Representing the creative future

Michaela Stark addresses fashion’s sizing problem

Take a look at an exclusive shoot for Michaela Stark's latest collection photographed by Carlijin Jacobs and styled by Ai Kamoshita

If you’ve stumbled  upon Michaela Stark’s Instagram page, you’ll grasp that she’s not camera shy. She picks up the Zoom call, embracing its notoriously frenzied opening,  imparting a bright-eyed smile, with the backdrop of her London studio, a rail of elegant corsets and Swarovski crystal toiles hanging behind her. She is excitable and enthusiastic, her face ushered close to the camera. There’s a curiosity that her offline persona might negate the fearlessness of her online one, but she is unfiltered and the very same Michaela as the one you might expect behind her social handle. In front of the lens, she really is in fact, at ease.

Photography Carlijn Jacobs , Styling Ai Kamoshita

To limit Stark to simply one profession wouldn’t seem right, rather, it would undermine the scope of her work as a designer, photographer, couturier, model and creative director. If the shoes fit, wear them all. But what neatly joins her roster of skills together is the feeling of empowerment her work induces, not only to herself as she poses before the camera, dressed in her own lingerie designs, but to the recipients of her images. Put simply, Stark shoots herself wearing her own lingerie, which she shares on Instagram, but at the core of her work, she’s shifting the reputation of this fashion genre, emphasizing the curves and arcs of the body and the creases in our flesh that society has conditioned us to bury away in layers of self-doubt and hatred.

“For lingerie to be inclusive to everyone and fit the clients individually, it has to be couture.” – Michaela Stark

With the turn of the next decade, fashion still has a sizing problem. This is not breaking news, and if only it were fake news. The enduring issues surrounding body image and the narrowed perception that beauty only comes in size 6  feels bygone for a society so progressive with its technological innovations and advances. But how far can we truly advance if the understanding of our own selves is too entrenched with ideals of the past? For Stark, it’s about tackling these misconceptions one corset at a time. “It’s rooted deeper than just who the lingerie is intended for these days. Creating a consumer brand based on lingerie, I’ve met so much criticism because there’s two sectors: one, is high-end and marketed at a really high sales point, usually created for a specific range of smaller girls and doesn’t fit every shape. The second kind is the more inclusive type that has a great message behind it, but is so cheap. For lingerie to be inclusive to everyone and fit the clients individually, it has to be couture.”

“It’s such a personal thing I’m exploring, facing all of the things I feel so insecure about in my body; all the things I didn’t feel great about and trying to make my brain understand that they are beautiful.” – Michaela Stark

Stark’s maverick approach to couture is holding a pedestal to a new and more intimate kind. Her intricate pieces sculpt the body in chiffons, ribbons, bows, and silk organza, fragmenting the flesh playfully by cutting across the folds of the skin to distort the pedestrian way our undergarments frame the body. This is what Stark refers to as her “body-morphing aesthetic,” otherwise known as an inspiring invitation towards the viewer to embrace their own skin. “It’s such a personal thing I’m exploring, facing all of the things I feel so insecure about in my body; all the things I didn’t feel great about and trying to make my brain understand that they are beautiful.” Creating and shooting go hand-in-hand for Stark’s process. “It was a very natural step for me to set it in front of the camera because I started to understand that putting sample size girls in my garments wasn’t the way to bring across my message. I put so much effort into making the clothes so beautiful, I think the person who is intended to be wearing them really needs to understand that and feel it in their veins. And that started with me.”

“I never had access to lingerie as a plus-size girl in Brisbane at the time. It was never really something that I felt like I could buy into because no one made lingerie that was affordable for my size” – Michaela Stark

Is it a cathartic experience? “Absolutely,” she shares. “It’s helped me work through a lot with my own body. I feel like my body has changed since I started doing this –  I don’t know if it actually has physically or if it’s my perception of it – but, there’s been a lot of inner torment to get to the point where I’m at now.” Tracing her anguish back to her early teens, Stark recalls the unsettling experience that came with finding her first bra. “I got my boobs when I was like 12-years-old,” she shares frankly, interrupted by a soft laugh. “It was a disaster. I started going bra shopping and I remember going to the most basic store, with absolutely no idea what I was doing. I got a Size A cup that did not fit. I used to wear it under my school uniform, a thick, heavy linen uniform, with buttons up the neck and a little tie. I would have that indentation where it would be flat down by chest, a bump, then followed by another bump because the bra was cutting so bad. And every time I moved, my boobs would just fall out all over the place.” Her tale of teen turmoil – albeit universal –  prompted her interest in lingerie and the underwear market, impelled to solve this very problem. Alongside her obsessions with Burlesque growing up, Stark felt frustrated by a lack of inclusivity. “I never had access to lingerie as a plus-size girl in Brisbane at the time. It was never really something that I felt like I could buy into because no one made lingerie that was affordable for my size,” the frustration thus prompting her entrance into the fashion industry for its lacking diversity.

“The [fashion industry’s] structure is so unnecessarily stressed all the time, working to create these collections that no one asked for. It’s detrimental to society.”

