Welcome to On the Up, our feature series where we talk with designers who are making sustainable strides in the fashion industry through upcycling. They'll explain their process, share a few tips, and hopefully inspire you to repurpose your own wares.
"I’m not really a huge movie person, surprisingly," Conner Ives writes to me in an email. "I obviously have my favorites, but I find I often lack the attention span to follow a two-hour movie." It's a shocking admission given the London-based designer's character-driven Hudson River School presentation, which debuted earlier this year. (The title, borrowed from the mid-19th century art movement of the same name, nods to both his hometown of Bedford, New York and the romantic gaze his work casts on the American cultural landscape that shaped him.) For the show, Ives assembled a lineup of hyper-specific, slightly off-kilter female archetypes, women he credits as personally animating him in his youth. His references cull from The Devil Wears Prada, 102 Dalmatians, and Gone Girl, as well as friends' mothers, his own aunt, and the parodied and polarizing VSCO girl—famous, infamous, and anonymous, all treated with equal reverence. Its effect is one of both proposition and affirmation, of the multifarious ways a woman can look and be.
Nostalgia is the bedrock of Ives' design universe, right down to its most basic elements. The slinky gowns and skirts of his archetypes are reconstituted piano shawls, tablecloths, and novelty T-shirts, the sort of sentimental ephemera that fills attics and crawl spaces but is often passed over in secondhand stores as too specific, too attached to a memory the buyer doesn't share. He developed an affection for—and then, a facility with—these kinds of materials while studying at Central Saint Martins, and his approach has since garnered a groundswell of critical recognition, most notably a runner-up spot in the 2021 LVMH Prize competition and the purchase of a design from his graduation collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. These days, his work is worn in magazines, on red carpets, and by Rihanna.
The through-line in Ives' creative practice is the careful attention he pays to reframing excess. Whereas objects or, indeed, personalities are deemed by some as over abundant or extra, their too-muchness repellant, he cherishes them and designs toward a future where that response is the norm, toward, in his own words, “an America that doesn’t exist yet, but I want it to.”
Gaby Wilson: What's one of your earliest memories of how powerful clothing can be?
Conner Ives: It’s not my own [because I don't actually remember it], but my mother's favorite story to tell is from when I was three: I told one of her friends that I liked how her boots went with her skirt. My mom obviously loves this story.
How would you describe your mother's style?
My mom’s style was probably my first and biggest fashion influence. She was never a fashion victim, but rather liked nice things and took immeasurable care of her things. When I started to express an interest in fashion, I would watch my mom get ready for work in the morning. She would often explain the reasons why she bought things, what she likes about them. I have now spent much of my adult life still trying to find items she had that I now want for my own wardrobe. When I was lucky enough, I would just take them directly from the source. Some of my favorite items today are things that my mom bought herself in the '80s and '90s, which for me, is such testament to her timeless style. Huge inspiration for me.
What were you like as a kid?
Quite similar to how I am now. I had incredible parents who really let me be whoever I wanted to be. There were a lot of supporting characters that did this for me, as well. Our nanny growing up always encouraged me to be my own person, to not be afraid of what people said or thought, so I had a really strong foundation of individuality instilled in me quite early. Kerri, my nanny, would indulge these fantasies I had, so much so that as a 5-year-old, I had a cheetah print outfit—bell-bottoms, crop top, and 3/4 length coat—made for me by her. I would proudly wear the outfit to school in my recollection.
Did the idea for this look come from anywhere? Because I'm envisioning an homage to Scary Spice from this description.
I think this was my nanny’s doing, but yes, very similar and very evocative of a Spice Girl. Also, very Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element.
Incredible. A Gaultier moment for kindergarten is very chic. Kerri sounds like an icon. Where did you draw style inspiration from as you got older?
Growing up, I think, like many kids, I was inspired by what my friends were wearing. There wasn’t as much a desire for individuality, but rather, to gain a deeper understanding of sportswear, trends, and, like, why we wear what we wear in the suburbs. It really becomes this mob mentality: One kid would get things and soon enough everyone had the same thing or something emulative of the original. At the time, I’m sure it wasn’t that deep, but on reflection, this is what it feels like.
Did you have a favorite outfit?
Yes! Or maybe just a specific object. I had this tiger striped T-shirt from H&M that I truly wore until it had holes in it. I think I was about five at the time. I will always do that with T-shirts that I love. I have a whole drawer of T-shirts that are pretty much destroyed at this point, but I’m too attached to ever let go.
When did you start upcycling or reconstituting second hand clothes/objects into new designs?
I think I started doing it rather crudely when I was in high school. That would’ve been about 2012, before we had words that carried meaning like "sustainability" and "circular fashion." I was just working that way because I didn’t have fabric available to me. I think I enjoyed the process so much that I just stuck with it.
Why is upcycling something you continue to build your design practice around?
I always say that I wouldn’t work in fashion if I didn’t work in the way that I do. And I’m surprised that this is not a more widely adopted take on our industry. Working in fashion becomes somewhat of an existential career. My day-to-day, of sourcing vintage and [second hand], begins to show you how many clothes there are in the world, what a large portion of them have already been discarded. It makes me somewhat sick to make a dress now from virgin fabric; for a world so already over-saturated with the like. So, I think this was my way of coping with it, of confronting the problem at its source. I’m still making new clothes, but from older clothes, so I feel a sense of relief.
Is sourcing secondhand materials for your collections easier in the U.K. than in the U.S.?
I wouldn’t say so. We’ve built up relationships with wholesalers across the country which has surely made it easier, but most of the vintage imported here is actually from the States. It’s shipped over here in containers to drive the European market for vintage. T-shirts will always be easy to find and are probably my favorite material to source, just for the range of things people will print on a T-shirt. I love that part so much. It gets harder with our demi-couture. We make dresses from embroidered silk piano shawls, which we sometimes now have to source in the hundreds for production. Each one of these shawls is entirely unique and often very old, so turning it into a new dress that has no defects is a challenge.
What makes America such a fascinating subject for you?
I think it only became interesting to me after I had left. As a kid, I was so desperate to get out, but the second I left, I really started to miss it and romanticize it, which really helps explain my viewpoint of America. There is this rose-tinted haze which kind of thinks of America more as a concept, rather than the country it actually is. I don’t want it to feel nationalistic but rather aspirational and hazy. An America that doesn’t exist yet, but I want it to.
What is the image of America that you hope to bring to life with your designs?
I think that’s really unfolding as we go. I love the ability to explore archetypes and trends of the last 10 to 20 years. I think there is a novelty to it. It feels kind of postmodern. I think it will follow these micro-obsessions I cultivate by talking to people and reminiscing. [The Hudson River School collection] was all about characters of the 20th and 21st century. America’s Next Top Model, Diana Ross, Anna Wintour. Female icons that span genres and industries. I think all of these women were obsessions at some point in my childhood and recent past.