She’s as grounded to the earth as her clothes are. Before we met Connally McDougall, we’d already heard (and overheard) how wonderfully genuine she is and how gosh-darn gorgeous her designs are. The latter was confirmed when we saw her killer collection at Vancouver Fashion Week. And the prior settled after our first short conversation where her humbled response to our fan girl rant made us giddy with excitement for the chance to get to know another gifted witch!
A certain elegant and grounded mood is present in each of McDougall’s collections. Recently settled in Vancouver, McDougall had been splitting her time between London, England and the west coast of Canada. This combination of cultural influences, British attitude and relaxed west coast vibes, is apparent in her designs. McDougall’s clothing is grace meets mod—ruffles and open, flowing dresses with sharp, checkered shirts and high, edgy cuts. Earthy tones and textural combinations make each piece a work of art to be explored and appreciated.
Behind her collection is a deep consideration for the earth, as well as for the people who make the materials and the collection. McDougall’s commitment to sustainable, eco fabrics and ethical labour is invariable, but she doesn’t take herself too seriously and always makes witty comments to keep those around her in good spirits. Soon after McDougall greets you in her earnest nature (and hybrid British-Canadian accent), you’ll see this devoted designer is just as fiery and spirited as her red locks.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Connally, I’m ginger, I’m 5’7”, I’m a vegetarian [giggles] but yes, I’m a a clothing designer and I started doing it professionally about three years ago – in terms of it starting to pay rent and being a bit more lucrative. I just moved to Vancouver from London so I’m setting up practice here. I feel like some sort of travelling horse doctor! No, but things are going well.
How did you become a fashion designer?
Well, I was hatched out of an egg … hah! I’ve always wanted to be involved in fashion consciously or subconsciously. When I was a little girl, I used to change my clothes six or seven times a day. I didn’t have many outfits but I’d be like ‘Sure! This colander is going to be a hat!’ and make a new outfit. I must’ve driven my mum nuts! When I was drawing princesses, I would just draw their gowns and crowns—who was in it didn’t really matter.
Yet, I didn’t clue in until after I’d already done a bachelor’s degree in journalism. I was freelancing for fashion magazines and working in a retail boutique that basically sold one-off products. My manager told me I was welcome to sell my clothing if I were to make a line. So I was like ‘Yes, I can make a clothes!’ I borrowed a sewing machine and since then, I’ve been sewing.
Did you have any formal training?
My gran taught me a little bit of hand sewing. The first time I ever sewed anything was the night my sister was born. My gran showed me how to make those little sacks you put around babies hands so they don’t claw their own eyes out. I had no formal training after that point. I just had a sewing machine and, I guess, balls the size of watermelons. Of course, the first few things I made didn’t turn out. I got some books out from the library, took apart clothes, lay them out on the ground and looked at how they were put together. The first item I made was a yellow dress and the owner of the boutique I mentioned sold it. After that, I was hooked—the crack of selling clothes!
How did you end up in London?
I took a short course at Central St. Martin’s where I always wanted to go to school. I had fetishized over it for years.
Did it live up to your expectations?
I loved the short course I took so much that I applied to do the full MA program at the university’s school of design and miraculously got accepted. I don’t know what they were smoking when they let me in … It lived up to the expectation in the sense that the school has all these resources and many of the tutors are excellent. I got to study still-life drawing under my idols. It was surreal to be there. At the same time, some of the programs felt detached from the real world, it could be quite abstract and conceptual. But like, the library book sales alone were worth it.
What separates you from other designers?
All designers have their own cache. I think having an upbringing that was all over the place influences my work—I grew up in Austria and Hungary. You don’t get many mainstream designers from that part of the world, it is an underrepresented perspective. In terms of making something excellently, beyond it being aesthetically beautiful and well constructed, it does have to be sustainably and ethically produced. You can’t say something is fantastic and gorgeous and amazing if it is made by a 7-year-old in Nepal. I think it’s something that is beginning to be important to consumers, particularly on the west coast. What separates me from other eco designers is that I don’t wave the green eco flag as my sole selling point. That should be something that’s instantly part of it—something as basic as pants first then shoes.
What inspires your designs?
Definitely travel, hugely. I’m kind of getting itchy feet now! I love seeing women from all walks of life—they influence my designs. There’s this little old lady who walks up and down the sidewalk here and she’s always got bags of things to go back to the library. She has these cute frilly little socks on with her squared heels and it’s so awkward but I love it. I want to make a fashion moment out of it! Sometimes, I find a fabric that I’m obsessed with and base a collection around that.
Do you make clothes for yourself?
I wear a lot of what I make by mistake. I used to make a lot of prototypes when I was doing everything myself (now I have a couple of lovely interns who help me) and I often end up wearing the clothes I’ve messed up! You’d think I have a whole wardrobe of things I’ve made myself. But no, I just have a whole wardrobe that’s got a bunch of mistakes! I tend to live between grubby overalls and gowns, there’s no middle ground.
In your opinion, what needs to change in the fashion industry?
A million things! Making big fashion weeks more accessible to designers who perhaps don’t have a huge budget. If you have a huge budget, you have the resources to make a fabulous collection and a phenomenal show but there should be some sort of give and take. Burberry can afford to fork out the tens of thousands of pounds to show at fashion week, what if a portion of that went to sponsor an emerging designer? Just in terms of registration costs, it’s so prohibited for emerging designers and we have to look at smaller fashion weeks—right now I’m looking at Bali Fashion Week because it’s more affordable. I mean for New York, to register alone is $20,000. That’s before you’ve bought fabric, hired models, hairstylists, anything! That’s just to say ‘Hi I’m here!’ It’s something that needs to shift. Everyone needs clothing so the fashion industry is one that’s never going to stop growing. In that sense, it is an art that you can make a living in. But I think it’s really the consumer industry that needs to change. As long as people keep asking for fast disposable rubbish, they’re gonna get it!
What do you do other than make clothes?
I don’t have a nine to five job. I have a from when I open my eyes ’til when I close my eyes job! But I love cooking, I love music but for the most part, I do what I love. So, if I’m not actively sewing or pattern making, I’m reading a book about it or researching it or drawing or thinking about the next collection. It’s not like being a painter. There’s no permanence in your art. The moment you’ve shown it, it’s old. You’ve gotta to cook up something new!
Where do you hope to be in the next few years?
I’m looking at retail spaces. Ideally, I’d like to have a flagship shop somewhere along the west coast. I’ve got my pieces going into boutiques now, which is great! I guess I’d really like to be bi-continental and set up equal practice back in London or somewhere in Europe. Maybe there’s a partner in that future, I dunno. There’s definitely a dog! I’ve never been one to prance around wanting to get married and have babies. My clothes are my babies and I figure, instead of wearing a big white dress… I get to make my own collections of dresses and have a parade twice a year!
Is this what you dreamed of when you were young?
When I was young I thought I was going to be a mermaid! It’s a little different. It’s a hard question to answer because so much of what I do is a struggle. It seems like a super glamorous life but in reality, it’s a lot of tinned beans, a lot of not knowing where your paycheque is coming from or if it’s even coming, which is scary. So no, it’s not the ivory tower that people might picture. But that moment when the models are all descending upon the runway, there’s like eight minutes of ecstasy when you see all of your hard work paraded out in front of you. That’s when it feels pretty MTV pimp my ride.