. “It does nothing but sew forward. I do a lot of precision sewing and like that I can work it stitch by stitch.”

Still a teenager she became a go-to source for bespoke prom dresses, then, spreading her wings, made one of a kind pieces for local boutiques. It was the late 1960s. Iconoclastic hippie style reigned. The couturier herself had a natural Janis Joplin head of hair and tended toward Victoriana or the 1940s in combination with original pieces. Bean quotes Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”: she’s wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters…

Moving from Massachusetts to New York City, she “… found out pretty quickly that schooling was the 5th question. The market was very entrepreneurial.” Bean had the experience to bring one-of-a-kind aesthetic to mass market making her an asset. She learned the business from the inside out moving from company to company, mostly designing sportswear.  She also designed accessories including hats, handbags and even jewelry, always with an eye towards her own business.

It was during this time the young designer began to create trend boards. These might include fabric swatches with particular texture, shine, stretch, coating, color; lifestyle or fashion tears from magazines, couture influences, trim-buttons, buckles, lace…; themes from currently popular movies…Boards were the forerunner of look-like-this, live-like-this ads we now see advertising fashion. Ever intrinsically a maker, Bean found inspiration in every kind of design.

Twenty years passed in the trenches. After two forays into her own bespoke label, under financing and increasing freelance demands sent her back, now to multiple aspects of fashion in addition to design: Branding, art direction, consulting, merchandising, catalog design, writing, photography styling, design of physical exhibits for trade shows.

One day, she was contacted by someone looking for an expert seamstress to make miniature boxing gloves worn by a boxer dog in an Alpo Dog Food commercial. This successful prop lead to another completely new branch of the business.

One by Neville Bean

“I’ve always had a love of handmade. Balancing technologically driven trends with the artisanal is especially important these days as we’re living in the anonymity of the internet. There’s a real desire for something unique, for the story of what’s behind something. People like to take away a little piece of the maker that fits into an image they have of themselves.”

The concept for One, as in one-of-a-kind, jumpstarted with Bean’s extensive antique button collection with which she began making earrings, pendants, brooches, chokers… ($35-$100) Stoneware pottery medallions and suede fringe extended the initial lines. A detachable collar from the 1950s was enhanced by ornamentation. (Zara now has a wall of embellished collars. The artisan was ahead of trend.) Beads and chandelier crystals were employed. Next came handbags ($100 – $200) – crossbody, short handle, and clutches with inside pockets – most offering closure; 48” square or 60” oblong scarves ($100-$250) and chef’s aprons ($80).

Why aprons? Bean acquired a bunch of upholstery sample books coated in stain resistant Teflon. “I thought they’d make great aprons, so I cut and washed everything and collaged.” The accessories are not only practical, but so distinctive a hostess can wear one from kitchen to table with confidence. Some of the contemporary pieces feature charming freeform stitching (like doodles) and geometric patterns. Others are primarily vintage florals.

“My own aesthetic goes in both directions. As an older woman, I’m wary of looking costumed, whereas when I was younger…my aesthetic now is bolder and more modern… I look at my customers as an assortment. There’s always a girly girl, but there’s a difference between feminine and pretty.”

Bean has endless, well ordered boxes and bins filled with these and more free floating elements as well as piles and piles of interesting material. She works with vintage fabrics, strike-offs, and swatches from sample books, some upholstery weight. A book might only provide 15” squares when the piece she’s creating requires 20”.  “I see design as problem solving. You want to make something specific, how do you get from the idea to a finished piece? What are the restrictions of the fabric – both technique and aesthetics?” In other words, how does she compensate for the 5” difference? “I might collage.” (She thinks of the term patchwork as being more geometric.)

A shimmering cache of necktie silks is being turned into bags and scarves. One scarf in the current line is decorated with vintage lace and embroidered handkerchiefs. No matter how you fold these around your neck, something pleasing shows. An apron has crochet pockets, a scarf, crochet antimacassars. One of a kind elements create one of a kind accessories. As the season changes, sumptuous velvets and possibly leather will be used.

“My husband is an antique dealer. I’ve always been a thrift shop maven. I just pick up something that appeals not knowing what I’m going to do with it. Some people shop their closets, I shop my studio. Trinkets and fabrics inspire me.”

Neville Bean is not designing for the masses. She has no intention of being trendy or attempting to cater to every client’s taste. The artisan brings her own aesthetic to a small range of items, exploring possibilities with enthusiasm and natural style.

Visit Neville Bean’s shop on Etsy.

About Alix Cohen (835 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.