Carly Ellis elevates the raw spirit of streetwear to create clothing that is equal parts spunky and slick, exuberant and fashion-forward. Raised in northern England and educated at the University at Westminster in London, the 24-year-old designer completed her MFA in the inaugural class of Parsons’ Masters program this spring, where Diane von Furstenberg sponsored her tuition. Lauded by The Daily Telegraph’s Hilary Alexander, Vogue Italia, and SuperSuper magazine, Ellis has outfitted artists like Cassie and Rye Rye in her designs, and has crafted commissioned pieces for Tokyo’s Candy Boutique and UpSaver magazine.
Her latest collection, entitled “The Moment Before It All Makes Sense,” a luxe graphic printed mix of sportswear silhouettes imbued with an avant-garde sensibility, previewed as a part of the Parsons MFA Fashion Design exhibition and will debut at Milk Studios at New York Fashion Week in September. For this collection, Ellis collaborated with London-based photographer Alis Pelleschi on a series of multimedia videos, which cleverly marry the technology-inspired attitude of her garments with the kookier side of internet culture. We caught up with Ellis last week in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, for a proper cup of English tea, and talked streetwear, livestreams, New York versus London, and the sad state of fashion videos today.
It’s been two years since you’ve moved here. How did you find the transition coming from London to New York?
A lot of people said to me, it’s a lot more sophisticated in New York, and I think that’s true to the extent in runway fashion, but I think the street fashion here is just as exciting, if not more exciting. There’s so many different facets of it, obviously just because there’s different kind of people. I see a lot of them around, where they’re fashion professionals and still looking super New York, but they always have something really interesting going on. Obviously, I live near here, and that’s what really inspires me in most places, like hip-hop fashion. Especially around here, even guys who are like 80 years old are still dressing like a G.
How would you define your design philosophy?
Hilary Alexander described my work as “evening street.” It’s really fitting, because I’ve always loved streetwear. I’ve always been really observant to what’s going on on the street and sportswear, which is reintroducing trendy sportswear. It’s completely impractical to do sports in, but you still have a t-shirt on and a sneaker. I used to dress, I mean, I still do, but even more so, like a total boy, and I used to find it really frustrating—I couldn’t find something cool to wear for a night out. Everything for girls, especially in England, is really tight, really flashy—it just wasn’t me. So I want to try to bridge that gap between cool streetwear but then re-appropriate that into something you could wear on a night out.
Your latest collection is graphic, tribal, sporty, and slick. To me, it seems to be really elevated, posh rave wear. What was the initial impetus behind the collection?
I used to live in Williamsburg, but I moved here, and I was going on about all these guys and their style. I saw this old guy in a velour track suit, and I became really obsessed with proportion and exaggerating everything. That was really the foundation. I spent about a month taking photos around the city. Totally by chance, I saw this documentary about the Ndbele tribe in South Africa. They paint their houses in all of these geometric designs which are all inspired by things they see—a tree, for example. And I thought, “This is the same thing that I’ve been doing.” I researched the history of that, and it’s basically a sense of pride. It’s always the women who do it. So the woman who has the most elegantly painted home, she’s the It girl. I then just drew from all of my geometric patterns and recreated them in this Ndbele inspired drawing.
There were also other areas that influenced it too. My boyfriend is in the UK so I’m always on Skype. I had this huge folder with 300 screen grabs from Skype, but it was when Skype sort of breaks down, it gets pixelated, or turns neon green. There’s something about this, the breakdown of technology. I captured that moment when it’s broken. I became obsessed with screen grabbing breaking images. So I was playing on Photoshop and even Paint Pro to break these photographs. I did this technique where I enlarged it and screen grabbed it while it was still processing. When I laid out all the photos, another huge collection I had was the candy stores, the newsstands. They’re meticulously laid out, it’s fascinating. It’s perfect. I’ve always thought that, you’re getting this sense of pride. They take ownership of their space. I used that set of photos, which became a huge influence. So many brands in the UK, like Cassette Playa, they’ve done this heavily printed, baggy t-shirt, shorts sportswear thing. I really tried to play on this idea of evening street, trying to elevate it to a couture level, to think about the line and the cut and the proportion and to push that.
How did you and Alis first connect?
I guess it was probably a year ago now. My roommates back in London, one of them is this really crazy festival planner, another one works at SHOWStudio, another one’s an animator, another is an independent film producer. They’re all sort of in this creative business. She ran into one of them at a party. Alis being Alis, she’s this colorful craziness, and he was like, “You should look at my friend’s work,” and I got this Facebook message from her saying, “I met your friend Joe, I love love your work.” I was familiar with Alis’ work from being in London, so I was hugely flattered.
Let’s talk about the video project. It bridges your Skype inspiration and cheekily riffs on technology. How did you originally conceptualize the videos?
This is still very early in the thesis project. I didn’t have any garments yet, and we were more thinking about the exhibition we were going to put on. I was thinking about how I was going to present my collection, and we were going to fashion exhibitions. I was just sort of horrified. Clothing on a mannequin is really depressing. I wanted to do a film, which is something that is easy to watch and is easy to get your message across. I spoke to my friend at SHOWStudio. Obviously they’re fashion film obsessed, and he was like, “My piece of advice to you is to make it funny.” I watch so many fashion films which are violin music and wind. So boring.
In the end, I was like, “I really want to explain to everyone why there’s this pixelated clothing and I’m really going to focus on the Skype side of things.” The Skype-inspired swatches are the backdrop of every garment. This is what I did with Alis. We brainstormed who would be using Skype and all these different scenarios and we decided to make these faux conversations. It all came together. She came up with the scripts and we riffed on the characters. She just improvised it. That was the best way, because she just went with it and drafted her friend Will, who also styled.
None of your garments are in the video, but the spirit of the collection is represented in it. How did you make that choice?
The guys who were doing the film, Neal Bryant (of SHOWStudio) and Andrew Lawson (of Racked Films), were like, “There’s none of your clothing in this.” This is about me trying to express the mood. Why would the old guy [in the video] be wearing something of mine? It wouldn’t make any sense. I was like, “Let’s just use the swatches.” We were using green screen for the background but then everything they were wearing had to be blue. I never felt like we needed to have clothes. To explain my concept and the mood of it, they didn’t make sense. I was so thrilled, when they sent me the original roughs for the film, because I wasn’t there. I also recorded people’s reactions, via webcam, at the exhibition. That was probably the best part of it for me.
Did you have a livestream going the opposite way?
Yes. The people watching didn’t know. They were never going to be shown to anyone. I didn’t want people to know they were being recorded, because they never act the same. I got to see my tutors and people from the Times wiping away tears from laughing. I have a very lighthearted approach to fashion. I think it should be fun, I think it should make people feel good. I felt like I was making people laugh. I was really happy with that.