ALEX MCCARTHY - Photo: Juan Jose LorenzoPhoto: Juan Jose Lorenzo

Alex McCarthy is a designer specialising in printed textiles. Interested in using techniques and methods borrowed from other art forms, she uses a combination of photography, screen-printing and hand-painting to provide fresh perspectives on the traditional print processes. Photographs taken on her journeys to diffrent cities became a starting point for exploring storytelling and the way personal and collective identities can be conveyed through print. Alex graduated from an MA in Textiles at Royal College of Art and works from her studio in Bermondsey, London.

WORDS Nina Thorstensen
PHOTOS Rosaline Shahnavaz

Could you say something about your background; how and when did your interest in textile design begin ?

I have always been fascinated by materials, the way they communicate identity and particularly when worn on the body. It was while completing my A level project on Philip Treacy that I became drawn to the world of textiles for the first time. I was struck by his beautiful manipulation of fabrics sculpted into hats, and I remember being attracted to the print and texture used for the hats. After this insight I completed my foundation at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication specialising in textile design where there was a strong indication of pattern and illusion within my work. The Glasgow School of Art (GSA) was the perfect place for me to study printed textile design and led to an incredible opportunity at Diane Von Furstenberg where I interned and worked for a year within the print department. This experience and relationship with the designers encouraged me to apply to The Royal College of Art (RCA) where I began my next textile journey in 2013.

Your work could be described as process driven and playful take on textiles, with interest in combination of screen-printing and hand-painting techniques. The outcome is strongly individualised prints that celebrate cut and paste, collage, DIY and punk aesthetic. Could you say something about what you most enjoy about screen-printing and how do you see its potential?

Screen-printing is a fantastic technique and should not be forgotten amongst digital printing and new technological developments. It is a technique where you can consistently experiment and create new effects onto fabric, as well as it being a traditional application to fabric. The potential I see in screen-printing is that it will continue to develop; textile and fashion designers will push the boundaries of the traditional textile techniques combined with more modern developments. Screen-printing will always have potential, a craft technique where an instant pattern effect can be created and allow people to understand the process of textile design.

Your latest collection is about storytelling through print, exploring how personal and collective identities can be conveyed through dress. Painted brushstrokes and photography were the two new sources you used to introduce an element of surprise into more traditional print processes. Can you say something about how you got the first idea for the collection and the inspiration you found in photography?

Bjork was one of my main inspirations for my final collection at the RCA, and the way she captures such beauty and power in her performance through incredible music, costumes and visions. First two directions of inspiration for my final collection were Bjork and the story of Tallinn. I used photography to capture the story of Tallinn where the buildings in the old town have all been painted in diffrent colours to brighten it up from the grey ‘soviet’ feeling outside the old town. I took photographs of the old ladies (both Estonian and Russian) because to me they represented true characters and souls of the city. From these photos I started hand painting the colours of the building around the ladies, their bodies becoming part of the patterns of the city.

Screen-printing is a fantastic technique and should not be forgotten amongst digital printing and new technological developments.

Can you say something about different stages of your working process, from photographing your subjects to the final prints?

My work has a natural progression; using photography, projection and performance were ways of developing different techniques into spatial and immersive outputs. The movement that was unleashed through these different processes informed the sculptural form of the garments. The subjects of the final prints were developed through my photography, painting on top of the photographs lead to identifying the characters of the story. I wanted to create an experience, visualising a story as well as creating a printed collection.

For AH commission you chose to design a one-off, bespoke piece which is a t-shirt and a scarf combination that can be worn together or separately. You chose to tell story about two cities Lisbon and Tallinn. Can you say something about how you envisaged different parts of the piece communicating and working together?

I decided to design the t-shirt and scarf combination for AH in order to visualise stories of two cities, Lisbon and Tallinn, identifying the progression from one collection to the next. T-shirt acts as a canvas for telling a story and I wanted the faces in the image to be an expression of identity for this particular commission. Scarf displays the concept of how to wear a painting, connecting the two cities together. Throughout my career and journey as a textile designer the old ladies will always tell the story of different cities I have travelled to. The painted and printed imagery worn on the body will convey new narratives, acting as a visual journal.

Today’s mainstream fashion industry relies on globalised, mass production to offer affordable pieces, leading to problems like overconsumption, damage to the environment and low-wage workers. On the other hand designers can prevent this and offer alternatives by focusing on small production and local resources to offer better quality and pieces that are made to be kept and can tell stories. As an emerging designer, how do you see we can make more sustainable future for fashion?

A sustainable attitude and approach towards textiles and fashion industry is vital. As a designer I believe that we should always consider a sustainable option and resolution towards our work, so it will eventually become part of our natural design process. Although companies are aware and some have made changes to their brand’s ethos, there is still an extensive problem with the globalised mass production of the fashion industry. This damage and issue can only be healed and prevented in the future by individuals consistently making changes. One solution could be promoting the use of local resources and materials, making it more accessible and affordable to small independent labels. Sharing studios and working with other designers and artists would also aid a more sustainable future, and hopefully lead to individuals encouraging each other to work with a better attitude. In my opinion, independent labels with an individual and ‘hand craft’ approach to design convey a more unique story. As a society, we can be easily swayed into the consuming fashion world, but also still treasure items that are commission based and one of a kind. As designers we should attempt to push away the consumption and encourage individual craft and commission based pieces.

What kind of things is influencing your work right now?

My recent trip to Lisbon last year has influenced my next story. Lisbon is an incredible and beautiful city, full of character, life and soul, particularly in the summer. The city is decorated in exquisite tiles called azulejos, covering walls of churches and foundations to local restaurants and traditional homes. The tiles have created the patterns of Lisbon, which I am using as a source of inspiration for my work, including the people and characters within the city. The colours of Lisbon and the tiles have given me a fresh direction in my current work. An incredible exhibition ‘Constructing Worlds’ that I saw at the Barbican is a recent influencing factor on my work. The exhibition displayed and documented how photography and architecture play such an important role together. The exposure and imagery of the different societies documented in the 20st and 21st century caught my eye and I am fascinated to see new directions that it will lead me to.