A Q&A with Atelier E.B’s Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie, Laura Gardner – Flash Art Online, January, 2017 (in full)
What is seductive about fashion as creative material for you?
L: Fashion operates at such an accelerated pace, all the ideas and all the craft flash by and the manic consumer cycle obscures its dept. But when you freezeframe, unpack it slowly and give it the attention it warrants it is incredibly rich. On closer look, you discover how much can be expressed within the restrictions of the business, how it reflects and transforms it’s time, and that it operates as a kind of double agent for women’s suppression and emancipation.
Part of what makes it rewarding to use as creative material is that its potential is still by and large unrecognised – the surface look of fashion is so distracting. And the critical discourse around it is relatively poor – you have the fashion world which operates with almost zero honest self-reflection, or the art world which tries to impose an inappropriate structure of value on to it from outside.
Beside that you have the experience of wearing something on your body and personally integrating it into your life and identity.
Atelier E.B work from inside both fashion and art contexts, we wear the clothes we make, and we take the time to think about them before and after they are made, more time that most designers would ever be able to do because of commercial pressure. And because of this we recognise fashion’s potential and can work in an area that is still enjoyably undefined. Fashion’s tendency towards reinvention is useful to us too.
B: I prefer the verb ‘to fashion, manufacture, fabricate’ over the ‘latest fashion craze or trend’. Atelier E.B fashion garments that we believe are perennial, transcending the latest fad. When designing, I am initially led by the textile. Lucy and I grew up in a textile nation – granted this climate has drastically changed in our short lifetime however we absorbed the tail end and I believe this is present in our work together. For now, Atelier E.B utilise the expertise and knowledge that we have left in the Scottish textiles industry mixed with that of the Belgian industry to create no nonsense garments for ourselves, our friends and our customers.
No (one) individual owns the basic blocks to fashion design therefore this creates a very open ecology of creativity.
Atelier EB often put research methods into practice, what is your working process in putting together a collection or exhibition? And why is it important for you to document these projects in publications?
L: Can we narrow this question down to either collection or exhibition? I’ll deal with collection here.
Our working process: for the last collection, there were certain subjects that we found interesting either together or separately. We worked apart (in Brussels and Edinburgh), developing our ideas on these themes into one to one scale paper mock-ups – rather like the clothes burned to honour Chinese ancestors. These we put them together and looked at them as a group, and from there start to build the cohesive character of the collection, interconnecting the ideas through different components with different levels of quality. The initial paper mock-ups are especially useful in planning intarsia knitwear and to Beca as a printmaker. By incorporating them into our work we show that the process is real and idiosyncratic, not just the obligatory ‘back story’ that products need today to sell in niche markets to micro-connoisseurs for inflated prices. We see the research, the production, and the dissemination of a collection as interconnected, and each is a pretext for the other. Expressing how we arrived at certain ideas is just as important as the finished designs, which are in themselves conventional, there is no extravagant silhouettes or subversion of rules. But that is not to say that what informs them is not conceptual, and presenting the ideas behind them in other forms like books keeps the clothes as simple as we like them to be.
B: Studying design at art school we were never encouraged to write about our work – we were taught that our portfolio spoke for itself. When I worked in education and my design students took joint crits with fine art students it was very apparent that the experience traumatized the designers. Fine art students are expected to write about their work, they could support their work with words even if it was bullshit. Observing Lucy’s solo work has taught me the importance of writing and evidencing what we do. Even though I still feel insecure about my writing – it can be emancipating.
Our publications allow us transparency, to acknowledge and rightfully credit those whom we have been influenced by and the teams of individuals we work with – this is not standard practice in the fashion industry. The books allow for a wider audience to see and read about our work. Our research, collections and events live on through print.
L: Good point Beca – we also know that fashion serves on so many levels and some people prefer to read about and look at clothes rather than wear them themselves, something we totally understand.
What is the methodology behind how and when you disseminate your collections?
L: When – there is no timetable, but we work slowly because we let things develop at the pace it needs around our other work and lives.
How – we have the clothes photographed or drawn for either a specific publication or to post online. Nothing is fixed, and with each new collection we try something new – working with different graphic design, photographers, models and mannequins. I sometimes write a piece of fiction inspired by the final atmosphere of the collection. The ‘Inventors of Tradition’ collections I and II both had exhibitions connected to them and books documenting the complete projects with primary research and interviews. Again, the clothes are something of a pretext to do other things we like to do together and with collaborators.
