Representing the creative future

All red everything: discover the work of Matthew Duffy

Born and raised in Middlesbrough, Matthew is no stranger to the art of hard grafting. Shortly after our first sip of brew, Matthew reveals that he always knew his childhood had influenced his journey into the world of fashion. “Where I was born, was and still remains a very heterosexual area. The men are stereotypically alpha-male and it didn’t take long before I became aware of the fact that my interests were generally more feminine.” Matthew reaches for the sugar and drops a lump in his mug and begins to stir slowly. “I think it was the joy I received from playing with dolls and my wendy house that initially stood out. I didn’t realise at the time why I was more drawn to them than football, but I was never ashamed of it.” It is this aspect of his childhood that Matthew chose to put under the microscope. He particularly wanted to address the contrasts between his mother who “is from Anglo Indian descent and was the epitome of Indian beauty,” and his brother who was at the other end of the spectrum, “thriving at football and the essence of masculinity.”

I am quick to learn that Matthew has always been surrounded by achievers. His brother was a successful footballer who played for a local football team, and his mother integrated into a westernised culture by competing as a pageant queen for many years. The designer is especially fascinated by “how she succeeded in a place that promotes the ideals of the typical Western beauty.”  Matthew was certain from his first year at the RCA that his final collection was going be very personal in regards to his upbringing. Matthew describes a photograph of his brother wearing a ‘champion’  top that is displayed proudly at home. “I wanted to use these images in a creative and playful way. By altering the sports tops and mixing the football scarfs with skirts, I knew I could create a unique style that personified my upbringing.”

During his first year Matthew spent a lot of time brainstorming ideas surrounding his graduate collection. There were many variables when it came to the designs, but the one concrete component would be “combining these two essential elements of my upbringing. They are intrinsically part of my character and I so I wanted create something using my own language – fashion.”

Matthew picks up some photographs off the table beside him and shuffles through them. He recalls the time when he came across family photographs of his mother in her youth winning pageant competitions. “I can remember examining the pictures for what felt like hours. I was admiring the cut-out bathing suit and blue satin sash that draped around her.” A proud expression spreads across his face and that same cheeky grin returns. “I felt so proud that my mum was on the cover of the Times magazine in the 70’s. I hadn’t seen those photos in years and I instantly knew I wanted to incorporate that look into my design.”

One of the most challenging decisions Matthew had to face at the start of the project, was the choice of colour. He acknowledges that his decision was made easier thanks to “Eloise Parry, a close photographer friend of mine who advised me to use a stronger colour than black, as it doesn’t photograph very well. Personally I tend to wear all black and it’s what I’m familiar with. However, I know I definitely made the right decision by taking her advice and designing an entirely red collection. It was far from easy, but it pushed me out of my comfort zone which is something I am always looking to do.”

Matthew has consistently taken the same approach when it comes to creating his knitwear. “I prefer to work in a methodological way. I’ve never been a fan of multitasking, I’ve always found that approach too chaotic. I like to work on one piece at a time. Generally I begin the design process with the top, then I decide what to incorporate onto it, and follow up with a skirt or trouser.” Matthew explains that modelling his clothes on close friends was a really great technique that helped to visualize the end result. The majority of his knitwear was made from silk, felt, viscose and cashmere yarn using a pleating technique. The next step of the process involved “laying them out on my bedroom floor and cutting them up in different shapes. I really enjoyed experimenting with patching them back together and creating these dramatic sashes. One of my closest friends Ella Gregory supported me through the whole process. She especially helped me to perfect the base patterns and assisted in fitting the designs on the mannequins, I am so grateful for people like her!”

Matthew thrives off the buzz he gets from spontaneity. “If I’m honest I was pretty much winging it throughout. I initially planned to have four men’s looks and two women’s looks. Then it was altered to four women’s looks and four men’s looks. After further additional changes the men’s looks were cut from the final collection and the end result was four women’s looks. Matthew explains that each design was “created very organically and completely instinctively. For me personally, this method of producing designs has always resulted in the best product.”

Despite the high stress levels felt by everyone throughout the year, Matthew mentions how this intensity was balanced out by “the unconditional support of the technicians at the RCA. They were so knowledgeable and extremely generous with their time, they genuinely wanted to help make your collection the best it could be. They really went out of your way to help you, and always staying late to help us.” He proceeds to assure me that his experience at RCA, “was by far the best technical support I have received throughout my education in fashion. I couldn’t be more grateful to them to be honest.”

Matthew adds that he wants to share one last piece of guidance for prospective fashion students. “My advice would be for them to not freak out about the mistakes. They are inevitable. No final product of project works the first time, and there’s absolutely no shame in that. You have to keep trying, all you can do is try. Nothing is perfect. Keep pushing yourself to do the best you can do, there’s no shame in failure. You can learn amazing things from your mistakes, and some of your best ideas come from mistakes.” There is no denying the fact that from failure you learn how to improve, which is always a valuable lesson no matter what the context is. Matthew stresses the importance of  “having people around you that really support you and can give you honest critique. If you have one tutor that you can go to and speak to who understands where you’re coming from,  then that’s an amazing advantage.”

During his final year, Matthew had to face the challenge of managing the many opposing opinions that were distracting and ultimately delaying his decision process. “If I could go back and change anything it would be my mindset. I would definitely put up more of a fight for the look that I wanted and have confidence in my decisions, rather than letting other people’s opinions confuse me. His experiences are the reason why he is particularly passionate about keeping a strong sense of self-identity. “Maybe your style isn’t for everyone, but that’s what’s so amazing about fashion –  it embraces diversity. Don’t try so hard to be different, just do exactly what feels right to you and remember your instincts are your best friend.”

As we finish our second cup of tea and say our goodbyes, Matthew expresses that he hopes talking about his experiences will “help someone applying to do BA or MA in anyway it can. I pray they remember that just because someone else in your class is doing something outrageous and amazing ‒ that’s them, and you are you. You have to stay focused on yourself and your own project.” As I walk away from his house I can’t help but feel empowering refreshed and full of motivation. The kind of motivation that is induced by someone’s deep-rooted passion for doing what they love. It is this same powerful drive that inspired Matthew all those years ago and continues to propel forwards him today.

This designer has illustrated the beautifully unique product that can be created by combining contrasting ideals of beauty, as well as successfully demonstrating the power of humorous experimentation.”