With mounting insecurities fostered by an online culture of cringe, critique, and comparison, it can seem impossible to experience genuine, wholehearted joy. The cost of living crisis has sparked low morale and the political climate in the UK is bleak. If there’s one thing that will get us through these nation-wide woes, it is the power of compassion. Empathy for ourselves and those around us will untwine self-deprecation, and our harsh scrutiny of others. Our interpersonal wellbeing lies in the hands of investing in community and nourishing connection. Being judgemental is out; being heartfelt is in.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 48. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
One designer in particular who is harnessing the power of community and connection is Newgen recipient Sinéad O’Dwyer. The Irish native is creating unashamed declarations of acceptance through a lens of empathy, innovation, and romance. Shattering the restrictive boundaries of luxury fashion, the brand has only endured two Fashion Week seasons, yet has made headlines for their trailblazing approach to accessibility. As her personal growth flourishes with the eponymous brand’s identity, O’Dwyer’s work is an ode to building self-esteem, connecting, and healing.
Joy is something that we all have experienced, yet every individual will have their own definition of what it means to them. I personally like to think of it as an intention. According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of joy is “[Verb.] to experience great pleasure or delight. To rejoice.”
If I were to write my own working definition of joy, it would be something along the lines of: “[Verb.] The emotional release of nourishing and healing the inner child. To allow yourself the vulnerability of basking in pleasure. To let go of shame. The awakening of one’s soul.”
Joy is an intentional decision; choosing love, despite shame, injustice, and discomfort. All About Love: New Visions, by bell hooks, is an absolute perception changer on love and connection too. Like Sinéad O’Dwyer’s radical reimagining of how to love your body. Hooks defines love as an act rather than a feeling. She gives us a working definition of love: that it is a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect, and trust. When people or communities embrace these six components of love, they are operating with a love ethic. As hooks herself said, “I know no one who has embraced a love ethic whose life has not become joyous and more fulfilling.”
This idea of a love ethic is deeply intertwined with fashion heroine Sinéad O’Dwyer’s practice. Utilising her sweet disposition, her work serves as a love letter to the realities of our ever-changing bodies. If this conversation with O’Dwyer teaches us anything, it is that she works wholeheartedly; using her loved ones and her own struggles with body image as a catalyst to challenge inaccessible fashion.
Sinéad O’Dwyer casts spells of euphoria, consolation and unbridled joy – for every body. I recalled the first time I came across Sinéad’s work while working at The Face magazine. Sent to capture backstage content at London Fashion Week, I remember feeling extremely vigilant over how I presented myself that day. The fashion industry is notoriously riddled with fatphobia and ableism. Getting taken seriously as a fat person is a rare feat, especially in these spaces. I compare being fat during Fashion Week to being Jasper in Twilight; you are there, but no one notices. I had already been disheartened by the lack of body diversity in previous shows, and came to accept that this is just how things are. This was until I stepped backstage of Sinéad’s Spring/Summer 2023 show.
In the chaos of flailing safety pins and pushy male photographers, I saw friendly, familiar faces, and the representation I had been in denial of finding. As I spoke to the models, I could feel their gratitude for being in such a position. Each of them, full of appreciation. It was contagious. We couldn’t stop smiling. To see genuine accommodation and care for different types of bodies was illuminating and deeply tender. There was no room for shame here. The conversations that I had with the models were heartfelt, and the validation that came from them felt so special. These were the moments of history in the making. Joy was overflowing in this space. You couldn’t contain it.
Usually, when talking about body-positivity within a brand, you would expect the typical virtue-signalling and tokenism that come with attempts of inclusivity. O’Dwyer’s brand couldn’t be further from this. There is a celebration, yet honesty to the RCA MA fashion graduate’s work. Challenging the body elitism in the luxury fashion industry, inclusivity is weaved into the fabrication of the label. By intentionally designing garments to showcase perceived flaws, rather than attempting to work around, or hide them, the brand gives bodies that have rarely been associated with longing or lust the opportunity for admiration, and romanticisation.
Her entire ethos stifles the false ideology that people’s bodies are the issue when it comes to ill-fitting clothing. Instead, offering a refuge through garments that adorn all bodies. Although cultural acceptance for disabled and fat bodies is [slowly] underway, it is O’Dwyer who is blazing the trail of authentic inclusivity, making Fashion Week history as the first brand to have two wheelchair users [Naadirah Qazi & E Barker] on the LFW catwalk, and using a sample size 20 for her garments, as opposed to the industry standard size 8. Compassion, commitment and care exudes from her work.
