Richard Malone: Empowering misrepresented social classes through fashion
Mapping the interrelation between fashion design and the aesthetic attraction of certain social scenes can be hard to forego. Fashion designers have a long history of conceiving entire collections that are informed by the stylistic forms of a particular social group that appeal to them, which are subsequently translated onto their garments. While there is nothing overtly condemnable with such an approach per se, the concepts at play are more often than not conceived romantically, triggered by a desire for the creation of novel forms — which, at best, brings to light what has been long neglected, but at worst, despite being highly laudable for the purpose of advertising, is nothing less than a form of capitalist exploitation. Presented on the runway, collections following such an approach certainly provide its viewer with a unique frisson, but alongside representation is the risk of misrepresentation. Are these collections produced as a result of the designer’s participation and interaction with the scenes involved or were they simply observed from afar and appropriated on an entirely visual level? This ambiguity is indeed deeply inherent in postmodern society, as nearly anything holds the potential of being subsumed by marketing strategists.
“I THINK THERE ARE A LOT OF INTERESTING NARRATIVES IN IRELAND THAT PEOPLE OVERLOOK, BECAUSE IT’S SUCH A SMALL PLACE, BUT THERE IS ACTUALLY SO MUCH TO DO WITH IDENTITY AND DRESS THERE IN TERMS OF CODES.”
Resisting this structure entirely, is Richard Malone. The Irish designer, who graduated from Central Saint Martins BA Fashion Womenswear in 2014, is headstrong in his approach to embody groups that have been underrepresented and misrepresented, by giving them a voice, not merely through his designs, but also through himself as a designer. His A/W 2016 collection was presented in the Duveen Galleries at the Tate Britain, as part of his second appearance for Fashion East. The collection incorporates a series of references drawn from events that have taken place in Malone’s own life, and his personal experiences. One of its starting points began with the occasion of the designer’s Holy Communion, when his godmother arrived at church with a shaved head, dressed in a zebra-print dress to reveal her Celtic tattoos and combat boots. Enthralled by her approach to femininity and her fearless individuality, the two combined served as an inspiration to the collection. Speaking about his experience and response to the situation, Malone tells us that, “when you’re making your communion or whatever, it is something that is very forced in Ireland. I’m not from Dublin, I’m from literally in the middle of nowhere,” (the designer hails from Wexford) “so when you do a communion it’s quite a forced thing and everyone is quite conservative. Even in working class communities, the environment is very conservative. Everybody wears a suit or a waistcoat, and then to see my auntie rock up like that, I thought it was absolutely amazing,” he tells us. “I remember it being a really strong memory in my mind, because she really is just such a strong woman. She was so on it, and even when I look back on the pictures now, I think she’s absolutely amazing.”
The case of Malone’s godmother, however, is only a subset to the theme of individuality that informed his collection, as they are also frequently informed by the narratives present in his hometown Ireland. Comparing the socio-stylistic scenes of Ireland to London, the designer expresses his thoughts on the contrasting elements between the two cities. “I think there are a lot of interesting narratives in Ireland that people overlook, because it’s such a small place, but there is actually so much to do with identity and dress there in terms of codes.” It becomes clear that Malone is mindful and observant of his surroundings as he proceeds to elaborate on this. “You get dressed for an occasion like a communion, a confirmation, or a wedding, which is a big deal to everyone in the community, but day to day, it’s really about this lack of vanity in the way everybody dresses. It’s very practical, it’s very focused on work wear. I look at the different tribes, which include young people, for example. There are girls who want to feel very sexy, and there are girls who want to appear very reserved. Men appear more manly, because they wear a builders uniform, or simply because they drive a lorry, or something like that. It’s very interesting how someone’s identity is reflected in their work wear, and it’s their way of communicating which part of a class they’re from.” These are subsequently picked up on by Malone and referenced in his garments. His references are subtle, and vicarious expressed through minute details, such as the femininity of the silhouettes combined with the masculinity found in the dungarees worn by fishermen, as well as the coats of construction workers, which have been turned into carefully-tailored jackets. The colours are equally inspired by those found in mundane yet omnipresent objects, such as construction signs and plastic partitions that tend to be overlooked.
