Edwin Mohney: Buffalo’s Master of Many Ceremonies
18 months on from his bold MA presentation, the CSM graduate discusses his NYFW debut, his post-graduation experience in costume design, and life back in upstate New York.
18 months on from his graduation from CSM, we spoke to Edwin Mohney on the landline from his parents home in Buffalo, a town of 260,000 on upstate New York’s Canadian border. It’s here he currently lives and works, routinely making the 6-hour journey down to New York City, as he did during the city’s last fashion week. There, he showed a “remix” of his MA collection— a carefully struck balance of ready-made viral hits like the ‘Trumpetto’ heels and inflatable swimming pool dress, and the indulgent pageantry of clown-wig hemmed dresses, puffed gigot sleeves, and Mugler-esque citrus skirt suits worn by Jess and Reba Maybury— and pieces he’s created since, endowed with that signature blend of tongue-in-cheek humour and immaculate tailoring.
His career in the time that’s passed since leaving London has seen him stretched in all manner of directions, from a cryptically irreverent fragrance campaign—entitled ‘Tasteless’—lensed by Reece + Dean, to designing the outfits worn by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in the OTR II video. More recently, he’s worked on costumes for Guava Island, the feature film starring Rihanna and Donald Glover, as well as for custom clients like Christina Aguilera. Naturally, moving from working single-handedly on a graduate collection to working within a broader creative direction has required a shift in Edwin’s creative approach. “Working for or with someone else versus for your own project is a very different process,” he tells me in a later conversation. “For OTR II or Guava Island, the approach was all to do with designing something that compliments the client’s or project’s identity. I don’t focus on my aesthetic at all when I’m on a project like this and just trust that it will come out in the end regardless.”
Given that such a significant segment of his work post-graduation has been for the screen, it’s somewhat surprising to learn that he only came to discover costume design as an avenue worth pursuing after leaving CSM: when asked whether he thinks there’s a lacking awareness among students of the career opportunities in costume, a curt “definitely” is his response. “There is a real stigma attached to costume design,” he continues. “My advice is to ignore whatever stigmas exist around a genre of design if it interests you.” That said, he would probably be the last to declare himself a ‘costume designer’: “It’s just another facet of fashion that excites me.”
Indeed, if Edwin is to be summed up as anything, ‘a designer of many facets’ is about as close as you’ll get. And his aforementioned fashion week exhibition was a means to show just one of the many. It was a last-minute call – “I decided the week before that I wanted to do it,” Edwin explains, “I just wanted to introduce myself to New York. Have a big debut, like that kind of camp American debutante ceremony.” He found the space, a gallery on Canal Street in Chinatown, on AppearHere, a “sort of Airbnb for pop up shops.”
“I think so much of runway just goes into making imagery. I’m interested in image, but I’m not as much of a stylist or a photographer as I am an art director… I’m more about creating something to be seen in person.”
When you presented your MA collection, being on the runway lent itself quite well to its theatricality. Why did you decide to do an exhibition last time?
I think going into my MA collection I thought, “Ok, I’m designing a runway show.” I definitely have a theatrical sensibility, so I wanted every look to be different, so you wouldn’t know what to expect. But I think so much of runway just goes into making imagery. I’m interested in image, but I’m not as much of a stylist or a photographer as I am an art director… I’m more about creating something to be seen in person. The exhibition is about really stripping it back and seeing the work. And getting back to basics, in terms of proportion and fabrics and things you can kind of hide on a runway, with a lot of extra crazy stuff. I’ve been thinking about how I could do a shoulder that’s not too crazy but still has my signature, for example. Within the school environment, or within the industry in general, there’s such heavy competition to churn out a really intense, eye-catching image. Everyone’s trying to make a statement, everyone’s yelling at the camera. I think the exhibition was a conscious decision not to do an insane photoshoot to promote the collection, but try to be more sincere about it.
It’s still eveningwear with a heavy dose of costume in there. But I kind of stripped it back, which feels really good to me. It’s still chaotic, but I guess it’s a more refined, controlled chaos. When I was doing the MA, my process was really just channelling my emotions into whatever I was making. I was so anxiety-ridden and my adrenaline was going crazy…
It had a hysterical element to it.