Her deep empathy is to be cherished. Listening very carefully to the woes of the people in her life about their bodily insecurities, and being vulnerable enough to process her own struggles with body dysmorphia, Sinéad offers a safe space for people to let go of shame. The realisation that your body has been included while creating designs is affirming. Providing people moments of nourishing their inner child, and reminding them that they deserve to not only take up space, but look, and feel, ravishing while doing so. Despite bodily shame, clothing injustice and personal discomfort, O’Dwyer intentionally chooses love to persevere through the brutality of this industry, and the harsh realities of starting up your own business.
In her East London studio she shared with me nostalgic tales of her adolescence, healing through her work, and the desire for connection she inherited from her late grandmother.
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You grew up just outside the countryside town of Tullamore in Ireland. What do you reminisce on most about your youth growing up there?
I think what I loved was freedom. I was outside all the time. I never had any shoes on, and I was always digging. It was so nice just getting to be on people’s farms and gardens, spending time with animals, and climbing trees. There’s a river by the back of our house, and we were always in the river, always trying to build a boat, always failing to build a boat, always sinking. It was just so fun.
In your teen years, you moved from Ireland to North Carolina to study at an art school for nine months during your transition year. A period in which you said you went “wild.” What was your wildest moment during that time?
I felt like I wasn’t able to be myself in Ireland as much. Being in an arts high school with a lot more diverse people and a lot of Queer people was a really eye-opening opportunity for me to be like, oh wow, life could be like this too. I was really thrown into the deep end with that experience, but in a really fun way. They [her parents] didn’t really think through how teenagers in America all have cars, so I was just everywhere doing everything all the time, and it was the best. It was also an arts high school within a university, so I had a lot of older friends. I fell in love with my first girlfriend, Casey, who was in university and had a car. I definitely wasn’t out before then or had even really considered what being Queer would actually mean to be honest. It was such a lovely way to fall in love for the first time; it was very dreamy. But then it was also very stressful towards the end because, you know, I was definitely not following the rules.
Your recent Autumn/Winter 2023 collection, DÚIL, was a love letter to desire, adolescent rebellion, and teenage perceptions of love. What stories can you share about your own youthful recklessness or ventures of acting on desire?
I suppose this is not really an interview my parents are going to read, so it’s fine [laughs]. My neighbour was my age, and I used to go out the window and hang out with him by the fence like nearly every night during the summer, but it was not as cute as you’d imagine. We would steal alcohol from our parents and get hammered. That was really fun, but the process was really stressful. I used to go out the window and then go to the left, and that’s where the sensor light would be, so I would run through a certain section of the garden, and then I would crouch down and wait until the sensor light went off, my heart racing. Which is part of what the collection is inspired by, like excitement but also stress and desire. The clandestine nature of youth.
One day I thought, Gosh, this is too stressful. You know, I can’t be having all this stress in my nighttime routine. I’m going to have to switch the direction I go. So maybe I’ll go by the right, I’ll go down by the river. I never wore shoes out; I don’t know why I just never did. Just pyjama bottoms, a hoodie or something, and bare feet. And so I hopped out the window, turned right, and went down by the river to a little path there, going along. I then hopped over the fence into the field to the back of my neighbours house and just ended up being knee-deep in cow shit. So I started dredging along the edge in the shit and muck, and then I hear a stampede of cows, and, because they’re so curious, you know they were just running towards to hear what the sound was, but I was like, fuck!, and started screaming my neighbours name and running through the mud, with my pyjama bottoms covered in shit. I had to leap off this fence onto his back with my shitty legs on his chest. But yeah, I didn’t get trampled by cows, so that was good.
Oh god, it’s like something out of a spy film. What was your style like during that time?
Last season a lot of the collection started with a photo of me, I think I was 11 or 12, and I was in this T-shirt, which was an Emily The Strange T-shirt that stated “Children Should Not Play With Dead Things’’ and I loved that. And then I had these cargo trousers, like the Avril Lavigne ones, but they were from Dunlop. I had this polka dot black tutu moment that I loved to wear. And then I had these hand-me-down jeans from an older cousin, they were Guess jeans, and they were so low, with a tiny zip right at my crotch. I used to wear them with this tight, off the shoulder Nirvana top, a really sprayed back, greasy ponytail, and tiny glasses. [laughs] So it was interesting. I think I’ve never quite felt like I fit in; always at the intersection of many things.
