BinBin McNiven is the gloriously creative brains behind TBA, a label that has charmed its way into the coolest girls’ wardrobes ever since its debut collection in 2009. An acronym for To be Adored, its name perfectly epitomises the try-to-resist-it allure of McNiven’s trademark whimsical silk dresses, peter pan collars and quirky vintage-inspired cuts. TWENTY6 caught up with the Chinese-born, Brighton-educated designer to talk girl crushes, architecture and Marc Bolan.
Your collections hint at a long love affair with fashion and its history. At what age did you realise design might be your calling?
When I was ten or twelve, ages ago. I used to read Elle magazine, which was the first fashion magazine available in China. I would just sketch all the time, at school, during maths class, and I’d usually get caught and get into trouble!
My designs back then were quite simple. I would draw a whole look as well, not just dresses; shoes, accessories, everything. My sketches were always actually quite tomboyish too; different to the clothes I design now.
Who do you picture in your mind when you’re designing now?
I think the TBA girl is into art and music and she’s probably a student, though I’d like the brand to grow with her, and to feel a little bit older. I’m actually usually thinking of Alexa Chung or Chloe Sevigny. At the moment my collections are quite cute and dolly, but I’d like TBA to become more sophisticated. I’m actually working with a stylist, Linda Marina Portman, who used to work for Lula magazine. Her style is more sophisticated and more edgy, so hopefully it’ll be a nice blend.
Do you think you’ll ever abandon those peter pan collars?
Everyone says to me, “Keep doing your collars, that’s what you’re about,” so I’ll always have to do that!
How did you get to where you are now?
I studied fashion at Brighton University for four years and then I interned at McQueen and Marchesa and then I worked at an agency in Shoreditch for two years. At that point Topshop asked me to do a collection for them, and we were in the middle of discussing it but it didn’t go through, and then I just felt like I really wanted to do something for myself, and so that’s it! I launched TBA in 2009.
And you’re still based in Brighton. What keeps you there?
It’s funny, in the beginning I really hated Brighton, but now I love it. When I wake up I can see the sea and I can play with my daughter on the beach when I have spare time. She’s a year and two months old. Her name is Daisy, because it’s quite sixties.
What’s your studio like?
Messy! It’s a room in my flat at the moment, but it’s too crowded so we’re hoping to have a proper office in September. There used to be lots of things on the walls, but I recently took them all off, and it’s in folders now. At the moment I really like architecture, so there are some architectural pictures.
There are definitely interesting shapes in your clothes, does architecture influence your designs?
Yes, I like Art Deco, especially Renee Mackintosh, and his designs inspired the geometric mesh panel silk pieces in my SS11 collection.
How do you start thinking about a new collection?
I watch films and music videos, and look through old magazines. It’s quite random. I try to push myself to have over two hundred pieces of reference in front of me before I start to do anything. I put them on the wall and force myself to look at them every day, and try to find the connections, or something that can pull it all together. There’s usually art, graphic design, trimmings, old garments and even patterns. I can sometimes look just at a pattern and then develop it into something new. For example, I’m now working on my SS12 collection, and I’ve been looking at Japanese forms of pattern making, origami style. It’s top secret, but I can say there will be folded organza….
What inspires your choice of fabrics?
I find that once you’ve worked with silk, you don’t want to work with anything else. In the summer it keeps you cool, but in the winter it keeps you warm, so you’re always comfortable. However, I’m also trying to introduce more cottons or cotton mix silks into my new collection as silk prices just keep going through the roof.
In your AW11 there are a few pieces where there’s a real juxtaposition between different textured fabrics. We love the see-through panels and PVC trims.
For AW I was into fetish and glam rock to be honest. I’m associated with this really cute look, but part of me has always been harder… My graduate collection was actually inspired by David Bowie and Marc Bolan.
So what inspired the SS11 collection and the dreamy pastoral fashion film you made to accompany it?
Ballerinas, rockers, Brigitte Bardot… I’ve always been really into the sixties and the Rolling Stones’ girlfriends. As for the film, I totally handed it over to my stylist and the director Tabitha Denholm from Queens of Noize. When they saw the collection, they were like, “Oh we’re going to need a trampoline.” We shot it in Brighton near Lewes in the countryside. I heard apparently Lewes is full of witches!
Who are your Heroes?
Miuccia Prada. I just think that every season she gets it right. She surprises me every season. Outside of fashion, the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei, who is still missing, detained by Chinese Authorities. Still thirty years on, freedom of speech in China is still not at a good level, it’s quite sad really.
Do you go back to China a lot? What do you most like to do when you visit?
I go back twice a year; I’m going soon to visit factories. The first thing I do is have a massage! Apart from that, Hong Kong is amazing for shopping. I have a lot of vintage clothes so I love flea markets. At the moment, I produce most things in China, but I am actually starting to work with some pattern makers in Lewes, Sussex, so I’m hoping to make some Made in the UK pieces.
What else does the future hold for TBA?
I keep thinking I’d like to do a baby line, or that I should start designing bags and shoes; but at the moment I mainly want to extend my collection. At the moment its only twenty-five pieces and I want to grow it to forty. SS12 is going to be much bigger, so hopefully I can have a fashion show one day…
What were your ambitions and aspirations at the age of 26?
Get a job.
Pick a word beginning with the letter "B" which best sums you up
For each letter of the alphabet pick a word that inspires you
A - Aiweiwei B - Black Flag C - Childrens Tea Party D - Daisy E - Edwardian Style F - Faye Wong G - Guilin
H - Happiness I - ID Magazine J - Jule et Jim K - Kurt Cobain L - Lou Reed M - McQueen N - Nirvana
O - Optimism P - Pulp Fiction Q - Quiet R - Rolling Stones Girls S - Sonic Youth T - Tom Waits
U - Under the influence magazine V - Victorian W - Weekends X - Xylophone Y - Yesterday Z - Zeal