An Interview with Richard Malone: The People's Designer

by Hetty Mahlich on 22 March 2021

The Irish creative talks about creating a language of clothing, ready to dismantle the patriarchy.

The Irish creative talks about creating a language of clothing, ready to dismantle the patriarchy.

Richard Malone loves women. It's something one may think should come hand in hand with making clothes for them, but it's not always the case. For the Irish designer, the intimate relationships with his female clientele, many of whom he now calls friends, are the concrete foundations of the six year old, award-winning brand he has created. Taking home the Woolmark Prize last year for his fully biodegradable collection, Malone was also a recipient of the BFC Vogue Fashion Fund, together with the BFC COVID-19 Fund later in 2020. In the face of the pandemic, alongside creating medical masks for the Emergency Designer Network, like the rest of his peers Malone has been faced with making the shift from physical runway shows to digital presentations.

Picking up where S/S 21 left off, Malone has continued his on-going collaboration with image-maker and filmmaker Isabel Garrett, to create a lookbook alongside a short film. Thomas Garnon also returned to work his magic on the set design, which features cascading draped fabrics reminiscent of Malone's own clothes. Choreographed by Anna Engerstrom, who also models, Richard Malone fans will remember the ice blonde beauty from last season, as she returns to stomp her feet to the beat of an original score by Garrett and Malone.

It's very touching that when I ask Malone how he found leaving the runway show behind, he tells me he was most worried about communicating the effort of the behind-the-scenes team.

'[At a show], everyone has this moment, it's shared, and it's really hard to communicate that on film or anything other than being in the show or in the presence of what you've made. All of the conversations that go into that; the set, the lighting, the music, the sculpture, you kind of miss.'

Last week, the studio team, together with stylist Nell Kalonji and Malone's PR agency, We Are Raven, were able to see one other for the first time in months at the shoot for the A/W 21 lookbook. There was a glimmer of that 'post-show normal' the industry misses so dearly, and coincidentally, it was also St Patrick's Day. The entire Richard Malone squad were able to savour in a celebratory and socially-distanced pat on the back, that this season is undeniably well deserved.

Richard Malone
When someone says sexy in relation to what I make it’s kind of unsexy, it’s like what does that even mean. But I know what that means. It's a very nuanced understanding - Richard Malone
Richard Malone, A/W 21

This season the designer was looking at the notion of erasure, of lost language and belonging to a place. Comparing Gaelige (Irish) with English, one will find that many female-specific words in the latter have been lost over time. It led Malone to thinking about the development of culture, and how it's usually built by creative females, particularly when it comes to ancient Irish history.

'That kind of female energy I really understand, because that's what I'd most identify with in myself', he says. Speaking of craftsmanship and its role in nurturing culture, Malone goes on, 'You see what it means in cosmopolitan cities is very little because it's very capital and consumption based. You go outside of cosmopolitan cities and you see the erasure of jobs and of labour and of craft.'

Malone's research, noting literary authors Doireann Ní Ghríofa and Manchán Magan as key references, took him further into the erasure of language resulting in the erasure of human histories. The designer was largely thinking about class and community, which is not unusual for him, but felt pertinent to our times in terms of a fierce protection of queer and female spaces. What permeates throughout this collection, is the feeling that it is craft that binds us to place, and protects and maintains the lost threads of these vital parts of life that can so easily be lost. It's in craft where what once was, can be resurrected.

In reductive and simple terms, Malone's work is sculptural, and rooted in reality. His Central Saint Martins graduate collection featured supermarket blue, yellow and green stripes inspired by plastic corner shop bags. His own rural, working class upbringing in Southeast Ireland, where he spent much of his youth on construction sites with his father, runs as a continuous thread throughout his work, whether that be the structures he creates around the female body, or the remnant silhouettes of blue collar uniforms he often plays with. Indeed, for this new A/W 21 collection, Malone took medical uniforms as a central influence. You can see this reflected in the high, sharp white collars which encase necks, or the ties and fastenings which run throughout like ones found on a matron's apron.

It's real women who light Malone's fire, silhouettes are found through working directly onto the body; draping, pinning and sculpting. Malone produces on a made-to-order basis, which has served him reasonably well in a pandemic which scuppered commercial supply chains and resulted in calls for scrapping the fashion schedule. The majority of Malone's peers work on a wholesale basis, and faced cancelled orders and seasonal collections being close to nullified. Despite client days not being able to go ahead due to lockdown restrictions, the Richard Malone woman is only coming out of these dark times stronger, with a fire in her belly. Malone tells me that he's spent much of the past few months on the phone to his clients, many of whom are powerful women in their own right who run architecture practices or creative studios.

'It's nice to check in with someone who's in the same boat of uncertainty but there's also a sort of mutual support there. I rely on them for feedback, and I guess income at a very basic level, but they're also quite reliant on me for specific shapes or new suggestions, or getting something that's quite different. It's this sort of community that extends all the way from the private client to the makers and weavers, and this sort of language that's developed.'

Speaking with Malone, one quickly picks up on this symbiotic relationship, one that's unique in an era defined by fast fashion. Over lockdown, many of his clients were able to order straight from a lookbook as Malone's team already had their measurements filed away.

