We sat down with Hannah Choy O’Byrne afterhours in Thirty Four, the café below which her studio is located, to discuss her latest collection, a meditation on unlocking the spirt of our inner child and losing our inhibitions in an age when it feels like Big Brother is always watching.
“Have we met before?” she asks. About a year ago outside Grogans I remind her. We were amongst a group of NCAD graduates huddled together for warmth, swapping tales of post-college tribulations and reminiscing. It was here that I first heard about Choy’s broken hands and the seemingly impossible graduate collection that followed, something of legend on the fashion course now though Choy would never admit it.
Twelve weeks before the the graduate show, Choy went over the handlebars of her bike and broke both of her arms. “Ah I’m grand!” she said after the fall, in what I now understand to be typical Choy fashion. Twelve hours later she was on the operating table having a plate and three screws put into her arms. Bed-bound, unable to move her fused arms and with the first fitting in four days she realised she was “completely screwed”, in every sense of the word.
With full recovery time was estimated at twelve weeks, her tutors heavily advised that she defer the year. “They said ‘these are great, I can totally see these designs *on* people’, but I think they realised how impossible it was.” Anyone else might not have thought twice about throwing in the towel but another story about a previous student cemented Choy’s decision to trundle on. “They told me about a girl who broke her wrist and deferred and then had to defer again. I knew I couldn’t wait around for a year. I’d just be moping and I wanted to get on with it.”
For the six weeks when Choy was completely unable to move her arms, she adopted a Matisse-like approach to work, enlisting the help of everyone from her granny to her boyfriend to help create the collection. Her inexperienced but diligent volunteers were delegated to cutting patterns and sewing garments. In the remaining six weeks, her arms were beginning to regain mobility, though not very willingly. Yet the looming deadline, says Choy, “actually helped recovery [because] I just had to do it, I just had to sew a little bit more. I think I would have been lazier about the exercises otherwise.” Six outfits later she had a collection, to disbelief of pretty much everyone including her tutors.
It’s clear that Choy does not like being told what she can or can’t do. After a year long stint designing for Dunnes Stores abiding by the constraints of the commercial industry where profits trump expression every time, she felt an urge to flex her creative muscles again. Choy decided to hold an exhibition of her personal work, though she found her newly learned habits weren’t so easily forgotten. “They were still slightly ‘wearable’ because it’s hard to turn the commercial side of your brain off. Then I realised I don’t want to be in the commercial industry.” Following this epiphany, she found a studio space and continued with her own work creating several more collections, each an exercise in unlocking that unadulterated side of her brain again. “You have to change the way you think. The last year was still breaking that down. It’s taken a year to enjoy the work and not be worried about it being commercial and selling. It’s slowly getting back to what I used to do.”
Choy’s latest collection, her least commercial to date since her departure from Dunnes, is a reflection of an arrival to a point where she can allow her ideas to roam freely. Choy becomes jokey but not insincere when discussing the concept of the collection. “I just end up cursing because it’s really like about ‘not giving a fuck and just being chilled really’ and self-effacing when discussing the concept of the collection.”
Acknowledging the fact that that she this part isn’t her strong point, the exhibition booklet emerges. “I spent ages doing this because I can never put it into words,” says Choy. It reads: “The collection is inspired by an increased self-awareness in the digital age and the loss of child-like freedom spirit as a result.” Choy stresses that this feeling of being under a microscope has been amplified in the age of the selfie, when we are obsessive about capturing our every move. The collection is about reverting back to a childlike freedom before self-awareness and self consciousness kicks in.
The garments were collaged with playful patterned materials such as gingham and tartan in a raw, unpolished manner so as to remain childish and unaffected. Elsewhere in the collection this aesthetic was portrayed throughout other thoughtful touches such as pieces purposefully designed inside-out and placing labels placed on the outside. Things that are supposed to be the “wrong way round” but that still look cool. Each feature a reminder to people “that they don’t need to be so [self-conscious.” The collaged cardboard masks worn by the models in the show were also symbolic of this idea. “Being a child again, when you don’t really care because you’re not so self-aware.”
Prior to this collection Choy has only ever shown her designs on female models, so why the presence of a man in this show, and in a skirt? As it happens, her reasoning is very little to do with the rise of gender fluid fashion, although no doubt it has had an ancillary influence, but a personal memory of dressing up her younger brother in women’s clothes and how much both parties enjoy it. “Again, it’s just that whole thing of dressing freely and not worrying about it.”
Despite recent progress, Choy still sees barriers to people’s perceptions around gender fluid dressing. “It is still a big deal if a man wears a skirt. It shouldn’t be a thing or really obvious.”
Choy is apprehensive about creating a more ready-to-wear version of this collection to be sold and with the consumer in mind. “The last one felt poor because it wasn’t really me. You can see from it that I was worried about making it commercial and selling.” But she agrees maybe that collection needed to happen in order to make way for this one. “This time I decided to separate them. Get the wacky stuff out and then maybe pare it down.” Particularly here in Ireland, we have a tendency to play it safe says Choy. “If you are really trying to be a successful brand you have to be really safe and think about the market so you would lose the creativity. So from now on I’m trying to separate those two things.”
This collection is ultimately a product of a creative struggle to block out the external voices and create something that is totally you. It is a concept we can all relate to living in a digital age, where we are bombarded with information and messages on a daily basis. Choy’s collection is a reminder to strip these away and just express yourself the way you want and not the way you are told. “I don’t like to take things too seriously. I think people should relax. Even if you don’t know why you’re laughing at stuff, that’s good rather than think about it too seriously.”
Hannah Choy O’Byrne’s Summer ’16 collection is stocked at Om Diva, 27 Drury Street, Dublin 2. You can see more of her work at hannahchoyobyrne.com
Words: Róisín McVeigh
Photographer: Ellius Grace
Assistant: Lucas Garvey
Models: Zoë Choy O’Byrne, Sinéad Christie & James Hawe