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The collection was also an ode to your late grandmother and the yearning she had for connection, craft, and cinema; drawing inspiration from her entirely handmade fashions and teenage years during WW2 when she fell in love with your grandfather. You had been thinking about your grandmother’s idea of romance and her desire to connect and experience everything life has to offer, which I think is really touching and quite beautiful. What is your fondest memory of your grandmother?
My Granny was just so kind and loving. I think some of the fondest memories were just being in my pyjamas at her house, just making stuff together. We would always run into her house to this closet where we would keep all of her scraps of things to make stuff with, and we would fight over who got which bit of fabric. Then we’d be sitting in front of the fire and making all sorts of stuff. She used to make all of her own clothes. She made my mum’s wedding dress, her own wedding outfit, mine and my sisters communion dresses. She was just amazing. I mean, I have such incredible memories. My fondest memory is this. I would not leave her alone at night. She used to stay with us, I lived in Dublin till I was 7, and she had a room and would stay there quite a lot, cause my Grandad died before I was born. So she would come quite often and take care of us. I used to wet the bed every night and then go knock on her door and she would change me and put me into her bed. I just remember being lifted into her bed, because her bed felt so high – I’m sure it was just a normal size bed, but because I was that little it felt really high. And I remember my mum had said “Nanny you can’t be bothered by Sinéad every night, you’ll never get a good night’s sleep.” And so my mum said “I’m putting a latch on your door so she can’t get in” so she tried to do that and then I just stood there and knocked. Apparently my Granny loved to tell the story of me just standing there and hearing knock knock knock, and eventually she would open up the door for me.
That’s so heartwarming and sweet. When you look back at your childhood with your grandmother, what life lessons did she teach you?
This is why I ended up calling the collection DÚIL. I wasn’t really sure what to call it. I’m bad at naming things, but I love that desire has so many meanings. Initially, I’d been thinking about the intersection of this romantic idea of things, like her cinematic version vs. my grubby, outdoors in the rain version. Thinking about that word, it really sums her up. She was 98 when she passed away, and she sent me handwritten letters till the end. And in the letters, she would be picking out things from magazines. She was always listening to this radio show in the last 2 years of her life, which was about entrepreneurs or something, because she wanted to learn more things so that she could connect. And I felt so much from her, she just really wanted to connect til the last minute. Even if she didn’t have a particular thing in common with someone, she would learn something about it and always showed interest, like, really. That’s such a rare trait these days. She just had a real desire to connect. Obviously she had TV shows she’d like to watch, but if I was home, she would turn it off and be ready for connection. I think that’s something I really take from her, to make an effort with relationships, because she made a really huge effort with all of her relationships and showed so much interest.
During your last collection, you were reflecting on your grandmother’s youth as a GI bride and how she travelled a long way on a boat to be united with your grandfather in America during WW2. I love the fact that during your time living in New York in 2016 you too met your love, your wife Ottillie Landmark. I think it’s quite symbolic and such a beautiful, full circle moment. Can you tell me more about how the two of you met?
We actually ended up meeting in quite a funny way, which was that I did not like her at first.
Enemies to lovers, classic.
I was on a date with a girl at this night that my friend Hannah performed at, and then Ottilie turned up and made out with the girl that I was on a date with, to cut a long story short. She didn’t know me and didn’t realise we were on a date, but I was salty about it. And then I held it against her for the next few weeks until we actually met again. My friend invited her to this day of vintage shopping we had planned, and I was like, why are you here, you bitch?” She didn’t remember because she didn’t really understand that there had ever been a situation at all. So I was just livid for no reason, and she won me over that day, and then we kind of became obsessed with each other that day, and that was that.
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What was it about her that drew you in?
Actually, I know exactly what it was about her. Obviously there had been that situation, so I was a bit like, hmm and she didn’t know that. But she was clearly super into me and really let it be known in this vulnerable way. I really liked that boldness about her. She looked quite cutesy at the time, so she didn’t really look like the sort of person who would blatantly be going for you. I really liked that because it’s the opposite of me. I can be a lot more shy and, I would say a lot less bold in my personality, especially at the time. She was so happy to show that she was interested in me, and I really thought that was warm.
