Morwenna Darwell hails from the South West of Scotland, where she grew up on a farm which belonged to a vibrant community supporting adults with special needs. “When I was young we had no TV and I was encouraged to explore, be creative and use my imagination as much as possible,” she explains enthusiastically of this unusual upbringing. She benefitted from the “rich tapestry of life” surrounding her, from milking cows and bee-keeping to doing community plays and working with paint and wood. Particularly the seasonal hoard of international volunteers coming to support the individuals with special needs made a profound impact on Morwenna’s life, and she traces her eclectic aesthetic to that period of her life. “As a teenager, I was the most hippy of my towny friends and the most towny of my hippy friends.”
Country life meant growing up in her brothers’ hand-me-downs, but Morwenna remembers precious fashion inputs via trips to the local town where she would see sparkly-faced models on posters in Tammy Girl. “I was completely drawn to them,” she admits, and the obsession for the allure of fashion was further nourished when she modelled through her teens. “Additionally, working with my hands and using colour and texture to create things has always been when I’ve been my happiest,” she explains. Morwenna enrolled at Leith School of Art, and a degree in fashion at Edinburgh College of Art followed.
“In art school I spent years worrying that I didn’t have a clear aesthetic and I wondered what my essential identity as a designer was. It was only at the RCA that I eventually settled on not deciding, preferring instead to explore honestly all that inspired me and to trust that this would form a true representation of my world.”
Both Leith and Edinburgh gave Morwenna an “extremely thorough” grounding in art and design, with an intense schedule and excellent teaching. “It still impresses me that we went from learning how to thread an industrial sewing machine on the first day to sewing our entire collection 3 years later!” she says. Transitioning to the Royal College of Art in London was — if anything — even more intensive, as the Masters college houses some of the most talented and dedicated students in the world. “There is a real pressure to raise your game,” she admits. “In general, however, it is a wonderful place to discuss ideas with your peers across disciplines and the many guest lecturers.”
“My woman, my collection’s protagonist, has lived a vibrant life of love, excitement and disappointment: her looks are indeed fading, her clothes are indeed worn-down; she is indeed becoming unshapely: but she has no intention of becoming invisible.”
During her studies, Morwenna interned at Michael Kors, Erdem and Palmer//Harding, and she found each of them “extremely interesting and rewarding experiences.” “I have a particular respect for Palmer//Harding and they’ve since become my go-to for in-the-know fashion advice,” she says. Besides, she was awarded the Laura Ashley Scholarship as she embarked on her MA at the RCA. We discuss support schemes in the overpriced city of London, and Morwenna is not hesitant to argue how essential they have been for her practice. “The costs of living in London are… limitless,” she reflects. “Three weeks before I started at the RCA I was deliberating whether to cancel my place due to lack of funds as I was unable to get financial support from my parents.” It was only after being awarded the Laura Ashley scholarship that she booked her train to London, and she later began working at the RCA Bar and received further support from the Dewar Award. “I do not see how my masters at RCA would have been possible without the generous support from these charities, so for this I’ll be eternally grateful!”
Morwenna designs in an eclectic, lively and idiosyncratic fashion, with a clear personal aesthetic that includes fur applique mesh, vivid leopard prints and old furniture-esque textiles. Her garments are curious but high fashion in their expression, and the styling reveals a historical awareness of womens’ fashion through many decades. “The notion of purity contrasted with ugly, beauty in contrast with pain, and the extraordinary within and against the mundane…” she says rather vaguely about her aesthetic; “I like things that are emotive, tactile and a wee bit tacky!”
Romantically archeological in her expression, Morwenna’s graduate collection takes its starting point with the non-memory of her grandparents: growing up without them, she would spend a great deal of time imagining their characteristics and traits. “I imagined them all to be wonderful characters and story tellers but locked away in Victorian style old people’s’ homes. So, in honour of my childhood image of them, I wanted to give them the respect I felt they deserved,” she says, as she explains her interest in the older members of our society. She feels that increasingly, people past middle age are subject to what she calls “representational homogeneity, both in the media and — more dangerously — our own private perceptions.” The image of the loathsome, politically fickle and physically faltering human is crystallizing ever so much faster as youth is continuously idealised, and they are thus renounced as a fashionable subject. “I feel that this homogenisation deprives people of their identity, castigates them to social oblivion and dismisses their claim to power, uniqueness, beauty, dynamism and positive social agency,” she argues. “In a culture where we are defined and valued by how hard we work, those who are now outwith the duty of labour graduate to a new labour: that of declaring their ability to still have value.”
“I say a woman is a woman. A woman is inspiring to me in her 20s, 30s, 50s and 80s.”
Her collection transpired from a series of images by photographer Alexandra Bondi de Antoni, photographing his grandmother with amazing results. Drawn to their authenticity and vulnerability, Morwenna began working with an older woman herself, and she became her muse through the design period, featuring in several shoots. It presents a dynamic and positive view on the older subject in fashion, released from loungewear and overall sartorial renunciation. It opposes the homogenisation of becoming older. “My woman, my collection’s protagonist, has lived a vibrant life of love, excitement and disappointment: her looks are indeed fading, her clothes are indeed worn-down; she is indeed becoming unshapely: but she has no intention of becoming invisible,” she says: “Her current identity — as well as her current look — is a collage of all her previous identities. But the very things that she employs to feel her youth — when she was included and valued — are the very things which undermine that illusion, for her garments themselves are in a very real sense of literal decay.”
‘Decay’ resonates in her upcycled textiles, which she either makes or sources from “the dark corners of market stalls”. Reappropriated, they become a bridge between a vintage and forward-looking way of dressing, and Morwenna admits that there’s been much speculation with regards to her ‘target audience’. “I have been asked many times if my collection’s target market is an elderly woman or I’m often asked what I want to say about older women in the fashion industry,” she says. “I say a woman is a woman. A woman is inspiring to me in her 20s, 30s, 50s and 80s. Any woman with a story has the potential to inspire me, but it just so happened that it was an elderly woman that I explored this time.”
In the future, Morwenna would like to start her own label, but plans to develop her knowledge and understanding of the industry by working for a label or house after graduating. In June, she was ecstatic to be offered a job as a junior designer for Gucci — she writes enthusiastically from Rome, where she moved in July. “And what’s to come? I just want to absorb my new life, learn Italian as quickly as possible and really learn and develop in my profession,” she concludes.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
Images courtesy of Morwenna Darwell
Final shoot by Edmund Fraser