AN INTERVIEW WITH UNSKILLED WORKER
By Crash redaction
Further exploring the emotional aesthetic of Gucci, the brand just announced a new collaboration between creative director Alessandro Michele and Unskilled Worker. This will be the first time an exclusive online collection will launch simultaneously on all gucci.com markets worldwide. It will also be supported by extensive activity across all of the brand’s digital channels, as well as creative outdoor installations of the artist’s work at locations around the world. To prepare for the October 11th launch of the exclusive 40-piece capsule collection, featuring prints from Unskilled Worker’s art, Crash met up with Helen Downie, aka Unskilled Worker, to talk about fashion and art.
Your collaboration with Gucci goes back to 2015 when you attended the Fall-Winter show. It was then the first time you attended a fashion show.
I had never been to a fashion show before so it was quite an overwhelming experience. I did not know what to expect. It was twenty minutes of creative perfection. I cried. It affected me in the same way as seeing a ballet, with so much creativity at its peak.
How has your experience with fashion gone?
For the previous year of the first collaboration with Gucci, I stayed in a room painting, I pitched myself to paint. So I had already been inspired by fashion. I have always been fascinated by the way people invent themselves through appearance. It’s a creative choice everybody has to make. So when I started painting, it was only natural that this would become part of my work. My paintings are built around these characters, how they wear their clothes and what they wish to project or hide. That’s what I am fascinated with: what people use. I mean, we have to get out of bed every morning with a blank canvas, and I have always enjoyed fashion as a way of creating myself. Fashion is important, because it affects people in themselves. How we dress mostly reflects what we wish to reflect. I think fashion helps us to be a better version of ourselves. It’s very important to feel comfortable, and fashion probably allows me to feel comfortable with myself. On another level, I think fashion informs us about history and culture and can challenge boundaries in much the same way as art; I think they’ve always found each other irresistible. But now that I am painting, I am less interested in fashion. For this collaboration, what I tried to do is offer an emotional response to Alessandro’s work, rather than just looking at the clothes like I used to, and then painting them. This time, the work is more about conveying the emotion of the collection.
The way your work is featured for this collaboration completely differs from your first Gucci collaboration with the “No Longer/Not Yet” exhibition. Your paintings went from being exhibited on walls to being used as prints for fashion: now people will wear them. How did this new collaboration inform your art practice?
Many of the paintings used for this collaboration already existed. Three paintings were made specially for the capsule collection. The collaboration has been very organic and so I shall let this sink in and see what comes along next. Gucci has given me complete creative freedom to interpret Alessandro’s work. I’m not a commercial artist; my work has to be a reaction to what I see and what I feel. For me, seeing my work on these clothes may have been the first time I was able to see it as if I have not made it. I am disconnected from it. It’s the first time I’d looked at my work and I had not wanted to change it.
What are the inspirations for the Gucci paintings?
The Gucci paintings are made spontaneously, like a creative conversation in which I try to pick up on Alessandro’s references, while adding my own thoughts to the characters and their experiences with little hidden messages that can’t be seen at first glance. It’s been very exciting to discover his world and then mix it in with mine. I always wanted to be more narrative, but I had to wait to find the skill to express that. I expect that they will keep changing as time passes. The prints have been created especially for the capsule collection. The yellow print was created from a memory of a dress I had as a child, and the two floral prints were created more around the smell. I like when somebody, maybe your grandmother, leaves her scarf at your house, and you know which scarf it is because of the way it smells. As I don’t keep sketchbooks before I start painting, I have to have a strong emotion to start working.
Looking through the photos accompanying the capsule collection, we can definitely see models who look like your painted characters.
I am not sure what come first, the painting or the model. The characters that I paint are very often the same as the catwalk models. I have a conversation in some way. Very often, my characters are not classically beautiful. They are young girls who look like women I’ve known from my youth. They are strong but vulnerable, as young girls are. They are not always happy with themselves. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable with myself, I think that feeling may come across. I start with an emotion I want to convey and the character is built around that emotion. For instance, one painting called “The Family” was created after seeing homophobic comments on Instagram. The feeling I wanted to convey is love. Sometimes, I paint by reaction. I think most of my paintings are about the past of human relationships.
How do you think your collaboration with Gucci is impacting your art practice?
It definitely has an impact on my art practice; at the same time, I have only been painting for four years. When I look at what Alessandro creates, and the way his fashion triggers memories, it is very natural for me to bring what Alessandro creates into my own world. It’s incredibly inspiring to me. It comes to life for me. It’s hard for me to say that it is purely fashion, because when I bring it into my own world, for me it changes. My work is really about the emotions of the characters I try to convey.
Written by Stéphanie Bui.