What made you fall for her?
Those things about her personality that were so different from mine. I think there are so many things, especially that. When we met, I was struggling with my eating disorder, and I had such a bad relationship with food, my body, and self-hate, and she just didn’t have that at all. Weirdly, that was so healing because she was just so free and just loved me and didn’t connect at all with these horrible negative things that I was feeling and thinking. And that was quite liberating to me. I think especially femme people have a lot of stuff from how we’re conditioned, and it was really nice to see myself through her eyes, actually.
What’s the most romantic or joyful moment that you’ve shared together?
I felt like our wedding was really cute. I think what made it particularly joyous was that it was very spontaneous and quite random. We lived in New York, then moved to London for me to do my MA. We always thought we might move back, so we decided to get married with our friends in New York, but quite casually, I suppose. We didn’t really put any planning into it; we were quite busy. We went to all the charity shops to find wedding dresses, but then we were like, eh, so we ended up just wearing these crystal bikini tops and getting married on Fire Island. We just went with our friends. It was very spontaneous and joyful because it wasn’t stressful. I just remember feeling very, ecstatically happy.
We got married on the beach, and when we came back, our friends told the drag queens [who were doing the brunch in our hotel] that we just got married. So these drag queens broke into our room, and they were on the balcony, drinking our champagne, and fizzing it out the window. It was so good. And they played – what’s that song where they hold up the – Oh! The Circle of Life. Such a fun moment! Then we ran from our hotel room and jumped into the pool, which is kind of funny because I can’t really swim and I was a bit drunk at that point. That was really such a joyful moment. It was just really funny. It was silly. I’m really glad we got married in that way, because I think now that I’m older, if I were to get married, it would probably have to be this whole shindig. I definitely wouldn’t have gotten away with getting married without my family now because, actually, I think that perhaps that was a little bit, maybe, rude. I didn’t think it through because we were so young. We were just like, whatever, we’re going to get in here and just get married on Fire Island!
You’re now coming up to your fifth anniversary, and this makes my little dyke heart melt. How do you keep the romance alive?
We met and then did so many very life-changing things together, like moving to London. Ottilie decided to do a master’s in photography, but she’d never done photography before, and I started a brand by total and utter chance. There have been some really bad moments and there have been some really wonderful moments, and I think maybe that’s what’s kept the romance alive. That there has been so much change and seeing how each other has devolved and grown together. I’m still so excited to spend time with her. I’m still completely obsessed with her. I think that’s because we have just been changing so much and have managed to change together in a way that worked, because of course that doesn’t always happen. We both know that we want to be together. We want the relationship to be even better. I don’t know what keeps the relationship alive, just that we’re both just excited still.
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One aspect of your practice that sets you apart is the lust you have for connection and community. What’s the most joyous aspect of working with the people that you love?
So many things, I mean, it’s just amazing. A really boring part of the answer, but actually a very important one, is that it’s so hard to spend time with people. When you work with friends and family, you get to have these beautiful moments of creativity together, but you also get to be in the same room. You get to be together and share moments and support each other. That’s something in particular I have with Jade, where I actually don’t see her as much as I want to. I think about her all the time. So at least when we work with each other on different things, we are there for each other’s important moments through working together. That’s so special, actually. When I think about it, it is really special to be there. Also, the element of growing together as artists. When you’re working together, you’re also shaping each other’s practices, and that’s really exciting and makes stronger friendships too; lifting each other in that way. I’m so lucky to have friends who are willing to give their time, creativity, and energy. It adds so much, especially in the beginning of a business, when you make no money at all. Every mistake you make costs you all the money you had. [Screams] So being able to work with friends who just believe in what you’re doing also gives you a lot of confidence and makes you feel good. Especially in moments when you’re not feeling good and you’re like, what am I doing? What’s the point? It’s important to give each other validation in that way. Ultimately, we all want to be able to spend more time together. Actually, that’s my intention – to spend more time with my friends and family, the people I love. And not always working but also relaxing.
As a fat person myself, when I saw your first collection and all the models, I was like, oh my fucking god, this is the future. I’d never seen my body type represented on a catwalk. You are undoubtedly one of the first designers to start your process with the model’s body and needs as a priority; the garments conducted according to the body. There is a tenderness and celebration to your casting process, representing women and Queer people of all sizes, shapes, and abilities who have historically been excluded from mainstream fashion. What was the impact on the models? What was their reaction?
