Jessica McGrady: Uncovering the Poetry of Functional Garments
Constantly being haunted by certain stigmas and misconceptions of growing up in South London, Jessica became cautious of non-identification in dress. Certain aspects of her personality that had initially been thought of as hindrances and voids became a driving force for her MA collection ‘Pack Mentality of I.’ Battling with the thought of balancing garments as both a form expression and concealment, she hopes to capture everyday characteristics in fashion. With the intention of embodying all aspects of her ‘partial elements’ without distractions and to emphasise her ‘hypertextuality’, she has been wielding the colour black for the past five years. “With the experience of wearing black, what it does for one person it does differently for another.”
What were your experiences like growing up in South London?
To put it briefly, my experiences were a combination of harsh realities alongside gaining a strong cultural belonging. It was all about knowing where your loyalties lie. You learnt how best not to be a target and to develop banter as a deflection, determination, community, and communication. The experiences I witnessed or was involved in, were some of my game changers and have made me the person that I am today. In hindsight, I am grateful for all of them and I’m proud of my south London roots!
What are some stigmas or misconceptions you’ve had to face and how has that affected you either personally or artistically?
Mate, there has been many! Just culturally I was different from the white working class in my area, all my friends were from different countries and nations. Bermondsey was predominantly a National Front. A lot of behaviour was frowned upon, so your awareness was always heightened. As a result of this balancing act, there is always a fine line between right and wrong in my work, and I feel that I tread this line between the super real and the grounded: always wishing to remove myself from what I consider normality. I consequently create clothing which is everything we may not expect: no stigmas attached.
Where did you study before and how did you end up at the Royal College of Art?
I studied BA Fashion Atelier at University for the Creative Arts, Rochester. It was mainly construction based and I had to be very technical and methodical about draping, drafting, and finishings. I never planned to do a master’s in the beginning, until a tutor of mine, amongst others, helped me realise it was possible. I was still on my BA at the time, so for the last two months I was coming home from collection-making to work on the RCA project until early hours of the morning and then waking up at 7am to do it all again: I looked a mess, ha!
“WHEN YOU PUT ON A GARMENT, YOU ARE ASKING THAT GARMENT TO DO SOMETHING FOR YOU WHETHER THAT BE TO MAKE YOU SEXIER, SERIOUS, BUSINESS, HIPSTER, CHIC. WE LOSE PARTS OF OUR PERSONALITY WITHIN THESE CONNOTATIONS OF DRESS. WE GIVE THE GARMENT ITSELF A PERSONIFICATION AND BEGIN TO RELY ON OUR CLOTHES TO DO THE TALKING.”
What drew you to study Womenswear?
When I was younger, Barbies were always getting their rig-out trimmed off or penned in, alongside lobbed hairdos: natural hack jobs for a 7 year old.
What’s the best thing about studying at the RCA?
It has become my sanctuary. I come here to purposefully be in the bubble. I shut off and try to make the madness happen. It’s just genuinely a humbling space.
How do you spend your time outside of RCA?
Food shopping, sleeping, washing, and writing. I have to save the pennies for right now.
Where do your inspirations stem from?
Inspiration comes from all of the places which are isolated from my own understanding and consequently represent the misunderstood. I try to personify what it means to grow up as individuals living in different territories. How we act, speak, and move. Our mannerisms, breath, stance, passion, traits, and characteristics. I find it interesting that all these aspects are not determined but acquired. I nitpick at them.
Large parts of my inspiration are those who move through the streets. ‘Streetwear’ is all about the character you wear and how you carry this character. You weren’t comfortable from where I grew up. You were always on edge and all you saw was bittersweet. There wasn’t anything easygoing about how you learnt to be adaptable. These cultural journeys and people are my inspiration, alongside London in general.
Are there specific artists or designers that have influenced you?
The big game players for me were always Rick Owens, Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, Ann Demeulemeester, Gareth Pugh, Charles James, and early Balenciaga: the artisans of the cloth and cut. Also, I like to look at old pattern cutting books with unknown designers, and to identify new strategies of design.
“FOR ME, FEMININITY FEELS LIKE CHOICE. I HAVE A LOT OF LAYERS TO MY CODE OF DRESS. I ALWAYS LIKE THE FEMALE FORM TO BE VIEWED IN A SLIGHTLY MORE HARSH MANNER.”
Has other artistic media had a strong impact on your design process?
Of course! Mainly artists like Stuart Brisley, Boy Child, David Lynch, The Beat Generation: William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Stephen King, The Animators, Brothers Quay, Roland Topor, Tim Burton, and photographers: Salvador Dewald and Roger Ballen. The list goes on.
I conduct a lot of my own research through the practice of making films, installations, and performances. The best research comes from a place of wanting to express yourself through an intangible form: seeing what you may capture and sparking a response. It could be a very faint moment, but you are always trying to inform yourself of what is really going on. You just have to open your eyes a bit to see.
When we met a while back, you mentioned listening to grime as part of your installation. What genre of music do you usually listen to?
