Photography: Bex Day
Styling: Patricia Villirillo
Set Design: Scarlet Winter
Text: Anna Sanders
Elliss is in life as she is in her work: quietly spoken, thoughtful and considered. When we met she talked of empowerment, of impactful change through subtle means, and her careful deliberations of fabric and thread. Sourcing sustainably without compromising on design, her decisions are weighted by the journey of clothes: where the fabric is sourced, how long it will last, the feel of it against skin; and in doing so she finds a balance between the realities of the world and meaningful change.
She approaches sensitive subjects through subdued, artful means. LUMINOL, her graduate collection, saw fractured, liquified logos of fast-food chains and poultry rendered in E-number colours painted onto sumptuous fabrics and gossamer sheers; a vibrant, beautiful allegory of factory farming, cut into natural fabrics and found materials.
It is her measured considerations of the longevity of her designs, and of the politics woven into them, that make her work so arresting: a powerful message, elegantly communicated.
Entitled UNCONSCIOUS CLOTHING, her Autumn/Winter 2016 collection is a celebratory study of women in both execution and design. Clothes are cut to flatter in colours of skin: soft nudes and flushed reds; a female face is painted onto bodysuits and underwear, lips touching lips. The journey that begins as a pre-pubescence is explored in all its vulnerability: an innocence in high-cut necklines and printed tees, an intimacy in flushed-pink bras and a state of undress.
The Autumn/Winter Lookbook continues this tentative, and at times clumsy, exploration into adulthood. A curtain becomes a comfort blanket, a coronation cloak; silvery heels are slipped on as though though found in a mothers wardrobe.
We spoke with Elliss prior to the launch of the collection to discuss the development of her aesthetic, the journey from graduate to commercial collection, and exclusively publish the Autumn / Winter 2016 Lookbook below.
AS: Your graduate collection was politically driven, citing animal rights activists of the 17th and 18th centuries as inspiration. Are political issues, both recent and historical, an important element in your work?
ES: My work is driven by current events but I like to reference historical figures to pay homage to those who spoke out when no one else would. People can feel a certain way about their food, but not their clothes; they disassociate. It was this disassociation that drove my collection politically.
Animal rights are still taboo, people don’t want to talk about it. It’s an ‘un-hot’ topic. My graduate collection acknowledged that in a subtle way. I didn’t want to be aggressive in my approach as It’s not an effective form of communication.
What were the inspirations behind your AW Collection -ISM UNCONSCIOUS CLOTHING and what does the phrase ‘unconscious clothing’ mean to you?
‘Unconscious clothing’ is a play with words. The unconscious consumer being the woman that isn’t searching for the eco tag but buys a piece of clothing because they like the way it looks. I want people to buy my clothes because they like them – to unconsciously be conscious.
The narrative for the shoot was about growing up and becoming a woman, and the feelings of insecurity that accompany this. You become more at ease with yourself, but you also have moments of anxiety, I think it’s important to talk about that. The model, Amy, was incredible – she has a unique ability to convey so much without doing anything.
The design process in my current collection wasn’t like my last; I wasn’t thinking ‘This is an art piece’. I was thinking what would I like to wear and in what fabric. I couldn’t find the shapes that I wanted so I designed them. If you go online to find a hemp or organic cotton t-shirt, they’re all crew neck and I don’t want that, I want a high neck and a sleeve length that’s flattering on your body. If you have a choice between buying something ethically made and something that looks great, people generally buy the latter. It is so important to have options that are both.
You use organic and found fabrics in your work, natural dyes and wool from rescued sheep – is sustainability important to your practise as a designer, and would you consider your collections to be ethical?
I am naturally conscious of waste and the environmental impact but it is difficult to be 100%. You have to choose your battles – and not be too hard on yourself. Sourcing the right fabric takes time but it is such an important factor, for me it took more time than designing the collection but it was worth it. When you find those suppliers it’s easier in the long term. I didn’t ask for assistance at the beginning and I should have done, that would be my advice to anyone starting out straight from uni – ask for help.
I visited a trade fair recently, and it was really interesting to talk to UK manufactures. It is important to support them and work locally, and to see where things are made. I understand for bigger brands the scale of production is difficult in the UK, but they also have the funding to go and visit the other countries they work in.
My wool came from Isobel Davie’s rescued sheep. Izzy sponsored my graduate collection. I loved using her wool; it is 100% slaughter free.
How do you feel toward larger fast fashion companies adopting recycling initiatives, do you see it as marketing strategy, a marker of social change happening with the industry, or both?
The reality is fast fashion brands can’t balance out what they do produce in order to make a difference. The intention may well be there but it isn’t fully thought through. Often it is used as more of a marketing campaign that can come back to bite them as people pick up on it. A high street store even offered a discount voucher to put back into their business when you brought in your old clothes to be recycled. A disguised ploy to increase consumerism.
The other thing to note is the fact that mixed composition fabrics can’t as of yet be recycled so most of the items brought in will end up in landfill.
I really hope that bigger names just mentioning the issues get people thinking. Like Chanel and their “eco” couture.
Do you feel it is easy for designers to make ethical decisions in the way they work, or do cost and practicality influence their decisions more?
If it comes naturally I think it’s not too difficult. It’s trying to change once you are set in your ways that’s harder to do. This is why I wanted to make the right decisions from the outset, so everything just runs from that. And the more people that think in this way, the more options we’ll have.
There aren’t enough established designers with an ethical mindset, but there are a lot of people starting out that care. And when you contact a brand and call them to account – they notice. You are their customer and you are what keep their business alive.
You’ve worked with River Island, Alexander Wang and LANVIN – how did you find the design process differs from fast fashion to high end?
The time frame is the main difference – High end brands have more time to focus on research and design. Fast fashion brands have to make compromises on detail and cost. It is about getting the lowest price point for the item. This affects the human cost. High-end brands are guilty of this too – as they may chose an expensive fabric but the designers aren’t necessarily connected to the factories they are made in.
Photography: Bex Day
Styling: Patricia Villirillo
Hair: Mia McSorley using Oribe
Make-up: Robyn Fitzsimmons using MAC Cosmetics
Model: Amy Glover
Photography Assistant: Gabriele Sciotto
Styling Assistant: Megan Mendaville
Excerpts from the above article where subsequently used in the ELLISS ‘Unconscious Clothing’ press release