What could possibly go wrong? How do we get it right? An interview with fashion designer, Resa McConaghy.
Three plus decades ago, my Aunt Marylou gave me two black dresses, both sheaths, both high-quality knit — if I had to guess, a blend of linen and cotton — one long sleeve and one sleeveless, the perfect little black dresses every woman needs in her closet. While not part of my daily wardrobe, I’ve worn them dozens of times over the years when I have a fancy party or a somber occasion. I’ve purchased many little black dresses in the interim and you know what? I don’t have a single one of them, but I still have, and wear, Aunt Marylou’s dresses.
Aunt Marylou was herself an amazing seamstress, but she worked as a sewing machinist in a factory making batch items for larger pieces — way before Zara, arguably the creator of fast fashion, pushed the business to multi-billion dollar levels — and because Aunt Marylou knew quality clothing and was also a style icon, she only bought the best. The two little black dresses she gifted me are handmade, easily over 60 years old, and still look marvelous.
There’s a rumor going around that, after the fossil fuel industry that feeds our energy needs and results in 25% of all greenhouse gases emissions, the fashion industry was the second largest polluter in the world. This is a fact repeated in several documentaries about the fashion industry, and while, at least according to an EPA pie chart, it does not appear to be true, I believe I know what environmental category fast fashion hits the hardest: water.
In fact, according to the Florida State University Sustainable Campus, “[t]he fashion industry is the second most water-intensive industry in the world, consuming around 79 billion cubic metres of water per year.” These numbers can seem unreal when there’s no metric against which to compare them so how about this one: to make one cotton t-shirt requires about 2,700 liters of water. And that’s just the water. There’s also the carbon footprint on the transportation costs, the pesticides used to grow the cotton (which ultimately runoff into streams and rivers), the dyes, the laundry detergent and disposal wastes, and the dangerous working conditions, to name a few others.
So what’s a fashion-forward consumer who also cares about the environment to do? A few things for starters, the three R’s — reduce, reuse and recycle. Buy good quality, sustainable brands that will last, and when you can’t wear that pink sweater one more time, donate it to charity. Buy second-hand when you can. Because of technology, there’s been a surge in purchasing reusable upscale clothing from the comfort of your couch. And don’t support fast fashion brands whose true tagline should be, here today, out of fashion tomorrow.
Luckily, not every fashion designer is of the fast sort. Today I’m talking with Resa McConaghy, quite possibly a poster child for slow fashion, a name that’s been given to the opposite of fast fashion, but is really a misnomer. A better name for Resa’s designs would be timeless fashion, just like my Aunt Marylou’s little black dresses.
Resa, a fashion designer extraordinaire, possesses a flair for the dramatic as evidenced by the many costumes she’s created for movies and television, and to reiterate, she does not create fast fashion. Quite the opposite actually, Resa has an almost visceral need to reuse, repurpose, and upcycle, not only fabrics, but amazing items that, at first blush, would not be considered in the something to wear category. Resa’s environmentally-friendly approach is both fantastic for the environment and experimental, allowing her to create highly sought after one-of-a-kind designs which are near impossible to duplicate (take that, Zara!). Who says saving the planet can’t be a win-win?
I’ve been following Resa’s blog for some years now and am always amazed by her stunning work product, each design more extravagant and intriguing than the last. It’s not just her fabulous designs that set her apart from her peers, it’s her environmental ethic as well, something rarely spotted in the fashion world.
Like Carlo Petrini started the slow food movement to combat the fast food take over of the world, I hope Resa’s work starts a slow fashion movement to clothe the world in beautiful sustainable cloth and other reusable sundries.
So have a seat, read on, and tell me when you get to the end that you don’t want a one-of-a-kind Art Gown, by Resa McConaghy.
Your work goes back to 1988 and I counted 50 movies/TV series that have benefitted from your beautiful art gowns and that is not including those series with multiple episodes. That’s quite a resume and it seems to still be picking up steam. How did you get started in the business and what did you do to get to where you are today?
Thank you! Not all my film projects have gowns in them. There are all types of characters wearing all modes of clothing. I went to college and got an honours degree in Fashion Design and Technology. I then opened my own boutique, where I designed all the clothes. I had a small manufacturing set up in my basement. I had two employees. I made the patterns, and they helped me cut and sew the garments. I also did knitwear, as I had gotten another degree in Knit Design and Technology. I also worked in my boutique, doing sales. One day a producer for commercials came into my shop and looked around. She said they were having trouble getting men’s Arrow Shirts to fit Roman Style torso statues of men. Could I make the shirts fit these busts? I did great, and made more money in two days than I ever believed I could make. One job led to another. My boutique was a hand to mouth business. It was easy to give up my business, for the money I made styling for this area of the film industry. In my early years, I worked doing wardrobe for commercials, rock videos, shorts and anything I could get my hands on; whether I got paid or not. My career was a dream come true, even if I hadn’t dreamt it.
