Even if video did kill the radio star in 1980s, musicians have been articulating their art through their image long before Buggles emerged. Jagger feigned a militant stance in a charity shop cast off, Cher feigned nudity in beads and feathers, and the Starman himself feigned nothing at all as he allowed his other-worldly quirks breathe through his music and his dress. With the one-year anniversary of David Bowie’s death drawing near, we are reminded of this great infusion of fashion and performance, not only from the man himself, but also from those in the present day. Speaking to the self-described “jungle indie pop” duo, Æ MAK, known for their synchronisation of both sounds and seams, we find out about this harmonious duet.
Aoife McCann and Ellie McMahon sit side by side in jeans, striped t-shirts, sporting their trademark Betty Paige-esque bangs. They insist that aside from the fringe cuts, the rest of the look wasn’t planned. “We hardly text each other before practice to coordinate,” Aoife assures us, and yet they are totally in tune. Despite this kinship of looks, it was initially their tunes rather than their tresses that brought them together. “Basically we were the last ones to get a group together for a performance exam,” explains Aoife. The then students of BIMM Francis Street performed Lykke Li’s Dance Dance Dance and, upon realising how well their voices meshed, continued to work together for each exam that followed. The seeds of Æ MAK were sewn. And following Aoife’s writing of an original song, the band bloomed brightly as they reached final year, quite literally. “For our first performance of original stuff, we both wore vintage floral pieces and it just really worked,” says Ellie. A brief interjection from Aoife clarifies that it was the synchronisation that worked, not the florals, and so the two lead vocalists went from there, albeit slowly.
“There is a lot of back and forth and compromising, we have two totally different styles, tastes and body types. Our look did not merge together as easily as our voices, we didn’t have the best of starts.” From the florals of the first gig to wearing what they refer to as their “fat suits” in the next (due to a case of unfortunate photo angles we are told) Ellie claims, “It took a lot longer to get our look together, to make it uniform, and we are still working on it.”
Evolving from ditzy prints to monochromes to block colours, this musical-mode mélange works with what they create. Æ MAK’s recently released video for their single I Can Feel It In My Bones is reflective of that. Primitive beats are painted with primary colours as the duo dance in the foreground of the video. Behind them, two male dancers obediently follow suit. “We envisioned it *[the song]* in blocks of colour,” says Aoife. Transporting the lyrical into the visual, Aoife and Ellie wore pieces from the collection of fellow Irish designer, Hannah Choy O’Byrne. With rich, textured satin that almost shimmers under the lens, the choice of aesthetics adds volumes to the sound.
The dominant tones donned by the duo claim the focus of the shot throughout, while their male dancers fulfil the role of back-ins. “It’s more common place to see female back-up dancers, so I liked the idea of going against this. The women were in the lead with sassy male dancers behind us,” says Ellie, later adding that the dancers “became even sassier when they wore the gold leggings.” When asked if there was any significance in the male dancers wearing a traditionally more female garment – the aforementioned skintight gold leggings – both girls replied no, and that gender had played no massive role in the costume design. They simply state that their only concern was if the visible crotch outline was going to be too much. Jungle pop and crotch ops evidently go hand in hand – as tightly knit as the girls’ own stage show perhaps.
“A lot of what we wear is influenced by our dance moves”. Their stage choreography is another aspect of Æ MAK that didn’t naturally come to be. What started as one move while performing Celestial, turned into one of the more distinctive parts of their act. Æ MAK’s high energy, abstract choreography adds to their uniformed stance. “I think it’s part of being a duo. One person doing something doesn’t work, but two together is really effective, and that goes the same for our costumes,” says Ellie. “A strong sleeve or trouser leg works well for us. Garments with movement”. Speaking of movement, on their dancing, Aoife interjects, saying that they know their dance moves aren’t great but both agree that that is far from the point. “It’s about putting on a show.”
Exhibiting their showmanship, through mesh, sequins and powerhouse jumpsuits, Æ MAK don’t just a fashion statement but an effort to support Irish designers, in particular young designers. With a day-job in Om Diva Boutique, a mecca for Irish design, Ellie has navigated the band towards wearing the likes of Jen Byrne, Sibéal Crehan and Morganna Murphy. “Anything with embellishment works for us.”
Watching Æ MAK on stage or on video, the vibrancy in their look shines through their music making up its own dignified place as part of their performance. But where does one end and the other start, in terms of art and life. Sitting with cropped fringes and matching t-shirts, is there a separation? “Of course!” exclaims Ellie, explaining that she would never wear her Æ MAK clothes day-to-day. “Our costumes are influenced by our style, but wearing our Æ MAK wardrobe is like stepping into an alter-ego.” It’s an alter ego that veers far away from the everyday, with both Ellie and Aoife rely heavily on words such as celestial and otherworldly to aptly illustrate their look. “We’re not rock‘n’roll,” says Ellie. “You won’t see us showing up in our jeans and t-shirts. When we perform, we’re there to put on a show, we are there to make a spectacle. That takes time and effort but that’s what makes Æ MAK.”
Words: Sinéad O’Reilly