Fashion and Fiction. Both have intrigued me ever since I was five years old and was first introduced to my nearest public library to discover the wonders that rested inside. For the occasion I happened to be wearing a silk cardigan that cascaded from my head to my waist in an attempt to experience what it might feel like to wear a burqa.
There’d been Muslim women on TV that morning. Political correctness still a long way off, I thought they looked glamorous, different. Northern Ireland in the 70s didn’t offer much in the way of different. Before the Muslims appeared on the screen, I was known for mimicking nuns. This garnered approving smiles from certain family members who, no doubt, interpreted it as some hint of a future vocation.
They misread the situation. I became a fashion designer. A decade of designing and one novel later, I would contend that the process of creating fashion and fiction are oddly similar. Both are crafted from humble materials: words and thread. A thread is two or more fibers twisted together to make a cord that can be woven into cloth.
In fiction, we talk of “weaving” a story; a catwalk collection must have a “story” behind it. Of course all this might just be my clumsy justification for why you should take this fashion designer seriously as a writer. What possessed me to think I could write a novel? A blog, sure. A tutorial on how to knot a scarf thirteen different ways, I’d be up to the task. Maybe a report on fashion week, why not? But a novel?
After all, “fashion people” have a reputation for being a vapid, fickle bunch squawking haughty superlatives (“It’s divine, darling!”) yet incapable of stringing a sentence together (“It’s so oh-my-god-I-can’t-bear-it-I-could-just-die-bananas-I-just-can’t!”) Or maybe you’re not questioning it at all. Maybe it’s just me projecting my own fears about my writing onto you.
A blog alone wouldn’t do justice to the material I had stashed away. For over a decade I had stockpiled scenarios and characters––oddballs, underdogs, divas, dreamers, sycophants, jesters, maestros––indeed all the elements of what I considered a page-turner, jotting them down in my mental Moleskine and trapping them inside with a snap of the elastic band. I had frolicked in their wonderland, rubbing shoulders with them and they had left their impression like some sort of magic dust. What was I to do with this strange incandescent quality I now emitted?
It seemed wrong to keep it all to myself, to try to conceal it in everyday life. If I didn’t spread it around, it would surely evaporate. The decision to sprinkle it through a novel seemed right and the precious relationships I had formed with some of the natives of this wonderland would give my story heart.
It’s all in the title really. Silk for the Feed Dogs. Those vicious-sounding creatures are actually two metal bars with diagonal teeth that move back and forth under the needle plate of the sewing machine, pulling the fabric through. But if they become jammed, if the tension is wrong or they need repair, they will chew your fine fabric to within an inch of its life, gripping fast with those merciless gnashers as you tug loose nothing but a fistful of threads. You almost expect to see saliva dripping from their unforgiving maw. The fashion industry, a ruthless but vital multibillion dollar organism with interdependent parts in every corner of the world, has its own set of well-chiselled fangs. It can swallow you whole without even removing its Tom Ford sunglasses or it can show mercy and just spit your half-masticated carcass in its wake. I have a few scars myself that I keep covered up.
Like a bad neighborhood I just happened to grow up in, the fashion industry is a place I know my way around––the scenic spots, the short cuts home. The inhabitants aren’t bad people, just different. I still shout across the fence to them. They don’t shun me even though I’ve stolen from them, sometimes made them the butt of my humour and ignored their calls for three years. When they ask me where I’ve been, I tell them sheepishly, I was busy weaving a story.
You can buy Silk for the Feed Dogs here.