The Royal 20: Colleen Leitch
When I first met Colleen on one of my trips to the RCA studios back in December, I recall being most taken by a book of her photography. The pages smooth, my eyes poured over the profound imagery; a unique insight into Colleen’s practice, driven by her need to create as a form of catharsis. Now having access to an array of imagery, from her personal photography to her lookbook shots, I am caught between contact and context. The sensory appeal of her rich yet equally delicate textiles, collides with my mind full of references. When I see ‘Timothy #8’, the photograph which acted a starting point, I am reminded of Francis Bacon’s portraits. Equally redolent is the ethereal image of Bella, the collection’s muse, which makes me think of pre-Raphaelite paintings. The overall effect is that Colleen’s work is undoubtedly evocative of experience, emotion and mood: it conjures something overwhelming yet indistinguishable, which in turn represents Colleen’s impulse to creatively express of parts of herself, words could not adequately articulate. We spoke with Colleen to reflect upon her collection, process and the future post-RCA.
“THIS PRACTICE HAS ALWAYS FUNCTIONED AS AN OUTLET FOR MY PAIN OR SADNESS: A SPACE TO EXPLORE THOSE PARTS OF MYSELF WHICH WORDS CANNOT SUFFICIENTLY COMMUNICATE.”
Do you consider your work an extension of your own identity?
Anything you create is naturally a part of you. Whether explicitly or not, through the creative process, you express the essence of your identity and this precise ‘expression of self’ is central to my work. It is about giving freedom to that which is inside of you, and this practice has always functioned as an outlet for my pain or sadness: a space to explore those parts of myself which words cannot sufficiently communicate.
Although this may sound depressing, it is a great way to open up an important dialogue, in turn helping to bring hope and liberation to others who may be struggling. My graduate collection began from one image I took at the start of the year (Timothy #8) which captured the ethos of the collection; the idea that despite the darkness one must face in life, there will always be light and hope if you look for it.
How did you find the liberal approach to design at the RCA? Can you talk us through your process?
Initially having so much freedom was daunting, but it is really all about following your creative instinct and doing what feels natural within your practice. I find that photography, film and book-making comes naturally, and it was liberating to let such forms influence my design.
The multi-disciplinary approach is really important for enhancing and exploring ideas, and the tutors push you to work across many forms. I would never have thought to use film before studying at the RCA, but doing so broadened my understanding. At the beginning of the year I made a film called ‘World’, wherein I created a small installation with pieces of wadding I had painted: playing around with the lighting to see how it interacted and impacted surfaces. This experience helped me to understand the difference between natural and synthetic lighting upon different materials. This demonstrates how at the beginning of my process, I play the role of an observer: capturing beauty where I can find it.
It is then vital that I analyse the imagery I have created, finding consistencies and questioning exactly what I deem ‘beautiful’. Experimenting with materials and textures in order to physically embody the initial mood is vital, and translating these ideas always becomes very experimental, as it is all about reinterpretation. At the beginning of the collection, the garments and sketches were very dark and heavy and so the challenge became to develop lighter garments, both physically and emotionally.
Fittings were integral to the development and throughout the collection, my close friend Bella was a muse. Constantly placing her in the garments and asking how she felt was really valuable in progressing, because how the wearer feels underlies the collection. You cannot create a collection, or anything else, for that matter, without constantly questioning and developing. Ultimately, though, you must be decisive and settle with one direction, because you could continue to research forever.
“HOW THE WEARER FEELS UNDERLIES THE COLLECTION. YOU CANNOT CREATE A COLLECTION, OR ANYTHING ELSE, FOR THAT MATTER, WITHOUT CONSTANTLY QUESTIONING AND DEVELOPING.”
Can you reflect upon the contrast between your industry experience and your experience of your MA?
Working in the industry made me realise that studying fashion and working in fashion are two completely different things. In education there is a huge amount of creative freedom, which you will probably never regain unless you start your own brand, but even then there are limitations. Commercial design is very much product-based: you are creating a product which has to be desirable so that it sells, whereas purely conceptual design does not heavily focus on desirability; it is more about an expression of the self or creating something in response to a feeling or an incident. I believe that you can have both: a garment can be a conceptual piece which still has practical finishings and retains its wearability. A garment’s conceptual underpinning may be hidden and only appear through small details. Ultimately it depends so much on the designer and their approach: personally, it is really important that my garments are functional pieces which carry my concept.
When thinking about conceptual vs commercial, we may also think about the interplay between design and art. Do you understand your work as design or art and where do the two entities separate and meet?
One of the RCA tutors once told me that she believed the difference between fashion being called design and not art was simply that when you design, you constantly question, adjust, debate, scrutinise and change the piece as it is being made and developed. When it is then revealed to the world, it is a considered, final piece. On the other hand, when you create art, you make it and subsequently reveal it to the world to be scrutinized, debated and questioned.
How do you feel about your whole experience at the RCA?
I have no words for my experience: there have been highs and lows and I found constantly questioning myself very draining and difficult, yet rediscovering myself has been very liberating. On ours and Zowie’s first day at the RCA, she quoted A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: ‘it was the best of times and it was the worst of times’: it was almost like a prophesy of my time at the school!
“A GARMENT CAN BE A CONCEPTUAL PIECE WHICH STILL HAS PRACTICAL FINISHINGS AND RETAINS ITS WEARABILITY.”
Are you excited for life post-RCA? Do you plan to work for someone else or set up your own label?
Am I excited to head out into the world? Yes and no! I am both excited and terrified about not having any immediate plans. I will continue to design and create in my own time, but for now I want the experience of working for a brand. I have been studying fashion now for six years, but I feel as though I’ve spent six years studying my identity! I think it’s time to go and learn more from others and how they work. I want to learn more about the industry itself and get as much experience as possible in all areas of design.
In what ways would you like the fashion industry to change? How important is it to challenge people’s perceptions of the industry?
That it would be less about what is selling and more what is being expressed. How the designer feels and what they want and need to say about the world around them, or what they are experiencing, is very important. I hate cold commercial fashion: it is driven by sales and creating something ‘trendy’, a phrase which has been so overused it has lost all meaning. I don’t know what’s trendy and I’m not interested in finding out either! I just want to see designers’ hearts and the beautiful things they create: the truest form of expression of the self. If you only want to make one outfit a year because that is all you find inspiring, then do it! I think by creating clothing in this way, one that is rebellious and daring, we can start to change people’s perception of fashion. In short: be true to yourself.