The second in a new series of interviews called “SenseCity”, Aisthanomai talks to Erin Roberston, Fashion Designer, Model, and student at MassArt (Boston, MA) about staying human in an industry focused on looks, fashion as theatre, bananas and Gesamtkunstwerk.
“Erin has an uncanny ability to translate fabrics into textural, highly dimensional colors. Charged with innuendo and vibrant emotion, they’re woven into quirky, covetable objects. Each is complete within itself. Her emerging style is both driven and playful, sophisticated and accessible. When I see her clothes I want to wear them, hang them in an arcade, and see them worn in some bizarre, extravagant, theatrical play that make words superfluous.”
You’re in fashion, a world that many find equally fascinating and alienating. Do you need to “get” fashion to be in it?
Fashion is a monster. You have to always be constantly coming up with new inspiration- from grunge flowers to sicily’s tiles- but your sense of style must remain. It’s crazy because it’s a group of people trying to portray a unified vision of style with endless amounts of inspiration. You can’t even look back at what you’ve done because you’re already on to the next thing. Consumers are extremely impatient too, they’re already bored with last seasons trends and complain about even the smallest repetitions. Everyone’s trying to get their hands on the preorder for next spring already. That’s the industry. I used to love going to NY for fashion week. My friends working at Milk Street would do really cool, really fun shows. I loved it because I was with friends from Utah, filming and having a good time. Things shifted and I started seeing just how fake it is, how many people are there just to look good. The focus on the clothes was lost and trends were happening hyper quick. Fashion forecasters were focused 2 years out saying big thing was stripes- stripes! When are those not in! I’m pretty sure ever since Coco Chanel, we can consider that classic. I won a scholarship through the CFDA which was incredible, but I was torn. I’ve always resented the word “fashion” and all the stereotypes associated with it so it was hard to commit, but despite that I’m looking to be a part of a world where things are gonna happen and things will change, and I think that’s here. I wanna be a part of that.
Tell me about what you do. Are you a model and a designer, or somewhere in between? Is fashion me & you, or is it haute couture? Talk about understanding design, any underlying philosophies that drive you.
I heard this amazing term from a friend of mine, called Gesamtkunstwerk, where basically the idea is you’re not just a painter or a writer, etc, instead you encompass everything. Fashion is like that. I can’t be singular, I have to be involved in all aspects of it so design, now Fibers in the Fine Art and 3D department. People always ask me if I’m an artist or a designer but for me, there’s no difference; there’s a lot of blurring the lines. As far as me modeling goes, it can just be a matter of something needing to get done really fast, like with a fellow student. There are many different ways to be involved in fashion. There’s working for TJ MAXX where each job is a separate line item: you design things, write stuff, or just do color theory or fittings. That’s kind of the “low end” of Pret a Porter (ready to wear), which is the factory made stuff. Then there’s haute couture or even freelance fashion designer/artist types which in my mind are more like fine art. It’s one of a kind, a piece of imagination that only one person in the world can own.
Describe one of your favorite textures.
I love stiff fabrics, like bonded foam. I found some at Home Depot and they have an amazing color story. They can be grey, white with specks of black, pink teal or yellow…
Textures can be colors? I love this. What’s a color story?
It’s a set of colors that describe your project or collection. For example, for my senior project I chose yellow and baby blue because they’re opposites (emotionally) for me. Yellow is energetic, blue is calming. It works in black and white, too.
Speaking of how things look, what fabrics, shapes, colours are intriguing to you and why? What’s your fascination with yellow? And bananas? How does fashion trigger emotional responses (like humor) and which do you push for in your work?
So far my silhouettes have been very simple and I’ve been timid to venture out from that, the main concern being that I keep thinking “will someone buy this?”. But then I catch myself thinking it’s so boring and start doing things like designing my own textiles. For example, I did a tapestry weave, like an uber weave, that’s been a classic since the beginning of time. I cut pieces of leather, then cut pieces of the loom and weave them into a pattern. Weaving is huge. It’s one of the oldest forms of art but also represents survival. A good fabric (a good texture) takes something mediocre and makes it special, unique. That’s why it’s so important. I used the weave for several pieces in my Perspective collection (like the one below).
Yellow came from my banana phone (case) and I just got into it. At first I thought I would make a whole banana collection, but then I realized that would be too kitschy, I didn’t want to be literal. But I feel a strong affinity to yellow- it’s such a happy color. I love to wear all yellow outfits. And there’s definitely a sense of humor, for sure. It can either be the textile itself or part of the performance.