Soon after, she got accepted into “one of the only fashion universities in Brisbane” and became absorbed by the design process, marking the first chapter in her discovery of how garments interact with the body. “I used to create clothes that represented the ugly, grotesque body – and by that I mean very natural, but over the top – with lots of period stains and huge breasts.” It was during her tenure that Stark quickly became “obsessed with Europe,” pitching between countries in a haphazard pursuit: completing her Erasmus in Italy’s fashion capital, moving back and forth between Brisbane and Paris – at which she was later kicked out – only to make the move across to London after her graduation, securing the role of Head Seamstress for an independent British brand. Independence served Stark well, and while adapting to the industry’s mercurial pace, she eventually grew apathetic to its taxing beat. “The structure is so unnecessarily stressed all the time, working to create these collections that no one asked for. It’s detrimental to society.” Instead, she made haste with her own pathway, transferring her detailed seamstressing skills to her couture garments that revere the female form.

“I find it inspiring how the designs of Michaela are not only designs but give a really new perspective to the female body.” – Ai Kamoshita

Stark’s practice is evolving. “I normally work with a mirror on set. I’m wearing the clothes that I’ve made myself and so I need to keep an eye on them and make sure they fit right. Modelling and being in control of the clothes is a really hard dynamic, so the mirror helps me with posing. Seeing myself really helps me get into my universe and explore my body and how my clothing is reacting with my body.” But change is in the air for Stark’s reformist work. “I’m ready to take the next step and embrace collaborations, and also do it on other women.” In lieu of the transition, she was ready to understand how others perceived her universe. Partnering with photographer Carlijn Jacobs, and stylist Ai Kamoshita, the latter whom Stark met during her early years in London as an intern, grouped together to shoot her latest collection, a labour of love from the past year. To hand over the creative control was an exercise of deep trust, which for Jacobs, meant only furthering Stark’s sense of power, rather than taking it away. She shares, “I find it inspiring how the designs of Michaela are not only designs but give a really new perspective to the female body. There is a lot of form in my work so to have these shapes in front of my lens creates a very abstract image. For me, it was important to show the modernity, the movement, and the point of view of Michaela herself, the way she is trying to influence the viewer.” For stylist Kamoshita, the collaboration also marked a turning-point in her work. “The styling for this shoot wasn’t so much about fashion,  but more directed towards focusing on creating shapes with her body. For example, I have gathered some shoes with strings that I could tie on her legs, added some transparent plastic cord and LED lights strings to enhance a body morphing effect. It was a very unusual way of working and I enjoyed it a lot.”

 

“My clothing doesn’t necessarily fit into the fashion world as a traditional fashion brand would. I don’t create Ready-to-Wear, I don’t stock in stores. I’m a designer who doesn’t fit within the schedule or the business structure that a lot of designers do,” – Michaela Stark

Walking to her own beat, her seasonless method allows her to really think about what she’s putting out into the world, particularly in the strange epoch of present. “People feel the need to put out creative work that they haven’t themselves had the time to really process and to really think about its place and value in the industry. I’ve been on collaborations before where, understandably, people were so hard to work so fast, just get the shot, move on to the next image without it really being an exploration of what’s in front of them, thinking about the best thing that they could put up there.” Following her collaboration with Beyonce’s Black is King and her 2018 video Apesh*t, plans for an exhibition, titled ‘Inside Me’ an exposition into the social perceptions of beauty with artist Alina Zamanova were postponed to this year. With the collaboration set to open in November, Stark was forced to cancel due to the second national lockdown affecting London. “The point of having an exhibition, for me, was to share the details and craftsmanship that goes into each garment,” she notes, stressing the importance of physicality.“This often gets lost in the online world. Unfortunately, it’s very hard for me to be recognised as a designer by my peers as they misunderstand the “body morphing” effect that I do to be mostly a result of my photography. While it’s true that the way I photograph myself can accentuate the body morphing, the true hero of the story is the garments. It’s the garments that give me the shape, as well as the ultra-feminine delicate aesthetic.”

“While it’s true that the way I photograph myself can accentuate the body morphing, the true hero of the story is the garments. It’s the garments that give me the shape, as well as the ultra-feminine delicate aesthetic.” – Michaela Stark

Despite the pandemic, it’s been a good year for the multihyphenate. Or rather, she’s trialing out ‘artist’ for the moment, during her tenancy at Lee Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation. “I’m here as an artist and not a designer which is really interesting for me because I’ve never considered myself as that before.” Labels aside, at the time of the industry’s moral exorcism, Michaela Stark’s message couldn’t have been more timely in exposing industry prejudices and outdated beliefs towards lingerie. Michaela Stark’s body-morphing lingerie is progressive, unadulterated and conscientious. And while its origins existed as a personal agenda for Stark, the message is a pervading one for the hope of a future where, as we undress ourselves, we strip to the floor our own imperfections and insecurities.

1 Granary

Magazine Issue 6

With unprecedented honesty and depth, 1 Granary Issue 6 dives into the work and lives of fashion designers today. As a response to the construction of desire and personality cults that govern our industry, the magazine steps away from the conventional profiles and editorials, focussing instead on raw work and anonymous, unfiltered testimonies. For the first time ever, readers are given a truthful insight into the process, dreams, fears, hardships, and struggles of today’s creatives.

Buy Now