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Shannon McGowan: more than a Pretty Little Thing

The fashion design graduate may not say all of the right answers, but she will tell the truth

If the Official Charts ranked BBC News bulletins, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown conferences would be the Number One single of 2020. So when Shannon McGowan ­– now an Assistant Designer at UK-based fashion retailer Pretty Little Thing (PLT) – joined our government-approved Zoom interview, her bubbly personality and amicable Yorkshire accent felt like an uplifting, pre-pandemic embrace. McGowan, who graduated from the BA (Hons) Fashion Design course at Birmingham City university with a First Class Honours, based her menswear-focused final collection Albatross, on her family’s generation-transcending golfing hobby. “My granddad passed away a couple of years ago, and this was my way of keeping his passion for golf alive and making him proud,” she tells me. “Even now, my Dad, boyfriend and I play golf every Thursday. I act like a 73-year-old woman but I’m only 23!” she laughs. During her placement year, which took her to PLT, French Connection and MAISON the Faux, McGowan visited her cousin in Portugal to watch him participate in a golf tournament. Whilst abroad, the designer realised that the sport hadn’t “really been explored in fashion yet, and it wasn’t being done to its maximum potential.” This planted the seed for her final collection.

A comic strip made by Shannon McGowan that inspired the title for her final collection. © Shannon McGowan

As a practical alternative to sketching, McGowan deconstructed old golf bags and used the pattern pieces and fabric samples she ordered for her final collection to design three-dimensional silhouettes. If a construction worker and modish golfer had sextuplets, they would wear the designer’s final collection line up. Think high vis storm bombers with integrated functional golf bags on the front and back paired with baggy utility trousers, and oversized single-breasted sports jackets styled with knee-grazing shorts akin to American fashion designer Thom Browne’s signature suit. “I’ve always been mesmerised by reflective fabrics so I was keen to incorporate them into my collection,” she explains. On eBay, the designer discovered the fabric e-shop Hello Reflectives that just so happened to supply the iridescent fabrics for Maison Margiela’s Spring 2018 couture collection. She opted for rainbow reflective materials in vegan leather and cotton-polyester which change colour depending on the angle from which light hits their surface. The fabrics may trigger a visual orgasm– but for a collection with a seemingly environmental conscience, it is not worth the pleasure! These materials are an eco-warrior’s worst nightmare: not only are they made from fossil fuels but they shed microfibres like a moulting chow chow. On top of this, they have a retro-reflective finish which contains a chemical adhesive. When challenged about the environmental implications of the materials, she hesitates. “I feel like sustainability has so many elements to it. If I were to concentrate on all of them – which I did not do – my collection wouldn’t have been true to me,” she explains. “I would love to collaborate with people who create sustainable materials but that is not really my thing or area of expertise.” The designer’s response confirms that her overarching goal was not to create an entirely circular fashion collection.

In January 2020, McGowan presented the first three of her six looks at the Birmingham City University Catwalk Preview. On display was a short sleeve tailored suit jacket and slim fit panelled trousers adorned in her logomaniac MGC illusion print. The designer also presented two versions of an oversized, utility jacket and wide-leg trousers, both equipped with built-in bags and finished with reflective piping. This led to her nomination for Graduate Fashion Week’s Innovative Designer and Sportswear Designer awards; she was a finalist for both award categories. “Besides the press coverage from the BBC and my Graduate Fashion Week nominations, I’d say that my biggest achievement is discovering my passion for technological innovation” she reflects.

One of three looks that Shannon McGowan presented at Birmingham City University’s catwalk preview, January 2020. © BCU Fashion and Textiles

On the 16th March last year, a couple of months after McGowan’s successful catwalk preview, the United Kingdom officially went into lockdown. Birmingham City was one of many universities to adapt the course requirements to accept digital submissions from fashion design students. The news was bittersweet for McGowan, but she took it as an opportunity to teach herself the 3D fashion design software CLO3D with the goal of presenting her remaining looks in virtual reality. “I found out about the software through fashion tech entrepreneur Brooke Roberts-Islam during her lecture at my university. She said this will be the future, and I thought this was where I needed to be,” says the designer. ​ However, McGowan’s tutors were not so keen. “They warned me that I could fail if I submit any digital looks because it would not meet the marking criteria. But then the coronavirus happened and they couldn’t say no anymore!” Self-described digital hippie and Central Saint Martins Fashion Design and Marketing graduate Paul Aubrey Parnell failed his second year for the exact reason given by McGowan’s tutors. She is optimistic that the pandemic has convinced arts universities to embrace computer software such as CLO3D and Blender and integrate them into their curriculums and marking criteria. “All students should be taught a new hybrid way of mixing traditional pattern cutting and garment construction with technical, digital design skills,” the designer Jens Laugesen, who has always been at the forefront of innovation, tells me. Karina Bondareva, a final year BA Fashion Print student at Central Saint Martins, disagrees. After completing a placement at bespoke men’s tailor Gieves & Hawkes, she is determined to preserve traditional garment making and technical skills. “I want to dedicate my final collection to the working hands, which in my opinion, no technology will ever be able to replicate,” says the 25-year-old designer. “At Gieves and Hawkes, only one woman still knew how to do Russian military embroidery, which broke my heart.” Consequently, Bondareva ­– who is of Russian heritage– has chosen to make her final collection an ode to Savile Row, specifically this form of embroidery. Pad stitching, a type of running stitch used in suit construction for structural purposes, will also feature in the designer’s collection but as a decorative stitch instead. Unlike garments designed on a computer, she believes that “handcraft is directly affected by the emotional and physical state of its maker,” defending its significance under the current circumstances.

