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QUEERING THE FAMILY PHOTO ALBUM, New Waves: Mark Glasgow

2015
17th August

The graduate collection of Royal College of Art menswear designer Mark Glasgow proposed a rose-tinted homotopia reminiscent of Fire Island in the ‘70s as a reaction to the blatant homophobia his peers experienced in the streets of London. We spoke to the designer about the RCA Menswear pathway and how to successfully insert political subtexts in fashion.

Menswear designer Mark Glasgow hails from the small coastal village of Donaghadee in Northern Ireland. Overwhelmed by the conservatism of his native country, he relocated to Manchester to study sculpture at the Manchester School of Art, however, before early into the course, he transferred to the fashion course at the same institution. “When I finished three years later, I felt that there was so much I hadn’t resolved, so a Masters felt like the right thing to do,” he writes over e-mail, as he explains his decision to do an MA at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. He was particularly attracted to the Menswear pathway because of its strength and uniqueness, led by the former Calvin Klein designer Ike Rust, who took over the reigns and transformed the course in 1998. “I think the fact that the course is seperate from Womenswear has allowed it to grow in an interesting direction,” he explains. “The other thing is the total transparency between the different departments, and the ease with which you can collaborate with other departments and meet people from such a breadth of backgrounds. Finally, I found it a genuinely friendly place, there’s more a sense of mutual support rather than competition.”

“I’M NOT SURE IF THERE WAS A RESOLUTION, BUT IT DEFINITELY FELT GOOD – AND RIGHT FOR ME – TO DO SOMETHING DEFIANTLY QUEER AND OPTIMISTIC.”

Through design, Mark expands and processes concepts and narratives. “I think seeing how concept evolves and informs design decisions, textiles, and colour is the rewarding part, as you get to see that a concept comes to fruition and becomes something tangible,” he says of his practice. The beginning of his graduate collection was something as simple as a photo album of his mother’s family from the mid ‘70s, reminiscent of the working class Britannia-aesthetics of photographer Martin Parr. Looking at these long-lost rose-tinted memories, particularly the middle section where the speedo-dressed family pays a visit to Ingleton, Yorkshire, Mark associated them with a socially inverse, but visually similar period: the gay utopia of Fire Island and San Francisco in the ‘70s. “I sort of had this utopian vision of my grandmother and my mother on this big queer holiday in San Francisco, at Gay Pride with Harvey Milk and David Hockney,” he says, and indeed, this would be a pretty suitable way to describe the abstract homo-eroticism that he presented at the official degree show earlier this year.

Mark’s collection characterises itself through strong colors, incredibly sexy fittings and referential finishes and textiles. It evokes a dreamy, endless sun-tanned summer of exposed skin and nonchalant, spontaneously put-together outfits with high-cut shorts and tight leather jackets. Colors are, truthful to the era it negotiates, kept in faded pastels, and nostalgic, quintessentially ‘gay’ menswear silhouettes are reworked with unusual textiles and materials. He worked closely with Irish RCA textile student Aine Byrne to create a series of unique textiles of hand-woven technicolour shearling and brightly-colored jacquards, making the collection ascend to a more abstract and poetic expression. “Aine Byrne is an example of one of the best things about the RCA,” he says of his collaborator. “It felt like the most natural thing in the world because we share the same approach to our work: an affiliation for bold colour, and a kind of tongue in cheek irreverence. Even though our aesthetics are quite different in some respects, her skill and expansive knowledge of woven textiles added a whole new layer to my collection which would not have been there without her. I can genuinely say the collection would not be what it was without Aine.”

“… IT STARTED OFF QUITE ANGRILY, BUT I FELT THE BEST WAY TO DEFIANTLY PROTEST AGAINST THAT KIND OF HOMOPHOBIC BIGOTRY IS TO BE AS FUCKING GAY AS POSSIBLE.”

Overall, the MA at the RCA forced Mark to continually question and analyse the authenticity of his creative output. “Every day, all the students attempt to forge a very unique path and put the pressure on themselves to improve just as much as any of the staff,” he explains. “Personally, it really forced me to be confident in my own design aesthetic and choices, even when people around me were doing such a breadth of different, amazing things.”

The ‘queering’ of conservative/heteronormative visuality and social history is an active political statement, as it reclaims a certain aesthetics and forcefully aligns it with its queer opposite. Mark says clearly that his creation of an ‘aesthetic homo-utopia’ is a reaction against the conservatism of his father, of many Northern Irish people, and particular, its men. “Initially it started off quite angrily, but I felt the best way to defiantly protest against that kind of bigotry is to be as fucking gay as possible,” he reflects. During the genesis of the collection, he volunteered at queer community events and spoke to many of his gay friends who had been assaulted in public; from being called “disgusting” by middle-aged women on the train, or having had “filth” shouted at them by groups of lads in East London. “I think this gave me a sense of indignation and the need to create a positive reaction against such negativity,” he explains. Mark struggled at first with this political subtext, as it seemed too glib a medium to say something serious. “That said, anything that can give you a platform for discussion can only be a good thing.”

Was there a resolution, I ask him, after making this queer argument against the homophobic context he came from? “Yes and no,” he replies contemplatively, “I’m not sure if there was a resolution, but it definitely felt good – and right for me – to do something defiantly queer and optimistic.”

After graduating from the RCA and winning the prestigious Burberry Prize as a part of the British Fashion Council Colleges Competition, life for Mark Glasgow has been pretty relaxing, with trips back to Northern Ireland to visit his nephews. “I have some personal projects in the pipeline, but I’ve recently started work as Junior Designer at E. Tautz, as part of the BFC Traineeship Program,” Mark reveals. “As it stands I’m happy to work for a brand for which I have a lot of admiration, as well as pursuing my own creative path with close friends across graphic design, illustration, journalism and fashion design.”

Words Jeppe Ugelvig

All images courtesy of Mark Glasgow