Rejecting the tired and unnecessary divisions of womenswear and menswear, William Dill-Russell creates garments that collapse tyrannical gender boundaries. Non-binary individuals deserve better than a capsule collection; they deserve artistic, beautifully crafted items that empower and endure. We had the opportunity to speak to the designer about conceptions of beauty, the change the fashion industry needs to undergo, and how the William Dill-Russell brand was born.
Could you tell us something about your beginnings as a designer?
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I began reworking second-hand clothing and selling them online as a means to make money as I grew up in a very small town where there weren’t many job opportunities. From there, I then began exploring different types of printing, such as vinyl and discharge printing. I then went on to study a foundation at Central Saint Martins, and then on to The University of Westminster, where it took me quite a long time to understand how the industry works and how to design. Once I’d figured this out, I realised how much was wrong with the industry and what I felt needed changing.
Could you take us through the different steps of your design process?
At the start of new projects, I often have numerous ideas, which slowly combine into one story. It could be a muse I’ve discovered or a discomfort that I feel with either society or myself. From this, I try to find practitioners who have explored similar things to help address the conversation I’m trying to have with the collection. I then begin draping, which is where I do most of my designing. Even as pieces are being made in final, they’re still being restyled, and sometimes remade, into different garments as the story of the collection develops.
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This sounds like a very painterly approach to your craft, but I’ve also read that this interest in art filters into your collections by other means. In what ways are your designs inspired by classical painting?
I enjoy looking at how a painter has manipulated and conceived a story into one physical piece of work. The way they use composition, media and symbolism to say so much with a flat canvas amazes me. Therefore, I use the elements of creating classical painting whilst creating my collections. As a physical outlet for my brain, each look is conceived to tell a story, explore a character, or provoke a reaction within the wearer.
You state that another influence for your designs is queer history; how does this manifest itself in your collections?
The inspiration and muses used to help design each collection always come from queer history. For example, my first collection was inspired by Fanny and Stella, two formidable ‘crossdressers’ from the 1800s. For me, to be able to create non-binary clothing, I have to look back at queer history and see what other people have created and what they’ve been saying, but also what pioneers of our community wore and what they did to push gender binaries. There has been a lot of progression for our community, however, we still have to continue the progression as it’s often one step forward and two steps back.
With the gender neutral lines launched by high-street stores failing the needs of non-conforming, gender fluid, trans and non-binary people, what do high-street designers need to do to make this clothing more appropriate?
It’s difficult. After speaking to many industry people, sometimes they think that gender fluidity and queerness within fashion is something of a trend. It isn’t. We’ve been around for centuries. For them to do better, I think they need to engage the community more and not just make t-shirts and loose jersey dresses; we can get those anywhere. We want clothes that will empower us. I think the high-street shopping experience really has to change to cater for queer customers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen non-gendered changing rooms.
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What is your definition of beauty? Why is it important that designers promote more diverse definitions of beauty?
My definition of beauty is completely within the individual. On a physical level, someone who is their true self is beautiful to me. Ideals of beauty within the fashion industry are purely there to sell products. It’s important for designers to promote more diverse versions of beauty because it can be really damaging to people who don’t fit within the socially constructed idea of beautiful.
As someone non-binary, beauty in fashion is what often makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable. The assumed need that I must look like a conventional woman or man featured on a billboard or in a magazine is ludicrous. Everyone is beautiful, we just have to fight against these social normalities of what they say beauty is.
How do you cast for your campaigns? Is there a specific aesthetic criterion you look for individuals to fulfil? How do you find your models?
When casting my campaigns, I often post via social media that we’re looking for people. I sometimes have a bit of an idea on how I want the shoots to look, but all my inspiration really comes from the people I work with. I shoot on people from the LGBTQ+ community, which is another reason why I often ask for models to come forward, as I want to make sure that the people modelling feel comfortable to be photographed and ogled over my numerous people. I also then always work with the models to make sure I’m not going to dress them in something they’re uncomfortable or would never want to wear. I have done bits of modelling myself, and numerous times I’ve been put in things which make me feel so uncomfortable that I just get really frustrated and don’t enjoy the experience.
Who would you most like to see wearing your designs?
Predominately queer artists such as Gussy, Arca and Perfume Genius. But, of course, I would love to see Erika Badu or Björk wearing one of my hand-stitched pieces too.
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You recently presented a collection at London fashion week, how was this experience?
It was very interesting. The whole process was exciting and exhausting. What was really lovely was to have such a supportive team around me to help produce the pieces, work on the make-up and the whole feel of the show. I was showing as part of The University of Westminster’s graduate show, and I hope I can show in the future so that I can really explore the whole show experience to communicate my collection on a more intimate level.
The current collection available on your website is called Fatale. How does it present ideas of sexuality in relation to trans and non-binary bodies?
When I was designing the collection, I was really thinking about how this idealised version of femininity and womanhood is perpetuated so much within every part of life. I was also trying to help create a wardrobe for gender non-conforming people. The need for women to shave, men to have beards, women to wear dresses, men to wear suits. Yes, these are old ideas and many people don’t think that way anymore, but outside of the fashion bubble, they still do.
What is the next step for you and your brand?
Currently, I’m finishing my degree whilst also creating a capsule collection that can be retailed on my site to coincide with my most recent collection, Sisyphus. I’m also now looking to the next collection. I really want to push the variety of garments, techniques and cutting. At the same time, I’m pursuing funding and sponsorship options so that I can really start building up the business and enabling me to collaborate with some of the amazing people I’ve not yet been able to.
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