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Date 23.09.2015
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Brendan C. McCarthy


Brendan C. McCarthy, Professor MFA Fashion Design and Society program, Parsons School of Design – USA

My paper puts forth a pedagogical model aimed at helping students design and make garments using sustainable systems that address critical social issues in specific and underserved communities. This model is based on the surprising affinities amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy of homespun, bespoke English tailoring, site-specific filmmaking and Alexander McQueen’s “Highland Rape” collection.

The brilliance of Gandhi’s use of homespun as part of his Satyagraha campaign is two-fold: 1. He used indigenous textiles and heritage garment-making, homespun khadi, to articulate an Indian national identity and promote unity in order to achieve independence from British colonial rule; 2. Simultaneously he demonstrated how homespun, as a system, could yield economic independence by enabling the Indian people to own all modes of garment production: from growing their own cotton, to weaving it, to designing and making their own clothes. Homespun directly combatted the British mercantilist practice of exporting and processing raw materials from India, then reimporting and selling goods at astronomical premiums.

English bespoke tailoring offers an example of precise site/community/person-specific design that also happens to be sustainable as a result of the replaceable parts in its suits, meticulous sourcing of the highest quality cloth and extreme dedication to craftsmanship. Of course, the world of bespoke is generally reserved for a very privileged few. The challenge is how to translate and enlist the brilliant attributes of bespoke in order to help people and communities that are underserved and truly in need of quality garments.

The crucial element that weaves the different aspects of the pedagogical model together is site/community-specific filmmaking. We invert the timing of representation in the design process and begin with filmmaking, as opposed to shooting the garments only after they are made. We make films about the communities and the people for whom we want to design. We think about how these films and ideas can translate into materiality, making processes, designs and, ultimately, garments. After the garments are made, we make another series of documentary style films of our garments being worn and interacting in specific communities. The films allow us to examine how the garments are affecting real people in specific social contexts. In a way, this is a form of product/user testing.

Alexander McQueen’s “Highland Rape” collection provides a bridge that links Gandhi, English bespoke tailoring and site-specific filmmaking. The idea of site/community/heritage textile-specific design is precisely expressed in “Highland Rape”, with its historical exploration of England’s imperial conquest of Scotland. The collection echoes many of Gandhi’s ideas of national identity articulation and resistance to oppression. McQueen’s link to bespoke tailoring is direct given his training on Savile Row at Anderson & Sheppard. The most interesting connection, however, may be that McQueen often began his process with the final show as a starting point. His use of video, still imagery, installation and performance at the beginning of the design process as tools to generate forms, materiality and, ultimately, garments is an important inversion that dovetails with the very filmmaking strategies we employ in our classes.


brendan_mccarthyBrendan C. McCarthy: I am Assistant Professor of Fashion Design at Parsons and faculty member of the MFA Fashion Design and Society Program , as well as, the BFA Program. My research and pedagogy focuses on ways that fashion can address critical social issues facing specific communities using ethical and sustainable systems for garment-making. My work explores how site-specific filmmaking, conceptual art and diverse types of representation strategies can be used as generators in the design process.

I am a founding member of a nascent, collaborative project called elLABel. It is an experimental fashion entity that combines classical bespoke tailoring and upcycling sourcing strategies. The aim is to co-design garments with and for people in underserved communities.

I received my BA in mathematics from Columbia University and MFA from Parsons in Fine Art. I also studied architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Prior to teaching at Parsons, I worked in finance for Morgan Stanley as a Research Analyst. I have also taught at the primary school level, focusing on developing a curriculum that combines mathematics with art, architecture and design.

My favorite thing to do outside of the classroom and studio is surfing. I love it and travel extensively to pursue it.