“I’ve always had a thing for underwear,” says Elliss, sitting across a wooden table at her bright atelier in East London, wearing one of the black rib tops from the last collection. “I started thinking about jersey,” she goes on, “from a sustainability perspective, buying second hand is great. However when it comes to jersey, especially underwear – it’s not so desirable.” Designing more than undergarments, her newly established homonymous brand of sustainable clothes is the proof that fashion and sustainability can speak the same language.
The final year of the BA Womenswear Fashion Design at Central Saint Martins was a decisive time for Elliss. Going through a path of experiments during the BA in search of a direction to follow, it was only in the final year that she began to find her voice. “I had seen the waste that can come from creating a collection and it really affected me. I began searching for solutions to reduce my footprint,” she states. “It is only now, a few years on, that I know what I want to say.”
One year after graduating, the idea for the brand was taking shape and the launch happened shortly after. “I felt that there was a gap in the market for sustainable brand with a political voice, and I wanted to make a positive contribution to the industry,” asserts Elliss. The undergarments led to t-shirts and jumpers, beautiful fine art inspired prints, and an aesthetic that values natural and non-retouched beauty. “I use organic and recycled fabrics to create pieces that I would like to wear but cannot find made in a conscious way. I produce the clothes in the same building as I design, which allows me to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint and oversee the whole production process.”
The images in the collections are taken from 18th and 19th century portraiture and magazines and books about the nude. The designer selects the images and then works them into the patterns for unusual but flattering placements. “This one is photographic,” says Elliss as she picks out one printed t-shirt from the recent collection. “I use the garments as a format for collage – It’s about the way the imagery sits on the body and where.” Sometimes, she also paints over the photographs, which is remnant of a fine art background. “My mum was an art teacher. She ran life-drawing classes and taught me how to draw from the nude, so I guess that’s a subconscious influence,” says Elliss with a smile.
Alongside the nudes and the old imagery, 18th and 19th century activists keep capturing the designer’s eyes. “I’m inspired by people who spoke out before others did. I think it’s amazing that people can voice an opinion when others are ignoring the subject,” asserts Elliss. Anna Kingsford, an anti-vivisectionist vegetarian activist who lived during the 19th century, inspired the Anna Body in her first collection. Vegan and deeply sensitive towards animals’ rights, Elliss works and lives her values and convictions, but wishes to make it a subtle statement. “It’s hard to get the right balance. I want to make a comment but in my own way.”
The philosophy of ELLISS is to design clothes where the environmental impact is as low as possible, captivating it’s customers by their design and not necessarily by the ethos of the brand. For Elliss, working under sustainable values should be something that is acknowledged along the way. “Unconscious clothing,” as she likes to call it, “is a play on conscious clothing, but with a kind of satirical perspective.” In other words, it means people who buy her clothes do it for their aesthetic and are unaware of the ethos of the brand until they want to find out more about it.
Visual communication is very important to the brand. Elliss works with models that she can relate to in some way. In her words, “I think it’s really important to show the girls as they are and not use beauty retouching. It’s about the girl and how she wears the clothes with a natural presence.” Elliss works with stylist Patricia Villirillo, Creative Director at Pylot Magazine who contributes to this vision. “The problem with the Internet is that there are so many images circulating all the time, and people shoot a lot, quickly to fulfil the demand. I think that there’s much more validity in taking time. I think imperfections are what make people beautiful and interesting, and make imagery richer.”
The brand is developing and growing, Elliss says she is too as part of the process. “I am exploring womanhood from multiple perspectives.” Her pieces are currently stocked with LN-CC concept store in Dalston and on her own ecommerce platform. At the moment, the designer is working on the production for the second collection and designing the third, which will launch later this year.
As difficult as it is to be sustainable in a non-sustainable fashion industry, Elliss remains positive and hopeful. “I think it’s just about playing that small part and trying to do the thing that you love – which is being creative – in a way that makes you feel that you have a positive contribution. So, for me, I don’t think I could work in any other way.”
Words – Maria Lopes
Photography – Morgan Hill Murphy
Styling – Patricia Villirillo
Sculpture – Anousha Payne
Hair – Sky Cripps Jackson
Makeup – Robyn Fitzsimons, Kayla Feeney, Emilie Louizides
Film – Tyro Heath
Music – Nikolas Babic
Scan images of work in development by Claire Lemaigre