In the year of Irish design, there are few people more interesting to speak with than fashion designer, Richard Malone. Hailing from Ardcavan in Co. Wexford, his creativity, discipline and code of ethics have caused quite a stir within the industry. He is polite, warm, calm and deliberately chooses his words, in a way you might imagine a musician does with a lyric.
However, this contemplative nature must not be confused with passivity – Richard is in fact, the opposite. When it comes to his work, he is blunt and explicitly outlines the parameters to which he ethically, creatively and socially adheres to. He refuses to subscribe to a notion or idea merely because it is ‘en vogue’ – he has an extraordinary clear vision of who he designs clothes for and why. Thus, it’s no surprise that Richard is one of the most celebrated young designers in Central Saint Martin’s history.
Already, he has attained the Deutsche Bank Award and he was the first Irish person and degree-level student to win LVMH’s Grand Prix Scholarship. BBC Radio 3 featured him in their ‘Young Artists Day’, the only Irish person to achieve that accolade and recently, he featured in Brown Thomas’ CREATE exhibition showcasing the best in Irish design. However, London Fashion Week awaits Richard Malone and he is one of three designers to showcase his collection under Fashion East’s sponsorship.
At every opportunity, Richard speaks of his pride to be Irish and even more importantly, to come from a working class background. He gives hope for a new era of fashion and is an individual who we should be discussing and supporting as much as possible.
How would you define yourself, both personally and professionally?
I am a fashion designer but if I’m honest, that’s merely the ‘end game’ and as many exhibitions that I do, no one sees the process of what being a fashion designer entails. There is a lot of writing, painting and drawing and recently, I had an exhibition in Wexford which was purely a curation of my sketches and drawings. I think my approach to design is very different and today, there is a huge cross-over between fashion and lots of other media. It’s a much more exciting era to be and to watch a designer today than in Galliano’s and McQueen’s era as fashion designers are performance artists, fine artists and curators. At least, I think’s it more interesting [laughs]. So yes, I’m a fashion designer but one with a different approach, purely because my background is different and that was immediately obvious even on my first few days at Central Saint Martins. I had a different outlook to so many of the other students.
Coming into a space where all of the other participants have somewhat of a homogeneous experience and background must be somewhat challenging?
I looked to it as an asset as a lot of fashion recently has been quite boring and sterile and the starting point to my collection was almost a reaction to that. There is a process in place at the moment where young designers research an artist, research a designer and smash a collection together but there’s no personality in that and it can’t be sustained. I wanted my designs to be a complete juxtaposition of that and to be completely authentic. At the time of starting my collection, I was working in Louis Vuitton in Paris and was immersed in this world that was really different to how I imagined it would be. Some designers are happy to take very prestigious positions, huge amounts of money and are content but I’m not like that – I question everything. If I was asked to work with a specific animal skin, I would be happy to say no and when I was casting models for my lookbook, I refused to use a model who was size zero. The girl in question was a size 8-10 – she had boobs and she had an ass. She looked great!
Working in fashion, I always feel that because of my class and background, I’m continuously fighting with the industry. I’m not afraid of confrontation.
Speaking of your background, how did you first come in contact with the fashion industry living in rural Wexford?
I have always loved drawing and I was obsessed with people. I still am. I would write stories and create observation drawings. It was constant. I think my interest in fashion came about because of my fascination with identity.
The combined narrative of people and clothes?
Yes, the narrative but I was also conscious of not creating an explicit story for the individual. I have already lived a certain experience in a certain way and it’s impossible for that not to come through in the clothes that I design but each person perceives that different and I don’t feel the need nor do I want to shout about my particular rendition of the tale. I think fashion is great because it gives you a voice. When I arrived at Saint Martins, they let me do anything! For most of the collections, I didn’t make garments – they allowed me to do performance and video pieces. I knew that I wanted to be a fashion designer but to get to that place, I was confident that I needed different experiences.
With the design of your collections shaped by your personal experiences, does it frustrate you when people almost dictate what your clothes and your brand are about – particularly without knowing you?
I loved at the press shows when people would see the collections for the first time and state that it was about this and this but sometimes I wonder what the point is of journalists for those publications who merely dictate what fashion is but in the modern era, I can release information to the same audience that completely contradicts their forecast and opinion.
Is their definition of a collection not based on their own experiences and background too?
Yes and for that reason, I think fashion is moving towards becoming a fine art. Post-recession, there is a market there for people who are interested in investing in pieces. From being involved in CREATE in Brown Thomas, that’s one of the biggest learning points I’ve come across – Irish people are fascinated by the story of a piece of clothing and want to invest in that narrative. When I was beginning to set up my own label, it was really inspiring for me to see that those women exist and that there is a customer base who care more about their wardrobe than merely what is on trend.
