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Body Talk With Sinéad O’Dwyer

Words Ashley Clarke
Photography Ottilie Landmark

Sinéad O’Dwyer is willowy and bright-eyed, her messy red hair tied on top of her head. She has a delightful whiff of mad genius about her – pottering about her studio like a kind of Irish Dr Frankenstein and tinkering with her various clunky, life-sized body moulds she has made to cast her clothing and fitting the parts together to demonstrate how it works. A translucent silicone breast dangles from the screen behind her, and the small desk she rents at the studio is flanked by boxes upon boxes of samples and zines she has made, as well as an industrial-looking degassing machine that sits quietly by the window.

A recent graduate from the MA Fashion Design course at the Royal College of Art, O’Dwyer’s final collection was borne out of a dissatisfaction with the way clothes are made with a particular (read: thin and flat) body shape in mind. “In fashion, we pattern cut on very flat bodies, so when you buy a garment and it’s made for someone that’s a size 6 to 8 or something, most places just grade the garment up,” she says. “So I worked with this idea that when you’re wearing a garment—especially a structured garment—you’re kind of wearing somebody else’s body on top of your own, because you’re being forced into this ideal shape that someone has decided on. So we’re all kind of wearing these bodies on top of our own, and I wanted to make that literal.”

She began by making a body cast of her friend and muse Jade Bruce-Linton, whose shape O’Dwyer describes as ‘very three-dimensional’. Crafting a fibreglass cast of Jade’s torso which captured all the folds of skin and its texture, O’Dwyer then funnelled silicone into the mould to create a kind of wearable replica of part of Jade’s body. “I thought it would be a lot easier, and that I’d be able to make so many variations of different bodies,” she says. The reality was that after spending three months making a cast of half of Jade’s torso, it wasn’t as straightforward as that.

”When you don’t pattern cut well, then you’re not being sustainable. You’ve made larger sizes to look like you do larger sizes but nobody larger is actually going to buy it because you haven’t put the same consideration into the fit.”

When she explains the process in depth, it’s easy to see why. “First I use alginate [a liquid casting gel], and cast it on the body. I then use an oil-based clay and paint that into the cast to get the detail and texture of the skin, then I pour more clay into the cast,” she explains. “I then turn that over and clean that off and I’m left with a brown clay version of the body. Then you start making the silicone cast from it. So you put a gel coat, like on acrylic nails, and use that to capture all the details from the surface of the sculpture, and start fibre-glassing on the top of that, giving part of the mould. After cleaning out all of the clay, you’re left with the negative space that you can pour the silicone in. Then you have to sand it all and drill the holes,” she says. “It takes forever, essentially.”

Still, O’Dwyer persisted, perfecting her techniques and creating new ones, and began casting silicone around pastel-coloured silks that are frozen into the natural folds of the body. “With this technique, the body ends up moulding the garment as opposed to the garment moulding the body,” she explains. The result is a sublime collection of clothing that takes the forms of the female body and sticks a crowbar into the narrow view of what the female body ‘should’ look like, cracking it wide open into something much more representative.

“In my mind, the worst thing was that I didn’t look like the picture of the person in the clothes, but the reason things don’t look the same or don’t look as good is that they’re pattern cut for somebody else’s body, not because your body is wrong.”

O’Dwyer grew up in Tullamore, a small town in Ireland, and left home at nineteen to do a BA at ArtEZ in Arnhem (“I saw Iris van Herpen had gone there and thought, ‘I want to go there!’”). More recently she has travelled to the artist Love Bailey’s Savage Ranch in the Californian desert to the south of LA, with whom she collaborated to make the outfit Aquaria wore on the semi-finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10, has had her clothing worn by Björk (“a dream come true”), and recently participated in 1 Granary’s VOID exhibition.

Before this all took off, O’Dwyer did a stint in New York interning for Alexander Wang—“I worked with wonderful, generous people who taught me a lot, but I hated how much waste there was and how everything was done to sample size. In the end, it wasn’t for me.”

The motivation to change that—along with all of O’Dwyer’s impressive technical expertise—lends an authentic warmth to her work that speaks to a total (and much-needed) re-haul of the way women are taught to view their own bodies. “I suppose it comes from my own body hatred,” she says when asked what she’s motivated by. “I don’t know how to say that in a way that doesn’t sound so weird or dramatic or cliche, but I used to be so obsessed when I was younger. I would measure all the parts of my body, at least once a week, if not every day in some periods, and write them down in a notebook. I was obsessed with getting thighs that were the same size as the supermodels and I researched what size they should be, just ridiculous things like that.”

The impossible ideal, of course, is to make clothes that fit everybody indiscriminately —and O’Dwyer is continuing to develop techniques to make fabrics work on a wide variety of shapes and sizes—but her focus remains steady: to create clothes that are inclusive, never alienating. “That’s where it all comes from—this desire to change something about how other people might grow up,” she says slowly. “You don’t have to look like that person in the picture. You can just look like yourself.”

“It doesn’t matter what size you actually are, it’s so distorted by seeing only one sort of person that you don’t even know what you look like anymore,” O’Dwyer says. “In my mind, the worst thing was that I didn’t look like the picture of the person in the clothes, but the reason things don’t look the same or don’t look as good is that they’re pattern cut for somebody else’s body, not because your body is wrong. Clothes are not made with most people in mind. That was a revelation for me. But, unfortunately, it’s not unusual: it’s the story of so many women. And I think that’s why a lot of women feel something for my work because it speaks to that.”