Patrick McDowell: The Gen Z Sustainable Designer
Molshree Vaid has worked as a business journalist and a fashion marketer for over 10 years. A postgraduate from London College of Fashion, she is passionate about fashion, technology and research projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream. This article was first published in fashnerd.com in February 2019.
As more students like Patrick McDowell are thronging fashion school campuses worldwide, they are indicative of a changing mindset in the fashion industry that will transform actions all the way from the boardrooms to the high-street.
On his take on the changing face of sustainable fashion, the Central Saint Martins (CSM) graduate said: “Sustainability for a while has been seen as an excuse to design badly. I don’t want to be pared down to making a beige or white sustainable collection. I want to make an eye-popping silk yellow jacket.” That yellow jacket and the rest of his creations are colourful, well-crafted and often exaggerated silhouettes (stemming from his Liverpool roots); an ode to glamorous sustainable fashion. However, this piece isn’t about the feminised hyper-masculine clothes he makes. Rather, it is an attempt to get acquainted with his refreshing thought-process and conduct.
Here is what sets the spunky 23-year old apart from the old guard.
His Design Theory: Function Before Fashion
Patrick’s creations might fly high on fantasy, yet he remains rooted to the ground with the tenets of product design i.e. balancing usability and beauty. He declares that he entered this field for the love of clothes and not fashion. “I have distinct memories of seeing my mom dress up for occasions. It left me awe-struck to see her personality transform purely on the back of pieces of fabric. That’s clothes for me. Fashion is an artificial creation by the industry to sell more. We need to go back to loving clothes than fashion per se.”
Patrick toils to sketch each garment as an individual piece of clothing high on functionality and one that also makes the wearer feel special. He says, ‘I’m not designing to satisfy a need for this fashionable idea.”
He adds another layer to his design process by choosing to primarily use fabric remnants or textile waste (he honestly admits that the initial adoption was driven by lack of finances).
Now, a vocal advocate of sustainability in fashion design, he shares, “I ask companies for fabric they won’t use and I don’t know what I will get. And that’s exciting because I problem-solve my way through the design process and play around with properties of the fabric. You can make your designs better when you work with limitations.”
Interestingly, Patrick’s first brush with design was also driven by a constraint. His mother would not let him buy a new school bag. So the 13-year-old cut up a pair of jeans to make a funky version. The love for bags continues on his recently launched website where he is selling chalk bags made with reclaimed fabrics.
He Tells It Like It Is
A chat with Patrick involves no fake expressions or the archetypal sugar-coat. Cool as a cucumber, he calls out the industry’s bluff in the same vein as the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist, Greta Thunberg. Both hail from the same demographic, Generation Z. And to borrow a nugget from a McKinsey Gen Z study, they are ‘realistic in approach, looking to unveil the truth behind all things’. To each his/her own, but such generational shifts could play a critical role in setting behaviours in the future.
In his penultimate year at college, Patrick took up an internship with Burberry. While he loved the grandeur and learned from the design and development team, he was left unsettled to see reams of fabric go waste at the iconic brand’s office premises. He recollects, “Only 30% of the ordered fabric was being used for the fashion show.” When the internship ended, he wrote a letter to Christopher Bailey, the erstwhile CEO at Burberry requesting for some of that discarded fabric for his graduation show. Not only did Patrick receive the fabric but also a collection sponsorship from Bailey’s corner office. Subsequently, when a job offer from Burberry came his way, he politely declined, asking to be called in to fill up a sustainability focussed design role.
“He isn’t cocky. He just refuses to conform to the archaic norm.”
He isn’t cocky. He just refuses to conform to the archaic norm. Patrick also calls out the industry for insufficient intelligent conversation. He says, “Ask the right questions. That’s what Fashion Revolution is doing with the ‘who made my clothes’ campaign. Don’t waste your energy asking someone why they are wearing last season’s shoes or something stupid like that.”
His Core Value: Transparency
Patrick is as comfortable talking about his humble childhood as he is about admitting that he is not 100% sustainable in his design practice.
This approach of being an open book came in handy when peers at college tried bringing him down with sustainability-shaming. He shares, “Obviously if I had million pounds, everything would be perfectly naturally dyed and I would invest in best tech. The reality is that I don’t but I aim to do better.”
“This constant secrecy of hiding drawings or burning stock is so draining. Your ideas get better when you share with other people.”
He detests the shroud of secrecy that the industry likes to clothe itself in, including everyone from the first year fashion student to the creative director at a marquee brand. “This constant secrecy of hiding drawings or burning stock is so draining. Your ideas get better when you share with other people. I’m designing my thing and you, yours. If two people have the same buckle on their piece why is that an issue?”
In his last year of BA Womenswear, Patrick actively worked against this culture and started sharing the development of his final collection on Instagram. While his classmates warned him of giving it all away before the drama-laden reveal at the graduation fashion show, Patrick had already raked up media coverage three months before the show. Furthermore, his collection was showcased at the London Fashion Week (LFW) 2018, courtesy support from British Fashion Council, Burberry, Swarovski and Oakley. Although he adds, “I had to be careful to not let Instagram likesdictate my design process. On the whole, I got a lot of feedback and support from people who followed my work.”
The press dotes on him too. He credits his appearance on UK’s reality TV show, Young Apprentice for lessons in PR. Keeping it authentic and straightforward, he likes to directly engage with the media. Despite high-profile milestones like dressing up singers Rita Ora, M.I.A. and having his designs featured on Elle UK’s sustainability cover, Patrick doesn’t want to hire a PR agency. At least, for now.
His Message: Be Nice
The conversation around mental health in the fashion industry has opened up. Patrick himself has publicly spoken about dealing with anxiety and depression in his first year at college. Therefore, the treatment of people in the fashion industry is an issue that impacts him deeply. The high-pressure environment begins at fashion schools with often humiliating crit-sessions by tutors, followed by long hours of unpaid fashion internships. Patrick complains that his friends working for high-profile fashion brands are plain unhappy with their quality of life. However, he is pleased to see the industry’s ‘Devil Wears Prada’ culture crumbling.
“People working in sustainability are so nice. They have ditched the idea of being a fashion bitch.”
He says, “People working in sustainability are so nice. They have ditched the idea of being a fashion bitch. To me, they represent the positive version of the fashion industry. Even at companies, it is no longer about God in the ivory tower that dictates what happens in the company.”Patrick admits that he has witnessed significant transformation at CSM where the ecosystem has gone from being aggressive to collaborative.
His Motto: Be Creative. Keep Learning.
Patrick’s mother has been a major influence in his life not only with her sartorial choices but also as a kindergarten teacher. Having learnt about how toddlers are allowed to be playful and exploratory at school, Patrick is a passionate supporter of creative education.
His final year dissertation explored the need for creativity in all walks of life and not only in the arts; urging a call to actively break away from the constraints of industrialised learning. At the same time, he believes that a lifelong approach to learning is critical to change and move with technological shifts in society. He elaborates, “We have to realise that it will be in our ability to unlearn, relearn, re-evaluate and change that will hold the key to all our creative futures. Maybe in 20 yearsI may not need to design clothes anymore. Maybe we won’t need them.”
In 2019, Patrick is getting started. He considers himself lucky to be a fashion designer, belonging to the brigade that isn’t dictated by the past. Rather, he has a chance to unpick what already exists and rebuild it for the future.