MONA CORDES’ debuted her new AW22 collection ‘CELLUSION’ at Southwark Platform on an immersive set, which the German-born, London-based designer built herself partly from collected and found objects. Various multi coloured materials were meticulously intertwined to form a hybrid sculpture in the middle of the stage, where the model-dancers burst out into a performative showcase of monocellular bacterial life.
Mona’s relationship with fashion stems from a love of myth storytelling, crafting fantasy worlds into reality, and a passion for positive change. Her newest collection elevates the usually ignored and misunderstood realm of microscopic organisms into a lineup of 17 intricately designed looks, which act as the sartorial skin of 8 types of bacteria. The looks challenge the idea of costume, as they are equally theatrical as they are abstract. While her prints remain idiosyncratic and quite hallucinatory, she combines the abstracted quality of her drawing with extremely well-defined, precise tailoring. Elements like puffed sleeves and ruffled hems on kimono-like pieces lend the models an air of sophisticated complexity, at the same time as hinting at funghi. There were ruched skirts presented over satin slip trousers, which bore a similarity to coral reef, another habitat of bacteria. Original BLOCH dance shoes were customized and adorned with sparkly knit décor, to signal both unapologetic queerness, but also an intrinsic connection to nature. This connection was extended all the way to the make-up art and braided hair, completing the entire presentation/performance with a sense of pagan symbolism.
Conceived exclusively from salvaged deadstock, or environmentally sustainable fabrics, such as recycled lycra, cotton and satin, as well as Vivienne Westwood velvet, the collection included a wide range of kaleidoscopically printed styles, suited to all genders. In terms of the silhouette, the garments moved across a diverse spectrum of lighter to heavier shapes powered by a dynamic host of performers under the magnetic sound of Nathalia Bruno (video below).
Dainty little satin buttoned short sleeves and tight-fitted crop top vests accompanied bell bottom trousers, wrap around skirts, and sculpted puffers. The scientifical-esoteric universe created by MONA CORDES was multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, all held together by the designer’s love for layering like a magic glue. Just as bacteria holds ours together, to quote the designer.
Below is a transcript of my interview with the designer herself, where she takes us behind the scenes of her creations, with generous insight into her process as an independent designer. The profound passion for what she does is as tangible as the way she’s rendered the invisible realm of bacteria through her otherworldly fashion. Thanks to this exciting young designer, the monocellular has been given a revamp from featuring as probiotic on yoghurt pots (in the best case scenario) to become MONAcellular, fun, eclectic, mystical.
First of all, congrats on the wonderful new collection- it was a delight for the senses. Its name “cellusion” strikes me as a play on different words.
Would you tell us a bit about the hidden meaning/ message behind the name?
MONA: Thank you Isabela, I’m grateful to hear. My new collection ‘CELLUSION’ is based on the theme of bacteria and other micro living organisms and their connections with one another. The name is a fusion of cells + cohesion. Each of the looks showcased belongs to one bacteria and is paired with an element in the natural environment visible without a microscope. ‘CELLUSION’ explores in what ways different bacteria are harmful as well as helpful to humans and the planet. Bacteria hold our world together- without them, there wouldn’t be any life.
ISABELA: I found the inspiration drawn from the invisible world of cells incredibly clever. Especially as, traditionally, the two fields of science and art stand divided. Does science play any role in your overall practice/research?
MONA: Science is something I hated in school, I was not good at it, numbers don’t make too much sense in my head, but I like the experimental side of it very much. I do like to connect different areas of art with other areas of interest like science, which I have done here.
It is storytelling which I weave into my art. Bringing the hidden to the surface and challenging people and myself to think deeper into themes that are far away from our thinking and are yet untold.
To explain my theme choices more broadly:
I am always fond of other creatures and organisms, finding out how they live, what are their secrets lying in the underworld! My MA collection was based on the theme of supernatural beings and I found myths fascinating. The idea of trolls and fairies existing somewhere in hiding from us humans. I try to go deeper and create my own world and tell stories through my fashion. For ‘cellusion’ it’s the fascinatingly complex realm of bacteria that lies outside our immediate perception. Seeing bacteria cells under the microscope is not something I have the ability to do. I do not have a lab, so I find other ways to explore science through research, reading and my own imagination. I tell stories with my fashion collections and prints in a more graspable, but mythical way.
ISABELA: Did you look at any microscopic/biologic pictures to aid your visual research?
MONA: I did look at 373725 of microscopic pictures and books from the library to give nutrition to my research for the collection. I have taken a lot of inspiration for my prints from the microscopic and biological images I found. All the details of cells, how they nest within other cells, how they move and grow is very fascinating. I chose the most interesting bacteria and profiled their charisma and characteristics to form a good base of research for my creativity to bloom from there.
