Three Designers on Resisting Fashion’s Conventions
Sinéad O’Dwyer, Adeju Thompson and Paul Kindersley discuss how their respective practices defy the mainstream
Sinéad O’Dwyer, Adeju Thompson and Paul Kindersley discuss how their respective practices defy the mainstream
Rosalind Jana I’d like to start by asking you all what your first significant memory of fashion is.
Paul Kindersley In the 1990s, when I was a child, I always wanted to wear dresses. While my own parents were fine with it, the majority of the pushback came from other adults, not children. It was quite strange to be bullied by adults at the age of five or six.
Sinéad O’Dwyer Throughout my childhood, I was surrounded by craftspeople. My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was really young and I was always making my own clothes, but I didn’t think of it as fashion. I was extremely removed from haute couture because nobody in my family was interested in it. My first memory of fashion comes much later, when I was 11 or 12, and my dad took me to an Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy exhibition in Dublin. I was completely captivated by it. I spent that summer making so many hats.
Adeju Thompson When I was five or six, as my father and I were arriving back at our house after church, we saw my grandfather parked in front of our gates. He had this red Mercedes-Benz and he was wearing this oxblood suit and aviator sunglasses. He just was so cool, getting out of his car in this beautiful, well-tailored suit that he probably got on Savile Row or someplace. That moment has always been ingrained on my memory.
I moved to the UK to study fashion and, once my professors had a clear sense of where my work was heading, they were keen to introduce me to the anti-fashion designers of the 1980s, such as Yohji [Yamamoto], Rei [Kawakubo] and the Antwerp Six. It wasn’t until I moved back to Nigeria that I had the chance to actually see these clothes in person at Stranger – a concept store in Lagos which stocked pieces by Yohji and Comme [des Garçons]. I went on to become really good friends with the store owner, Yegwa Ukpo. But the first time I went, it was just such a special moment for me because that’s when I realized that all the things I had read about were coming into practice. The way Yegwa embodied the garment he was wearing, giving off this sense that he wore it like a piece armour, that was an iconic and defining moment for me.
RJ I find these foundational memories very interesting in terms of how they relate both to your work and to more personal decisions made about style. How do each of you approach the question of getting dressed?
SO’D When I have the opportunity to wear the clothes I design, then they feel very much me. And I feel comfortable because the way I pattern clothes is for my body and other people’s bodies that are ‘more’ – or what is considered ‘more’ – within luxury fashion. I used to be a very different size, so I have a lot of archived pieces from the 1990s that I’ve collected over the years that I can’t really fit into anymore. The more collections I do myself, the more pieces I gather, and those are the clothes I feel most comfortable in. I think that has to do with the fact that traditional pattern-cutting for high-quality, luxury garments has long relied on a specific body shape.
AT I think my style and my perspective as a designer is very much informed by my homeland. For a long time, I didn’t see myself reflected where I come from, I felt like an outsider and I was very shy. Historically, in Nigeria, fashion is considered to be a form of showing off: you dress to impress. And, for some time, that wasn’t really something I felt connected to. But, as my voice has started to evolve, Nigerian and Yoruba culture have become things that I continually go back to – to tap into their deep and complex histories. For instance, there’s an indigo dyeing technique I explore in my collections called adire. What differentiates it from similar techniques around the world is that its artisans use it to create motifs which reflect their culture and where they come from – like a code that only members of this specific community can understand. For me, as a queer person from Nigeria – a country where it’s illegal to be queer – drawing parallels to that idea and to queer semiotics made me want to interpret adire as a queer archive. So, it’s nice to see myself reflected in parts of my culture in a way that I have never experienced before.
I loved the craft and the people I worked with, but the overarching system was hideous.
PK A lot of dressing is about building up characters, which is something I think everyone does daily, regardless of the extent to which you’re conscious of doing it. I was very aware from a young age that people will think of you in a certain way depending on what you choose to wear. My mother would only wear men’s clothes, for instance. I find it very interesting when people develop that kind of an approach to dressing, almost like a uniform. I use a lot of costuming and styling in my own work to give a sense of it being part of the world but also somehow a bit odd, not quite right. I think that’s very easy to do with clothing.
