Few designers treat bodies with the same respect as Sinéad O’Dwyer. The Irish native spends months crafting lifecasts of her muses – who also happen to be her friends – and then uses the moulds to craft innovative garments, which bear traces of the body beneath. It’s an intimate process, which says a lot about O’Dwyer’s desire to create a space in fashion for every body to exist.
Born and raised in the sleepy Irish town of Tullymore, Sinéad comes from a family of craftspeople whose early creative encouragement is written across her work. From strange self-portraits to chicken wire hats, the designer spent decades in creative gestation before settling on her current signature process. A long-term battle with body dysmorphia has similarly informed her work, which aims to not only include plus-size bodies, but honour them by carefully tracing every fold of flesh through fabric.
Jake Hall: What first attracted you to fashion?
Sinéad O’Dwyer: I grew up in a town which had no link to fashion. But I did have a link to craft because my granny is an amazing knitter, and my dad is a silversmith. As a kid, I felt like I was so different… ugly actually, and weird. I thought fashion looked like a place where you could be ugly and weird – it was like, “OK, maybe I could exist there!” When I was about twelve, my dad took me to Dublin to see this exhibition of Isabella Blow and Philip Treacy, which was amazing. I remember there being a big screen showing Naomi Campbell pretending to stagger drunkenly down the runway in this big ship hat, it was so theatrical. Then that summer, I started making these really strange hats…
JH: What were those like?
SOD: A combination of these odd shapes that I made from chicken wire and then covered in felt, and then these traditional pillbox hats. My grandmother knew how to make them, so she taught me. My dad actually took photos of me wearing them, so let’s hope they never get out!
JH: Was your early relationship with fashion generally positive?
SOD: At first I was obsessed with maybe being a model, because I couldn’t imagine how else you would enter the world of fashion. I suppose I was really affected by advertising as a teenager, as we all were in the 2000s. For a few years around the age of eleven, I would measure myself every day and log it in a little book. I was doing ballet as well, so I was constantly looking in the mirror and comparing myself. My work has such a root there actually; it was only during my MA that I looked back and realised I had body dysmorphia for years.
Bodysuit by Sinéad O’Dwyer SS20; underwear stylist’s own
“I just want people to feel they don’t have to be thankful for inclusion, that they’re not there as an afterthought or a trend, but because they’re allowed to be.”
JH: It sounds like you were pretty creative from a young age – is that fair to say?
SOD: Yes, I’ve always been painting and drawing – I’ve had a ‘studio’ since I was young. Well, a room that I thought of as my studio at least, it’s where I did my homework as well. At school I had this Italian art teacher, and on Tuesdays my friend Lauren and I would go to her house, which was actually this converted Roman Catholic church, we would sit at her table and make these strange paintings. I did my own version of the portrait of Dorian Gray, and this self-portrait of me in a green dress in the style of Velazquez – it was super extra [laughs]. I painted nudes as well when I was sixteen or seventeen… I lived in North Carolina for nine months.
JH: What led to that move?
SOD: In Ireland, we have something called a transition year, which my parents wanted me and my sister to do because they thought we were too young to graduate. My mum is from Chicago, and I think my parents had this idea that they wanted to move to America again. They tempted me to North Carolina with this amazing art school, which went horribly wrong for them because I loved it so much. I went wild! I got my first girlfriend and she had her own car, so my parents never knew where I was. It was the best year ever, but then I was dragged unceremoniously back to Ireland for being bold, basically.
JH: It must have been so difficult to come back.
SOD: It was horrible. I’d lost all of my friends because I was gay – one of my best friends at the time told my entire town I was a lesbian, so I had to move schools. Then I started this weird series of paintings of my ex-girlfriend naked – I think my dad was horrified!
Top by Sinéad O’Dwyer SS20; earrings by Rathel & Wolf SS20
JH: Where did you first study fashion?
SOD: I did my BA in the Netherlands, in a place called Arnhem. The only clothes I had made before that was this series of gothic Shirley Temple dresses which were very, very short. I think I used chicken wire in those, too – they went with the hats. Arnhem was huge in comparison to Tullymore – I remember being like, “Wow, there are five nightclubs – that’s wild!” But it was a really harsh school with some really mean teachers. The style is to squish you as hard as possible in the hope that something good pops out.
JH: Which is awful but sadly unsurprising – there are so many fashion school horror stories.
SOD: It was really awful. I had a hard time with depression in the second year particularly, which was shit. Body dysmorphia came into it, too. I was thinner in first year because I had been doing ballet for years, so people wanted to use me as a fit model, but they would measure me and I was too big. There was this notebook that was part of a third year project, and I read comments about me: “She got fatter… she got thinner… she got fatter again.” There was a focus on your looks and being fabulous every day – teachers loved you more if you were beautiful. It was really stressful, and not a nice atmosphere a lot of the time.
“It took me a while to realise that this cycle of dysmorphia and self-hatred had links to the fashion industry.”
JH: You’ve talked in the past about your mum feeling like she had ‘bad legs’ because trousers didn’t fit her, as well as your own body dysmorphia. How did you feel about that while you were doing the BA?
SOD: My BA collection was actually really fashion-y – there was an edge of myself, but it was basically lots of dresses or whatever. It took me a while to realise that this cycle of dymorphia and self-hatred had links to the fashion industry. Patterns are basically cut for size eight and then scaled up to size, which is ridiculous. All the patterns in the fashion cupboard are size eight, and the fit models are six to eight. That’s being paid for by the school, which is ultimately paid by the money that you’re giving. So you’re subsidising this cycle. I really think using other students as fit models should be banned, and that there should be more protection in fashion.
