Renegotiating the erotic female image through a female lens: Ellis Jaz. An exclusive story of intricately crafted erotic knitwear photographed by Marco Giuliano and styled by Anca Macavei.
Can you share with us the story of Ellis Jaz?
It’s all just at the beginning; I graduated from an MA in fashion at the Royal College of Art in London a year ago and started the brand just after. I felt there was a gap in what’s out there for really well-crafted clothing that feels sensual and confident, but ultimately comfortable. I want the clothes to feel erotically empowered and structured whilst still maintaining a very prominent consideration of the person wearing these clothes and how it feels to exist within them. Confidence in all its forms.
How did it come about that you decided to work mainly with knitwear? Are you planning to maintain this as the principal direction in the future?
Focusing on knitwear started early – since I was about 17 on an art course. I am quite an obsessive thinker and found craft techniques to be genuinely therapeutic for me and then placing that into an art context to create something creatively and intellectually satisfying was important. I’m definitely planning on keeping the brand knitwear only, I’ve experimented with working outside of knitwear but I just found it to dilute the main vision. I love the structure to knitwear, how it can be so delicate whilst being completely robust. It is an area of fashion that requires quite a specific skill set and once you have spent so much time studying and working specifically in knitwear to get the knowledge you may as well use it!
What about your creative process, how do you start working on a collection?
The process of making each of my pieces is very laborious with some pieces taking 4 weeks to make – everything is done, at the moment, on manual knitting machines. I often find it difficult to break things down into individual collections, perhaps because of the long making process, everything blurs into seeming like one continuous collection that taps into different influences along the way but all feels like one body of work. Influences and key themes of interest continue along from one project to the next – I’m not able to just say ‘okay – I’m beginning the new collection – here are the inspirations and aims’ and then move on.
Over the last few months dealing with Covid-19, I have still been able to go into my studio and work but I have, of course, been completely alone and with such time-consuming methods getting production going is difficult. But this time alone has been hugely beneficial, to sit and think through how I am planning out my production, especially at such an early stage in the brand. Getting the time to look into the yarns I’m using and, in some cases, make a switch to a more sustainable alternative.
Do you keep stock of pieces?
No, I’m working mostly direct to client in a very bespoke way. There are always adjustments happening to patterns and styles to fit the people wearing the clothes. Which I love to do and it is starting to have a real influence on the designs to get direct feedback from other women wearing what I make. Customizing designs for clients’ needs is such a fun thing and works out well for me as I hate to make the same thing twice. It also means that everything has to be made to order – so there isn’t any sense in keeping stock.
You are working at the intersections of craft, erotica and performance. Can you tell us a bit more about the inspirations behind your collections?
A constant source of inspiration for me is in women who find their own unique ways of expressing their sexuality entirely on their own terms. I look a lot at erotic representations of women, where possible I mostly look to female artists expressing feminine eroticism. I’ve always been a huge fan of artists such as Cathy de Monchaux and Carolee Schneeman, and love photographers like Doris Kloster or Saelon Renkes. But then, so much depiction of feminine eroticism is represented through a male gaze and I don’t think it would be of any benefit to me to just ignore this work. There can, at times, be a really beautiful sense of adoration in paintings or photographs of women by men. I find it interesting responding to this kind of imagery that comes from a male gaze upon a fantasised female image that feels adoring and loving but can still feel slightly uncomfortable. Something controlling in erotic imagery that put into place a lot of what I found aspirational and untouchable as a younger person trying to learn if I was capable to be accepted in what looked like a place that would be endlessly out of reach.
And then seeking out women that have a sense of their own control and gaze upon self that is self-actualised to be involved – creating something just as adoring and loving but the impulse comes from the people in the imagery, their own control without the adoration being outsourced – also why I’m in a lot of my own imagery. I’m inspired by women that are seductive by way of self-esteem, self-awareness and strength being a source of attraction. A sense of ownership of one’s own image is such a powerful thing; an incredible thing to feel and an amazing thing to witness in other women.
Whilst I was studying, staging performances became a key element in getting to view a complete vision of my work beyond the individual garments and exploring ideas in a much more complete way than it is possible with imagery. The physical response of work being staged live in front of people is so useful, and you can get an immediate and true response to the work which is exhilarating.
Your aesthetic is hyper-contemporary, celebrating the female form. How do you relate to beauty & body positivity and how do these influence your designs and aesthetic?