RJ Sinéad, I’m struck by how your clothes – which not only accommodate all body types but give premise to comfort – turn so many fashion-industry standards on their heads. How did you end up working as you do? Is there a socio-political aspect to the way you design?
SO’D It’s a long story but, in summary, I have always had eating disorders. Restrictive eating and food obsession have been a really big part of my life since I was maybe 10 or 11. Working in the industry obviously exacerbated things because the culture around food is really toxic. I knew I needed to figure out why I was in fashion because I hated the culture. I loved the craft and the people I worked with, but the overarching system was hideous. While I was working in New York, I heard about the Fashion MA at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, led by Zowie Broach, and decided to apply. After being accepted onto the course and moving to London, I came to realize that I had an eating issue, so I started making work about that through life-casting. That’s really all I did during my MA. I didn’t do any pattern-cutting or any sewing: I was just making life-castings of myself and my friends. It was a way to start understanding the form of the body. Later, I had a realization – which seems so obvious now but which most people aren’t aware of – as to why clothes rarely seem to fit: everything is cut for sample models. Every conversation I had with women in my family about their bodies would always be like: ‘Oh, my thighs are bad. I can’t fit in those trousers.’ There was this constant projection of negativity onto yourself as opposed to being aware of how the system works. Clothes are pattern-fitted for a specific type of body and it’s usually a straight body. So now, I’m doing what everyone should be doing, which is having multiple sample sizes.
RJ Adeju, similarly but in different ways, your work also engages with expectations – whether that’s in terms of gender or Nigerian dress. Do you feel a desire to resist more mainstream ideas in fashion?
AT I think there is a misconception that queerness is a Western construct, a Western import into Nigeria. I feel like discussions around queerness and masculinity are monopolized by the West, but I want to shine a light on the parallel conversations that have been happening in other parts of the world. My brand, Lagos Space Programme [LSP], is really rooted in my own journey as a designer. I collage together different ideas that make sense to me but that also break misconceptions about African design. LSP is really about highlighting this alternate African experience.
This year, at Paris Fashion Week, I had my own showroom as part of SPHERE, an initiative of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode to support emerging designers. It was an amazing opportunity because the Fédération brings us the biggest buyers. They would look through the clothes and say to me: ‘Oh, it’s very Japanese.’ Obviously, I’m inspired by Japanese culture, but my work is also about celebrating where I come from. So, when people are dismissive of my research, I feel obliged to tell them: ‘Yes, there are parallels, but there are also traditions of indigo dyeing in Nigeria, and these pants that you think are Japanese are actually a replica of traditional Yoruba trousers.’ It’s important for me to correct people and to show that I come from a very complex culture with a deep history of craftsmanship.
RJ I really loved the title of your last collection, ‘Cloth as a Queer Archive’, which alludes to that complex history and to the narrative possibilities of clothing. Paul, as an artist, you often use clothing in performance pieces or in films, like The Burning Baby . What stories are you trying to tell with clothing or costume?
PK I like the clothes I use to be recognizable, so I’m not taking them somewhere completely different, but everything about them is slightly off, which makes them more disturbing. I want to play with this idea of unattainable glamour – which is especially prominent now within social media, where nothing we see is real – by adopting these exaggerated looks, which aren’t really wearable, and using them within a performance to create something jarring. So, a lot of the looks that I’ve used are very impractical: lots of layering, lots of corsets, lots of high heels. I started using absurdly tall high heels and the way it changed how people walked added this odd, fairy-tale quality to everything. We filmed The Burning Baby in the mountains and by the sea in Scotland, and I made everyone wear stilettos so that their bodies would move awkwardly. Some clothes I made myself but we also borrowed lots of incredible archive pieces from [Vivienne] Westwood and others. The actual baby character is half-naked and hardly has any makeup, providing a foil for the rest of the film.
RJ Do any of you feel like the position you occupy in your field is, to some degree, subversive?
