In Conversation with Tess Mcnab


How did you first become interested in fashion?
As a child, I was always creative and enjoyed drawing and crafts. My first memory relating to fashion is from when I was 10 years old, when I kept a sketchbook and scrapbook where I created dress designs. I loved playing with different colours and patterns to vary my looks. From then I started to create my own clothing starting with a cropped Jersey gypsy top (which didn’t turn out very well!), and then a mini skirt which was much more successful, and continued from there.

What was your journey into womenswear?
Womenswear was something I gravitated towards, perhaps because I was exposed more to womenswear and related to womenswear more. The fluid shapes and luxurious nature of high-end womenswear have always fascinated and inspired me and before starting my degree I would often spend time watching catwalk shows from designers like Elie Saab, Iris Van Herpen and Alexander McQueen. Before focusing on womenswear, my view of menswear was closed and I didn’t view it as having the creative potential that I associated with womenswear, although I now believe the opposite and see that there is so much room to experiment within menswear.

Do you feel that your internships have shaped the way that you work as a designer? If so, how?
Yes; as part of my degree, I had a placement year. My three placements were all very different from each other which was great as it allowed me to experience different parts of the fashion industry. Firstly, I worked at Simone Rocha, a ready to wear luxury womenswear brand which was an amazing experience. I was there for 7 months and got to work across multiple departments; accessories, textiles (embroidery and print for fabrics) and womenswear. I was fortunate enough to assist in two London fashion week shows, helping backstage and I travelled to Paris to assist in their showroom which was an amazing opportunity. The AW19 collection I worked on was heavily inspired by artist Louise Bourgeois and one of my responsibilities was to create woven panels out of ribbon, and fabric referencing Bourgeois’ work, which were featured on two show looks. Using artists' work as inspiration is something I continue to incorporate within my own work.
My next experience was in costume, where I worked alongside the costume interpreter for Dorset Opera, helping in fittings, with garment allocation, and creation.
Lastly, I interned for Kate Sheridan in London where she has her store and studio. She specialises in Leather Accessories as well as creating womenswear and homeware products. I am now working with Leather for accessories and that is due in part to my introduction of working with leather at Kate Sheridan.

What was the inspiration behind your graduate collection?
My graduate collection ‘Beloved Sweetheart Bastard’- taken from the poem Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy - takes inspiration from the emotions and image of the Dickensian character and her twisted perception of life. Predominately, the main source of inspiration comes from artists- their use of materials and their interpretation of the human form. The silhouettes have been influenced by the supports used in reconstructive surgery, particularly those used in the treatment of scoliosis and the disjointed sculptures of Michael O’Keefe. The juxtaposition of the words sweetheart and bastard in the same line is reflected in my use of fabrics and materials. Using materials associated with sculpture- mod roc and resin - on fabrics that have drape, lightness and movement, constrains the characteristics of these fabrics and adds a hardness to something soft and delicate. My choice of white tones was a direct influence from my key research, making use of contrasting meanings and associations- from purity to clinical. The base of my designs were created in reference to a loose vest dress worn by contemporary dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, which I have interpreted in fabrics, silk chiffon, crepe de chine and Georgette, capturing the raw, simplistic imagery of Pina Bausch and her choreography.

You graduated during a pandemic, one of the hardest years to become a graduate. Do you feel that Covid-19 inspired you further or hindered your creativity?
The pandemic certainly bought new challenges to an already challenging year. When the pandemic hit my designs and toiles had been completed and discussed at length with my tutors, so I did have a clear idea in my mind of what I was creating but the studios were closed, and it was very different creating the final garments at home rather than in the creative studio environment where there is a lot of creative energy, multiple resources, and technicians on hand for technical support. As a positive, I do feel the experience led me to become a lot more confident in my technical ability of pattern cutting and construction. One of the most challenging aspects was the photoshoot as at the time we were in strict lockdown and not allowed to mix with anyone outside our household. Usually, this would be a collaboration between models and a photographer but as I was completing my collection from home it was instead a collaboration with my family. My mum acted as photographer, I was modelling, being only 5ft2 I was having to stand on my tiptoes and my Brother and Dad painted our passageway completely white to act as the set. Considering this, I was really happy with the images and love that it was a true family effort.

I noticed that you were into costume design, is this a route that you would want to pursue?

Yes, I am fascinated by costume and the way it can imply and express different emotions. I love to reference theatre and ballet within my work and design with a story or character in mind. I am currently assisting in the creation of Gladstone bags for the Harry Potter stage show, which has been a really fun experience. It is definitely a route I would like to explore further.

Your looks feature in the brightest and whitest walk - Explore - which is about experiencing different ways to express yourself. How do you feel you express yourself through your designs?
I like the details within my work to have a raw quality and show signs of imperfection but portrayed in a way that is beautiful. For instance, having exposed seams and finished edges that are frayed are important to me as I think we mustn't hide or be ashamed of any eccentricities or supposed flaws- they should instead be embraced. My love of art I believe shows in my work, particularly in my graduate collection which is created using materials traditionally used in sculpture to add form and texture to my garments and fabrics. There is also often a romanticised theme in my work which is probably due to my love of tragic literature from authors like Thomas Hardy and the Bronte sisters.

Do you have any future projects lined up for next year?
Currently I am freelancing for three separate companies, who I will continue to work with, assisting in production and other areas of their businesses. I would like to dedicate some time to my own work and revisit themes I explored in my graduate collection. I constantly have new ideas in my mind so it would be great to develop these further.

Follow Tess on Instagram here, and see her designs on the catwalk in just two weeks, at our DUCFS 2022 on the 10th, 11th, and 12th of February at Raintons Arena.

Durham University Charity Fashion is a Durham SU student group whose details are: Durham Students’ Union (also known as Durham SU or DSU) is a charity registered in England and Wales (1145400) and a company limited by guarantee (07689815), and its principal address is Dunelm House, New Elvet, DURHAM, County Durham, DH1 3AN
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