How to Be Successfully Disruptive in the Fashion Industry
(July 15, 2021)
Marchioness talks SISTERHOOD, THE MELBOURNE SCENE and FEMININE SYMBOLS with Australian designer, Jessie Kiely.
Interview and words by Laura Wilcox / Edited by Jessica Fynn
A question for the artists in the room: What is the point in doing what you do, if you don’t bring absolutely everything you’ve got to the table? I wonder if that’s a hyper-radicalized view of artistic practice; a question that artists ask other artists, to gently grind on their resolve, to see what stuff it is that they’re made of. A momentary glimpse into the world of designer Jessie Kiely, suggests to me something otherwise. “We all make work for different reasons” says Jessie, quietly reflecting on her practice. Her artistic raison d'être? She wishes to recapture the delicate, unfiltered moments of life – those moments where you think that no one is watching – through her clothing. Speaking of her first collection of designs in ‘Fashion Baggage’, Jessie’s intuitive coalescence of refined aesthetics with systems of mathematics – Iris Van Herpen meets pink tulle and the feminine symbolic – her desire to experiment under controlled conditions, while inviting in an element of randomness, catches me off guard. Or perhaps it’s just the coolness of her disposition while she describes the chaotic conditions she enjoys to work under. Here’s your reminder to give into that impulse and to let your creative freak flow.
When Jessie Kiely speaks, it is in short, sharp flashes. Her answers range from the gracefully introspective to the fiercely anecdotal. She talks of enjoying the energy of images untampered with, asking questions about the world, about what it means to be human and to make choices. Creatively, Jessie indulges in the aesthetics that she finds distasteful, choosing the thrill of the unknown over the comfort of safety. Yet, this element of disruption key to her work is not about being loud. It’s about respect for herself and love of her craft. For Jessie, designing is “an emotional experience” and proof that the fashion labels that she has worked under – JW Anderson to Isabel Marant – are nothing without the people. “The people are the ones that drive it.” She nods in defiance. Relocating from Paris to Melbourne post-MA, Jessie Kiely is ready to explore her abstract ideas, and design for herself a world founded on randomness and chance.
How would you describe your artistic practice?
A lot of my practice while I was studying was placing womenswear into an artistic context. That grew into continuously looking for systems of design. As designers we're always very actively seeking new things. Being a designer is an indulgence in itself. I think in my practice, I always wanted to set-up a system where there was an element of chance. So I’d start by looking at aesthetics that I felt were difficult or that I didn't like. I liked to place myself within a frame of images that I don't sit well with, or symbols within womenswear that are yucky aesthetically. Throughout the process, I used to work with numbers. I would design and then put different equations into the designs so that it wasn't so much my work. I still do that now but it's not as loud. So when I was doing my BA, I was very interested in exploring my dislike of a lot of over-the-top symbols and fits of femininity, like frills. But my practice is always changing.
Could you tell us more about your mathematical approach to design as a concept to introduce randomness?
I’ve always worked with a load of images and I assign numbers to those images. So back when I started, I would collect magazines and get thousands of images of every kind of womenswear product out there and just number them. Then I put them in a book and at a certain point within the design process I'd pick out numbers, assign those to an image and then the image would have to become part of my work; whether it’s the pattern, the finish or just forcing myself to work with a product like a mini dress. So it always depends what the rule that was set up is. Take a black leather mini skirt - it's so mundane, it's been done – so I think, how I can force myself to work with something like that?
It sounds like you quite enjoy challenging yourself…
I think so. It's so hard now to find something that excites you. We all have Instagram, we all have social media. It’s the same with my community of friends, the designers and people that I've met along the way. It's just this point of difference where you're just like, yes, everyone's searching for something new. You almost have a joke as a designer to not make it all about yourself. And so it's just a real joy when you get this one feeling where you set up a role and you've brought something else in. That to me is newness because you’ve forced yourself to work in a specific way.
And you're currently based in Melbourne?
Yes, that's correct! So I've been here… gosh, I've been here since we all had the Corona eruption last year. But yes, still in Melbourne and Australia.
What do you make of the art scene there?
Very active. I mean, now I feel like I'm a little bit more pulled away from that since being away from it for a year, coming back and then Corona. But it's very active in the way that the industry is quite differentiated. The womenswear here for example is completely different to overseas. Going overseas and working in companies, you really, really hunger for things that are finished nicely and done perfectly. But there’s a rawness being here where people are quite fluid with ideas, happy to share and work together.
You mentioned that you've met a lot of creative people along the way. Would you say you have a strong creative community and support network?
Yes, definitely. And with social media. But the main thing that keeps me going are the friends I've met along the way. I've met a lot of people through interning and had a lot of people keep in touch, which is amazing. It's so important having this perspective being here especially, so far away… It's important to remain connected. It’s really interesting that everyone's experience is quite shared these days and my best friends are people who are in the same industry. Especially because we're young designers, it's very interesting hearing other people's perspective working under other bosses. At the end of the day, it's all quite similar - everyone's just trying to get it done. A lot them are women that I’m friends with. The Fannings. They're also from Melbourne. We’re really good friends. We talk all the time and they obviously have a different perspective because they're in a different position (not really working for someone else) but the feelings are mutual. I think women really bring a specific touch to a piece of work. I've always felt like my best friends and sisters form the basis of my really good friends because of this shared perspective; there’s a strength in being a woman in a workplace. There has to be a strength to it. I think we have to look at it that way. Women do bring something different.
Are there any designers that you’re really into right now or that you feel mirror what you're trying to do?
I’m interested in the people behind the brands. I think everybody actually is their own brand these days, and within that itself we all share images. It’s that which I’m interested in. I like the energy of unfiltered images, and why people decide to share certain things. Curated or not. Having spent time at different companies, you very much do realise it’s the people behind the big names that are pushing the ideas, that are being used as pitches in the workplace.