Speaking to you, the kindness and care that you have for those female customers is immediately obvious but do you think the fashion industry, as a whole, care about women or are we merely vehicles for consumption?
I have a fifteen year old female cousin and I am very conscious of her when I’m designing my garments and even when they’re being styled for a shoot. Previously, my clothes have been called in for an editorial with the Kardashian’s and I pulled it because regardless of how you put the garments together, you’re sending a completely different message to a younger generation and I don’t like that no one has challenged that. The fashion industry and the fashion system don’t really consider the women who they are designing for and if you don’t subscribe to that mentality, I think it’s difficult to get ahead. In a way, I feel like I’m fighting it. So far, it’s working [laughs].
Are you concerned that one day it won’t?
Em, no. I’m going to keep fighting. I don’t think it will because without evening knowing, it seems my design and approach to fashion have reached a big audience of both young girls and older women and they’re interested in what I do and the way that I do it. That’s inspiring and hopefully, a sign that I can keep fighting [laughs].
With fashion moving so fast, how do you keep that intimate relationship with customers?
I’m producing luxury clothes that are very expensive, of course, but I’m very keen to ensure that the clothes are luxurious on the inside and outside. I want my clothes to have an element of privacy about them and for the women who wear my clothes to be the only ones who experience the interior finish and beautiful fabric. Dressing is a juxtaposition, there’s elements of exhibitionism and confidence but it’s also intensely private and intimate too. That’s what I strive for and hopefully, that’s what customers continue to be interested in.
In a way, that mirrors Coco Chanel’s rhetoric.
Yes, very much so. It’s so special because it’s the internal finish and the fabric that touches your body – it’s like a secret. That’s what I would like to sell the garments not because they are ‘cool’. I’m very anti-cool.
You have won a series of awards from multi-national conglomerates who have huge stakes within the fashion industry but how do you manage your relationship with them whilst still maintaining your code of ethics and fighting the system?
I have been very blunt with them [laughs]. When I spoke to them, I was upfront. I said, ‘I think certain things that you are doing are wrong. I think the messages that you are sending are wrong’. Honestly, I didn’t expect to win a single award. However, I think they’re open to change and that they see something in me which they haven’t found in other designers. I’m not a passive individual and they’ve known my stance and positioning since the very beginning and it’s about opening the conversation and being clear where your boundaries lie. Again, it’s worked so far [laughs].
It’s that conflict between creativity and consumerism.
Exactly! It’s too fast at the moment, people are investing huge amounts of money in their wardrobe and don’t even have time to consider how they are going to wear something or what it means to them to wear it. It just becomes another piece of cloth hanging on a rail. People feel alienated because they are not 6ft tall or a size 4 but I have this phrase that I live by, ‘Clothes should fit women. Women shouldn’t fit clothes’.
You seem extremely confident in the Richard Malone brand and the future of that brand but when employment opportunities arose with Maison Martin Margiela, Louis Vuitton and Loewe, how seriously did you consider them?
My gut feeling was no but it was a difficult decision to make. I had to consider my family, they were enthusiastic because it was a job offer in such a well-known brand, they had never seen money like that on the table before and there was a huge amount of prestige attached to each offer. That’s not hugely important to me, though. I genuinely feel that there is a gap in the market for what I am independently creating and selling but the Margiela position was really tempting. I mean, Galliano is brilliant.
What made you say no?
Because even though I’d be working for Galliano, I’d still be working for Margiela and within those big companies, you only have so much space and control over what you do. I get so much more enjoyment out of making something that I really believe in. It’s important to me that I’ve cut the patterns and that I’ve touched the fabric at every stage of production. I worked at a huge company and I feel lucky to know how much I value my own autonomy as many people would have been enamoured by the designer or the brand and would have immediately said yes. I think a lot of my friends thought that I was a little bit crazy, particularly because no one really expected to receive any job offers because a lot of what I did was so different and then the phone started to ring off the hook for a while [laughs].
Was the financial aspect tempting?
I’ve never really had any money and I’ve been happy without it. It felt wrong to think that the money would make me happy and it didn’t make sense to base my decision on the salary. No amount of money could make me change how and why I’m working at the moment. It doesn’t mean anything to me – I mean, I have to pay my rent but I don’t need or want to be a millionaire [laughs].
You’ve been very vocal about your background and your Irish heritage, was it a conscious decision to speak about your experiences?
I want to be quite vocal about it because I know that there are people coming up behind me and I want them to see that someone with that experience, background and mentality towards fashion can do it – to whatever extent it is that I ‘do’ it, I don’t know yet. But I want them to see that it is possible – particularly with the fees going up in the UK.
Yes, isn’t it close to £9,000 per year?
It’s insane. I was lucky to be in the final year that paid £3,000 per year but that was still a massive financial stretch for me.