Prior to the pandemic, I had become fussy about the projects I would take on. Designing for film is wonderful, but I was always making someone else’s vision come true. As a creative person, I wanted to express a vision of my own. So, I started Art Gowns. I’d like to add that the film industry is a massive polluter! I was planning to do a show, with my Art Gowns on models, and with my art covering the walls, for sale. Then the virus walked into town. I began giving my all to my blog, drawing and making Art Gowns. My art skills have improved tremendously. I didn’t see the sense of risking getting Covid working on a film set. Also, Covid changed the industry, and the industry had already changed dramatically due to technology and corporate take overs. I still hope to do my show, one day. Will I do another film project? Yes, but it has to be a really great one.
How long does it take you to make a gown from concept to a finished piece? Do you make a pattern or freestyle it? Do you do the sewing yourself?
To make an Art Gown takes three to six months on average. Although I do some pattern drafting, the gowns are predominately done by draping on a Judy. Yes, I do the sewing myself. All of the Art Gowns are sewn by hand, my hands. No machines are involved, save the iron.
About the gown: CLEOPATRA CAPRICCIO is made from a piece of sequin material given to me by a friend. It was left over from a project he worked on. It sat for years in a box, waiting. I also used some silver curtain lining — 75 cents a yard at a liquidation sale — a piece of musty blue silk that had been in storage for 25 years and a 45-year old table runner that was on it’s last legs. You can read more about it here.
I note that you do a lot of period work and imagine it gets quite busy when you have a contract for several costumes at once? Do you have a full time staff helping you? Do you contract work out? Is it some combination of the two?
When I costume design a film, I design all of the characters, the look of the Extras… EVERYTHING! Yes, I have staff. Let’s use Our Fathers as an example. It starred: Christopher Plummer, Ted Danson, Daniel Baldwin, Brian Dennehy and Ellen Burstyn. I had two Assistant Designers (one for principals, one for Extras), a Floor Supervisor, a Truck person, a full sewing room with a cutter and about four stitchers, an Extras wrangler, and daily help as required for whatever department needed it. We farmed out some of the Priest’s and Bishop’s raiment. Christopher had a Personal Dresser. We had three semi trucks full of clothes. On the busiest of shooting days I would have a staff of 16 under me.
Sounds logistically overwhelming. No wonder it has to be a great project for you to consider jumping back into that beehive! Let’s talk about your period gowns, which I adore, especially the floor length models that are not something women in the 21st century generally wear. Do you prefer one period in history over another and if so, what’s your favorite?
I have no fave period. They are all interesting! Right now, I’m drawing 1920’s Art Gowns.
Have you ever made the same gown twice or is it once and done for each piece?
Once! The Art Gowns are all one-of-a-kind.
Do you sign your gowns into a hidden seam or some other secret compart-ment?
No, I don’t. Although I know Vionnet did.
When we first spoke about doing an interview, you mentioned you hadn’t yet done a water gown — something I cannot wait to see, by the way. Where’s the inspiration come from for these gowns? Do you wait until someone hires you for a specific piece of work and then start thinking about it or is there something that inspires you? And when are you going to do that water gown?
So, the inspiration comes from all over the place. Most of the bloggers I follow are artists, writers, poets, photographers, nature lovers, etc. I get some ideas there. I find old decorator pillow cases, save wine corks, plastic mesh bags that produce comes in, collect old clothes made out of exciting fabrics – then take them apart, find old fabrics at jobbers that have been on the shelf for 20 years —I won’t spend more than $2 -$4 a yard. Last year an old friend found my blog. She sent me 40 pounds of old fabrics that had been gathering must from being stored in a garden shed for 20 years. No one hires me to make the Art Gowns. They are 100% mine. No one gets any say. I do however, dedicate them to people. Most are bloggers, but not all. Okay, the Water Gown. I actually thought of it when you commented on the last Art Gown I made. I’ve been to your blog and know you are all about clean water and green earth. I thought, I have a lot of old acetate lining in aqua greens and blues. That was a start to think on. Then I saw a pic of a small bubbling water fall, that a blogger had posted. I thought – those bubbles look like bubble wrap. What if I overlaid bubble wrap over the acetates? Of course I will not go out and buy new bubble wrap. We have lots in the basement from old shipments. I’ll try it out. If it works, I’ll ask friends not to throw away any bubble wrap they can’t use. Save it for me!
I have a similar creative process for writing. Everything is a source of inspiration. Was costume designing a childhood dream or did it evolve from something else? What other things are you passionate about?
No, I did not dream about being a costume designer, when I was young. I did however, make my own clothes. I am passionate about all the arts. Music means so much to me, I married a musician/composer/producer. I adore going for long walks and taking pics of street art.
