Tessa Edwards on couture, cliché and self actualisation

The London-based designer presents an AW13 film in Paris, collaborating with cult LA-based artist Penny Slinger on her collection

Fashion Q+A

Keep your moodboard with all its trinketry, this designer has grander ideas to explore – Tessa Edwards is going for the jugular. An encounter with artist Penny Slinger's cult 1977 tome 'An Exorcism' led to a trip to Los Angeles and collaboration for her latest collection, which works with ideas of sexual expression and feminine cliché.  But then you wouldn't expect anything less, given Edwards' past citing of the Ourobouros, her recurrent motif of crystal as a cosmic energy chamber and a year interning in Paris' grand couture ateliers. Presenting AW13 in Paris as a 15 minute film, directed with photographer and filmmaker Joe Ridout, we spoke to Edwards about fashion as a canvas beyond clothes.

Dazed Digital: Can you tell us how your collaboration with Penny Slinger came about?
Tessa Edwards: A friend showed me [Slinger's] 'An Exorcism' book, and after reading the introduction without even seeing the images I was intrinsically drawn to her ideas about self actualisation. I guess I initially admired her for her quest, to eek out her 'real self' whatever that means, in face of what others think and preconceived ideas of sexuality and femininity. Unfortunately though when I went to buy the book it was mega expensive, so I searched on the internet for a better deal and ended up stumbling upon Penny's email address. So I emailed her – and she emailed back. Very soon we realised that we had a lot in common so planned to meet, but I started an MA, got a boyfriend and I guess as I lost myself I forgot about Penny too – when I failed the MA and was suddenly single again I got a phone call from Penny. We reconnected and the timing couldn't have been better, while I was having a bit of a quarter life crisis. I planned to go California in the Summer and meet her, accompanied by Isabella [Burley]. When we were there I planned to talk about collaborating, but it didn't feel right so I left it. Actually through a haze of smoke I thought that she didn't like me! But then she came to London for her exhibition, visited my studio and we spoke properly about about doing something. The ideas just flowed from there.

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Penny Slinger, 'Sigh of the Rose', photographic collage on card, 1977, 50 x 35 cm

DD: This is your first time presenting in Paris. How does it feel?
Tessa Edwards: I feel more at home after interning and working there when I was younger. I learned everything about having integrity in this industry from Paris, and specifically from when I was working at Anne Valérie Hash, she was like a mentor. I am also endlessly obsessed with the importance of couture as an art form that can influence our culture, so Paris as the birthplace of haute couture represents it all to me. Paris fashion history inspires me, and I have been lucky to have some great experiences there from working with Monsieur Lesage to working for Galliano on the couture at Dior. I hope to present in Paris again.

This mindset indicates to me that women today are mentally bound by ‘rules’ on sensuality set by our media led culture and are unwilling to explore their own sexual expression according to their unique selves.

DD: What about the collection? You're working with very potent ideas…
Tessa Edwards: The narrative of the collection paints an allegorical picture, addressing the fears associated with getting older as a woman and what that means in terms of sexuality, beauty and self worth. The part of the journey where I am confronting the relationships between my idea of ‘self definition’ and achievement, romance anxieties, expression and addiction to manipulation my own perceived self image. The research relating to these concepts is very literal and gratuitous in a way, not to say that the collection is though. The first set of images relate to censorship of the erotic parts of the body. Here the mouth, breasts and vagina are blocked off in a grid-like format reffering to a systematically forgetful state of mind that I think too many women have today, unless they are trying to be purposefully alluring towards men. Which paradoxically is so prolific in our culture that it often goes unnoticed or is seen as ‘the norm’. They also reference the iconic media response or ‘rule’ towards sensuality where the infamous censored strip or nipple stars supposedly creates instant sexual intrigue. I've also noticed that there is a certain mindset where there are set rules for baring fleshy parts predetermined by our culture, such as “boobs or legs” (either cleavage or a short cheek-flashing skirt) as I often hear girls say on the tube or bus on the way to their ‘night out’. This mindset indicates to me that women today are mentally bound by ‘rules’ on sensuality set by our media led culture and are unwilling to explore their own sexual expression according to their unique selves.

AW13 has manifested itself through iconic and clichéd feminine aesthetics. There's the babydoll A-line with the ostrich feathers, reminiscent of a 1950s social and domestic hollywood housewife, which also references a longing for youth. Layered lace, pink chiffons and fleece, make up the foundations of the cloth upon which 3D florals are hand embroidered. The concept of censorship of the self within the collection is presented through the elastic body cages, that have no technical function but to facilitate the 'look'. Penny Slinger developed the concept of the collection and the aesthetics at every point, designed the collage print of flowers and phallic crystals digitally printed onto patent leather, proving to be the reference point for the overall look of the collection.

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Penny Slinger, 'Waiting-Room', photographic collage on card, 1977, 50 x 35 cm

DD: You've created a short movie instead of a fashion film to present the collection...
Tessa Edwards: Yes. The video is a short taking the form of a 'naïve allegory', a modern day adaptation of Orid's Metamorphosis where the roles of Echo and Narcissus are reversed. In this perspective, the characters are not fully three-dimensional, for each aspect of their individual personalities and the events that befall them embodies some moral quality and narrative abstraction; the message has been selected first, and the details flesh it out.

The girl, Penny (Played by Laura Aikman) has spent her life as a socialite, surrounded but lonely. Her lifestyle suits her as she considers herself to be independent. In the film Penny is at a point where she believes her youth is beginning to fade, as she continually compares herself to younger socialites and media figures. Her vanity is the focus of the story as she rejects the potential to love someone else, essentially rejecting loving herself. The film reaches a pinnacle within her subconscious, where her potential suitor, Robert (played by Ferdinand Kingsley) manifests himself as Echo the Pharmacist mimicking her routine escapism.

All Things from One, and to One.

In the Center Truth, in the Circumference Vanity.
– An Alchemical poem from ‘A Warning to the False Chymists or the Philosophical Alphabet’, Thomas Rawlin, 1611

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