Well, it can either be as simple as you have these clothes and this person and you dress them in the clothes…the end. Or, it can be more than that. It takes work and not everybody can give that much but I really want to explore how to embellish in a way that makes sense for me. I’m thinking of getting involved in the performance world, find a dancer or an actor…that’s something I really wanna get into. I have something going already, but it’s isn’t fully developed and I want to push it more.
Has your work been theatrical before?
One time I hung yellow craft paper 3 yards wide as 3 panels, at different heights off a super tall ceiling, then I cut paper at different angles on the floor so they looked like tiles. So you had this weird yellow box with tile on the ground and my 3 models around this dick mug. It was a mug, the handle as a banana and then a penis came out of it. It was so gross- the penis came out looking all diseased from the kiln. The mug had 15 pens in it…you know where this is going…and it was on a pedestal like a still life. One of the models was a banana, and there were banana snacks all over the place. The models were scribes. It was crazy.
Seems like you’re really having a conversation with yourself for projects and inspiration.
Yeah, I mean what started out as my phone cover turned into my whole senior collection. It was about optical illusions more than references and symbolism. There is no “why” for the banana. I do however, believe that we’re all driven by sex, whether it’s in the form of bravado or strength or power, and the symbolism of the banana is definitely underlying in the penis, I could never deny that (chuckles).
I’m excited to see where this goes.
There are so many things…
It seems that as a model or a designer, you have to be pretty aware of the body, how it moves, what it looks like in front of a camera lens, etcetera. In a way it’s like a living art form. Describe what that’s like. Is it something you train your brain to do over time?
The way something fits and looks on you can totally change your mood. The photographer also is super important. If I know the person who’s taking the photos is focused and invested, it makes a world of difference for me. Even hair and makeup, lighting and location are essential. It’s hard because there’s some overlap between what I personally would want to wear and what is needed for the project, and those things don’t always go together.
I imagine there are lots of trends to follow- any you’re interested in? Where does the label end and the creativity begin?
Chanel is a great example of where a brand is awesome until it’s not. All of that basic bitch stuff like the quilt bag with the double CCs is not cool. But when they premiere their full collection there’s a lot of funky, weird stuff going on. So it’s not so much the brand but what they make that keeps me interested in them. With some of these houses, they’ve been doing it for so long they really have it down; I mean they’re aesthetic is so clear and unique. The quantity and quality is astounding.
There’s taking inspiration from other’s work and there’s reworking your own. Talk about the importance of reusing material vs. fresh material, and what makes something unique.
Reinvention can be as simple as same shape, different fabric. For me, with textiles being so important, a simple turtleneck or pair of pants are transformed by the way it’s made or what it’s made from. What’s it’s embellished with. The texture.
What stimulates your work (fashion related or not)? What other forms of art/objects/ideas/people/places inspire you? How closely related are Arting and Thinking, as a source for creating new material?
I was just away in Europe for 3 weeks with friends. It was our last night in Sicily, and we were eating one of the best dinners of our lives. Talking about how beautiful life is, the conversation turned to the Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean. It’s twice the size of Texas. There’s so much plastic in the ocean, everything that gets tossed and can’t disintegrate releases toxic chemicals into the water that form this goop…it’s terrible. I can’t stop thinking about it and how to bring it into my next project. I still want it to be comical and lighthearted, in a way that raises awareness but also hopefulness and is inspiring. The idea of the individual being in control, making their own decisions: instead of buying from H&M they could be making their own clothes. Instead of using plastic, using paper. So environmental stuff is something I want to incorporate. Even if it means putting trash on a chiffon dress! I live in the world, not just my own. I want to do things that help make change happen. What if my Trash Vortex project got everyone carrying trash sticks? You never know what can be trendy…
Before you go, I have a set of questions aimed for quick sense responses. They can be within the frame of your work or not.
Pink or Magenta? pink
Yves Saint Laurent or Paris? Paris
Stewie or Brian? (pauses)…Stewie
Circle or Rubix Cube? Circle
Mud or Dirt? Mud
Mozart or Kilimanjaro? Definitely Mozart, I was born the same day as him!
Space or Universe? They’re the same, in my mind.
Erin Robertson is in Fashion Design & Fabrics at MassArt in Boston, MA. All interview images are from her latest project, Perspective; featured image is of the artist in her senior project. You can find more of her work or upcoming/recent shows at erinrobertsonart.com, @an_erin on Instagram, or catch her behind the bar at Lucky’s. Aisthanomai would like to thank Erin for her time and responses.