“PEOPLE SHOULD LOOK AT CLOTHES AS MORE THAN THINGS THAT ONLY EXIST ON A VISUAL LEVEL. CLOTHES ACTUALLY HAVE AN INTELLECTUAL MEANING.”
In contrast, according to Malone, this environment is absent in London due to the middle class and upper middle class nature of the city. Previous hints towards such imagery in fashion have mostly been “a very appropriated way of looking at things.” Malone’s expression of this perception is warranted given the nature of his upbringing in general, which include time spent on building sites with his dad growing up, giving him immediate experience with the scenes of the environment. “People are looking at images of it and are not actually being a part of it, you know? They look at images and incorporate it quite literally. Whereas what I’m trying to do is elevate it through the pattern cutting and not just making a literal piece of work wear garment, because that’s the last thing anyone needs.” Critical here is Malone’s condemnation against the purely visual dimension that has come to encapsulate the industry as a whole. Yet, being a part of the very same industry, Malone acknowledges the obvious disputes that come to the fore. Most prominently, its exasperating irony. The price value of his garments, for example, sadly estrange them from the members of the very class he nods to (including himself), but at the same time, they are given a rich form of cultural value that, in Malone’s words, says to people “No, fuck you, it’s not just an image to be looked at, to be raped and to be appropriated, but there is actually value and intelligence in that.” The transfer and practice of this knowledge becomes something empowering, in a way. It subverts the phenomenal approach that clothes have long been given. “People should look at clothes as more than things that only exist on a visual level. Clothes actually have an intellectual meaning.”
It is one thing to be inspired by a set group, and to respect and acknowledge their presence by dedicating an entire collection based on its characteristics, but generated clumsily can, as mentioned before, result in what proves to be a capitalist exploitation and mere aestheticisation of a certain socio-cultural group or class. Malone expresses that one of the inherent reasons for his perseverance for being fashion designer, and his dedication to his work in the industry lies in a drive to prove to those who come from a background similar to his, that a career in the creative realm is possible with enough hard work. Indeed, with the rise of university fees, it is easy to be put off by the idea of it. Malone acknowledges the luck he had with being able to attend university before the introduction of the swindling fees students are faced with today, on top of the sheer ridicule of the cost of living in London. Nevertheless, he stresses the importance of creating an open environment, especially through education and institutions, to engage in a dialogue that creates opportunities for individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds. “It’s really important to elevate those things, because otherwise it’s going to be more West London rich kids doing fashion. And it’s more like a little game for them, not an actual passion, which means more and more people are being appropriated,” the designer states boldly. Needless to say, the diminishing diversity of those who produce creatively would indeed lead to a suppression of the variety in the material that’s being generated.
“IT’S THE SELF-TEACHING WHERE YOU ACTUALLY BECOME AN INDEPENDENT DESIGNER WITH YOUR OWN MIND. YOU DON’T GET TO THAT STAGE BY GOING TO THE LIBRARY AND LOOKING AT GEOFFREY BEENE OR WHATEVER, YOU KNOW?”
