Designer Sinéad O'Dwyer is breaking down body norms
The young Irish designer is translating the radical impact of her RCA graduate work to new, more wearable contexts.
Photography Steph Wilson
Two years on, Sinéad O’Dwyer’s Royal College of Art MA collection figures among the most memorable London graduate debuts in recent years. In the foyer of 180 The Strand, seven girls lounged about the reception desk, arranged as if the subjects of a renaissance fresco. They wore the garments that have come to serve as the lasting visual motif of her practice: hand-poured silicone pieces embedded with yards and yards of compressed pastel silks, moulded from the bodies of her two friends.
What gave the collection its potency was the directness with which it addressed fashion’s systemic mistreatment of women’s bodies, proposing clothes that accommodate and celebrate the individual form. In the years since, the London-based Irish designer has steadily established a practice on terms entirely of her own, eschewing six-month-seasons and situating her creative output as comfortably in contemporary art contexts as in fashion. Just before lockdown in March, her work was the subject of the opening solo exhibition at Waves and Archives, a New York gallery committed to showing exclusively fashion.
Of course, the handwrought, sculptural nature of the silicone casts lends itself well to a formal exhibition context. Over the last year, however, the designer has committed time to researching how to translate these body-liberating forms to the sample-size-dominated realm of ready-to-wear. “I’ve been thinking a lot about elastic and stretch and how that could translate the effect of my moulded pieces,” she says, referring to lime and fuschia shirred silk bodysuits shot here by photographer Steph Wilson. Each composed of puckered satin bands that coil around the torso and limbs, they frame the body’s natural curves, gaping here and there to offer peeks or thigh or midriff.
Though the immediate visual effect of the pieces is hardly what you could call orthodox, the diagonal spiral of Sinéad’s wrap technique in fact draws inspiration from an age-old dressmaking tactic. “Something that was really important was referencing cutting on the bias,” she says, a method that entails cutting fabric diagonally across the grain, causing the fabric to fall more gently and accentuate the body’s lines. “I was thinking about how lines cross the body and kind of undulate, and how you can naturally show the landscape of the body through a garment’s linear properties.”
Perhaps what makes the pieces so striking is the sense of tension they communicate -- a balancing act of girlish frills and a proud sense of female bodily empowerment. “It’s something I really feel about myself as a woman,” Sinéad says. “There’s this tension between playfulness and sexiness, being girly and cute, and then also feeling quite dominant and powerful. I wanted to have both sides present without cancelling either out,” something that’s conveyed by the bold poses cut by model Ariish Wol in Steph’s imagery, movement-directed by New York City Ballet dancer Harrison Ball.
Commissioned by Luncheon Magazine to shoot a campaign image for the magazine’s most recent issue, Steph looked to develop on the watery theme of her SS20 collaboration with Sinéad, Wear Me Like Water. Accordingly, she suggested Hackney Marshes as the ideal location to carry on the theme of fluidity and freedom. “I’ve always adored the atmosphere and light there,” Steph says. “It’s a very unique place. A lot of people come to escape from all walks of life, and there is often a sort of Twin Peaks feel to it. Being in nature and having bare skin in the fresh air and cool water is very liberating, something I think Sinead’s pieces strongly evoke.”
It, of course, bears noting that Sinead’s decision to share pieces from an upcoming collection before its full release is far from the norm for brands the size of hers, prompting questions around her decision to step outside the industry-standard format. “I'm trying to figure out a new language,” is her quick riposte, “and everything that my brand is based on is a new premise. Because of that, I sort of feel that I can do whatever feels right -- nothing I’ve done has ever really fitted fashion’s predisposed mould anyway.”
Photography Steph Wilson
Movement Direction Harrison Ball
MUA Georgia Hope
- Body Positivity