Interview with Susi Quillinan
My first reaction to Susi Quillinan’s work (as found in her Etsy shops, Quillinan and etcétera)was utter awe. And the more I get to know this designer, the more that awe increases. Originally from Australia and now based in Peru, this self-taught designer embodies the very tenets of what ‘ethically produced’ and ‘environmentally-friendly’ should mean in fashion design. Furthermore, with a background in literature and living in a culturally rich and chaotic environment, Susi continues to push the boundaries of what ‘fashion’ really means. I hope you’ll forgive my decision to not use photos within my following interview with Susi. I was truly captivated by this amazing artist’s answers, as I think you will be. Do visit my previous posts on Susi’s work (here, here, and here) after reading through the interview to fulfill your desire for more pretty pictures to look at.
What is the very first piece you remember designing?
The very first thing I made myself was a skirt made from scraps of my mother’s fabrics. I was about to head off on a trip to Europe and I was trying to save money, so rather than go out one Friday night, I sat down and taught myself the very basics of sewing.
After acquiring your self-taught skills, what made you get further interested in design? Was this before or after you studied professional writing and literature?
It was kind of a fortuitous accident really. Something that evolved very organically from making clothes for myself which friends and strangers would ask me to then make for them. From there, I started collaborating with an artist and friend with whom I began my first label and opened a store in Cusco, Peru. I’ve always been interested in the way we tell our stories and the stories of others, and somehow textiles and clothing felt like a much more immediate way of exploring that than words on a page.
Do you still wear your own designs?
Always. I never buy clothes.
What is your most treasured piece of clothing, either bought or self-made?
I am very hard on my clothes. I tend to have a favorite item which I wear until it is threadbare, so my favorite piece is changing all the time. Right now I am loving an oversized white tank top which I painted in a frenzy, sliced with a razor and wrote on. In winter I live in my vintage black leather biker jacket which was a gift from a friend.
What inspires you the most in your work?
Stories. Large and small.
How has your move to Peru influenced your designs?
In the beginning I drew a lot on the textiles from the Andes, their motifs and shapes. I used to incorporate a lot of those elements into my designs, attempting to create something more contemporary. Now I tend to work in a much more monochromatic palette. I am endlessly amazed by the textiles and traditional dress here in Peru, but I am now much more inspired by Peru in the here and now. I live much of the year in Lima which is a sprawling, chaotic city. The layers, the decay and the subtle beauties amidst the car horns and grey skies are the things that inspire me now.
Where did you get the idea to use a typewriter for your textile jewelry pieces?
I have always adored typewriters. The sound of the keys clacking against the paper, the bell at the end of the margin and the beautiful simplicity and functionality of the design. When I first began making clothes, it felt like an obvious evolution to use text on the pieces, and I loved the aesthetic of typed letters on fabric. The letters seem to soak right in, imprint themselves on the fabric in a more profound way than on paper. I made several items of clothing using typed text but then I moved away from that to explore other ideas. I recently came back to wanting to use text, and textile jewelry seemed like a more accessible way to do that. And there’s something interesting about having all these words around your neck, like they’ve all just fallen out of your mouth.
Your pieces, particularly your Cochinilla collection (pictured above and below) and your free word association pieces, seem very inspired, conceptual, and emotional. Do you consider your work ‘fashion’, ‘art’, both, or something else altogether?
I have tried to fit my work into different boxes or define it as one or the other and I always find myself wriggling free. I guess the way I work is more akin to the way an artist works rather than a designer. I never draw and I rarely start a piece with a clear idea of what I want it to be. I tend to let things just happen naturally which calls for a lot of experimentation and a lot of time. But that’s the bit I like… For me the concept is always the driving force and my eternal frustration is that I never feel that I can fully communicate the complexities of where a piece is coming from. I’ve learned to stop trying and just enjoy that part of the process for myself.
Do you listen to music while you work, and what is your favorite?
I always listen to music, but like my favorite item of clothing, it is constantly changing. Right now it’s either the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Francoiz Breut, Rachmaninov or Santo Gold.
What is a typical day for you?
There isn’t one. Right now I am working on several different projects at once so the only constant is my morning coffee and plenty of chaos.
If you weren’t a designer, what career would you see yourself in?
I would either be an MC, a sommelier or a librarian.
Do you think that sustainable and eco-conscious production of clothing will become/is becoming more prevalent in the fashion industry?
I think it definitely is, however what I see right now is a trend and often, merely a marketing ploy. I believe that ideas of sustainability are still in very early stages and that in order for the concept to evolve beyond a trend, designers and producers must take a more creative approach to the problem.
Where are your pieces available besides Etsy? Do you create your own projects for what you will be creating next, or do you have custom orders/store orders that you have to fill?
I am in a bit of a transition period at the moment. I have a small label here in Peru which I have had for sale in several stores in Lima, Cusco and Barcelona. However, I am not terribly good with structure, and running your own label requires a lot more stability than I currently have in my life. So, I have been steadily moving towards a much more project based existence which allows for the fact that I move around and travel a lot. That’s why Etsy is such a great vehicle for me. I like to show my work in the places I visit and have set up exhibitions in places like Melbourne, Barcelona and New York.
What project are you working on now, and what is next up for you?
Right now I am working towards a show which I will be doing here in Lima in December. It’s a performance piece where I will be customizing a series of garments in front of an audience, using paint, nail varnish, my typewriter and several other elements. I am also working on more neck pieces, an embroidery project and making blankets for homeless people from textile scraps which I collect. And I have just finished collaborating with my boyfriend on a photo project for the Lima edition of no name magazine which will be launched in early December.
Visit Susi’s two Etsy shops for one of a kind and limited edition pieces, and also her website for more information and portfolios of her previous work.