'We [Malone and his clients] share a lot of ideologies about cut and fit and I think that serves us really well because I know what sort of trouser a certain person will like, or I know when someone says sexy in relation to what I make it’s kind of unsexy, it’s like what does that even mean. But I know what that means. It's a very nuanced understanding and it's very direct'.

Richard Malone, A/W 21

We move on to talk about fashion in the age of social media, of oversharing and the wild fire spread of imagery and informaton, the ability to order something you want in three different sizes with a swipe and a click.

'That's been something that I'm conscious of, is keeping the relationship very special. [The pandemic] made what we do seem more important somehow, it's such an antidote to what we're told should work, like making excessive things, commercialising your product, being part of a trend or something. I actually think that what we do is so uncool. So many cool trends have happened since we started, and we've never been a part of it. Even when people do the "young designers in London" thing, I always think my stuff always looks so bizarre [in comparison] to some of these really aesthetically matching people, [whereas] I'd love to just make this huge sculptured blob'.

Even more fascinating, is talking to the designer about the role his clothes might have to play in these powerful women's lives. He thinks of these women as perhaps once being the weirdo at school. 'They are unusual and have a different way of looking at the world. It's always those people who feel like they'll never make anything amazing, who [do]. That's something that we want to keep feeding and fostering.'

Women may be at the core of Malone's work, but that doesn't mean that gender is. In fact, Malone often has himself in mind when designing, thinking about what he'd like to wear if he was one of these women. 'I've never really thought of gender being an important thing, but I've never tried to define it. I don't even think of it as a brand, I'm literally a designer in a studio making things at service to people.'

Since his S/S 20 collection, the sculptural twists of Malone's show pieces have expanded upwards and outwards, into huge angular forms, almost like industrial scaffolding draped in the designer's now staple icy blue econyl (sustainable nylon). This A/W 21 season, the 'Richard Malone armoury' consists of wonderfully bulbous hips created with panniers, and shoulders standing up like the front legs of a praying mantis. Overall, however, silhouettes have been reduced and brought closer in towards the body. Protection has reigned supreme throughout the A/W 21 collections, and Malone says the theme came naturally this season as a result of working from home, in smaller interior spaces. I ask him if he thinks of his clothes as a somewhat rebellious form of protection: 'Yes, I do in a way. I think that some clothes have that power, I don't know if that's because it facilitates the person that you feel like you need to be, or if it facilitates a version of yourself that you want to be.'

Richard Malone, A/W 21

But don't mistake Malone for a one trick pony. His show pieces may have been a runway and editorial success, also featuring in museum exhibitions such as his solo show at NOWGallery and MoMA's 2017 Items: Is Fashion Modern?, but Malone's wardrobe has a number of different women in mind.

'Certain clients want the sculpted pieces, they just love that and it's fab and amazing to see someone wear that. Others will want tailoring, or a coat. It still speaks the same language of construction but it's two different propositions. And I kind of like that that's developing side by side. It's important for me that everything that we do can live, that you can keep the language moving. That's really the core of why people keep coming back, because there's a new suggestion, and I think that maybe comes down to respect for your customer - you owe it to people to keep developing, to letting the team grow and trying new things.'

A burnt orange, off-shoulder knit feels like staple Richard Malone, just as much as the pannier skirts and unexpected twists and turns his silhouettes will take you in. Pleated trousers tie at the waist and ankle, a sort of Japanese fisherman's trouser hybridised with a workman's trouser, whilst puritan collars run throughout.

Malone goes on to explain that,

'The same person who wants a boxy, tailored jacket that traditionally looks quite masculine, is often the same person who'll want then a sexy dress for a different thing. There's a real importance in that transformation, between where you want to feel empowered and how you feel empowered and what space you feel comfortable in. And I think that's quite fascinating. If you break it down, you don't wear the same clothes to work that you wear out. If you know someone you fancy is gonna be somewhere, then you're gonna wear something different. It's a very basic understanding of it, but it's very human.'

Richard Malone, A/W 21

For Malone, luxury means traceability and transparency. Since A/W 20, his show notes have closed with information on how much the designer pays his makers, (his full time staff earn £24 p/hour, and he continues to employ a collective of female weavers he's been working with in India since his graduate collection, with every person in the Richard Malone supply chain paid above the London minimum wage). Right down to the nitty gritty, it's still about female energy. 'Straight white men have dominated, [often] without any skill behind it, I'm really disgusted with toxicity or excess or consumption, and I think that's shared a lot more with females than males', he explains.

At the roots of creativity, Malone finds a sense of revival. We continue to talk about the past year and about how luxury has changed, how its very definition has been called into question in the face of Black Lives Matter and the global climate crisis which we cannot escape.

'That's why I do my job. I've never had money, so it's definitely not driven by money. That's the luxury for everyone, creating new spaces for people that don't have a voice, and that are not exploiting labour. I think it's really important to prove as a designer that that's possible. When I see people adapt, that's really interesting, (he references Prada's switch to econyl). The power is shifting from up down to down up.'

Richard Malone A/W 21

Currently, Malone is working on a new project responding to what he sees as an emerging, new language of modernism coming out of female creatives, from metal workers through to ceramicists and sculptors. He rejects the notion of being a fashion designer not only because he sees himself as a maker, but because he refuses to be confined by the constrictions of fashion, working across the aforementioned exhibitions. Malone leaves me with a poignant closing thought. 'It's important that we teach people that whatever you do, don't get boxed in.'

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