Photography: Grace DuVal
There are hundreds of fashion students pumped out of the school system every year, but few have the same promise as Chicago-based designer Mady Berry, whose senior collection “Hair of the Dog” highlights her unique ability to experiment with artisanal processes and piece together a tactful narrative. This year’s range follows Berry’s junior collection, “Sand Doesn’t Need to be Bland,” which reflected on her Texas origins by developing three fictional characters to help her navigate through a metaphorical “creative desert.”
Tinged with a similar southwestern aesthetic, Berry’s latest seven-look collection is the result of her love for storytelling, offering yet another whimsical world to get lost inside. Her process begins by diving into personal, emotional experiences—listening to her parents’ stories and challenging herself to understand their lives in a pre-digital, pro-wanderlust age. While this fosters an inevitable sense of nostalgia in Berry’s work, her clothing still feels present, reflecting on the past and wrestling with history to fabricate a smart, contemporary reaction. Process is as important as product in Berry’s camp, which is rare in today’s hasty fashion environment.
We caught up with the rising designer ahead of the School of the Art Institute Chicago’s senior showcase this Friday at Garfield Park Conservatory. With the common theme, “Reflexion,” students were all challenged to explore the future of fashion in a sustainable world. This is Berry’s interpretation:
After you finished your last collection, what was the early process like for creating another?
Last summer I took time for myself. I made a choice that I needed some time to rest and rejuvenate to feel that I can be creative and excited again. I began painting, again, which was something that changed the way that I approached design and garment-making. I had a sketchbook that was an amalgamation of everything I loved in art and culture. I spent time looking at books in the UT Fine Arts Library and became obsessed with the painter James Ensor, who influenced the way I painted and approached art. I also spent time with my dad, listening to his stories of adventures growing up, which provided the groundwork for this collection. But most importantly, I didn’t design any garments for the entirety of the summer. Taking a break from fashion allowed me to clarify what I wanted [and] when I began designing again, it was a different and more intuitive process than before. I gave myself permission to break rules and trust my gut.
What did you learn from your last collection that you implemented in this one?
After finishing the last collection, I decided I wanted to create things that people might want to really wear, which for me was a challenge. I feel I’ve been typecast in some ways as making costume, [which is] sometimes a dirty word in the fashion education system. I don’t see myself that way. I knew going forward I wanted to make a menswear collection that could be styled many different ways. Also, with my previous collection, the making process was very much A to B [and] I was making exactly what I’d drawn. I gave myself room for discovery within the collection and worked organically. I went back into every piece and added things that it needed or took away elements I didn’t feel were working. This was extremely important to the development of the collection as a complete entity.
Berry saw the depth and freedom of her original illustration (see, below) and wanted to bring that to life on a tangible garment. She painted directly onto the piece with dye, layering different shades and intensities of orange to give the shirt its own history.
Talk me through the inspiration of this collection.
This collection is inspired by my dad’s adventures as a ‘Falconeer’ in the ’80s. He and friends drove thousands of miles through Mexico on roads less traveled in a 1965 Ford Falcon. They were searching for freedom, brotherhood and magic that couldn’t be found at home in the United States. I grew up hearing all of the amazing stories from my dad’s adventures and I worry that I won’t have stories to tell my children. But, I travel in my imagination and I may not be the loudest person in the room, but you can hear my voice in the world that I’ve created. I want to take people on a trip when they look at the collection and share in my wild adventure.
It looks like you experimented with a wide array of treatments and fabrications in this collection. What was your process like this time?
Being able to make my own textiles allows me to have control over every element and infuse my voice into the work at the most basic level. Throughout the collection I created paintings [and] referenced them for the feeling and energy I wished to convey. Some of the paintings I used literally and some were more of a general roadmap. I used a variety of techniques, like jacquard weaving, bead weaving, dyeing, screen-printing and knitting. In the fall, I was introduced to the Jacquard loom [and] this process changed the way I designed textiles. I collaged my paintings on the computer and then wove them. After they were cut from the loom, I painted the weavings with dye to place them back within the dialogue of painting. I thought about how I could translate weaving and tapestry to a different medium. I worked in collaboration with my mom, [who’s] a mosaic artist, to create woven bead panels using both small and large glass beads. We worked together to create a painting using beads woven by color to create an image.
