Fan Girl: Rory Hutton Interviews Denise Frankel
Denise Frankel is co-founder of Rockcoco Fans, the first hand fan company to establish itself in the City of London for over 100 years.
Unable to find high-end contemporary fans that compared favorably with antique and vintage examples, Denise and her sister Janis set about researching the old techniques and eventually decided they would have to do something about the lack of beautiful fans themselves.
An impossible task for most these sisters were unfazed, they have accessories in their blood. Their grandfather founded a millinery company in the City of London in the 1930s, their father joined the firm after the war in the 1940s, joined by Janis in the 1990s, now the third generation of the family have pivoted into fans.
They could not have picked a more timely moment to dedicate themselves to this cause, fan making is on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Red List of Endangered Crafts. The sisters are on a mission to rescue fan making from the brink of extinction and are playing a leading role in educating the next generation of fan makers.
I first met Denise in 2019 when she kindly agreed to show me her collection and talk me through the process of making a fan.
In 2020 I was delighted to have the opportunity to design a fan in collaboration with Rockcoco. The fan we created was inspired by floral designer Constance Spry, not only is Spry one of my favorite designers she shared a name with Denise and Janis’s grandmother, so the Constance fan is a double tribute!
It was tremendously exciting to see my design come to life on a fan but more than this I enjoyed working with Denise and hearing the stories of her journey in fan making.
Wanting to capture some of these stories in the hope that they will fascinate and inspire others I conducted this short interview with Denise:
RH: What do you love most about fans?
DF: I love the timeless elegance of a hand fan, it adds an air of sophistication and flirtatiousness to every outfit; The great thing is that it can be created from just about any material (woods, fabrics etc ) which can take it from casual to full on glitz. Of course they are also very practical in keeping you cool.
RH: What historic techniques have Rockcoco saved from the brink of extinction?
DF: One of the historic techniques we have reintroduced is the double-sided fan. The fans you see today have fabric on the front with exposed sticks on the back - while this can be very attractive we wanted to try something different. While researching double-sided fans it became apparent that fan makers today were not skilled in this technique, eventually we managed to track down a fan maker in her 90s who possessed these valuable skills and was willing to teach our fan makers. We now offer this historic technique on some of our bespoke fans.
Another lost skill from historical fan making was engraving mother-of-pearl sticks in preparation for inlaying with gold leaf. After much searching, we found a talented artisan in the U.K who works with mother-of-pearl, inlaying it into musical instruments. He was willing to attempt engraving the mother-of-pearl which fortunately was a success and we went on to have this inlaid with gold leaf.
RH: What have been your favorite commissions?
DF: I love all the personalised bespoke hand fans we have created for our clients. They all have their own personalities by way of the different choices people have made.
RH: When you think back over the last 8 years at Rockcoco what 3 achievements are you most proud of?
DF: Our first and most important achievement was discovering talented artisan fan makers and working with them to create a range of hand fans that up until then we could only imagine.
In 2017, I was extremely proud to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall in recognition of becoming the first luxury fan maker in London for over 100 years. I was also honoured to be invited to become a Liveryman at The Worshipful Company of Fan makers which was incorporated in 1709 during the reign of Queen Anne.
It has been a long-held tradition of the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers to present senior royal brides with a hand fan on the occasion of their marriage.
We were delighted to be commissioned by them to create a bespoke hand fan for HRH the Duchess of Sussex which was presented to her at Kensington Palace on the 19th of March 2019.
A fan for the Duchess of Sussex
RH: Are there any historic fan making techniques that you have yet to try, what would you like to try next?
DF: We are currently working with our fan makers to recreate an antique design which enables the fan to adjust from small to large. We are really enjoying the challenge.
RH: If money and craftsmanship were no object and you could create any fan you wanted what would it look like?
DF: It would be our dream to commission a range of contempoary artists to hand paint fan leaves and to hold an exhibition of them as was all the rage in the 19th century with artists such as Degas, Manet, Gauguin and Pissarro.
Fan Leaf, Edgar Degas (French, 1834-1917), © Norton Simon Art Foundation
RH: Which is your favorite fan from your ready to ware collection?
DF: I love all our fans but have a special place in my heart for the Hawaii with its delicate hand painted design and sparkling sequins
Rockcoco Hawaii Fan
RH: Do you think fans are becoming more popular again?
DF: Yes and not just in the UK we have sold our fans to customers in many different countries especially the U.S.A
RH: How do you find working with family?
DF: I love working with my sister, we get on well and more importantly we are able to express ourselves with the honesty that only siblings can do.
RH: One of the unique things about Rockcoco is your ability to offer bespoke fans for occasions. If somebody wanted to commission a fan what is the process and how long does it usually take from start to finish?
DF: We work closely with our clients to create the perfect luxury fan for any occasion. Firstly we meet to discuss the clients vision and ideas and then together we carefully select the different elements from the finest of materials including fabrics, woods, precious or semi precious gems and metals, engraving, inlaying, embroidery and hand painting. The options are endless! Once the order is placed the process can take between eight to twelve weeks.
If you would like to find out more about Rockcoco Fans or see their collections you can visit the website here.