Jan 15, 2013 3:45PM

Designer Profile: Elissa McGowan

Meet one of Australia's bright young things who will be debuting at MBFWA this year.
Elissa McGowan's graduate collection shot by Byron Spencer for Oyster

If you were #frothing over Byron Spencer's shoot using new label Elissa McGowan, you'll probably be pretty keen to read our interview with the up-and-coming Sydney-based designer. Elissa recently graduated from The Fashion Design Studio (the same school which birthed the likes of Romance Was Born and Dion Lee from its metaphorical loins) and was selected as one of six students to show as part of the Innovators show at MBFWA 2013. Here, we interview the 23-year-old designer to find out more about where she came from, where she's going and what studying fashion is really like.

Alice Cavanagh: When did you first become interested in fashion?
Elissa McGowan: When I was little, maybe 6 or 7. I used to dream of being a fashion designer. I had no idea how I would get there but I knew I wanted to be one. I guess I am in the process of figuring that out right now.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a sleepy coastal town in mid-north New South Wales. 

Who were your idols when you were younger?
Cher from Clueless. I wanted her computerised wardrobe so bad!

What was the greatest thing you learnt while studying at East Sydney?
East Sydney is such an amazing school. I was fortunate enough to study under Nicholas Huxley who has been head of the school for so long. The greatest thing I learnt while studying there was always trust in yourself, before anyone else. Along the way, a lot of people will want to give you their two cents. I had an instance somewhere in the middle of my studies, where my confidence was wavering. I was putting too much energy into pleasing others. It was a great learning curve for me to have, as I've learnt not to focus so much on what others may think. As soon as you lose that connection to your ideas and vision, your work will suffer.

How much do they educate you about the industry and starting your own label?
The teachers do an amazing job at getting us ready to go out into the real (fashion) world. They put us through the ranks and it can get pretty competitive at times. You learn to develop a thick skin as marking days can be a bit of a reality check. The teachers are known to tell you exactly what they think of your work. It is such great preparation for the criticism you can expect if you are to go out and have your own label. We took subjects in business and marketing, but I think the work experience subject is the best education you will get in regards to the way the industry actually works.

You have completed quite a few internships, with Lover and Dion Lee, for example, what were some of the important things you learnt? 
Interning for Dion was a really great experience. He always takes the time to make you feel welcome and appreciated in the studio, which is lovely. Not only is he levelheaded in his success, but also he is nurturing. Earlier in the year, I was feeling frustrated about where to source fabrics in Sydney after returning from a fairly unsuccessful sourcing trip to Hong Kong and China. After explaining my situation to Dion, he simply told me to never expect someone to give you the answers and that you have to be the one who goes out looking for them yourself because they won't be handed to you. From that point on, I reassessed the situation and worked with what I had access to. It was a great lesson to learn: to always be persistent in your endeavors.

If you could work with anyone/learn from any other designer in the whorl who would it be?
Nicholas Ghesquiere. He is so clever!

What do you reference most in your work? 
I'm always really drawn to the organic lines you can find in nature. I think I've developed my aesthetic (which is definitely still developing) around the lines I find in art, nature, and other disciplines of design. Francis Bacon and Dale Frank always get my mind going with their use of colour balance and fluidity.

Do you have a specialty when it comes to designing? What are you most interested in?
I'm quite interested in fabrication and approaching it from a new angle. As a new designer you don't have access to the same resources as, say, Miuccia Prada would, so you learn to develop things differently. Limitations like this push you creatively, and help you develop an aesthetic that is unique. For my graduate collection, I focused on a few different surface techniques: engineered laser cutting, bonding and digital prints. There were also a few pieces that looked at the use of organic line within sculpted pieces. Fashions speak!

How are you preparing for your MBAFW show?
I'm in the process of moving into my first studio. Thank God I don't have to work out of my dimly lit lounge room anymore! I'm really excited to have a new space to work in. As I will be showing my graduation collection but developing it further, I'm in the process of editing the looks I have so far and building from there. It's a bit of a challenge to come back to something that I began developing almost a year ago, so I'm trying to bring some new ideas into the collection. At the moment, I'm developing some textile samples to be sent off to India and working on some new silhouettes.

Can you give us any hints about the collection?
Initially I looked at the ideology of surrealism, which led me to focus largely on the art of Francis Bacon and the mindset of the late 60s. The colour palette is quite controlled with white, nude and peach being the focal colour range with strong accents of navy. I wanted to approach the fabrications used in 60s couture but in a new way. I used a lot of silk and high-shine fabrics but didn't want them to feel as precious as they did in the 60s, so I bonded and sculpted them so they were more contemporary. I wanted some of the pieces to almost look like they could have been painted, so the lines are quite fluid but the silhouettes are focused. 


Follow Elissa McGowan on Instagram in the lead-up to MBFWA!

Introduction: Ingrid Kesa
Interview: Alice Cavanagh


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