I travelled to Antwerp, home of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, to meet two young disciples of the fashion department.
The first was Narelle Dore, an Australian born designer who graduated from the school in 2008. An abundance of capes are spread across the table in her lounge, where she has been showing us work from her final collection at the Academy. The capes epitomise Narelle’s commitment to natural forms and materials. Wool has become her fabric of choice recently – it gives her pieces a tactile and crafted quality. Her design process too is a natural one; she is led by her materials, by how the clothes move, beyond any concept or brief. This pragmatic approach is echoed by a newfound emphasis on wearability: ‘I am a designer and I have a role.’ Whilst the ideas she developed at the Academy still run through her work Narelle is excited by the prospect giving more thought than ever to the person beneath the garment.
Do you find creating and designing a natural process?
I guess I am always really inspired by nature. I think it’s my part of my sensibility for the outcome to be a natural one as opposed to something artificial. I did grow up on a farm in Australia so I suppose I find undisturbed nature a comforting thing.
Do you tend to work to a design brief or do you like to adopt a more organic approach? Is the end point clarified by process rather than the other way around?
I always like to allow for this random element. You always have a starting point and then what you finish with is quite often very different, for all different reasons, like fabrics don’t work the way you thought they would.
Narelle is clear, when I ask, that this is no bad thing, she makes no effort to prevent these diversions. She acknowledges that although some designers do have a vision that they wish to stick to she ‘is more akin to working in a more chaotic type of way.’ She has found that when things do go wrong they can be a source of inspiration – when I suggest that nuances might make a piece stronger she agrees – ‘it makes the process more of a journey.’ Knitwear is especially prone to these problems, or opportunities, depending on how you see things. Narelle understands this: ‘Knitwear has such a life of its own that you can’t have total control.’ Perhaps this is part of what makes it so appealing to work with.
Your designs seem to celebrate materials above all. Are you more interested in showcasing different textiles or making the most of the body beneath the garment?
At the academy it’s a really different way of working. It’s much more about creativity and not so much about the practicalities of wearability. It’s not so much about designing with the body in mind, it’s about designing around the body but you are not really questioning the body. When you finish there and you are designing for the real world it’s different because then it becomes all about the body. We didn’t go into projects thinking of a particular person we were designing for. Now that I have finished the course I am coming to this crossroad whereby I have to of this woman that I am designing for but at the same time keep a strong concept. I think that this is my challenge now, how to do both in an interesting way, a creative way. This is an exciting thing because it is a new way of working for me.
There is something tribal about your ‘Knock On Wood’ collection. I wondered whether you were interested in the manufacture of clothing by pre-Christian communities; their relationship with the land and their reliance on it?
The druids were really inspiring for me, the way that they work around trees, the rituals and their Winter solstice and how that time was really important to them, as a community in the hope that the sun would come back. They were so involved with nature and the way that they appreciated it. I think that nature is something quite abstract for us in this age. The inspiration for the patterns of the clothes, their shape and form, came from an artist who works extensively with wood, Marisol Escobar. The starting point for the collection came from the biblical creation story, particularly the idea of the tree of life, as well as some song lyrics which also tell of the creation of “something” out of “nothing”. I wanted to make a creation story of my own demonstrating that nature is something greater than we are. I liked the druid’s rituals and respect that they held for the trees. It was Escobar’s wooden people that became the inspiration for the shapes of the clothes and their boxy form. I wanted people to take on the form of a tree. So there is a link between the use of wood and the tree of life in the bible’s story of creation. I looked into places like Stonehenge and so on. I came across the Island of Aran, where they have this very particular style of knitting. It’s a circular pattern, they made these gussets and it makes the shape fit on the body better. So I began thinking that I could adopt this and make the pieces square by building up points of tension for the body. I wanted it to be like a sculpture, so the drapes were held in place really well.
Narelle’s pieces didn’t rely on the body to hold this shape; she used an internal structure with padding instead and she made organic choices in terms of the materials she used. I wonder why capes are so prevalent in her collection – ‘Yes!’ she says, ‘well with capes and skirts you can be so free with them.’ She explains that their simplicity is appeals to her - ‘you don’t have to worry fitting them around limbs.’ Capes are one of her favourite pieces of clothing because of this freedom.Narelle thinks of the pieces like trees, with a trunk and the roots, and this being the inspiration for their texture. In the same vein, ‘the knitwear section was more the leaves, so again a lot of built up texture.’ And for colours, it was a case of keeping them in blocks, so that then the texture was even more visible and mimicked carved wood.
The shapes you make don’t obviously conform to modern ideas about what is feminine. Are you trying to challenge these, and in doing so offering an alternative kind of beauty?
I don’t really think about it. I don’t consciously think about this kind of thing; if that does come across, then perhaps that is what I’m thinking of subconsciously. I have this super openness to what is beauty.
