Representing the creative future

Designing from an imagined yesterday for a real tomorrow

OTB Prize winner and Parsons graduate Annaliese Griffith-Jones discusses designing with an imagined past in mind, why she doesn’t toile, and her approach to the sustainability issue.

‘Armchair’ nostalgia’, a term coined by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, refers to the fondness we feel for things that never were, or things we’ve certainly never experienced. It’s also what served as the departure point for Parsons MFA Fashion Design and Society graduate Annaliese Griffith-Jones, a designer who seeks to playfully “distort memories through objects, creating something unusual.” Rich with universally ‘nostalgic’ motifs like wallpaper prints, and familiar silhouettes, her work serves as an abstracted tribute to the decor of her grandparents’ house, as well as to the 1960s and ‘70s, eras that passed long before the designer’s birth. 

When it comes to how her design journey started, however, her memories are more concrete. “I’ve been designing as far back as I can remember, I must have been absolutely tiny when I started. My notepad was fluffy pink and my designs were absolutely abhorrent!’ laughs Annaliese. Years later, ‘abhorrent’ is no longer a word with which you’d think to label her work; though you might argue some of that notepad’s joyful kitsch lives on in the eclectic, bright patterns that distinguish her designs. 

“Being in an environment like New York allowed me to really experiment; there were no restrictions placed on me or what I was supposed to be. I could take more risks and keep things playful.”

But there’s a thread of matured intellect that runs through her work, preventing viewers from easily placing it in the aesthetic categories of ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ aesthetics that we’re familiar with today. It’s something that Annaliese developed while in education, both on her BA at University of Technology Sydney and on her MFA at Parsons. Though she deems the institutions to be similarly demanding, it was during her time at the latter that she really came into her own: ‘Being in an environment like New York allowed me to really experiment; there were no restrictions placed on me or what I was supposed to be. I could take more risks and keep things playful,” she says. 

This playfulness manifests in the designer’s approach to textiles, all of which the designer develops herself. “It’s really important for me to create my own fabrics,” she says. “That personal touch is really special and often gets lost in broader fashion contexts.’ Taking on such a task was no mean feat, entailing no end of experimentation.  ‘It takes time to hone a new skill,’ she continues. ‘For example, hand-pouring my own silicone involved many hours of sampling,” as she sought a means to turn what is typically considered an industrial material into a luxury product.

Just as crucial to the designer’s process is her toying with shape, often subtly distorting otherwise traditional silhouettes. Take, for example, her 2D dresses: familiar at first glance, they evade the typical expectations of how a dress should function, sitting on the models like clothes for life-size cut-out paper dolls—a little too large, a little too stiff. ‘I find it freeing not to have to define my garments, it allows me the freedom to play around. These garments, for example, are inspired by concepts like collage and bricolage more than they are by traditional dressmaking techniques,’ says Annaliese. ‘I don’t work to a traditional toile; instead, I tend to get completely obsessed with things, like my use of silicone. I like to experiment with unusual shapes and see what comes of that.’

“To instigate change in the system, fashion consumers need to be exposed to tangible examples of the environmental damage being caused.”

Annaliese’s practice, however, is not solely concerned with aesthetics; she also sees her handcrafted approach as one of many possible keys to the sustainability issue that fashion currently faces. With tackling the climate crisis now top of the industry’s agenda, young designers need to take their ecological responsibilities into account more than ever. ‘I think it’s important for all of us to interpret sustainability in our own way. We all need to be aware of where we sit within the industry and how we’re going to participate.’ For Annaliese, this means avoiding mass production in favour of one-off garments, each made with their longevity in mind. Responsibility doesn’t just come down to the designers; consumers also have their fair share. “There needs to be a greater understanding and appreciation of the fashion’s global environmental impact. We often hear the facts, but, if consumers aren’t aware of the physical extent of the impact, the message will have little to no residual bearing on their habits. To instigate change in the system, fashion consumers need to be exposed to tangible examples of the damage being caused.”

Since graduating from Parsons, Annaliese has completed a graduate apprenticeship at Alexander Wang, working freelance in parallel. Her most significant post-graduate achievement, however, came just last week, when she received the OTB Award at International Talent Support Contest in Trieste. While she acknowledges the challenges that lie ahead when it comes to finding her footing in an industry whose structures are often so fixed, she prefers to keep her focus in the here and now, even allowing for ample time to cut loose and wander her adopted home city, New York. ‘I think it’s so important to have time off, to feed and nourish your own creative integrity and take a step back from fashion—it can be such an insular microcosm.’ Who knows, then, what nostalgias the designer will call down the line? Perhaps it will be fond recollections of these moments of urban flanerie that shape her future designs.