JH: After all of this, what made you decide to go back and do the MA?
SOD: I moved to New York afterwards and interned for Alexander Wang, which gave me the opportunity to develop, learn and see how those big companies work. It gave me confidence after my BA, as well – I was like, “Oh I’m not shit, I can actually make a good swatch!” I dated a girl briefly while I was there, and I remember being stressed about getting a fashion job. I had a really depressing interview, and afterwards she was like, “Why don’t you just get a job in a gallery or something?” It had genuinely never occurred to me that I could have my own job and then make my work [on the side] as well.
I had been nannying for years already, so I decided to stay in New York for a year or so as a nanny. Then I met my wife, and we moved to London together. I had always wanted to do an MA, but I wasn’t sure if it was just because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But then we met this guy called Adam Peacock, who works at LCF [London College of Fashion] now. He’s this eccentric, captivating man, and he told me about Zowie [Broach].
Bra and underwear both by Sinéad O’Dwyer SS20; necklace by CC-Steding SS20; socks and slippers stylist’s own
JH: Zowie basically transformed RCA [Royal College of Art] and reconfigured the format of the graduate show, right?
SOD: Yes. I had never seen the shows, but Adam was a good salesperson. He told me she focussed more on individuals and helped them discover something about themselves, which sounded perfect. I was struggling with the meaninglessness of working for a big company. Every season it’s the same fabric, different trend-based silhouette. I was reading about clothes being burned and seeing shady news about the furs and leathers being used, and then there’s the body politics. I felt ready for a change, so I liked Zowie’s ethos.
JH: How long did it take you to develop your signature casting process?
SOD: I was immediately drawn to the resin room. [The technician] Matt is an amazing teacher, too. I started making flat silicone pieces – Björk wore one for a shoot with Tim Walker! I was making drawings of the body and then a collection, which is the first thing that people really saw from me. But I wanted to turn these flat bodies into three-dimensional ones, so Matt and I came up with a plan.
JH: How difficult are those three-dimensional moulds to create?
SOD: You use [liquid casting gel] alginate and then plaster bandage, and then you pour in a hot, oil-based clay. You take that out and sculpt basically forever! Then you destroy your sculpture by fibreglassing it, and then you core it out to the thickness of the eventual piece. I used to be obsessed with getting every detail correct – my first mould took three months to make. Whenever I lost skin texture, I put it back in. But my work is more about form and the body’s shape, so I realised I didn’t need to spend so long on the sculpting.
JH: You cast friends as muses, and they’re always bigger than the outdated fashion sample size, was that always important to you?
SOD: Definitely. Fashion should be for everyone.
Bodysuit by Sinèad O’Dwyer SS20
JH: Has that casting process changed their relationships with their own bodies?
SOD: My friend Jade often talks about how it was a confidence-builder for her. For a while, she said she dressed in really baggy clothes; she felt like hiding. With this, she was confronted with her body. I work with [writer] Mahoro Seward, and we made a zine with the women I worked with. Some had conversations with their model bodies, others discussed how it felt to see someone else wearing their body.
JH: Is working with a close circle of collaborators your way of creating a safe bubble for yourself within the industry?
SOD: I think so. The fashion industry couldn’t exist without amazingly skilled collaborators, but I would never want to do this on my own or tell these stories on my own, because it’s not just about my perspective. I actually haven’t life-cast myself yet; I don’t think it would have had the same impact. For me, the initial choice of model was important. It had to be a close friend, and there really had to be a story that they wanted to tell.
“Historically, women’s bodies have been censored, squished and shaped into these different proportions. There’s definitely pressure on men now, but for women it’s always been that way. It’s a cycle, which fashion schools feed by churning out designers who can only cut for a size eight.”
JH: You’ve done so much recently – your collection, [fashion film] Wear Me Like Water…
SOD: I had worked with [photographer] Steph Wilson on another shoot, but she contacted me out of the blue to start the film. We could really trust each other, so I didn’t need to control it so much. It was initially intended as an editorial, but it became a small film, then a big film… and then we’re by a swimming pool and we’ve got a drone! This year has been financially stressful, though.
JH: Your work is sparking conversations around the inclusion of plus-size models in the fashion industry. Why do you think it’s taking so long?
SOD: It’s a gradual change. It’s been seen as fine to exclude people because of these manipulative narratives around health and the body – even I would have said things like that as a teenager, because it’s what we’re fed by the media. But people hide behind the health narrative rather than confronting their bigotry or fatphobia. It’s discrimination, but it hasn’t been challenged yet. Historically, women’s bodies have been censored, squished and shaped into these different proportions. There’s definitely pressure on men now, but for women it’s always been that way. It’s a cycle, which fashion schools feed by churning out designers who can only cut for a size eight.
JH: With that in mind, what do you want people to take away from your work?
SOD: That they’re allowed to be included in the picture. Representation is often just lip service; I want people to feel they’ve been considered in the making process. I don’t know if I’ll ever do production or become a brand, but I need to make sure I have everything in place if I do because I’m my own harshest critic. I just want people to feel they don’t have to be thankful for inclusion, that they’re not there as an afterthought or a trend, but because they’re allowed to be.
Sinéad O’Dwyer’s ‘In Myself’ exhibition opens today at New York’s Waves and Archives Gallery, and runs until April 3rd