After receiving the green light from her tutors, McGowan spent most of her time teaching herself CLO3D, making use of the free subscription offered during the lockdown. “If the coronavirus pandemic didn’t happen, we would have had to create another three physical looks. This software makes fashion design affordable for students like me because you don’t have to pay for materials,” says the designer. Although, a fashion design student experiencing financial hardship may argue that final collections can be made at low or no cost. When faced with this predicament during his last year on the BA Womenswear course at Central Saint Martins in 2018, fashion designer Patrick McDowell sought various sponsorships. His final collection, entitled, Climbing Family, used deadstock materials from his placement year employer Burberry and unsellable crystals from Swarovski. In a similarly resourceful fashion, Bondareva is using felt as an affordable and widely available substitute to hemp, which is made from the fibres extracted from the stalk of a Cannabis Sativa plant.

Following a successful internship at PLT, McGowan received and accepted her job offer as an Assistant Designer upon graduation. “From Shannon’s first interview with us, her personality really stood out for us. During her internship, she fitted perfectly in the team and executed every task to the highest standard,” McGowan’s recruiter and Senior Designer Rio Maddison tells me. “When she returned to university, she was a big miss from the team. We knew we needed her back asap in case any other companies snapped her up before us.” The timing of the designer’s start date in July last year overlapped with The Sunday Times’ undercover investigation of parent-company Boohoo. “At work, we were told the allegations were false. PLT is widely criticised but, truthfully, it is the best company I have ever worked at in terms of workplace culture and social impact,” says McGowan. While the latter is encouraging, it is difficult to defend a brand that sold a dress for 8p during its last Black Friday sale.

Fast fashion brand, Pretty Little Thing, offered customers up to 99 percent discount during its 2020 Black Friday sale. © Guardian

If you tell a seasoned brand boycotter that you work for a fast-fashion retailer, you may as well as seek shelter in your coffin. Blasphemy! They will shriek – and before you know it – you will be on the fashion police’s Most Wanted list. But, during a period in which the UK is facing its worst battle yet against the pandemic, should we judge fashion graduates by their job title? “If I was not working at PLT, I probably would be unemployed right now,” she explains. Out of the fashion design class of 2020, McGowan only knows of one graduate who is also employed. The company is Karen Millen, which is coincidentally another subsidiary of the Boohoo group. That says a lot about the current state of opportunities in the fashion industry; if Amazon has monopoly power over online shopping, Boohoo may be on track to earn the equivalent over the retail sector. Ironically, both companies have been accused of exploiting their workers.

As the interview progresses, McGowan becomes increasingly transparent about her internal conflicts. “I’ve been struggling because I was so optimistic about the industry when I graduated from university and I had so many ideas I wanted to bring to life,” she says. From selling her virtual looks designed in CLO3D to social media users and video gamers to launching a physical fashion house, it seems as though part of the designer’s issue is concentrating on one idea and taking the leap of faith to see it through. When asked if her job at PLT is holding her back from fulfilling her dreams, she nods and takes a couple of seconds to reflect. It is almost as if the designer had been in autopilot mode at work, and she suddenly hit the emergency brakes. However, McGowan has already begun to apply for jobs that align more with her interests and career aspirations. “I got through to the interview stage for a job as a 3D fashion designer at Adidas but they told me that I didn’t have enough experience yet. Although, I don’t think it helps that I’ve got PLT written on my CV,” acknowledges the designer.

Donald Trump's supporters protest outside the US Capitol Building, January 6 2021. © NBC News

Whilst an employee at PLT, McGowan’s ambition is to design and launch 3D digital clothing filters that customers can wear virtually on social media. Fortunately for her, Maddison is open to the idea of implementing CLO3D in the design process. “We may decide to work with the software in the future,” she explains. McGowan’s idea is commercially viable and has environmental advantages, but it does not change the retailer’s fast fashion business model. That would require PLT to sacrifice the strategy upon which it built its customer base: trend-led, disposable fashion that – as Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort told the Business of Fashion in 2016– can cost less than a sandwich. “I honestly believe it is our fault as consumers for demanding such low prices, and I say our because I am part of the issue too,” admits the designer. With the appalling reputation of fast fashion and the string of allegations against Boohoo, you would think that the group would have gone into liquidation by now. Yet, the fact that it is still thriving is perplexing – or is it not? While the former US President Donald Trump is permanently banned on Twitter and awaits trial for a record-breaking two impeachments, the recent riot at the US Capitol building affirms that he still has an army of supporters. Trump may well be a metaphor for fast fashion retailers and their customers.

According to Roberts-Islam, McGowan is representative of a new generation of fashion designers “not content to fit into a dated and wasteful fashion industry, but are instead determined to improve the industry and change the way fashion is designed, manufactured and sold.” McGowan’s job at PLT is indisputably controversial, but it has given her stability and time to figure out where she belongs in the fashion industry and what she hopes to achieve as a fashion designer. Perhaps that is not a worthy justification, but it is the unfiltered reality for this recent fashion graduate. Nevertheless, if the fashion industry wants to evolve in tandem with technological innovation, established and emerging fashion designers should strive to become digitally literate. McGowan is leading by example. ​

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