For Kirsty Lillico, an artist from Pōneke/Wellington, creative inspiration is all around. Music, books, films, art, design of all kinds provide creative inspiration for the artist who uses textiles as her primary medium.
It follows then, that clothing sometimes becomes a material in her artwork. “Last year I made a series of upholstered collages made from secondhand activewear, to explore the contemporary phenomenon of ‘athleisure’ and what this says about our society and values. I’m interested in the language of clothes and what they mean.”
While she’s often drawn to robust materials with sculptural potential, earlier this year on invitation from Threads Textiles Festival Lillico transformed Yu Mei’s production offcuts into a series wall-mounted upholstered works of various colors that surveyed the bonds between industrial production and fashion’s waste problem.
As she told curator Robert Leonard in a 2019 interview, clothing and architecture, another of Lillico’s major influences, are inter-connected. “They are both protective systems we inhabit that can be used to express identity.”
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In 2017, Lillico won the Parkin Drawing Prize, Aotearoa’s premier drawing award for her work State Block, which displayed the floorplan of a 1940s high-density concrete flat block cut into carpet offcuts and draped in a floor to ceiling presentation. Like much of her portfolio the work grappled with ideas of hostility within architecture, inequality, affordability and questioned modernist theories.
You can possibly tell I was a teenage goth because there is still a suspicious amount of black crushed velvet in there.
When I was a teenager I made many of my own clothes. My outfits sometimes invited ridicule on the streets of Upper Hutt. People always talk about subcultures as “tribal”, but I didn’t really have many goth friends and the tips I got on music and fashion came from (UK music magazine) NME.
I now see this phase as a type of performance art, a way of signaling to the world that I was against whatever was on offer, the status quo. Which makes it sound negative, whereas in fact it was very empowering, and an escape.
All clothing is costume. If you are always performing your identity through clothing, is anything really “authentic”? Jeans are what I wear most often, both to the studio and to work (I am an assistant collection manager at Te Papa Tongarewa). A trailing sleeve or hemline is not a good thing when you are scaling a ladder or scrabbling about on the floor.
My strongest memories are of the garments that I longed for as a pre-teen but didn’t get: a pair of spandex pants like the ones Olivia Newton-John wore in Grease. Jelly shoes, a puffball skirt, Bubblegum jeans. One of those gold jackets they gave away as prizes on (TV show) That’s Incredible!
The things I love the most were not new when they came to me. I think the chance element of finding something great secondhand makes those things more precious. I bought this dress from a shop on Cuba Street that’s no longer there. The geometric shape of the dress and the folksy woodblock print remind me of early Bauhaus when they were in their handicraft period. But the fabric under the arms has shattered and I tried to darn it but did a shonky job so have now stopped wearing it.
The 1960s and 1970s polyester dresses that I own will probably outlive humanity.
The oldest thing in my wardrobe is a blue dust coat (label: Adolphe Lafont) that I bought from a shop in Auckland called Search and Destroy that sells vintage Japanese and French workwear.
I wore it to work but my colleagues seemed a bit taken aback by the (machine oil?) stains so I covered those areas with patches. The fetishisation of clothing worn in a workshop or factory is one of the hallmarks of a post-industrial society. See also – Carhartt, Dickies and so on. I don’t wear this in my studio – it’s too nice! I wear a chef’s apron instead.
My grandma Elsie’s 1960s coat is my most sentimental item. A black woolen cocoon with big buttons. So warm!
My sister-in-law borrowed this when she was pregnant. My grandparents owned a clothing factory in Lloyd St (now Hania St) in the 1950s and 1960s. They made trousers for the army. [IMAGE: Elsie’s coat]
I like the idea of rules for dressing, which taken to an extreme suggests a uniform. A few years ago I actually did design a uniform for myself as an art project. I thought this would resolve my anxiety about having to decide what to wear every day.
Lots of artists arrive at a particular “look” and it becomes a kind of extension of their work. For example: Frida Kahlo, Joseph Beuys, Georgia O’Keeffe. A uniform seems like a good option for an artist, because a) it signals that your brain is too busy solving tricky artistic problems to bother with fashion. B) It saves money. In reality, I would get way too bored with it.
Experimenting with clothes – colour, shape, texture – is a pleasure and a trigger for the imagination. You can carry a secret narrative with you that no one else knows.