The Starving Artist café is located in the centre of Bloordale Village in Toronto. The place was dark, and a large fish tank provided kitschy décor. A bar is converted into a kitchen, and several round tables take up every available space for seating. About five people work behind the bar, pouring batter into waffle makers and flipping pancakes while grilling bacon. A barista pours a cappuccino into a glass cup and takes it over to a couple in their 20s. Although it had a cliché name, the café is filled with a diverse crowd on this particular Saturday afternoon. Most of them are in their mid to late 20s, and chatted with friends over coffee and waffles. Although there was a lot of ambient noise, coming from the jazz music in the background, and several other conversations nearby, the atmosphere was cozy. When Breeyn McCarney came into the shop, dressed in jeans and a grey sweater with her hair in disarray, she looked as if she had pulled a few all nighters. This was definitely the case, as McCarney, 31, just presented her first solo show as a fashion designer only one night before.
McCarney taking a bow at her show.
McCarney’s signature line, Breeyn McCarney had its Fall/Winter 2010 show on Thursday, Mar. 18, at Courthouse. The show was entitled “Hard Boiled Wonderland” and the club was at capacity. McCarney is a Toronto-based designer, and this was her first solo showing of her eco-friendly line. Her line’s commitment to the environment is also reflected in her attitude towards society. Her process of establishing herself as a fashion designer is a unique one as well.
“Apparently when I was an infant, I was always feeling people’s clothing, which is something I still do now. My great grandmother, who died a couple weeks after I was born, was holding me and I was apparently feeling up her sleeve. She was this old, Hungarian gypsy lady, who barely spoke any English, and she told my grandmother and my mom that ‘fabric, textiles, she’ll work with fabric,’” says McCarney.
McCarney, who was raised in Windsor (and hates to admit it), was always interested in fashion as a child. She would create dresses for her dolls, and believed that Kermit the Frog was a girl that needed to be outfitted in frilly tutus. She had a peculiar habit of dressing up in whacky costumes and doing everyday chores for neighbours. Activities like these were part of the “Strange Club”, where McCarney was the founder and president. She studied oil painting as a kid, and started to get professional lessons from a tutor around the age of 12. McCarney viewed University as a ticket to get out of Windsor, where she never felt like she belonged.
McCarney studied fine arts and oil painting at York University, but felt confined by the program. She would stay home all day and make clothing, and it was her boyfriend who helped her come to the realization that she should pursue a career in design. In her second year, McCarney had paint a still-life of fruit, and her boyfriend came up with a brilliant idea. “I cut an orange in half, painted the canvas orange and glued the orange on, and I took it into class. They thought it was genius, they talked about it for an hour. They thought it was this huge social commentary. And I was like “This is bullshit!” I’m not doing this anymore, I’m not wasting my money on this. I just realized I was there with a bunch of people trying to pretend we were something we weren’t.”
McCarney began to design full-time, and thanks to another boyfriend, she decided to follow her dream of studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London. The school boasts alumni such as Alexander McQueen, who is McCarney’s idol. “He kind of shaped my entire approach to fashion. There’s so much craft in his work. Every piece is a beautiful piece of art, but you can also wear it,” says Breeyn as she reminisces on the late artist. While at Saint-Martins, McCarney studied tailoring, which strengthened her skills as a designer. “I knew the importance of having a solid background in construction, even if you’re not making suits,” adds McCarney.
Illustration by Breeyn McCarney
Illustration by Breeyn McCarney
While in England, McCarney worked for accessory designer, Shirley Geek and would spend eight hours a day beading. She says it was one of her favourite jobs ever, and was lucky to be there at a formative time, which gave her the opportunity to grow with the company. McCarney applied for immigration, but was denied. She says, “It was a severe roadblock to my career to have come back here, but I’m recovering.”
McCarney explains that it’s hard to be a designer in Toronto because the industry is a small, tight-knit community which makes it harder to break into. There is a concentration of talent, which is the only real benefit for her, since the high cost of living in Toronto makes it more difficult to get by, even though she does not buy into consumerism.
“I think a lot about the collapse of society, and I think it’s really imminent. We need to start to think how we’re going to survive that as a race,” says McCarney. She is a firm disbeliever in “fast-fashion” which includes mass retailers like H&M who churn out garments of poor quality that hurt the environment and support sweatshops overseas. McCarney believes that clothing and food are the two most undervalued things in society, and that mass production is a major problem with society. She believes that being green is a second nature to her, and is not capitalizing on the green trend.
McCarney’s mission as a designer is to create clothing that will be cherished by its owner for years to come. “I want my pieces to be something you give your granddaughter,” says McCarney. Her line is custom made so that every piece fits its owner perfectly. “A lot of body image issues come from us not fitting into clothing. One size does not fit all,” says McCarney. She likes to think of her line as "accessible couture", and hopes that the fashion conscious set will start to support local designers by choosing to get a dress that is unique, instead of one that has been mass-produced by a large retailer.
McCarney’s Fall/Winter collection has a colour palette of subdued pastels and neutrals. McCarney primarily makes dresses, but experimented with knitwear, which was received well by the audience. Her dresses played with texture, yet were light and airy. A strapless dove gray dress was embellished with strands of black beads, which cascaded down the front of the dress. Other pieces were accented by repurposed fur, feathers and prints that were painted onto the fabric. Fur in fashion is looked down upon, but McCarney tries to use ethical fur from trappers, or recycles fur from vintage finds. Models wore their hair in large and tousled Victorian styles that were accented by dried flowers. One accessory that stood out from the show were the brass knuckle rings made of delicate, small pink roses. McCarney applies her skills in knitting, oil painting and beadwork to each unique piece. The looks have an aesthetic that is organic and slightly dishevelled, while still retaining innocence.
Models wearing McCarney's designs.
The “Hard-Boiled Wonderland Collection” was inspired by the bleakness of society’s future, and the fight to survive. McCarney lived in Beauval, a small town five hours north of Saskatoon, Sask. while designing this collection. She lived in the middle of the woods and felt very isolated but was inspired by the bleakness of the environment. She came across a collection of images entitled “The Ruins of Detroit” by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. The photos depicted abandoned buildings in Detroit which were architecturally stunning, but have been neglected by society.
Downtown Detroit by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre
Whitney Building by Yves Rochand & Romain Meffre
The title for her collection is unusual, but McCarney put a lot of thought into choosing one. She originally wanted to entitle it, “The End of the World” but thought that it was too heavy. McCarney was inspired by Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami who wrote a dystopic novel: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. McCarney took the first part of the title of the dreamy and bizarre book to name her collection. The novel and McCarney share a similar ideology of being able to find the positive when affronted with hopelessness. “In order to get through life, people really need beauty. And that’s the artist’s role in society; to find beauty in pain. All of these things might have combined and made me found beauty in despair.”