All types, really. I grew up on The Doors, David Bowie, Marc Bolan (T. Rex), Queen, Prince, The Clash, and a lot of SKA music. However, my daily motivation music is grime, dubstep, drum and bass, garage, and a bit of hip-hop. Depending on how the day is going, I could be having a Johnny Cash kind of moment, then you find me on the whiskey!
What is the main focus of your project?
To put it in nonconceptual hype lingo, my collection is called the ‘Pack Mentality of I’, in which I basically character-mapped myself and picked out my traits that I considered to be a general burden in life. I began conducting large installations of expression to embody what it means to understand these traits. They began to separate themselves from me and became entities of behavioural qualities of their own. This has dictated the clothing that warps around them. We all have our own pack, our traits have our back every day, and they help and hinder us all the time. We just don’t recognise them, or try not to.
What do you want people to understand from your design?
“I TRIED COLOUR BUT LET ME TELL YOU, IT DID NOT WORK. I GREW UP ON A MASSIVE BRUTALIST ESTATE NEAR SOUTHWARK PARK, WHERE THE URBAN LANDSCAPE CONSISTED OF A BLACK AND GREY TONAL RANGE. BURNT BINS, SOILED UNDERPASSES, USED CONDOMS, GRAFFITI, AND EMPTY GARAGES, THIS WAS MY PLAYGROUND. I TRY TO DISPLAY THIS FRICTION OF SUCH TEXTURES WITHIN MY CLOTHING.”
Would you consider your pieces to be more poetic rather than practical, or does functionality also play into your design criteria?
The cloth and pattern cutting side are just as much part of my process as the poetry. I consider the ‘metaphoric’ and ‘poetic’ to be the core, and all the elements that make ‘clothes’ entwine around the energy of the piece. Functionality is still crucial. The wearer has to be able to get these pieces on and off with ease. Otherwise, you’re making clothes for museum mannequins, which is not my intention. I’d like someone to look at my clothes and say “yeah, I could pull that off.”
Could you elaborate on what you mean by a person wanting to emulate his or her personality from the inside? How can that be shown through garments?
I personally feel like there is a battle between clothing’s ideology and the ideology of self. When you put on a garment, you are asking that garment to do something for you whether that be to make you sexier, serious, business, hipster, chic. We lose parts of our personality within these connotations of dress. We give the garment itself a personification and begin to rely on our clothes to do the talking. It should be a balance between the two: the person and the personification. We all bear the mark of our livelihood on our skin and in our wisdom, so why should it be that the sheath of us is merely used as a layer to shy away? The showing part depends on the person and it’s not about wearing crazy-ass clothing, it’s about incorporating those everyday idiosyncrasies in your dress. To not be afraid or ashamed.
How does femininity play into your work? Is it simply a matter of style and form or is there more to it?
It’s not necessarily my main factor. I consider the female attitude to be responsible for modes of femininity. For me, femininity feels like choice. I have a lot of layers to my code of dress. I always like the female form to be viewed in a slightly more harsh manner. For instance, if you were to witness skin, not to view it as a sign of vulnerability or sex (that equals to femininity) but more so as a proudness and strength. If I believe femininity to be a visual in my work, this is how I see it.
“THERE IS NO LONGER THE INTEREST TO IMAGINE.”
What does it mean to be ‘hypertextualised’ in relation to using black in your designs?
‘Hypertextualised’ is the word I semi made-up to describe the blacks and textures I use to reflect my visual world. To delve deeper into the behaviors of cloth dictates many aspects of my work. I tried colour but let me tell you, it did not work. I grew up on a massive brutalist estate near Southwark Park, where the urban landscape consisted of a black and grey tonal range. Burnt bins, soiled underpasses, used condoms, graffiti, and empty garages, this was my playground. I try to display this friction of such textures within my clothing.
You seem to have a set aesthetic for this collection, would you consider exploring other styles or are you content with where you are at now?
A set aesthetic implies stationary but I’m never static. I’ve always been an eager learner and I listen intently to my surroundings. If the time came and I felt a change in myself, to switch direction, I’ll just adapt and try to express my language in another way. Sadly I’m never content, well, sometimes for a day and then you have to keep moving, I’m always seeking and feeling the eager 20 steps forward position, as you do in the creative mind. My design aesthetic is moving and I’m happy with what it’s telling me.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Banter, roamer, grafter, tomboy, hardbodied.
What are your main concerns about the fashion industry today?
That there is no longer the interest to imagine. We have really gotten into this phase of what you see is what you get. I completely get that no one wants to work 12 hours and then get on the tube in a mass, but our lust and hunger for the dreamers have turned very conservative.
What are your future plans or goals?
People always say I will just continue sewing until my fingers break off, but for the future I hope to just be in a good place, in good health, and in a job or role that encourages me to grow. However, my own brand would be so legit, maybe when I’m 40. Who knows in this game?
Words Grace Ahn
All images courtesy of Jessica McGrady