‘It’s important not to lose a sense of self’
The imagination of Christopher Clarke is a thing to behold. For his graduate menswear collection, the British designer draws upon the beatniks of San Francisco, the aesthetics of 50s beach furniture and the fictitious relationship between poet García Lorca and surrealist painter Dalí.
Christopher Clarke graduated from Manchester School of Arts with an innovative and personal collection. His silhouettes, colour palettes and use of fabrics – including his unique combination of liquid latex and acrylic paint – challenges traditional notions of sexuality and gender identity.
The collection is beautiful, with an endearing narrative and engaging concept that demonstrate Christopher Clarke’s immense capabilities. This has earned him a yearlong internship at TOPMAN and a hunger for more.
So Christopher, how would you describe your collection?
My six-outfit spring/summer menswear collection is bold, bright, fun, humorous and tongue-in-cheek.
It revolves around the fictional relationship between the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and the Surrealist painter Salvador Dali. The beach-inspired narrative is suggestive of sexuality and identity. Prints and colours challenge the preconceived notions of masculinity. The colour palette is bold yet charming; a mix of pink, yellow and greens with neutral accents to ground the collection. I then brought these colours to life in the invention of my own fabric: a combination of acrylic paint and liquid latex.
The silhouettes are reminiscent of the mid 20th century. The range includes shirts, shorts and jacket combinations with three layered outfits throughout the collection. This showcases my invented fabric though panelling or within an entire garment. I sourced other fabrics such as deckchair stripes and towelling to display the narrative throughout the collection.
What was your purpose when designing this collection?
I wanted to create something personal. When designing, especially at this stage with greater freedom and flexibility, it’s important not to lose a sense of self. I wanted to challenge myself by taking risks; to push my own expectations and test my capabilities.
What inspired you to design this collection?
I interned with the American retailer Old Navy is the summer of 2014. I was based in San Francisco and drawn to the Beat generation from the 1950s. The poet Allen Ginsberg wrote ‘A Supermarket in California’ in 1955, an example of Beat literature. The poem depicts the narrator’s encounter with two dead, homosexual poets, one of which is Garcia Lorca who is infamously known for his infatuation with Salvador Dalí.
Would you say that you have specific sources of inspiration?
I tend to gather inspiration from the art scene because I love its emotion. I have always loved the aesthetics of contemporary and 20th century art. I particularly love work from the 50s and 60s abstract expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. I referenced Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings to gain inspiration for colour combinations for the collection.
Have you included aspects of your own story or life experiences in this collection?
The theme of sexuality and identity is something I bring into my work, consciously or not. The visual impact of the collection emits impressions of male sexuality, which was always going to be significant within my final collection. It has been a part of my life that has come with its challenges and obstacles. I chose to reflect this part of my personality within my designs.
Conflicted identities also relate to far more than just sexuality so hopefully people can relate to this in the collection.
How would you say you relate to the end result?
My collection is an expression of my identity. Due to the amount of time and labour I’ve invested in it, it would be hard not to include my identity. It expresses what I am interested in: creating beautiful objects.
In your opinion, what are the specific strengths of your collection?
My invention of a new fabric: acrylic paint combined with liquid latex. This experimental process proved to be a challenge, but it was by far the most rewarding. I have complete ownership over it. I could further experiment with colour and print; elements key to my design philosophy. The fabric obtains originality and individuality.
How do people react to your work?
The narrative is playful and humorous; it always evokes a smile. Most people immediately identify with the beach and the 50s theme, with the deckchair fabrics and towelling. It’s also relatable as it plays on the ideas of identity and relationships. Receiving feedback is great as it’s subjective. People should express their opinions; I want them to have that freedom.
Where have you showcased your collection?
In Manchester at the end of the academic year. It was a show for the graduating students to showcase their collections. It was fantastic watching everyone’s collection develop, so the catwalk show was great to see everyone’s work together. It also felt more personal with family and friends watching; it was an intimate experience.
I also showcased my collection at Graduate Fashion Week 2015. GFW was a more serious event with industry professionals at the catwalk show. It’s hard to judge the two different audiences’ reactions.
Do you have a particularly significant memory during the design process?
The most significant moment was realising the durability of my invented fabric. It involved peeling dried paint off laminated sheets to create the material. Initially, I combined acrylic paint and PVA glue. During sampling, I became aware of the fabric’s fragility. I tried to resolve this by bonding fabric and paint for additional strength and flexibility. However, this failed on application; the garments simply fell to pieces.
So, I began to work with liquid latex. It allows for strength and flexibility without the need for bonding. The process isn’t faultless, as it has a tendency to rip in weak spots. But it is such an improvement from what it was. It demonstrates how vital the development and experimental process is for any collection.
What did you learn about yourself through the process of designing your collection?
What surprised me most was how much I could push myself. The process of research, design and construction was physically and emotionally challenging. You invest time, effort and money into a collection that you desperately want to be admired … by yourself and others.
In the end, the rewards are tremendous. I didn’t think I was the type of person to take such risks! I became engrossed in the design of my collection. You realise how strong of a person you are when you’re creating a collection.
Do you feel your collection is complete?
It’s hard to assess when a project like this is complete. Having spent over nine months working on it, it’s difficult to move on.
Not working on my collection in the studio anymore is a challenge. Walking away from it has been really hard! It’s a difficult transition having had little or no time outside work, to having all the time in the world. I’m excited to start something new.
So what is next for you professionally?
I’m interning at TOPMAN in London as a Design Assistance for a year. I was awarded this position after completing a live brief for the company. This competition by TOPMAN and TOPSHOP, in association with the British Fashion Council, has run for the past couple of years. The brief was to design a 15-look collection for TOPMAN or TOPSHOP. I was one of six designers invited for an interview and finally awarded the position. I’ll be third student from Manchester School of Art to be awarded this position in three years!
What do you hope to achieve work-wise in the next few years?
Right now, I want to gain as much work experience as possible. I need to gain industry experience to develop my outlook and skills for the future.
What is the strongest memory of your first 6 months in fashion training?
Underestimating how difficult the course would be. This was an early wake-up call. If it hadn’t happened then, it would have made final year much harder. I have always been a hardworking individual, but the first couple of months tested my own work ethic. It challenged me to challenge myself.
What advice would you give to someone who is about to begin designing their final collection?
Exhaust every idea. You have to take risks. Push yourself to create something that is beautiful, unique and represents you.
And finally Christopher, what advice would you give to someone who is about to start studying fashion?
Always give 100% from the beginning and follow it through until the very end. A career in fashion is not for the faint-hearted and the degree course is only a taster of the industry. You will take risks and make mistakes but you’ll learn from them.
Christopher Clarke graduated from Manchester School of Art with a First in BA(Hons) Fashion. He is currently interning at TOPMAN (summer 2015). Visit Christopher Clarke’s portfolio to view his final collection and designs for TOPMAN.