SO’D I definitely think what I do is subversive: it’s a financial reality I’m faced with every day because the current system is not built for a designer doing four sample sizes per season. I should really just stop, but I would never do that. I suppose, as a queer designer, I do have a particular vision of the queer or femme body that comes from my own experience of being a lesbian. There’s also something about the intimacy of really knowing people and their bodies – whether that’s friends and family or more intimate relationships – that really translates to how I see the bodies I’m making clothes for. My casting director is queer and we generally don’t seem to work with any cis men. I wouldn’t even say that my clothes are strictly for femme bodies. I suppose people assume that if you have breasts and you are happy to show them through a formed garment or through nudity that you’re more femme. But it’s not really about that. I sometimes struggle to describe who my brand is for because it’s just for people who have more fat or boobs, and that could be anyone. I think the vision and complexity of who we’re trying to dress and why very much comes from a subversive place of pushing against the male gaze.
AT People always ask me if I need to explain my ideas to folks in Nigeria or whether I get any pushback. And the answer is no, not really. I think, first and foremost, where I come from, people really want to wear clothes that reflect a new identity. Cis men, cis women, trans people, people of all ages wear LSP. So, for me, it’s creating this gender-free aesthetic that everyone can see themselves in. As a queer designer, it’s so important for me to highlight these conversations and ideas.
Yoruba culture, historically, is very queer. The deities are incredibly queer when you look at them through a contemporary lens: some are transgender or non-binary; in one story, they’re male then, in the next, female. That’s the fluid culture I come from. For my 2021 collection, ‘Project 5’, I was inspired by Gelede masks and costumes that celebrate mothers and the matriarchy. These masks, on the surface, are caricatures of womanhood – they have big red lips and big boobs and they’re quite camp – but they’re only worn by men. I found this to be such a wonderful thing, this idea of how clothing can transform the wearer. Moreover, it’s indicative that our masculinity isn’t very fragile. Men can get on the stage, dance and really celebrate women. I’m sure if you spoke to people in the Gelede community, they wouldn’t think of this ritual or celebration as a queer spectacle. But, for me, as a queer person, this is clearly what’s happening and that, perhaps, is the subversive nature of LSP.
PK It’s all one big spectacle! A lot of the projects I’ve been working on, including my last few films, have involved going somewhere quite remote with a group, which creates space for things to be both complex and silly. I find it harder when I start with a concept: in order to make the work, I feel like I’m narrowing it down from the beginning, and I have to get to a point where I’m not concentrating on small outcomes. Now, I feel I’m making work that is unexpected and, although perhaps not necessarily palatable or nice, is more attuned to the human experience. That’s why I love working with other people: collaboration is when things become creative.
RJ What, for all three of you, is directing your work right now?
AT I’m quite extra as a queer person and, of course, the idea of drama appeals to me. So, I feel like just adding more elements of drama into my work and being more ambitious. It’s really about creating a new world, a new language, that my people can feel very proud of. But it’s also about educating folks outside of Nigeria on how designers from the continent draw from myriad sources that don’t necessarily have to be African.
PK Every time I make something new, I feel like it’s an accumulation of everything I’ve done. In a weird way, it’s all one giant artwork. I have this attraction to things that I’ve used before. There’s a pair of high-heel boots that I’ve included in nearly every performance: they’re now imbued with something. There’s this weird truth to materials. The act of making is a steady engine that can keep things going. I constantly need to be making things. The more I make, physically, with my hands – on my own or with other people – the more I learn and more exciting things happen.
SO’D I’m definitely drawn to what Paul is saying about making being the most important aspect of what propels me forward. I still make a lot of pieces by hand myself and a large section of production we do in-studio. But I also find the business side of things – figuring out how to manipulate the wholesale model to work for what we’re trying to deliver to our customers – exciting and creative, which is something I never expected.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 237 as part of a roundtable with the headline ‘Turning Heads'
Main image: Adeju Thompson, ‘Lagos Space Programme, SS24’, 2023, lookbook. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Isabel Okoro