It occurs to me at this point that there is something lovely about this, that such an unconscious approach doesn’t adhere to trend and this is a way of doing things that promotes originality. Narelle agrees. She explains that the way the academy structures the course is that they see you as a blank canvas, ‘so that when you walk in you leave behind everything you thought you knew and then you must find your own language.’ I want to know if this ‘blank canvas’ is a way for the tutors to make the designers more malleable. Narelle responds; ‘In any institution you find a general standard of working and the school has their own ideas on what they think is avant garde. They definitely have their own style as an institution and they generally point you in that direction but that’s OK because in that framework it works. You have the ability to build up your own way of working in and amongst the standards that you keep to. Your own way of working isn’t something that they can teach you, you work that out for yourself.’
Are the boxy shapes and strong curves a statement of strength and power?
Again, I wasn’t thinking about a wearer. I mean for me that is an egotistical sense of working. In the academy it was more about the form than having a wearer in mind to design for.
Spiritual matters tend to contrast, even counter, material ones. Are your designs an attempt to synthesize the two?
I don’t know, wow, I never thought about this before. . .I suppose the way that you work, you hope that it speaks to other people and it tells them a story and they take something from it and eventually, hopefully a wearer will feel that thing.
Are you very interested in the environmental sustainability of clothing?
The textile industry is one of the most damaging for the environment. I think some designers do a good job of being sustainable and of course it is something that I am really interested in, but it’s not something that I have yet made the effort to go further with. I think that it is interesting when people make this statement and then go on to do it, but it’s not something that inspires me.
So then your fascination with nature guided the aesthetics of the pieces more than them being sensitive to the environment?
I suggest that in spite of this Narelle is taking her time to make well made pieces which consequently last longer and mean she is effectively making fewer, better quality items. For me, this is a sustainable way of working and Narelle agrees: ‘Today it’s ridiculous, there are pre-collections for the big fashion houses and they are making new collections all the time, but who needs all these clothes? I mean where do they all end up? At a certain point it gets too much and needs to slow down. So I think that this idea of their being just one season is very interesting. There are certain designers that do this very nicely, where they make a specific product and it’s sustainable in the sense that it is about them making something that is useful rather than something beautiful. But it remains beautiful because it is so well made. It is interesting when designers say no to the demand and it becomes more about the product. I definitely think that [the fashion world] moves too fast but it is about finding your own way too. These collections are not short on ideas, they are good, well-thought out collections mostly. I don’t know how they manage it. I just don’t really see how it could slow down. Because of the internet people are so hungry for new pieces. It’s the media. I want to know whether this frantic pace means that the process and the concept are diluted. Narelle thinks it is: ‘It’s a shame for me, but then at the end of the day it’s just a shirt. There is such a divide of opinion on this but at the end of the day it is a garment that someone needs to wear to work. It’s difficult; you don’t know where to place the value. It’s really difficult for me because I would love people to be interested [in the process] but are the people that are going to buy my clothes interested? I don’t know. I don’t really have the answers. It’s a big question mark for me. There are certainly labels that do it well and are creating pieces that show more.’
Did you find starting at the Academy an intimidating prospect?
I think what’s intimidating is the fact that it attracts people from across the world that are very talented and that you will be in contact with on a daily basis. It’s amazing. You have to understand that the people that don’t make it through to the end of the four years, those that fail, are not by any stretch of the imagination poor. [I should mention at this point that in 2009, of the 60 people that started the four year degree, only 16 graduated.] The thing with fashion is that time keeping is important; you need to move fast and have a great sense of intuition. It’s about choices, decisions. People didn’t make it through because they couldn’t get past making that decision and it’s really sad. It doesn’t mean that their ideas weren’t good. I really think in the end fashion is so much about making decisions that are based on a feeling, no matter how abstract it may be. You don’t know why you made that decision, it just feels like the right thing and you go with it because in the end that’s all that you have. The concept is good, but it doesn’t have the answers, it’s just there to give you a starting point.
Narelle shows us some work that she has been doing since she graduated. In January, 2010 she had a commercial collection that was exhibited in a show room space in Paris and which is now about to return to the concept store, RA, in Antwerp where it will be for sale in August, 2010. The store also houses work from knitwear specialist Louise Goldin, a thriving CSM graduate. The inspiration for Goldwin’s collection was pinhole photography and it is a theme Narelle has adopted for herself. She likes the effect you can get with the rays of light, an effect she has used to build up the patchwork quality of these newer pieces. As Narelle shows them to us she explains that they represent something new for her, a wearable collection.
Britt, the photographer, has a final question for Narelle - What do you prefer making, the commercial pieces or the more conceptual?
Commercial. It’s still not what you would call high street but it’s just about the wearer now and I think that’s so beautiful. To have people wearing these pieces, which I never really cared about it before now, it’s exciting.