Rory Parnell Mooney: “Hopefully we can learn to slow down”
Rory is organising an online, free ‘classroom’ for Fashion BA/MA students affected by coronavirus and university closures. Students will be connected with industry professionals for remote feedback. If you are a student looking for advice or a designer/stylist/editor who can donate some time, contact Rory @parnell_mooney on Instagram.
Irish designer Rory Parnell Mooney is in an “on-off relationship” with fashion. In 2014, his CSM MA graduate collection caught the attention of Fashion East, anointing him with a platform he will readily admit he wasn’t prepared for. His desire to put on spectacular shows and keep changing his brand aesthetic left him exhausted and craving normality. “I just wanted to go to the beach and live,” he says.
Rory relaunched his brand in June after two years away from design; time mostly spent teaching at CSM and LCF. His return was quiet but confident, void of unnecessary theatrics and based on real connections with his customer. His time away, combined with turning 30, removed the need for external validation. Low-key shoots with a trusted art director and stylist provided a welcome relief from the pressure to produce huge, expensive shows.
Amid a global pandemic and forced isolation, fashion designers are faced with a slower pace, reduced demands on productivity and a chance to pause and reflect. In a dire situation, where loss of earnings and security are causing understandable anxiety, people are seeking silver linings. Here, Rory shares the lessons he learnt from taking a break (albeit in very different circumstances) and his hopes for the future of fashion, post-pandemic.
What is the most challenging part of establishing a brand signature and why?
The pressure of constant shows and trying to uphold the conversation around what you are doing is difficult. When press and buyers are constantly asking questions and talking about your work, you feel the need to change it more often. Before I took a break, I tried to be everything to everyone: offering people a wearable T-shirt alongside show pieces. I don’t think it’s possible to do that well. I realised I need to do my own thing and, if people are into it, they will follow. It’s about developing a following of people who genuinely love the product. When I relaunched my brand, I was a bit older and more experienced. I think the identity and aesthetic are stronger now.
“When press and buyers are constantly asking questions and talking about your work, you feel the need to change it more often. Before I took a break, I tried to be everything to everyone.”
How has your perception of the industry changed since you graduated from CSM?
I don’t think I really understood the industry when I graduated from CSM. Fashion schools could focus a lot more on identity and image, but that seems boring when you’re 21. You just want to make great clothes and take photos of them. Current students are really good at that. In my year at college, we didn’t want to use Instagram. Now, I realised it is the way to make money and sell clothes. The internet completely changed the game.
I teach at CSM now and I talk to my students about the industry, because we don’t talk about that enough. We don’t talk about money or branding. I love clothes, but they are 20% of your job. The other 80% is about creating a good image. I should be able to look at an image and know who the customer is without asking any questions.
Has teaching made you think differently about your own experience of education at CSM? How so?
Not really. I still think that the MA Fashion course at CSM is the best in the world; it focuses much more on finding out about yourself and what you are into. Working with the late Louise Wilson, I would show her my work and she would say, ‘You thought that was cool? That is not cool at all.’ I would look at it again and realise she was right – it was lame. I kept trying and showing her things until I came up with ideas I didn’t even want to showcase. Then she said, ‘These are great. I’ve never seen these before.’ That cemented my way of working and made me realise that I don’t need a gorgeous portfolio page with stupid illustrations on it. I can just have interesting conversations with people and use newspaper images as inspiration.
“I love clothes, but they are 20% of your job. The other 80% is about creating a good image. I should be able to look at an image and know who the customer is without asking any questions.”
As a teacher, I try to keep the pace I experienced in the industry, so students get used to it. The industry is really fast; sometimes BA courses last too long. Designers in the real world have to be really good at making decisions. They have to be able to say what is good or bad and know why. You need an editorial eye. That is something I learnt at CSM.
What are common questions that your students ask and how do you answer them?
Industry questions are much easier to answer. Questions like, ‘What does my portfolio look like?’ are harder to answer. It is so personal, because it relates to your own experimentation and identity. I think it’s easier to teach designers a practical discipline like tailoring, sewing or pattern-cutting.
“The industry is really fast; sometimes BA courses last too long.”
As a tutor, you have to question your own questions. People don’t come to CSM to hear a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. They want an open dialogue: who has used that fabric before? What are the connotations of that colour?
Being a fashion designer comes with a lot of stress and pressure. Have you noticed a rise in mental health issues among your students compared to when you were studying? How have you dealt with this yourself, especially when running your own brand?
I think people are talking about it more now, which is a positive thing. Students don’t really approach me with their personal issues. Everybody was just as stressed out when I was studying, but nobody had open conversations about mental health. People would go home and cry, but no-one would realise that was depression.
