With a business named after her granddads – Fison and Isaiah – both skilled craftsmen in Sheffield’s steel industry, designer Katy Aston may have been expected to stick to the more traditional metals associated with jewellery making.
But her masters in textile design led her to start exploring polymer clay. From her garden workshop overlooking Sheffield’s Rivelin Valley, Aston squashes, rolls and slices clay to make a unique array of bold pieces for her business, Fison Zair (pronounced F-eye-sun Z-air in a Northern accent).
“Working with clay enabled me to do all the things that I enjoy doing,” says Aston. “I can work with colours and patterns. I can combine colours and different palettes together and then at the end of it I also have a product that I can sell, so I can make a living out of it.”
Her final collection of necklaces, earrings, hair clips and homeware blends curvaceous shapes with distinctive patterns and balanced hues to produce statement pieces with a contemporary feel.
Since Fison Zair’s beginnings five years ago, chunky materials and bulbous shapes have become a lot more commonplace on jewellery stands, but Aston’s clever curation of colour makes her products easily identifiable. “The key is to have consistency in the aesthetic and look of it, to define it. It is a bit like drawing – if there is a certain way that you draw, people will start to recognise your hand and identify how you draw.”
This eye for colour and form developed during Aston’s many years working in the textile industry for iconic companies such as Paul Smith, Timorous Beasties, Tibi and John Lewis. Travelling from London to Glasgow, New York to Los Angeles and Copenhagen to Japan, she developed a love for interior design and pattern matching. Learning how to pair colours, prints, shades and materials for a room translates well into building a statement piece of jewellery with contrasting elements.
“I never really intended to make jewellery,” Aston says, laughing. “Originally, I wanted to be more interiors based, but all of the things that I do take the same basis. It is to do with materials, textures and colours and putting them together in different ways. Whatever area I was going to go into, it was always going to take the same format, so – to some extent – it doesn’t really matter whether I work in fashion or interiors.”
Aston’s ability to build a cohesive look across products in different tones and forms is immediately obvious when you spot her stand at a makers’ market. Pastel peaches and pinks stand out against deep olives and blues, while terrazzo chunks and twisting swirls dance across eclectic shapes. “When I do markets, people want to touch the products and are often surprised by how light they are or how they aren’t what they expected – I like that. Rather than it being a product that reveals all from the beginning, there are elements of surprise.”
It is this surprise and intrigue that – in addition to generating a lengthy list of stockists across the UK – caught the attention of international fashion and lifestyle label Anthropologie.
Founded in 1992 in the US in Wayne, Pennsylvania, it blends fashion, craft and art, with its buyers and designers travelling the world to uncover special pieces in clothing, accessories, beauty, found objects, gifts, candles and pieces for the home.
Anthropologie has a store in the Victoria Gate shopping centre in Leeds, offering womenswear and homewares. Anthropologie stores are works of art in themselves, frequently featuring specially created art installations.
It collaborates with artists and designer-makers, as here with Fison Zair, and has become a destination for those seeking something out of the ordinary. Part of the brand family that includes Urban Outfitters, there is always something to intrigue, delight and enchant.
Anthroplogie invited Aston to design several new pieces of jewellery, pairing the Fison Zair aesthetic with Anthropologie’s modern decorative style. With several Anthropologie-directed mood boards to hand, Aston set about dreaming up designs that were a little bit different but still reflected her signature look. The collection now on the Anthropologie website features a warm, summery palette with botanical features and an array of geometric shapes in earrings, a necklace and a charm bracelet.
The collection went live in the spring but Aston has already seen a boost to business: “It has definitely had an impact and it was just good to get my stuff out there. It has helped me to realise I can work in different ways for different companies as well. I never really imagined working with such a big company, not when everything is handmade. But it all kind of came together really nicely.”
Despite having to create a much larger number of items, Aston still crafted everything by hand. Once every piece of jewellery had passed through her hands, they were dispatched to Anthropologie for photography, branding and distribution via the label’s European stores. Aston’s bangles and beads will now be dangling from the earlobes and wrists of women across Europe, but the inspiration for the accessories was found much closer to home.
“I like contradictions,” says Aston of the elements that direct her designs. “For example, I like a curved shape with a geometric design. I take inspiration from what I see around me. It could be in architecture where you’ve got a structural building that is quite strong and hard, next to something organic. There are quite a lot of things like that in Sheffield, particularly at the moment with it being developed. Sheffield itself is a big thriving city but we are on the outskirts of the countryside as well, so there is a contrast of the urban and the natural.”
A desire to unite differing styles has led to other collaborations too, with Aston producing bespoke collections for stockist Object in Manchester and even hairdressers Kojo & Lee in the centre of Sheffield. “When you collaborate with people you can feed off what they want and interpret it in different ways. That’s a really nice way to work,” she says.
For the moment, Aston is collaborating on a totally different project. “I am going to have my hands full,” she says. She is not referring to clay this time though, but the arrival of her firstborn son.
* Fison Zair is at fisonzair.co.uk. Anthropologie is at Anthropologie.com and has a large fashion and home store at Victoria Gate in Leeds.