Yeah exactly, hysterical. And the hysteria is still there but it’s more in a queer, clever way which I think lent itself to having an exhibition.
“I think there’s something really beneficial about taking time away from feeling like you HAVE to produce, like you HAVE to do something, with all the energy in a city.”
How did you feel about moving back to America? Has your inspiration been different, or the way you put ideas into design? America itself is quite a hysterical place currently and there’s a lot of absurd humour to be found.
It’s definitely an adjustment. I live in Buffalo which is six hours north-west of New York and it’s really quiet. I think there’s something really beneficial about taking time away from feeling like you HAVE to produce, like you HAVE to do something, with all the energy in a city. That energy is great because it really squeezes everything out of you, but there’s something really nice in just taking it slow and really mulling things over and having more of an observant eye over it all. It’s very rural, very peaceful. You can go days without seeing anyone and that’s really affected me.
Are you more mindful of designing for an American audience now?
Yeah. When I was in London I was really aware that I was doing America in London. America through a European lens. And now it’s like I’m a foreigner in my own country. When I think about people looking at the collection I’m way more interested in what people back home would think about it. That really generates a lot of ideas, like what would someone off the street think this is? Would they get it? What would it make them think? So, in a way, it’s been great being around sort of, normcore middle-America people.
“Sometimes you just take the innovation that so many people are doing for granted, but actually being able to have a dialogue with normal people is really important.”
What was different about the clothes in the exhibition?
I became completely obsessed with gathering materials and collecting discarded things, the rejects of this kind of rejected area in America. A K-Mart went out of business near me, and I went and bought the mannequins that they had leftover there. They are gross but I love them. Such cheap plastic. I was working on a dress for a while that was made of, like, 500 pairs of panties that I bought there. There’s a dress that’s made out of forty pairs of khaki shorts and others are made out of repurposed prom dresses that have just been completely turned inside out. There’s a big ball gown that’s made out of curtains. Without even thinking sustainably, the big challenge being out here in Buffalo is that there’s such a lack of fabric. So I’m obsessed with going to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army and buying old curtains, old bedspreads, recontextualising found material.
It’s an interesting idea considering what you said about always wanting to know what people on the street would think about your work. Because it’s all items they would probably recognise.
Right. I love that moment when I show something like the ballgown to my mum or my brother’s girlfriend. And they are like, “Oh, it’s so pretty!” and I’m like, “They are curtains.” That’s kind of a dead joke in design school. Sometimes you just take the innovation that so many people are doing for granted, but actually being able to have a dialogue with normal people is really important.
It seems like mainstream fashion at the moment is recognising the camp potential of the time we live in. Your work has had that sensibility from the start.
I definitely feel that. I look at some designers and I’m like “Wow, you’re really designing for the Met Gala, aren’t you?” But we’re seeing a very particular type of fashion camp, very overt 60s and 70s ideas of camp and there are so many other ways to do it.
So what part of camp interests you?
Camp is all about exaggeration and it always comes back to bad taste. To me, bad taste is about sentimental choices. I’m always trying to think about what’s rejected these days. What are people overlooking?
How has your thinking about the future changed, now that you’re out of school and in a new environment?
I started working as a costume designer this year, after forever saying that I’m not a costume designer. Once I actually got into it, I fell in love with the purity of it. You know, you get a few weeks or a few months to do a project. It’s like being in school in terms of turnover, and you can put way more into the making of things. So I guess the future reflects that there’s this whole other industry, working for stage or film, that I’m really interested in.
Even though you say you weren’t explicitly making the collection sustainable, working with materials that are available to you is one way to do it.
It’s sustainable in that, as a small brand, I’m not really thinking about how I could scale my business. I’m really just focused on staying small. Keeping it tight so that it feels really pure and has integrity to it. And I think if more people adopted that in their thinking, we would have a more sustainable industry, as opposed to thinking, ‘I’m gonna design so this can be replicated after.’