Pulling Strings: No Ordinary Fashion Exhibition

An appetite for art and design is tangible when you first meet Andrew Bell, a recent graduate of NCAD’s BA in Fashion Design. His obsession with the precision and skill required of the industry emanates from him.

It is an interest which appears to have stemmed from just seven years of age. “When I was in primary school, the teacher would announce that if the class behaved ourselves during the week, we would get to do double PE on a Friday, instead of art. Every boy in the class would cheer, except me. Or in other moments, the teacher would ask us to vote on the subject we preferred to do and continuously, I was the only person who would raise their hand for art.”

Thankfully, the intimidation of being a dissonant voice among the cacophony of the sports-enthused didn’t persuade him to dally with soccer, but fueled him to pursue his ambition to attend art college. Despite there being no pattern of students in his Dundalk school attending NCAD, Andrew was the first pupil in six years to get a place on the fashion programme.

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His mantra throughout his degree course? “In order to break the rules, you first have to learn them.” Culminating in Andrew spending hours learning the key tenets of design. A practice which proved profitable on graduation, leading to an internship with Northern Ireland-born designer, JW Anderson. It was then that the concept for ‘Pulling Strings’ first began. 

“I loved that the work at JW Anderson challenged me in creative ways but I found the demand on people’s time and the pressure extremely challenging.” This conflict with time and creativity has spurred Raf Simons’ departure at Christian Dior and Burberry’s attempt to slow the fashion industry’s pace, introducing two seasonless collections per year. However, Andrew believes that it’s not just those at the peak of the brand who experience this burden and that, “If the Creative Director feels overwhelmed by this lack of time to be creative, this feeling is mirrored in almost everyone else who works for the design house.”

“As an intern though, that feeling becomes even more overwhelming as you’re not being paid and more than likely, you’re living in the tiniest of apartments, with an extensive commute and eating the most inexpensive food you can find. You’re working from 9am until maybe 10pm for five or maybe six days a week. I learned a lot but I was deeply unhappy.”

Returning home to Ireland, Andrew sought to invest his time and money into an independent creative outlet – ‘Pulling Strings’, a five day exhibition in Dublin 8’s Steambox Gallery.

His starting point was examining how we behave in our clothes, or perhaps, how our clothes make us behave. He gives the example of his long black coat, which he wore to our interview. “When I wear this coat, I behave almost completely out of character. The pockets are at the front, bringing my shoulders forward and I’m almost hunched over. There’s a high collar and it feels almost like armour, as if it is protecting me from the elements and anyone I might not want to see [laughs].”

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For ‘Pulling Strings’, he chose a woman’s handbag as his inspiration. “I noticed that when a woman has a handbag, her physicality changes dramatically – either in the way that she holds the bag or that it acted as an indicator to how they were feeling. Take the clutch bag for example, on a night out, a woman exhibits it at the front of their body, almost as if it’s a prized position – Like a trophy!”

The handbag is often a women’s first experience of the luxury market, purchasing one to celebrate their first job or as a way to engage with a brand at a cheaper price point. They house everything but the kitchen sink or are just big enough to hold a lipstick. But ‘Pulling Strings’ hones its focus on the overwhelming nature of handbags, with the wearer almost capsized by the size of their accessory.

This idea first came to fruition when Andrew worked on JW Anderon’s bag trousers. A style of loose-fitting pants which were made popular by students at the University of Oxford when professors banned gentlemen from wearing knickerbockers. Students preferred the bag trousers (which had a circumference of 44 inches at the feet) because it allowed them to rebel and wear their knickerbockers underneath, almost in plain sight.

This stream of fabric is mirrored in the garments exhibited at ‘Pulling Strings’ with the ensembles elevating from the gargantuan clutch bags. The tailored trousers and jackets connected to each bag akin to a foetus and its placenta. It is most definitely no ordinary fashion exhibition.

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Opening tonight at 7pm, the exhibition also spotlights the work of industrial designer Paul Moran, videographer and screen editors Kate Dolan and Philip Blake, and multimedia artist Robert Ickis Mirolo. ‘Pulling Strings’ is the result of months of meticulous work, a Fund-It campaign, €3,000 of self-investment and an aspiration to change the definition of fashion.

Why, though?

“I’m a young Irish graduate and particularly within a fashion space, students attain their education and leave the country almost immediately. I want to give back, to thank those whose support, insights and experience I benefited from. The Irish fashion industry can’t sustain a huge number of fashion graduates and I’m not sure how long more I’ll be in Ireland, but before I leave, I wanted to say thank you in a meaningful and artistic way.”

‘Pulling Strings’ is a free exhibition in The Steambox Gallery, School Street, Dublin 8 from February 18th to 22nd 2016. 

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.

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