Especially in the first season, it was such a cute moment after the show. Everyone was really, really happy, and everyone was crying. My models usually end up hanging out a lot and getting to know each other, and that’s so lovely. I met so many amazing people through casting with Emma [Matell]. I imagine as a model, regardless of what size you are, to feel like, wow, we all get to be here, and getting to be around a diverse group of people must actually be quite a relief, just even for a moment in that context, because it’s not nice if not everyone is included, then it feels precarious.
How does it feel to see your work change the perception people have of their bodies?
For me, the most impactful aspect of that has been myself. During my MA was when I realised that I had struggled with a sort of really distorted vision of myself, and through making this work, it’s just helped so much. Maybe weirdly similar to when I went to North Carolina, when I was like, I can just be this weird nerdy person who paints all day. Fuck. And then realising I can just be whatever shape or size I am. Of course that’s a very privileged thing to say, but I mean, within my brand, within my room, within the bubble I’ve created, like in my brand space, I’m making clothes that I can wear if I gain or lose weight. Whatever happens, I’m creating a world that anyone, ideally, can be a part of. Clothing is very limiting. If you can’t put it on, you can’t put it on; there’s nothing abstract about that. I just really enjoy being able to make clothes that everyone can be a part of.
What would your younger self have to say about how your brand is challenging body elitism in the luxury fashion industry?
I think she would be very surprised. Part of my relationship with fashion started because I felt like I was so strange, and I thought in fashion everyone could be more strange. That’s maybe why I became really obsessed with being thin because I was tall and gangly when I was younger, and I thought that could be my thing. Yeah, I probably would be quite surprised, not because I was not a nice person, but because I wasn’t mean to anyone but myself. I think I would be so happy to see that I could not hate myself so much, actually. It is exciting to feel that I don’t because it has been many, many years of feeling so uncomfortable in my skin.
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What fills you with hope for the future of the fashion industry?
Buyers buying larger sizes, which has happened this season. What fills me with hope day to day is all the amazing people on my team, which sounds very twee, but it’s genuinely something that me and my assistants talk about all the time. Our interns bring so much care and creativity and joy and kindness and life. The creative energy they share, the passion they have for the brand. I don’t think anyone who works for us is doing so because they’re imagining large paychecks and glamour and going to parties. They’re coming because they care about what we’re doing, they know we’re building it, and they know we’re going to get there. Everyone who wants to work with us just brings something really beautiful and I’m so lucky. Especially on the days I’m feeling really upset or just defeated. Having people around who care enough to be there because they think what we’re doing is meaningful. That is the most joyful thing, actually. These people are coming here, who knows what they’ll do next, and that’s so exciting. Creating the space for them to dream in this way is also important, because so many brands that you could intern with are very restrictive in terms of, essentially, sizing. So being able to show them you can try and do this. You can try and change something.
In your Spring/Summer 2023 collection your earrings were inspired by the likes of butt-plugs, gothic windows, broken hearts and cellos. What’s been inspiring you more recently?
I mean, butt-plugs are always inspiring me. Right now what is inspiring me is the idea of rest and relaxation. I usually know exactly what I’m doing for the next season, but I wouldn’t say motifs come to mind. It is more of a feeling, more of an energy. A way of dressing maybe.
Right now in the UK it is absolutely bloody freezing, but it has just been the spring equinox, the first day of spring. What are you looking forward to with the changing season?
I’m looking forward to not wearing a coat when I’m cycling. It’s been a very long cycling season in the cold. I would like there to be no rain and coats. I can’ wait to be cycling through East London without my runners on and with sandals on.
When was the last time that you laughed until your stomach and cheeks hurt?
Probably like before the show. Sometimes things would be so exhausting that we would all just laugh hysterically, just like spontaneous laughter out of the pure madness that is fashion week.
What simple pleasures do you enjoy most?
Being able to walk somewhere and not rush. And waking up and being like, oh, I don’t have any plans. That is like the ultimate pleasure.
What are you most grateful for right now?
I think my team at the moment, obviously I could also say my amazing family and friends. But actually right in this moment post show and just nearly post- production, my team, my assistants, Nile and Katie and Becky and my amazing interns. We wouldn’t be here without them. So yeah, that’s what I was grateful for.
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