Interview: Emily McGuire

Interviewed by Sarah Thomson

Emily McGuire / 'Designer garment' brooch / 2016 / ceramic, glaze, adhesive

Emily McGuire is a fashion designer, writer, and early-career researcher in contemporary fashion practice from Brisbane currently based in London. She combines her training in fashion design with a critical interest in the political forces of fashion that shape our lived experience.

Her work explores the complex relationship between fashion, sustainability and female identity using textiles and secondhand clothing. Emily’s work – with its playful humour, use of parody and bold colour – negotiates problematic issues in fashion with a sense of compassionate optimism. Embracing garment construction, weaving and embroidery, Emily’s practice conveys tenderness for the materiality of fashion.

From March 27 to April 2 Emily showed us her practice and process by taking part in our Instagram takeover series on @inresidence_ari

ST: What did you study at university and when did your interest in critically investigating the systems and means of fashion production begin?

EM: I studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Fashion) at QUT, followed by Honours. I became hugely passionate about fashion theory during this time, and creating work that addressed fashion without expressly using clothing or creating normal collections. For me, interning for free at several global fashion brands from New Zealand to New York City confirmed that the fashion industry’s biggest failure is the way in which it defines success – the romanticisation of ‘doing what you love’, exponential growth, constant consumption and many other factors are totally diminishing the power fashion has to lift communities out of poverty, boost diversity and transform economies.

Emily McGuire / “Billabong” and “The North Face” in Fashion Unlearned / 2017- ongoing / embroidery thread, secondhand garments, interfacing on board

ST: How do you navigate being a fashion designer alongside your art practice that often highlights problematic aspects of fashion consumption? Are there ever any tensions that arise in your between your practices?

EM: I wouldn’t say I’m a designer – I work at the intersection of fashion research and education here in London. This tension between working in and against the industry informs my creative practice – I love fashion and that’s why it’s worth critiquing, because I’m massively passionate about improving it.

ST: Your work addresses the performativity of female identity in digital culture through platforms like Instagram and Tumblr. How do you think these platforms have impacted the way that we construct identities through clothing?

EM: The impact is huge and at the same time, completely banal. We’ve got all these new tools, surfaces and processes for expressing ourselves and performing identity through fashion and yet the motivations remain largely the same online to offline. This really shows how incredibly powerful the social constructions around beauty, identity and gender really are.

Emily McGuire / I just wanna be Profound and Gorgeous / 2015 / fabric, thread, vinyl printing

ST: Your work clearly shows the labour intensive processes used to make garments (i.e. hand stitching, weaving, embroidery). How important is the visible hand of the maker in your work?

EM: I’m not sure- It’s not something I’m intentionally thinking about, but certainly the visibility of handcraft directly challenges the anonymity of garment workers through mainstream fashion production – you’ve got no idea how your clothes were made, or by who. They simply appear finished without a clear beginning or end.

Emily McGuire / "Calvin Klein underwear" from 'Fashion Unlearned' / 2016-2017 / secondhand garment, embroidery thread and fusing on board

Emily McGuire / Work in progress / 2017

ST: Can you tell us a bit more about your ongoing series ‘Fashion Unlearned’ and the Logo Removal service?

EM: I came up with this project when reading ‘The Fashion Condition’ by The Dress Practice Collective. This publication explores fashion through theories from incredible people like Hannah Ardent to understand why the industry routinely disempowers consumers, and how fashion can play a role in creating better world. By juxtaposing fast fashion and handcraft, Fashion Unlearned questions the powerlessness of consumers to access fashion beyond means of consumption. Repetitive embroidery stitches constrain and fragment each secondhand garment or cut-out logo to demonstrate an act of resistance to dressed identity through consumerism. Since fashion is sold as a “closed” product, consumers are dissuaded from personalising their clothing to remain de-skilled, apolitical participants in the fashion world. Fashion Unlearned prompts viewers to contemplate this wilful obedience to the forces of mainstream fashion so they might discover more meaningful and empowering ways of engaging with clothes.

I discovered Logo Removal Service when I was studying, and decided to work with this them on this project because I’m constantly looking for ways to not only discuss sustainability through my work but also apply it to how I work. I wanted to create as little waste as possible. Logo Removal Service is kind of funny, too – I hate that fashion takes itself so seriously.

My practice is also changing in response to living without my studio in Brisbane, Australia – the work I’m creating is getting smaller and more labour intensive.

Emily McGuire / 'GUESS' from ongoing series 'Fashion Unlearned' in collaboration with Logo Removal Service

ST: As someone who has recently begun a self-imposed fast fashion ban, what would you recommend I read to motivate me to stick to my goal of being a more sustainable consumer? What tips do you have for those wishing to have a more sustainable relationship with fashion?

EM: I think it’s worth getting into Fashion Revolution. They have a new publication, which has useful stories, facts and advice for reacting against the fashion system. If you’re keen for some light theory, check out anything by Kate Fletcher.

I think it’s also worth understanding what your values are in relation to consumption and beauty, and what motivates you to consume the way that you do. Some people buy more stuff when they’re stressed, or bored, or to temporarily satisfy a lack somewhere else in their lives. It’s massively important to be suspect of fashion to empower yourself and help build a fashion system that contributes to a better world. Asking yourself questions like, what’s my relationship with fashion? Why do I need this garment? What is this brand promising me? Why do I find this beautiful? Asking these questions enables you to dissect how and why you engage with fashion as a first step to doing so more sustainably.

Emily McGuire / ZARA dress / 2016 / polyester, wool yarn / 200 x 250cm

ST: How do you balance your time between your day job and art/fashion practice?

EM: At the moment I don’t! Working full time in the fashion industry can be really exhausting. Sometimes I’ll work consistently on a project for days, and then leave it for a month when I’m working a lot of over time.

Emily McGuire / Attractively Bored / 2014 / vinyl, thread, fabric mounted on card

Emily is affiliated with the Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra as a sessional academic in undergraduate fashion theory subjects. She also writes for fashion criticism publications Vestoj and Address Journal. See more of Emily McGuire's work on her website and on her Instagram @emilyrachelmcguire

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