Also, I tried to grow bacteria. I got hold of some agar plates and created the strip for them to grow in, trying different ways. I used flowers from my trip to the Caribbean & mould from food, ‘tube handrail juice’ etc. It was hard without a lab so I went off this.
ISABELA: I simply loved the use of dance as a medium for presenting the collection. Why did you choose this particular medium to present your designs and how is performance related to your designs?
MONA: I started to showcase my work in a performative way last summer, when I did a performance for the first time at my studio open day. Just before, I was inspired by ‘Agnes’, a dance piece and was so excited after that. I, therefore, started moving myself again going to a few classes. I loved that way of emotional expression as letting go of feelings and tightness. I got bored of showcasing purely in still images, therefore I did a fashion film in April 2021, a performance in July. My studio asked me to showcase another in September and I was able to recognize this working really well with my fashion. I believe very strongly in the fluidity of my stories, textiles, and shapes, their ease of movement, which is best seen in motion. It is a mutual exchange of energies: My work is enlivened by dancers and dancers step inside the life of my clothes. The excitement I receive from viewers in physical spaces gives me the energy to keep creating.
ISABELA: You stand out first and foremost as a print designer. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve developed your idiosyncratic style?
MONA:I studied fashion textiles for my BA in university and I developed my style within. In my second year, I chose the print pathway. I always liked to layer colours for my own looks, but I really changed my clothing style through my print design. The more is more came into play. It just happened and my style was formed without me really trying to portray any particular style. I was always a crafter at heart since being a kid. I spent school classes drawing scribbles, patterns. It all started early on and now here I am, crafting my fashion collections and weaving different garments into a layered ‘more is more’ iconic and kaleidoscopic style of my own!
ISABELA: Another thing that makes you stand out is that your collections are less trend, more story-driven, at the same time as being extremely wearable. Even trends such as leg warmers or cycling shorts are given a surreal twist in your work.
How do you manage to stay authentic in such a capitalist--consumerist society?
MONA: I just have to stay true to my style and myself. I have been struggling with the consumer-driven world big time, though. I want to keep being able to create fashion that I’d like to wear and make this more sustainable than it is at the moment money-wise. I have been trying to make more wearable pieces lately that are more interesting to the broader folk. Glad you say my garments are extremely wearable!!
You also say I’m less trend-driven - I hate trends, they make me angry! I don’t want to be creating the same crap as a lot of fashion folk. I may have to do some of it to keep crafting in the future and avoid drowning in expenses, so I’ll see how it goes.
ISABELA: To me, it seems that you create parallel fictional realms that are still drawn from the real world through your design narratives.
How is this collection connected/ different from the previous? Are there are any new techniques or looks that you have introduced with this one?
MONA: I do create some outworlds looks and take stories from the hidden realm. The stories mentioned, i.e. the supernatural beings, 7 deadly sins, as well as bacteria are very important to humans and help us to live.
I think the connection between these themes is mainly their position outside our daily lives, which when projected onto my clothing is special and offers something different, something to get sunk into for my viewers and customers.
Technique wise I started to screen print again for this collection, which I picked back up from my BA. In my MA I developed digital print skills and due to corona, the print facilities were closed so I worked digitally. I also got into crochet with ‘CELLUSION’ for the headpieces and shoe decor. What my lates 2 collections had in common was knitwear. I collaborated with different knit designers.
Something, which all of my 4 collections so far combine, is the sustainability factor. I purely use deadstock, end of rolls, vintage and recycled materials.
ISABELA: In terms of narrative, how much are your designs influenced by what you read, see, listen to?
MONA: My designs are very influenced by what I see, mostly by what I see throughout the year. Something inspiring I will capture and make files on my phone to go back to. When I get excited about some particular theme, I start to read into it. I am not a reader at heart, so I tend to read for topics I am really drawn to. I am very into music and listen 24/7. Music helps me create and stay in the zone. The sound is very helpful to my brain activity and creativity, but I don’t really take ideas from sounds to weave them into my art, as far as I am aware of.
ISABELA: What were the challenges you have faced as a young designer working and living in London, if there were any? Since your designs are so colourful and nature-inspired, how do you see them respond to a big city like London?
MONA: I mean I am still a young designer. I still struggle with being in the fashion industry and the capital city as an emerging designer. London is an expensive place to live in and work creatively in a massive craft-based community. You have to be strong-minded and able to kick ass as there is heaps of competition.