I think it’s going to make prospective fashion designers quite a homogeneous group.
Yes, it’s going to be the rich kids and the quality of design will be hugely depreciated because it’s the diversity that makes it interesting and special. We don’t really consider or think about the community involved in the creation of clothes and if it loses its meaning and difference, I don’t think it will evolve or move forward in a healthy way. A fashion recession will occur but I think it’s starting to happen already and it will be boring. But back to your question, I don’t want people to think that they can’t do it just because of the money. I want to write to companies and encourage them to offer more scholarships because if I wasn’t offered a scholarship, I wouldn’t have been able to complete my final year. I made the decision to travel to London and to study in Central Saint Martin’s quite quickly but I had no money – I took out a small loan in the Credit Union and I worked non-stop in horrible part-time jobs to pay my fees. The next generation need to not be afraid to fight for their futures.
What impact did working and studying simultaneously have on you?
It made me appreciate my time in college and when I came back for my final year and I had the scholarship, I didn’t have to work part-time and it gave me the freedom and space to create SO many looks for my final collection [laughs]. I made everything myself and really plowed through but if you get an award from LVMH, you feel a certain pressure to deliver something of quality and value. I wanted it to have an immaculate finish and for it to be presented at a certain level but the pressure came from me more so than LVMH.
Earlier you mentioned how fashion design is just one element of your skillset but if you had the opportunity to showcase one other skill that you possess, which one would you choose?
It would still be fashion, but on my terms. The presentations and installations are really important to me. If anyone is coming to the show, it’s very different to what is already there. I want people to focus on the clothes and for it not to be a social event.
What’s the next step for Richard Malone, the brand?
London Fashion Week is next. My boyfriend is a fine artist and my best friend is a set designer so hopefully, I’ll be getting them involved but I’m a nightmare to work with and for [laughs].
I’m incredibly anal about everything [laughs]. That’s probably why I couldn’t work with another company – I speak my mind too much. With the clothes, I inspect them to the millimetre. I place so much value on clothes when they are that expensive and I think that everyone should. Sometimes when I go into shops, I stop myself and question – why is this dress €2,000? What makes this dress so expensive? Especially when you wear it and the zip buckles or you find a flaw in the fit.
As the brand grows, is it your vision that you will be able to maintain that control?
I hope so. Whatever I am doing for stores, or if the piece is not made to order, it can’t be too restrictive in its design as I’ll be annoyed if it doesn’t fit the customer. I would like to grow both sides of the business equally and then also have classic pieces – things that you can buy all of the time that are functional and comfortable. Sometimes people look at my clothes and think that they’re corseted but I use very light fabric that you can wear, wash, iron and roll-up. Sometimes designers forget that women have to live in these clothes but I’m very conscious of that in every stage of the design.
Are new customers sometimes put off due to that complicated aesthetic that clothes sometimes have?
It’s a balancing act because often the way it is styled, people think that it’s not for them but that’s purely for the exhibition and if you take the look apart, piece by piece, all of a sudden you begin to see how it would fit into your wardrobe and life.
We spoke earlier about the clear autonomy you have with your work but are you ever concerned about your reputation?
I’d rather people have respect for me than for them to think that I will do something, merely for the sake of it. Hopefully though, I won’t get a reputation of being too difficult [laughs].
If you could re-focus the conversation surrounding fashion, what should be on the agenda in 2015?
I always try to change the conversation around women. I hate the way that women are spoken about. I never thought that I was outwardly feminist but I think I really am quite feminist [laughs]. I hate the way that magazines dictate to women who they should be, what they should think, what size they should be and how they should look. It’s really damaging for young people. This whole thing about contouring [raises eyebrows] – it’s basically a mask. Who thought that was acceptable? In my lookbooks, there is no make-up – it’s just a girl in some clothes. That’s the way it should be.
I had a meeting with the British Fashion Council recently and I was asking them why there isn’t more press surrounding the fact that there are three women nominated for the Turner Prize this year – that’s a really big step forward – but no one is talking about it. I don’t understand why Kim Kardashian is famous and yet so many incredibly talented artists, writers, musicians and others aren’t.
The media have a responsibility to talk about more than just who is considered to be ‘cool’ or who will sell magazines.
They absolutely do, it’s a problem and I worry about young girls, more so than anything because eventually they will be the women who buy the clothes and I want them to have access to the right message and for their children not to think that fashion is shitty, particularly because of the way we treat and talk about women. Fashion has a bad reputation and often, I think it’s for good reasons that the bad reputation exists. A lot of young designers have an opportunity to change that and to re-focus the conversation. I really hope that they do!
Thank you very much to Richard for his time and patience with this interview. You can view his work up-close in Brown Thomas at CREATE or follow him on Instagram.