I’ve never had to deal with mental health issues myself. I really enjoy being busy and having ten jobs to do. I question myself more when there is nothing to do. Being older helps. I turned 30 recently and I feel so comfortable. I just want to make clothes that I love and, if people don’t like them, that’s fine. If somebody wants to write about my work, that’s amazing. If somebody wants to ask me about it, that’s great. But I am not inviting critique. If someone wants to talk shit about it, whatever!
“I just wish I had been a bit older and had a bit more experience before I did Fashion East. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted, so I don’t feel like I used the opportunity as well as I could have.”
You worked with Fashion East for a few seasons out of CSM – what was that experience like? How did your experience of fashion change when you had a bigger audience?
At the CSM graduate show, Louise Wilson shouted at me to come over and talk to Charlie Porter. He put me in touch with Fashion East and I had an interview. I had no audience before that. The Fashion East team were really supportive, so working with them was amazing. They basically asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ and then helped me do it. They never get involved in the creative process or tell you what to do. I just wish I had been a bit older and had a bit more experience before I did Fashion East. I was still trying to figure out what I wanted, so I don’t feel like I used the opportunity as well as I could have.
“I was tired, I was broke, I wanted to have a regular income and I really wanted to go on a holiday. I just wanted to be a ‘normal’ person and live a ‘normal life’ for a bit.”
After Fashion East, you took two years out from producing collections. What motivated that decision and what did you learn from the time out?
I was tired, I was broke, I wanted to have a regular income and I really wanted to go on a holiday. I just wanted to be a ‘normal’ person and live a ‘normal life’ for a bit. I did nothing other than work in the studio.
Since returning to fashion, you have chosen not to do any shows or presentations, preferring to see a small group of buyers and go at your own pace. What motivated that decision?
I think in the future, I will do presentations and eventually shows, but I have such a small team now. It is just me, an art director and a stylist. We have this motto: ‘Do the best with what you have.’ We are all talented and good at what we do, so the best we can do is shoot really beautiful images on a great model and keep it low-key.
“Do I really need to drop £20,000 on a show when it doesn’t benefit me or my customer in any way?“
Before, I was stuck on the idea that I had to do a show, but that isn’t the case. People buy clothes directly from Instagram or a website. Do I really need to drop £20,000 on a show when it doesn’t benefit me or my customer in any way?
How has working alone changed your creative process?
Nobody really comes into my studio, so it has become a private, experimental space where I can make mistakes. I make a lot of crap, but I edit it out before anyone sees it. I think that is the most important thing for me. Even as the brand grows, I will always need a space that is private, just for me.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work?
The impact on my work has been minimal, because of the size of my business and the way I work. I’m spending less time in the studio, because travelling there means interacting with other people, but I work alone a lot anyway, so the isolation part is not too hard. It has made me think more about how connected we are and how much we need to reconsider and future-proof our supply chains. Sourcing and working more locally would be a good start.
“A lot of universities are still teaching students online, but these digital connections could be an extra way of supporting graduating students during this odd time.”
How are you trying to help students in light of the pandemic?
I’m trying to set up a project where we connect final year students with people working in the industry. Most fashion schools have closed their studios now, which means graduate shows and exhibitions will be postponed or cancelled. Hopefully, we can create digital spaces where graduates and industry professionals can interact. A lot of universities are still teaching students online, but these digital connections could be an extra way of supporting graduating students during this odd time.
“The context for this is a global pandemic, so we need to acknowledge our privilege here: we are discussing the implications on our industry while there are people in Intensive Care Units fighting to save lives.”
What issues does this raise for young designers and students? How can the fashion industry, press and public support them best?
The context for this is a global pandemic, so we need to acknowledge our privilege here: we are discussing the implications on our industry while there are people in Intensive Care Units fighting to save lives. Within fashion, I think coronavirus is showing us a couple of things. The main one for me is the massive reduction in pollution rates. For young designers, it’s a great time to learn and adapt, in terms of business scale and supply chains. Small, independent businesses are so much more adaptable than larger fashion companies, but many are struggling to survive with people spending less. The press can support young designers by platforming their work and talking about them online – people are spending much more time on the internet now, so let’s use it for good!
“The press can support young designers by platforming their work and talking about them online – people are spending much more time on the internet now, so let’s use it for good!”
What do you think a post-pandemic fashion industry will look like?
I feel much more connected, which is odd. I am more willing to reach out to people on FaceTime or Houseparty, so I feel busier than I did last month. It’s nice to see how many people are getting in touch to ask, ‘Do you need anything?’ too. I have no idea what the fashion industry will look like after this, but I hope we remain connected. I worry that we will all go back to what we were doing before: unsustainable amounts of travel, growth and production. Hopefully, we will learn to slow down a bit.