(Left) Berry covered overall straps with snake-skin bead weaving, which fasten around crushed and painted bottle caps to create the snakes’ eyes. The guide beside the loom is the placement map for Berry’s beads, which her mom created. (Right) This painting, created by Berry early in her design process, is an interpretation of a communion, which ended up being collaged onto the jacquard loom to become the front panel of a suit jacket.
How do you feel this collection challenges “fashion?”
With this collection I like that there are pieces that if I were to make them again, they would most likely look entirely different. [This] is something appreciated in the art world, but not within the fashion system. Since I was not worried about selling I had freedom to create pieces that are truly one-of-a-kind. That’s something that is great about being in school, the room for experimentation. In the future, I’m interested in how to walk that line of creating one-of-a-kind garments, while also creating something that can be produced many times. Moving forward I would like to navigate how to create the feelings of bespoke textile within the language of manufacturing and how is it sustainable to my voice and identity as a designer.
What’s the story behind the headpiece?
The idea for the Dog stems from one of my dad’s stories in which he and his friends got out of a tight spot by declaring they believed in a Dog tooth from the skull of a dog they found on the side of the road. The other party involved thought it was hilarious and let them go. I thought of them as the followers of the Dog tooth and then more specifically the followers of the Dog. To me, the Dog is the deity of brotherhood, road trips and mezcal, and naturally I wanted to make this Dog come to life to help lead the parade of travelers down the runway.
The Dog head began as a simple aluminum structure, which Berry created in collaboration with her dad. She covered the structure in chicken wire and paper-mâche, finishing the piece by painting it how she draws dogs—a physical realization of her personal 2-D practice.
The silhouettes are worn by male models, but they’re fairly genderless by nature. Is this something you considered in creating this collection?
I felt a lot of freedom designing menswear as a woman. With womenswear, there were the predetermined genres of either sexy, reserved or costume, which the work had to fit in. When designing menswear, I’m able to leave those boundaries behind and design exactly what I want. Since I’m a woman, I don’t feel constrained by what I might wear as a man or what men should wear. The genderless nature of the clothing [comes] from my experience not being a man and having to live within the world more cautiously. Men are allowed to be more carefree and reckless. I’m not imagining them as men, as much as I imagine what it would look like if I had the sense of male foolhardiness in the world.
This is a page from Berry’s sketchbook, showcasing the early development of her blue knit jeans and tongue shirt. Attached is a dye sample, originally created to match her dad’s jeans in the picture shown, above. Though the final pant was designed to reflect the sky, this photo served as Berry’s primary source for palette.
Did you consider traditional men’s clothing at all?
The first piece I made was the blue suit jacket with traditional tailoring techniques, but made it feel much more casual and fluid by adding the painted weavings. I paired the suit jacket with a pair of boxers I made with a blanket haphazardly embroidered to the waist. I’m living through a man’s sense of recklessness and abandon. If a man is running drunkenly from a hotel room and takes nothing but a blanket, his instinct would probably not be to sew the blanket decoratively to the boxer, but that’s what I would do.
Now that you’ve completed two cohesive collections with a very strong, similar aesthetic, what do you think you’re bringing to fashion that no one else is?
I seek to take my viewer to another place and make them feel something. As an artist I deal with themes of escapism, creating worlds to help me deal with my own feelings of disquiet. Through my work I want to invite the wearer or viewer to participate in the world I’ve made for myself—to laugh, cry and enjoy the absurdity of it. While the work may break the expectations of fashion, I have respect for my craft and make every piece out of high quality materials and finish them perfectly. At the end of the day, I want to create something that is engaging and may brighten someone’s day.