Designing from a place that I personally relate to is a key element in my work – most often first toiles happen on me and then I’ll start to work through with fittings on other women. I think it is so important for designers to have a physical understanding of the work they are making and what it feels like to wear the pieces. And so, instinctually the size I make the samples in is most often is a UK 14 so that I can get a physical understanding everything – it helps with design solutions and problem-solving. After that, I then get to work on larger or smaller pieces that are custom made for people.
At times I can find it quite difficult to always be working with others that share in my values of diversity of casting and trying to make sure a variety of women can picture themselves in what I am making. Or I can often feel myself hoping that because someone wants to work with me this could signal a shift for them to become more inclusive and diversify their representation…but this is rarely the case…
It just seems senseless to narrow down the types of bodies you would want to represent your clothes – it just cuts you off from a whole universe of beauty and amazing ways for what you are making to be represented. It limits the artistic possibilities of your work as well as potential clients being able to see themselves in what you are making. It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to cut yourself off from audiences that could love the style of what you do.
Perhaps the instinct for variety comes too from being raised with a sense of variety, I am mixed-raced, Jamaican and English raised in London, I pass for white but don’t look all that much like my white family members, nor, in a shallow way, like my black family members for that matter – so a sense of multiplicity has always been with me.
It is also important to me to think about younger people who might see my work and to hope that they can find something aspirational – when I was younger visions around eroticism always seemed so aspirational to me. And to try to stop that vision being limited to only a certain type of person. In photography, I feel like you have the power to declare anything as magnificent so it is important to make good use of this tool.
You are renegotiating the erotic female image through a female lens. What is your perspective on eroticism? Do you think that through erotic transgressions, there is the possibility for true human freedom and communication as the French philosopher Georges Bataille argues?
Finding voices that describe a female orientated sexuality described by a female voice has always been important to me. Honestly, I’ve never been able to read all that much Bataille, I tried when I was 18 and then tried again to read his work when I was around 20 but I just couldn’t relate to the way ideas are put forward. Though, in looking into other authors, I suppose, I have come across somewhat similar ideas… In ‘The Erotic as Power’ Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a power that comes from sharing deeply with another person, whether that sharing is physical, emotional or intellectual – and that this erotic connection becomes a lens through which we can scrutinize other aspects of our lives in a striving towards meaning. Desire is life a force, I personally think of it less as an avenue through which to assume freedom but rather as an energy that powers many more cravings than those immediately assumed to be erotic. Miriam Decosta-Willis described eroticism as the life force that flows like an inscrutable tide through all things. I find eroticism to be a power I can make use of in many areas of my life. Erotic connections can be the most clear and honest – an amazing way to break through clumsier attempts at connection like through language. Aesthetics too are an incredible form of connection that can feel much truer than words. There is power in image, and aesthetics themselves are emotional tools capable of communication beyond the visual into the sensitive.
There is also this amazing anthology of erotic writing by women that was put together by Margaret Reynolds. There is a great quote from Jeanette Winterson in that book describing the pieces of writing as a chance to offer a looking glass into female eroticism as self-described rather than a distorting mirror. I aim to try and do that too with my own work. Thoughts on eroticism from queer women have been a mainstay of influence in what I am designing.
You are a queer designer, what does it mean to you to be designing for women as a queer woman?
This has been something that I have thought about a lot and at times have just felt awkward about. I think being attracted to women fuels a lot of my work and vision of an erotic female image but honestly, I do still get quite self-conscious about it. There is probably still some internalised homophobia that I have to work through. I think I perhaps try extra hard to make sure that things don’t feel lurid or leering… though I’m certain all of this only happens in my own head… but still, it is important to put attention to…There is an element of voyeurism in my work that I hope feels more like an internal and owned space rather than something being intruded upon. But it is a fine line to tread to make people feel like they are coming into a world rather than to feel that they are looking in.
Future plans for Ellis Jaz?
I haven’t been able to work on any performance work for the last year so that is a big wish that I hope will come true in the upcoming year. And then, you know, to just keep going.
Story of the Eye
Photography: Marco Giuliano / @marcogiulianoph
Styling: Anca Macavei / @ancamacavei
Creative direction: Inga Lavarini / @ilavarini
Assistants: Martina Cambruzzi, Isabel Evangelisti / @martinacambruzzi @isabelevangelisti
Models: Francesca, Anita / @francesca.ester.salvatore @anitaregina666x
All garments: Ellis Jaz / @ellis_jaz