As such, to represent becomes simply inadequate; involvement and participation become crucial aspects in expressing the conditions of a scene as accurately as possible. Nearly all of Malone’s research is conducted primarily by engaging in his surroundings and taking his own photographs. “That’s how I’ve naturally always worked. I mean, I never really planned or forced anything when I started at Saint Martins, and I was lucky because they never forced me into anything either.” The designer then confesses to never having spent any time at the Saint Martins library. “It’s just actually very limited. I mean, there are a lot of resources there for secondary stuff and whatever, but you can only learn so much. It’s the self-teaching where you actually become an independent designer with your own mind. You don’t get to that stage by going to the library and looking at Geoffrey Beene or whatever, you know? It’s fascinating and important to know, but it’s also important to know when you’re taking too much from something, or when you are blatantly copying something. At the end of the day, clothes are about an experience. If you’re not experiencing something that you’re making, it doesn’t really relate to it, and it shows. You have to experience everything and take pictures, which for me is totally crucial. There are only a certain amount of pages in a book, but there is a limitless amount of things that you can experience outside in the world.” Malone remains one of the very few individuals who hold the unique position of being able to be titillated by “the most mundane things” and “crap stuff” in life, all of which are eventually translated into incredibly beautiful and skillfully constructed garments. Malone and his craft proves that there is a certain advantage that comes with noticing that which is already present, rather than constantly striving to seek for something new and exciting, which can frequently lead to disappointment.
“I THINK THERE’S JUST A GENERAL CHANGE IN FASHION, ESPECIALLY IN OUR GENERATION, BECAUSE WE DON’T HAVE SUCH A DISPOSABLE INCOME. WE’RE THINKING ‘IF WE ARE EVER GONNA BUY SOMETHING, ESPECIALLY A DESIGNER, WE WANT THERE TO BE A REASON FOR IT.’ INSTEAD OF HAVING A HUNDRED PAIRS OF SOMETHING, WE WANT SEVERAL.”
Another crucial aspect to Malone’s design lies in the use of fabrics when constructing his garments, which are always sourced carefully and produced with equal amount of care. To ensure the sustainability of his label, nothing is mass produced nor produced futilely, but is instead bespoke; produced for clients that the designer has the pleasure of interacting with personally. While most design houses often cite pre-conceived notions of their ideal woman, such is not the case for Richard Malone. “I feel very lucky that I know this woman exists, and that she is sick of buying shit that there are tons of, because she wants something really special. It’s not something that thousands of other women have. It’s just a nice personal thing that is made in the studio and is going to fit them personally, which is also a serious thing for them.” In doing so, Malone’s actions lends conversation to the wider implications of the ecological crisis created by the fashion industry, which has been notoriously titled the world’s second most polluting industry. It questions the promises that have long been created by fast fashion companies by initiating an alternative viewpoint. This is not to say that Malone’s label intends to put a halt to the evils of the industry altogether, but in this sense, it does encourage a shift in one’s consumer habits, which marks a step towards progress for improvement. “I think there’s just a general change in fashion, especially in our generation, because we don’t have such a disposable income. We’re thinking ‘if we are ever gonna buy something, especially a designer, we want there to be a reason for it.’ Instead of having a hundred pairs of something, we want several.” And anyway, isn’t it slightly bizarre that we are left to shop for clothes in stores where sizes are speculated, considering the heterogeneity of each individual’s body type? “I think it’s so bizarre!” Malone agrees. “None of the sizes relate to anyone or any real person’s body – they’re just invented on flat patterns!”
This practice of creating garments that are ‘bespoke’ is simultaneously reflected in his shows, where the clothes are created for his models, as opposed to the traditional model of having the girl fit into the clothes. “Some of the models were actually a size 10 or 12, but no one noticed because the clothes were actually made for them. It proves the point that you don’t need to be a certain size to look fierce and comfortable and confident.” Sophie Lynas, who did the casting for Malone’s show, was credited by the designer for achieving his vision so successfully.
Drawing together the different modes of practice implemented in Malone’s work, it is evident that the designer is indeed – to recycle the phrase – ‘the voice of a generation.’ One that refuses to succumb to the austerities caused by the frameworks that continue to dictate present day society. Malone is clear and resolute in his standpoints, and fearless in communicating them. Against the vacuous models of translation that exoticises the ‘Other’, his work serves as a reminder that to represent and appropriate is far from being a tenable model. Seen from this perspective, Malone’s work can be considered to subvert the postmodern mood of ambivalence, for he is always genuine in his approach, which is conspicuous based on the firing sincerity of his tone, as he discusses these issues that clearly lie close to his heart. And at the end of it, just really great clothes.