It’s Halloween morning in Seven Sisters, North London, and Sinéad O’Dwyer is showing me a photo of the singer Kelsey Lu, lying mummified in thick liquid silicone, to demonstrate how she creates her brilliantly uncanny life-cast garments.
Drawing on her own teenage experience of fashion’s impossible ideals (“I used to measure my entire body, I used a little notebook. You could find all the measurements of models’ thighs online at the time, and I was trying to get down to the same”), O’Dwyer’s work is premised on the idea that, not only is fashion preoccupied with tall, flat bodies, but that this type of body dictates the fit of clothes themselves; that clothes are not cut with most people in mind. “Generally when we’re wearing a pattern-cut garment we’re wearing the body of someone else, and so that’s always the beginning point of my work, to be quite literal about that,” she says.
Constricted by time, money and manpower—the making of Lu’s cast, for instance, involved a team of six people—so far each of O’Dwyer’s collections has been formed from the body of specific muses, women who are “not necessarily the represented body within fashion.” For her graduate show from the Royal College of Art’s Fashion Design MA it was Berivan Dalgali Cemal, the first person she ever cast, and Jade Bruce-Linton, and for Spring/Summer ’20, which she presented as part of London Fashion Week’s Discovery LAB, it was Martina Dolcimascolo. All three are close friends of O’Dwyer; not selected because they’re friends per se, but for the fact that their friendship means she’s come to know their bodies intimately. “I’ve had lots of conversations with them, and there’s this history of stories,” she says. “Stories that have been woven around them, the narrative of their body based on what they feel about it, and also what other people have kind of injected.”
O’Dwyer works outside of fashion’s lexicon of materials. Typically, she makes her pieces by casting her muse’s body in alginate. Then, in order to fully capture the texture of the skin, she pours an oil-based clay into the resulting mold, producing a clay body replica (she lets me inspect a Mrs. Doubtfire-style mask that’s rich with detail). Next, she begins a process that involves “kind of destroying the clay,” using an initial gel coat, similar to that of acrylic nails, to catch the fine details, and then fibre-glassing over this to create the thicker part. This creates a solid fibreglass mould—several are stacked on a shelf above us; they look like hollow mannequin parts—into which the silicone, which will become “the 3D skin” of a finished piece, can be poured.
The designer grew up in Tullamore, Ireland, in a creative family—her father is a silversmith and her mother is a cellist and composer—but without a fashion background. Perhaps because of this, her work evades easy categorisation. The morning we meet, one of her pieces is about to go on show as part of Museum Arnhem’s Body Control exhibition, while the cast she’s making of Kelsey Lu will become part of a performance piece (previously she’s worked with performers including Björk, Arca, RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Aquaria, and the London choreographer Grace Nicol). As a teenager she identified with fashion’s misfits: the melodrama and angst of Alexander McQueen, and the theatrics of Philip Treacy. Today, though, her work most reminds me of Rei Kawakubo’s seminal Spring/Summer ‘97 collection, “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body”. Not in terms of approach (Hilton Als, writing in 1996, described Kawakubo’s clothes as “metaphors made of fabric that represent how ‘awful’ we assume we look”), but because she’s making fashion about the body.