What do you think about fast fashion, the sustainability of the fashion industry, and recreating synthetic fabrics in the lab?
Fast fashion sucks! It sucks at the earth and all of us. Used to be there was a mid-price range of clothing. It was decent quality and you didn’t throw it away after a month. Of course people had to do proper laundry (sweaters and certain things by hand wash), ironing and not give 2 hoots about a new trend every week. Fast fashion has robbed us of our own personal style. Now, there is just cheap garbage clothes, or clothing that is so expensive it’s heartbreaking. If I had $10,000.00 to spend on a dress, I wouldn’t. There’s a lot of need out there. Just think what a local food bank could do with ten grand! Marie Antionette may be dead, but the Marie Antionette spirit lives on. I did a bunch of research on synthetics. The pollution they create, on many levels, is sickening. They are virtually impossible to recycle. So far, whatever ideas have come up in this regard are of mostly of no value. They create more pollution than it’s worth. I had to stop doing the research. I was getting depressed. I believe I kept the re-search. That was just before the pandemic hit.
I agree. It’s mostly disheartening with very little cause for hope. Although there are a few designers, like yourself, who are touting sustainability. For example, Stella McCartney prides herself on not using leather, feathers or any other animal products. This year she launched Mylo, “the world!s first-ever garments made from vegan, lab-grown Mylo mushroom leather.” Basically, mycelium turned into clothing. First off, what do you think of the idea of using mushrooms to create clothing, and second, do you have any thoughts about how to address sustainability in the fashion business?
Sounds interesting! Good for Stella. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was a teenager. Mushrooms/fungus etc. maybe tasty in food, but they have almost no nutritional value. So, okay! A while back, certain health food stores were all puffed up that they were using bags made from corn. I said, there’s not enough corn. People and animals eat corn. It’s a staple. People are starving in many parts of the planet. Give them the corn. We can carry reusable totes. It’s all about balance. Sustainability in the fashion industry is a tough nut to crack at this point. The corporate profits are sky high. It’s up to people, each one of us individually and as a whole, to make it not profitable. They won’t change until they see a way to make bigger profits. This topic needs a blog of its own, with many weighing in, discussing, exposing the industry, gathering famous people to join the cause, exchanging our old clothes ….. and whatever else we can think of.
I agree. It’s going to be a process of reorientation toward sustainability. Speaking of, do you do any upcycling, recycling, or reusing of materials when you work?
All of the above!
If you in charge, how would you change the fashion industry? What is the most important thing, do you think? To regulate? To inspire? To lead? To shine a light?
Again, all of the above!
Do you think the fashion industry can do anything to combat climate change and if so, what?
Of course it can, but it needs to find the will. Human beings need to find the will, and that will drive industry. It blows me away that I see new plastic bottled water products introduced into the market place. (Oh, this one is flavoured!) It’s unconscionable but profitable. I saw cheap t-shirts made out of old plastic. That must feel disgusting on the body, possibly unhealthy since we also breathe through our skin, and at what cost to the environment did that plastic get turned into t-shirts. Beware of things that seem too good to be true!
Okay, after all that depressing talk, how about leave us with something inspiring, a bit of hope, perhaps?
Here she is — SPRING RHAPSODY! She is inspired from a large decorator pillow sham . . . probably 1980’s. I made the bodice out of it, and part of the tail. The skirt is out of a very odd fabric. It is almost like a shiny scuba material . . . possibly an upholstery fabric. The flowers are made from bits of colourful acetate lining scraps – overlaid with scraps of embroidered net left over from a wedding gown. The buttons have been sitting in their box for at least 10 years. The ties and sashes are from decent size leftovers, from projects from at least 20 years ago. You can read more about it here.
Resa, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Any last bits of advice to share?
I think we need to figure a way to move people back to natural fabrics. The challenge is washing and drying. Most people don’t know how to iron, and can’t afford to take them to the cleaners for pressing. Most cleaners do not offer JUST a pressing service anymore. Dry cleaning is a sin. My friends who did my dry cleaning on films for years shut it down and opened a wet cleaning service — no chemicals. It uses steam and natural cleansers. Unfortunately, it tripled the cost, but they have no competition. They went into great debt to buy the machines.
Also, most people don’t know anything about clothes with stretch. You get an instant fit. Manufacturers love this. No darts, less sewing, more profits, but synthetic (so at least partially made from fossil fuels). A designer needs to develop a line of clothes in natural fabrics that work conveniently for people. Otherwise, fast fashion will make a fast death for us all.
Resa, I wish you great success and hope your work influences the slow fashion movement for years to come.
Pam Lazos is an environmental lawyer, author of the eco novel, Oil and Water, and VP of Communications for Global Water Alliance. She loves all things sustainable and considers water our most valuable resource.