Taking the first step into Mark Chilton’s exhibit is like stepping into another world; figures draped in textured swaths hang from the ceiling, red balls of cloth and floral textiles suspended above their forms, disconnected from their bodies, while the photographic portrait of a man, a solitary male figure, stands adjacent: a humanistic pairing to the designs. This world is one that connects the viewer to an era that merged two times: the past, tradition and human creation, and the modern, edge and manufactured substances.
Mark is a Zimbabwe-born, Fredericton based, architect and designer, with a Masters of Design in History and Theory from the University of London, and a Masters of Architecture from the University of Toronto. It is his passion for the two disciplines that he blends in his exhibit, titled Burnt Offering, “I was trained precisely in designing buildings. That process of thinking is transferable to any area of design. I think about clothing the same way I think about architecture. There are, of course, differences, because you are dealing with movement through space, you are dealing with different forms of occupation, different uses, but as far as the design process is concerned, it’s very similar.” His architecture work has markedly influenced his approach to clothing design, in particular his time spent with British architect Will Alsop, “He loved to question traditional notions of what architecture was about; I had been trained to think a certain way, and he questioned that in a number of ways. He really got me thinking and questioning convention. It had an influence on my clothing as well: to question convention in clothing.”
“Clothing is speculative as a process; you generally design the clothing and then find a customer. With architecture, you find a client and then you design a building.”
“It can be restrictive; you are dealing with other people’s timelines and budgets, sometimes with limited scopes for imagination around architecture, and it’s expensive, relative to clothing production. It’s much more closely attached to the economy and cycles of the economy.” Fashion, as Mark explains it, doesn’t lack for challenges of economy; fortune does not always favour the bold, and imagination is often reigned in against over-zealousness, in a desire for profitability, “Designers in clothing often restrict themselves because of that desire to be popular and make money; that’s where you get that kind of sameness. The economics of the two are quite different.”
All caution aside, ‘unique’ is a not a word that Mark uses to describe his work; being unique in today’s fashion world is not easy, “I do not believe in the concept of unique. As a kid, I used to strive to be unique and it can actually be debilitating because you have to start somewhere. Everything has a precedent to it; you look at all of the great designers, and you look at their work, and you can find a precedent. It’s either something that they’re copying and adapting in their own way or it’s something that they are reacting against. If you think of the punk movement, it was reacting against something, and that is also a precedent.”
Mark’s clothing line is specifically tailored to men, a growing trend in returning fashion to our once proud peacocks after centuries of moult, “There is a pretty narrow understanding of acceptable clothing for men. Even over the last ten years it has changed a lot; there is more interest in men’s clothing, and it has become more experimental, but there is still a narrow understanding of what is acceptable and what constitutes masculine.” The notion of men’s fashion has changed over the years and, according to Mark, “Highlighting it in media gave it wings. It had a greater acceptability, and it gave men tacit approval to enjoy themselves: to think about how they looked and not feel guilty for doing it. Menswear has been growing in status and growing in profitability over the last ten years, whereas women’s wear has become pretty flat.”
Mark’s interest in fashion expands on the Japanese influences behind his work, particularly with the unifying concept of ‘wabi sabi’: the art of elevating imperfection, celebrating the human touch, and the inability for humans to perfectly produce things the way machines would, “It’s celebrating that human touch, which I have always liked.” Mark also describes his work as eclectic, “I think my influences, my inspiration, is quite eclectic: I could look at each of those eleven looks and talk about various influences. They’re not all Japanese, by any means. I’m omnivorous when it comes to inspiration, I’ll get inspiration from the street, I’ll get it sometimes from nature, and I’ll get it from architecture.” While some of Mark’s pieces were a distinct nod to Japanese culture and tradition, others drew from different inspirations and experiences Mark has had in his life. One piece in particular, a black coat, featured a Game of Thrones inspired hue and an Elizabethan-style collar, with textures evoking the notion of a woolly mammoth. Patterns and shapes can be found embedded in his work, making reference to his architectural background, while the pockets of another piece nodded to the floppy ears of one of Mark’s canine friends.
While Mark’s work speaks to some of his own stories ingrained in the pieces from his collection, he sees his work with a kind of disconnect that designers have with their completed products, “Once you put your stuff out there, with all design, once you put your stuff out there, it’s not yours; it really is about how people receive that design and how they interpret it. Once you finish designing it, it is really out of your hands and it takes on its own life.” While one collection Mark is currently working on shows promise of seeing production in urban centres such as Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Boston, Washington, L.A. and beyond, he is proud to have collaborated locally with several Fredericton artists and community members on his current collection.
Mark’s collection, Burnt Offering, can be viewed at the New Brunswick College of Craft and Design’s Gallery until March 5, 2015. The gallery is open to the public and is open from Monday to Friday, 9am – 4:30 pm, or by appointment.
Kelsey Nevers is The East’s diligent copy-editor, a resident of Fredericton, New Brunswick, a swing dance enthusiast, and a recent graduate of St. Thomas University.