Names I like? PZ – PZWorld. She’s an excellent example of a person navigating the space they’re in, and responding to where she is, to make work. She’s got a great energy that everyone loves to be around and respond to. I think Shahan of @archiving.stacks is incredible. ABRA as a brand, I think it’s really clever. His work feels really accessible. Also the former Vetement’s designer, Blake Barns. Him and I are trying to put together a clothing project. We both have a very specific aesthetic and are strong in our own ways, so we’ve designed an experiment where we meet every ten weeks to show each other our own separate work, for a fitting that will then mish-mash our work together. Then we repeat the process again. Are we trying to create hidden work for ourselves? We’re both trying to create a new aesthetic that we feel like we wouldn’t be able to do, unless we’re working this way. It’s like we’re blindly designing. It’s nice to work up until a point and then bring in the constraints you’ve set up for yourself.
Where do you source most of your inspiration?
It used to be all about things that I didn't like and sitting myself within that. Now I feel that because we’re all flooded with imagery, it takes a lot to be super excited. Often, I’ll see something and just become obsessed with that moment. And you're like, okay, that feeling that I just had- that moment - now I want to make clothes for that tiny moment. So for example, I was on the train in the morning and I saw this woman trying not to cry. She was going to work and she looked so put together and perfect but she didn't want anyone to see her. I was meters away from her and I noticed her doing this out the window. She didn't know me, she didn't see me seeing her. But I just thought that was the most strangely beautiful moment. And that's why I want to make clothes, for that delicate feeling, those tiny moments. How can I explore that in a super reserved, formalized way through clothing?
So would you say that conceptual meaning is important to you in your work?
If I’m getting the right feeling when I’m making work, I know it's right. A friend and I talk about this a lot: it’s not really about what other people's opinions are of your work, it's whether you get that feeling. It's responding to the need to make something. So you're not necessarily trying to make a conceptual statement. Perhaps I’m passing on a feeling? And maybe, in doing that, if the viewer caught that feeling, I wonder: would they see the world differently or would something shift? That’s it. That’s more the aim.
Can you tell us a little bit about your ‘Fashion Baggage’ collection?
That was the first collection I did. I was really inspired by a show by Martin Creed, that I saw in London. It killed me. It was called ‘What’s the point’. I was really inspired by that. ‘Fashion Baggage’, was all about feminine symbols, colours and forms. I was working with lots of pink tulle and butterflies, and looking at feminine symbols that were heavily explored in the 1950’s, that somehow seem to be used time and time again within the female context. This collection was making a comment about the comings and goings of imagery and symbols that are re-used over and over again, that signified ‘femininity’ in the past. So I came up with this idea that I would build this couch - these base dresses. And the idea was that this person, this woman, sort of became the couch that was in her bedroom. She would toss or discard looks onto the couch when she was done with them. The collection looked like a series of couches with full looks thrown on top of them. I wanted the collection to look heavy, and also to appear mentally overbearing. It was so interesting to see how the work was received. I really wanted the viewer to know that I was revolted by it all. That was my first ever experience of really trying to show something to an audience. I really respect that time.
How did sustainability come into that collection? Was there a “out with the old, in with the new” criticism there?
Yeah! I think the Martin Creed show really shaped me. I was very interested in developing systems. I really got on this path of analysing. Why are there all these formats for women? And symbols for us? Why has a ruffle become feminine? It used to be used in menswear. We use a lot of this stuff for womenswear and I really wanted to integrate that.
So why use fashion as your form of expression?
I’ve always liked the idea of telling a story. I think clothing, or clothing within a collection is like being drip fed a story. It’s a slow burning visual and it’s segmented and piece-meal. Clothing is also so loaded, which is amazing. If you’re into shirts, it’s never just a shirt, right? It’s the brand, the imagery and visuals of that season, it’s who works there, etcetera. How strange is that though? when you really break that down. What can we do to an item with our imagination? But then you have to also think: no, it is just a shirt. It’s really just a physical item. I think that’s fascinating.
What are your highlights from your time in luxury fashion?
The people that I met. I don't know whether it's the shared experience that brings you closer…you could work for a big company, but that company is nothing without the people – the people are the ones that drive it. It's the people that you meet along the way that are your community.
How do you think the fashion industry in Melbourne compares to Paris or London in your experience?
It’s a world away. It’s very different. There’s lots of tiny pockets of people here doing their own thing, which is amazing. They explore themselves and give themselves the time to do things they wouldn't normally be able to. It's very easy living in Australia. Yet you can blink and a whole year's gone by, while you've just chilled. There’s a lot of beautiful, fragile ideas here that I wish could be shared, but they sometimes don't have the platform.
How do you feel about the luxury fashion industry in general now?
In some weird way I feel optimistic about it. Like with social media, there’s so many people speaking up about lots of different issues. And yes, it’s still disturbing in a lot of ways and I don't know whether it will sustain itself. It’s healthy to realize that fashion isn’t everything. The coolest people are those that stand for something.
You mentioned that you’re hoping to go more freelance earlier. Are you interested in starting a label too?
Yes, I am actually. My passion is consulting and pitching creative ideas for collections. I feel free now since shifting my working priorities, re-aligning who I’m working for and analysing how I’ve been spending my time. I’m enjoying the new challenge of pattern-making for myself and for my new team. It’s scary, but I’ve just had to think, I’ve got to take that risk and make work for myself, to see what will open up next for me.
What are you most looking forward to now, in life and your career?
I'm excited to see the work that's going to come out of this situation. It's been such a long time since I've made physical work for myself. I'm really excited to be like, okay, what do I want to do now? I'm excited for the womenswear I'm going to make.