Local fashion designers Punkin and Jesse Macintosh with one of their creations.
Local fashion designers Punkin and Jesse Macintosh with one of their creations.

A new look at old trends

In the Lismore fashion-creation studio of Jesse Macintosh and Punkin, boxes are spilling over with remnants of materials, mannequins of all shapes and sizes and, of course, sewing machines.

Taking fashion to a new place beyond the traditional garb of jeans and t-shirts, these two local fashion designers are answering a calling to break free of generic labels and create a counter-fashion culture where people can express themselves in unique ways. Just as Vivienne Westwood wowed the world with her ground-breaking fashion designs which eventually infiltrated the mainstream, Jesse and Punkin are aiming to influence North Coast culture and beyond with their alternative clothing designs.

The two fashionistas have collaborated for the past two years, combining Jesse’s skills in screen-printing with Punkin’s talent for fashion design and sewing. While Punkin comes from a background of buying rolls of material and picking up remnants from op shops, Jesse used to work with existing garments.

“I used to print onto things already made,” Jesse said. “But I’ve been learning to sew since collaborating with Punkin. I’ve learned to put zippers in – it’s new technology for me.”

“And we’ve been learning each other’s bad traits too,” Punkin said. “We both make home brew and we collaborate on drinking.”

While neither of them have formal training in fashion design, they each have an artistic background and a love of street art and culture, which has set them on their path to creating unique fashions out of recycled materials.

Jesse’s passion for screen-printing began a few years ago when he studied art at Lismore TAFE and he became inspired to print his art onto clothing. For three years, he sold his wearable art, badges and zines from a shop he opened called The Lismore Underground. His influence on local culture became apparent as many people began to buy and wear his creations featuring printed designs such as cross-eyed rabbit zombies. His portrait was recently painted for the Northern Rivers Portrait Prize.

“At events, I always enjoy seeing people wear my clothes,” Jesse said. “I like creating functional art – everyday items that people use and wear instead of hanging on the wall.”

Using their artistic fashions as a vehicle for social comment is one of the motivations behind the work that they do.

“If you have a message, the most direct way to get it out there is to get it onto people,” Punkin said. “I’d like to make artwork to change the world and for me this is the best way to do it.”

Jesse said that much of his inspiration for his designs ‘just happens’. Regular themes in his work include printed images of tools, medical instruments and human anatomy. One of his ongoing themes is ‘Safety in Numbers’ in which numbers are overprinted onto the clothing.

“That idea came from a piece of graffiti I saw in Lismore that said ‘You’re not safe here.’ Next to it was written ‘Safety in numbers,’ so I took up that idea and began to use it in my work,” Jesse said. “Sometimes I hear a song or see an image and I work on that. I’m always collecting images and sourcing ideas.”

“I’d seen what Jesse was doing and wanted a piece of it for myself,” Punkin laughed. “I’d been making garments and wanted to have something interesting printed onto the fabric, so I asked Jesse to print onto my bonnets and vests.”

Punkin’s creativity came from growing up in a family of art teachers and he learned how to sew by watching his mother and step-mother make clothes.

“If I had a creative idea, my step-mother would help me realise it,” Punkin said. “When I was 18 or 19, I sewed up some crazy things on my own with her shaking her head at me. I was influenced by medieval clothing and made a green tartan gnome cloak and leather gnome shoes. I even made a jester-like leather skull cap with spikes. I wanted to push boundaries and have fun.”

Punkin went to art school and then began making his own clothes and selling them at markets. He was inspired to make fashions for others after he moved to Nimbin in 2000 and began to get requests from other people to make similar things for them.

“In my fashion designs, I incorporate elements of traditional dress-making such as box pleats, but add my own flavour and style,” Punkin said. “For me it’s a form of sculpture, but I get to make it without having to justify it with the art-world language.”

Challenging the status quo has long been a role of fashion designers, and Punkin and Jesse are certainly out to do just that.

“There is definitely a shock value to the clothes I make,” Punkin said. “I used to wear dresses… It’s fun having people look at you and not be able to figure you out. What I make now is more low-key – I guess I got sick of people looking at me and calling me a freak.

“People who wear alternative fashion will always have to deal with those sorts of reactions. If you are going to behave in a way that hasn’t been dictated to you, you will always cop it at some point,” he said. “People always fear what they don’t understand – they make it into more than what it is. It’s like homophobia.”

From their first collaboration on a commissioned pair of pants, the pair moved on to designing recycled fashions together for the Nimbin Fashion Show in 2008. When Jesse found out that the op shops were throwing out lots of denim, he decided to use it in his work and began to print on it for the show.

Fashion shows have always had a place for outrageous fashions and Jesse and Punkin rose to the challenge of creating their unusual, larger than life fashions for the catwalk. Using shoulder pads, collars and arm warmers, the pair created a collection of outlandish fashions based on the themes of ‘retro-future, space, robot, zombie, heavy-metal and superhero’.

“We needed to call it ‘Swedish rock’,” Jesse said. “The Nimbin Fashion Show is an amazing local community event – everyone gets behind it. I had people coming up to me for months afterward saying they loved my work.”

While men have long played a celebrated role in the fashion industry as designers, much of the fashion industry is marketed at women. Punkin and Jesse are hoping to open up the market for men to wear more fashionable, alternative clothing.

“A large percentage of the stuff we make is for men,” Punkin said. “Jesse and I are at a point now where other men can appreciate what we make and want to have a piece of clothing made by us.”

“We use men as models in our fashion shows – it’s a big drawcard and we get a good response,” Jesse said.

“Other designers have sexy shows and show girls off,” Punkin said. “When we create fashions for women, they are more masculine and there is not a lot of flesh showing.”

Last year, at the Lismore Show, they joined with other local artists to create a performance fashion-art piece based on a recycling theme.

“We created breast plates and made paper-mache horse heads out of recycled paper and costumes out of ex-postal packages and bubble wrap,” Jesse said. “We wanted to look at consumer society and the waste that goes on in our mass-industrialised culture.”

“It was also about how that relates to self-image and individuality,” Punkin said. “When you get dressed, you are creating your presence in the world and you can choose this through what you wear, but we also need to consider the environmental and social impact of how we clothe ourselves.”

At the moment, Jesse and Punkin are focusing on making recycled bags and they have some of their shoulder bags (or ‘man bags’) on display in the Barratt Gallery in Alstonville.

For Punkin and Jesse, the sustainability of using recycled materials and keeping the production of their wearable art in the local area is an important part of their business philosophy. They hope to start their own company in the near future and consolidate a line of bags which will be sold online, at markets and in shops.

Jesse and Punkin are happy to take orders from people who would like to commission them to make a piece of original clothing or who would like to buy a piece from their bag range.

“I’m happy to make special requests as long as it fits with my aesthetic,” Punkin said. “I’m making a bodice for a graduation at the moment.

“It’s important to be who you want to be and dress how you want to dress,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to feel good about yourself at the end of the day.”

You can contact Punkin and Jesse or view a selection of their work on the website www.elfn.com.au.

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