Creative Changemaker: Patrick McDowell
Patrick McDowell weaves narratives into their collections that resonate with authenticity and emotion. His approach is a testament to the fact that his creative endeavors are more than just a fusion of fabric and form. “While the clothing is definitely functional, with actual garments you can wear, I’ve always found that the most intriguing aspect of fashion is how it bridges artistic ideas with something tangible for people to wear and incorporate into their own stories,” McDowell explains. The intimacy of wearing art, of it becoming an extension of the wearer, is what sets fashion apart. “Unlike art that’s hung on a wall, fashion is worn and becomes part of you. It’s an entirely different experience altogether.”
As we sit down with McDowell, it becomes clear that his designs are not just about style, but about narrating stories that connect individuals to their roots, their dreams, and their identities.
So, what inspired you to get into fashion from a young age?
I always said that I wanted to be a fashion designer. Even when I was very young, five or six for some reason, which is crazy, considering where I grew up. Being a fashion designer wasn’t feasible and is still not a feasible career choice.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Wirral, which is a suburb of Liverpool, you know it was a very working class family.
Were you creative as a child?
Yeah, I was crafting stuff even as a kid from random things like toilet rolls – you name it. Drawing, making, whatever clicked. I crafted a bag from an old pair of jeans as growing up in the working class meant that it was more worthwhile to buy something huge to ‘grow into’, because it’d last longer. The bag I had was massive though, so that’s why I made my own!
Walking around in this enormous uniform and bag, I knew it couldn’t last another year, even though I’d used it for one already. So, I turned those unwanted jeans into a bag, hand-stitched it with a needle and thread – a cool achievement. I was intrigued by people’s reactions, whether they believed I’d made it, and the satisfaction of carrying something I’d designed. Plus, it challenged the school’s norm – the bag was the only personal choice, although later I even altered the whole uniform. Back then, it was an outlet for my creativity.
Did anyone at school notice this creativity?
My teacher, Ali Mcwatt, really took me under her wing at school. She pushed me to create more, design dresses, sell my creations. This sparked me crafting and selling bags from my childhood bedroom. Over the years, I sold thousands. She’s a prime example of how outstanding educators can truly inspire and transform the life of a working-class queer boy. I had the drive but lacked the tools and know-how to become what I aspired to be.
Then you went to CSM?
So, when I hit 13, I got into this whole bag-making thing. I started searching on Google for the best fashion schools worldwide and found St. Martin’s womenswear. Right then, I thought, “I’m gonna do this!” I was pretty ahead of my age and went all out to make it happen. And guess what? It worked, maybe a little too well. I got in even before I did a foundation year, which is what most people usually do, you know, like the basic requirements. Sounds cool, but reality hit hard. It was kinda tough since I wasn’t fully prepared to handle that environment, live there, or wrap my head around the fact that not everyone came from the same background I did.
Yep, it was a real struggle. So, my advice to everyone now is: go for a foundation course.
What was leaving CSM like to start your own business?
That was quite a journey. So, after that first year hiccup, the second year turned things around. I really found my groove and embraced a new style – even shaved my head, before it was for style, now it’s because I am losing my hair. I started experimenting with my clothing, going for more interesting looks, and truly hitting my stride.
Following that, I jumped into a year-long gig at Burberry. It was fascinating because I transitioned from this hyper-creative second year vibe to the more structured and traditional environment at Burberry, especially since I was on the mainline team. You know, the team responsible for the clothes people actually buy. So I was looking at things from a more traditional lens.
Can you tell us a bit about the material that you use and why you use it?
The approach has shifted a bit from when I first started. It’s become more of a mix, you know, compared to the early days when things were pretty one-dimensional. Nowadays, we’re working with a blend of found materials and fabric innovations. For instance, we’ve delved into materials like TENCEL™, which is made from trees. The cool thing is, they’ve revamped how they create this cellulose fibre. They’ve managed to close the loop in their water supply chain, using less water than traditional cellulose materials. Plus, it’s also a low-energy fabric, as cellulose fabrics tend to be energy-intensive. They source the initial wood from well-managed forests, ensuring sustainability. Oh, and it’s biodegradable, which is a big plus.
We’ve also tapped into vintage fabrics from an incredible mill – Taroni. This old, family-run silk mill is renowned for producing some of the finest silk worldwide. They’re big players in supplying materials to luxury brands. We’ve received support in terms of materials from them. But in our later collections, we’ve extended our focus to the components within the garments themselves. We’re aiming to use the best available options, with the ultimate aim of things returning to Earth. We’re exploring how to achieve garment biodegradability, considering elements like interlinings, trims, and more. Some of our pieces are crafted from certified wool. In certain seasons, we’ve utilised recycled plastic bottle wadding, which isn’t biodegradable, of course. So we’re pondering ways to transform that aspect.
In our upcoming collection launching in September in partnership with London’s oldest dance school Rambert, we’re taking it a step further. We’re actually reimagining and recreating some of our collaborators’ old costumes and materials to create something new for London Fashion Week.
How do you balance letting your mind run freely with creativity and design and balancing this with sustainable materials?
I tend to view it as an extra phase in the design process. You know, there’s this concept in Mitchel Resnick’s creative learning cycle, where it’s like an ongoing loop, sort of a never-ending cycle. You see something, you think about it, you create something, and you can just keep looping in this cycle endlessly – a common thing in creative endeavours. As the artist, you’re the one who decides when to hit the brakes and say, “This is it.” Sure, innovation can continue indefinitely.
So, you could argue that incorporating sustainability adds another layer to that cycle. For us, it’s like this: I get an idea, we brainstorm how to make it work, and then we tinker with what we’ve got to fit that idea. If it doesn’t, we adapt it until it fits. But in the end, I’m a trained designer, right? Creative vision is paramount to me. That’s what distinguishes me from a sustainability consultant. I’m steering a creative fashion brand, so nailing that creative vision is key. The stories we tell and how we communicate sustainability is paramount to convincing people that this is the solution we need and want.
Based on my experience, all those changes that stem from factors like fabric availability or sustainable principles have actually added depth to the collection’s narrative. They contribute to the story behind it. So, in my view, it’s like a beneficial extra dimension.
What advice would you give to young designers today?
Don’t rush into adopting a specific style or confine yourself too early. Whatever you create will inherently reflect who you are. So, it’s crucial to allow yourself to explore various avenues. That’s what a great education should offer: room for experimentation and even failure. Remember that creativity is the most powerful tool in the world , it’s creativity that can truly change the world and create the innovations humanity needs.
Regarding sustainability, it’s about considering it holistically. Many young people already do this, but it’s vital to approach it from all angles. At the student level, it’s important not to let the anxiety about it overwhelm you. I’ve also seen students struggle with this. They feel the weight of responsibility in entering an industry based on mass consumption. However, it’s essential to realise that the impact of one student’s creations is minuscule compared to big businesses. It’s up to those industry giants to make the major shifts. If you’re a student and you’re feeling burdened to the point where it’s hindering your work, it’s okay to cut yourself some slack. Your university project is something you’ll hold onto forever. The real issue lies with those churning out thousands of items only to discard them.