“I can’t remember the last time I was in one place for this long,” said Paula Gerbase. The creative talent behind British heritage label John Lobb was speaking to FN via Zoom from her East London townhouse in a tranquil studio drenched in sunlight and decked out with rich green foliage.
Typically, Gerbase is shuttling between the Hermès owned label’s Northampton factory and its Paris based atelier — and before the pandemic took hold, she was in Tokyo for a John Lobb pop-up at Isetan in February and then visited Switzerland’s Zermat where she grew up. “Travel nourishes me,” she said. Still, she said that confinement has given her time to reflect.
Production at Lobbs’ Northampton factory was suspended just prior to the U.K.’s lockdown and as the country transitions into the next phase, Gerbase anticipates her team working alternate shifts with some of the processes carried out at home. The idea is rooted in tradition, she said: “Historically artisans often work off-site,” Gerbase explained.
In fact, it was this ‘at home’ culture which inspired John Lobb’s current social media campaign. The house has created a series of short, quirky, purpose-driven films for its Instagram account. The videos show how to clean, wax and take care of your shoes using props found in homes across the world from forks and napkins to candles and toothbrushes.
“We created the series in the first week of lockdown,” she said, revealing how filmmaker Polly Brown worked over Zoom with a footwear expert in Paris.
It was about conveying the message that while we all have to stay at home, we shouldn’t feel stuck. “I wanted the films to be educational but not too serious,” she said, “to celebrate the idea that a domestic environment can lead to beautiful things.
Gerbase noted that “this is a moment for smaller brands to take leadership and show how things can be done differently,” she is now reconsidering the way John Lobb communicates on a wider level.
In January, she eschewed the traditional press presentation in Paris for an intimate dinner where guests were serenaded by a fishermen’s choir from Cornwall, Lobb’s spiritual home.
The brand already hosts industry events such as yearly walks in Cornwall for press but she wants to extend the idea to consumers with “creative and meaningful ways of presenting product that are more about personal experience than power gestures.”
When it comes to this product, she’s always ensured that each style has a defined purpose — with the goal of it remaining in the collection on a long-term basis. But even so, spring ’21, designed in December, proved particularly fitting. “Some of the themes were really suited to this new situation we’re in,” she said.
Case in point are unlined summer slip-ons in deerskin suede with supple leather soles. “They’re designed to be worn outside but they’re bordering on a house shoe so they blur the lines between outdoors and inside,” she said. “We will get used to spending more time at home so the idea of comfort while still being dressed up will be increasingly relevant.”
It’s a natural progression. Throughout her stewardship at John Lobb, she’s looked to blend comfort with tradition. She’s constantly innovating; introducing tensile constructions for lightness while still preserving the heritage look and integrity of the brand.
Equally though, she’s convinced that months spent in sweatpants and sneakers will create a hunger for glamour. “We were starting to tire of streetwear and athleisure even before his happened, so when we can finally leave the house we will want to dress up,” she said. Enter her glossy, jewel-toned welted styles for evening.
During this period, Gerbase is keeping as close to her usual routine as possible, remaining in contact with her team via Zoom. She’s also reverted to her childhood hobby of origami. “It’s borderline obsessive,” she said. “I found I still had the muscle memory so I’ve been using pages from magazines to make tiny shirts and pants. I and even did a paper box to put them in.”
She has a background in tailoring after all. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins, Gerbase worked independently on London’s Savile Row and was one of very first women to do so. She served as creative director at British sportswear label Sunspel before starting her own unisex label, 1205, in 2010. She’s recently launched Gerbase, a namesake line of seasonless womenswear and fine jewelry — a step away from the traditional industry calendar.
Otherwise, quarantine has been about recreating favorite restaurant meals. She cycled for two hours to buy a specific kind of flour to make the tortillas served in Mexican eatery El Pastor. And even though she hasn’t eaten a Big Mac since she was a teenager, she’s also been on a quest to replicate the McDonald’s staple. “I’ve never wanted one before, but after 24 hours of confinement, it was all I could think of,” she said.