I also often make drawings of the clothes because of my interest in fashion illustration. I believe that a drawing can convey the same amount of information that a fashion photograph can, to both the public and industry, and that we have just lost the ability to read them in the way they were before being superceeded by photography.
B: The methodology behind how and when we disseminate each of our collections is always shifting, there is no set formula other than not to set a formula. The recent experience of showing our portfolio on Instagram has been interesting as nor I or Lucy had previously taken part in social media.
I often act as the ‘stylist’ enlisting photographers and graphic designers to allow me to create my vision parallel to their invaluable contribution. In our most recent publication I came up with concepts for visual stories that related to areas of our research within the book, then handed them over to another team to create, giving me the opportunity to see it through someone else’s eyes. We not only styled our new collection, I also styled the collection’s research into a 14 page shoot.
L: I’d also like to mention that Beca’s approach to styling has had a big influence on my own practice – for recent shows I’ve been thinking about how, like curators, stylists are power-brokers now, as well as the idea of ‘styling’ my paintings by making elaborate scenographies to show them in.
What does it mean to exhibit in a gallery space for fashion objects? What does art’s critical framework offer Atelier EB?
L: It can be part of broader discourse around showing design objects in a gallery or museum, where hierarchies of status dictate how it should be read. Designer brands advertise in art magazines and court the art world to elevate their products to the rank of art, and are often marketed as ‘limited edition’, to create more value.
Our clothes and objects are extremely limited edition but we have never marketed them as such, and what interests us about showing in galleries is being able to tap into the art worlds strong social network and taking the products directly to consumers with as little mediation (and overheads) as possible. Through showing in galleries we get financial and moral support to bring our work to potential customers without having to submit to the pressure and self-interest of the fashion industry, with all its gatekeeps in the form of editors, buyers, and stylists. The art rather than fashion scene offers a degree of flexibility that we need, to not be a real brand (while still making clothes that people want).
What can contemporary fashion learn from dress history? And how do you engage with this history and tradition as conceptual basis of your work?
L: Just because I’m interested in, for instance, the interwar period, it does not mean I have a mood board covered in Great Gatsby film stills and flappers in tennis dresses. Rather, the geo-politics, technology and crime fiction of the period yield more to think about and process than just lifting a certain visual look. For example, Madeleine Vionnet – I had dismissed her designs as just red carpet party gowns, until through her chronicler Betty Kirke, I discovered the originality of her methods and working practices. This act of penetrating under Vionnet’s surface was an inspiring experience, just as inspiring as when I got to know about fashion through meeting Beca in the early 200s. With Vionnet one discovers that what does not look overtly Modernist can be much more so than that which shouts about it. She offered a personal vision of emancipation that, unlike most Modernists, was not about negating femininity as backward and irrational. Fashion can learn from history not to go by appearances, and that when one works with the same old unquestioned tropes one is reinforcing hierarchies of class, race and sex.
B: I was instinctively drawn to the seminal work of Bonnie Cashin, but it was only recently that I was able to read about Cashin’s process in depth with the publication Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It by Stephaine Lake, a personal friend to Bonnie. It is uncanny the similarities between Cashin and Atelier E.B. This is not to say our designs are like that of Bonnie Cashin’s – its more in our ethos, philosophically – its inspiriting and significant to discover and uncover others that have been protagonists (vanguards) and outsiders to an industry and whom made it work for them.
There is often a feminist orientation to your work, how do you relate to dress and its history as a women’s industry?
L: Examining history from a feminist point of view is especially rich for fashion, as a field with many great female producers that are now being written about seriously. Academic writers like Elizabeth Wilson, Caroline Evans, Tag Gronberg, Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina all explore fashions’ inherent radicalism instead of regarding it only of interest because of its proximity to existing grand narratives. As if fashion is only relevant because male figures like Mallarmé, Benjamin, Loos or Simmel permit it. Atelier E.B want to be part of the project that uncovers lost histories and celebrates marginalised figures, especially women. But also local artists from Scotland which we feel are under-appreciated in a country that has a rather tortured relationship with style.
Does your work attempt to critique or destabilise of fashion’s market framework?
L: We don’t start from such a negative or conceptual starting point. Primarily, we make clothes for ourselves and our friends for working and that make us feel strong. That we can only go about that in a way which ignores the traditional fashion market framework is secondary. If that is read as inherently critical then it shows how entrenched those market rules are.
B: When together, Lucy and I naturally critique the fashion industry however we are more preoccupied with finding a way for Atelier E.B to flourish with our set values and ethics. This is more invigorating and empowering than critiquing.