Rea McNamara is a magpie both in style and in practice – someone who collects the discarded, the colourful, the rare, and assembles her findings into stories, experiences and communities. I asked her about her multi-faceted perspective on the culture of style.
(If you are in Toronto, you can meet Rea (and me, and a bunch of other fascinating folks) at the Hi-Style Holladaze party tonight.)
I would like to describe you as a glorious generalist – someone who is curious about many aspects of culture. Is there a common thread in your careers as a stylist, writer and DJ? Why have you chosen the path of the polymath as opposed to focusing on one specific calling?
To be honest, I’m not so sure if I chose the path or the path chose me. Up until very recently, I felt like a Jack of All Trades — bouncing from writing stories to styling shoots to organizing party nights to playing in bands and deejaying to coordinating art programs.
But I’ve been very lucky to have people in my life who’ve encouraged me to be stubbornly true to my passions, and not be so caught up with expectations. By letting impulse and sheer accident guide my work, I’ve been able to understand what my process is and the ideas that drive it.
The common thread is probably the desire to create an immersive experience. Ultimately, I’m a storyteller, but I don’t think stories are solely told via words. Sometimes it’s an image or a sample. Most of the time, it’s the image and the sample and the word. That’s why it’s so difficult for me to limit myself within a particular form or genre. I’ve always been fascinated by the things that exist between boundaries.
Your new gig is writing about social media for a paper-paper. You’ve been called out for not being much of a social media guru – not having a lot of twitter followers or being an insider in the social media networking scene. How do you justify your take on the subject as an outsider?
I don’t know about you, but I’m so over this popular idea of social media being all about the Twitter followers and AdWords ROI. (No wonder why Camille Paglia called Twitter ‘so high school’.) I’m more interested in looking at social media in relation to the on/offline statuses of emerging/pre-existing niches and subcultures.
That’s why my column’s covering Gleek re-doing vids, Tavi, and ONTD: I want to examine social media from a truly open perspective. I’m very conscious about this column being read on the subway, or readers following the meta-fragments via the Posterous. Often, I might even write two different versions of the column (a good example of this is my print and online takes on the popular Tumblr oversharer jaimeleigh), because people forget how fast online moves, and how important it is to dissect it in such a way that it’s fully understood via different platforms.
But I don’t necessarily see myself as totally an ‘outsider’. In 2008, I was a resident in the CFC Media Lab doing their TELUS Interactive Art and Entertainment Program, so I’ve been fairly immersed in new media before. I’ve also been observing and studying online fandom culture (specifically fan fiction and slash) for a number of years, and guest lectured on the subject at York University.
You are also working with Art Starts, a grass-roots community initiative exploring the unique style of some of Toronto’s suburbs. What have you discovered about the style scene outside of the downtown core?
Art Starts is an amazing Toronto non-profit committed to arts-based community development. It’s an organization that uses the arts as a medium for engaging residents, creating a shared sense of identity, identifying challenges and collectively working to overcome them in particularly underserved neighbourhoods.
The Style Council puts into practice the ideas I have about fashion community-building, and where style exists. I think it’s so limiting to think about style simply emerging from the runway or on Queen West — it should also be recognized that it can be determined on the streets of Eglinton West West, and in communities like Jane & Finch or Little India.
So for the past ten weeks, I’ve been working with ten amazingly talented writers, photographers and stylists to document the collective fashion senses of the Dufferin-Eglinton and Oakwood-Vaughan communities. The participants — many of whom are in high school or in university/college — are a mix of area residents and outsiders, and are for the most part interested in fashion and/or media careers. They received workshops in styling, writing and photography, and were responsible for creating a double-paged spread in what we’re calling a community ‘Stylebook’. As a result, these participants have filed interviews, essays and fashion editorials that explores the impact of what we choose to wear as an expression of ourselves and our communities.
My goal is to work with Art Starts to develop a funding strategy so that run the Style Council can run in other underserved communities. I love this idea of every community getting their own Stylebook — and in the process, creating a city-wide support network for past and present participants.
One of the subjects you explore that fascinates me is the forgotten recent history of the fashion scene in Toronto – specifically the eighties. What have you learned about how fashion in the city has changed over the past 30 years?
I’m by no means a true fashion historian — my work pales in comparison to David Livingstone and Alexandra Palmer. But I’m def interested in the 1980s era, because the community was really on the cusp of being an international contender. You talk to anyone who was there — Linda Lundstrom, Wayne Clark, Comrags’ Judy Cornish and Joyce Gunhouse, Brenda Bent, etc. — and they’ll tell you how much opportunity there was. Judy and Joyce would just leave the key in the door of their studio when the buyers came. It wasn’t a big thing to see a sequined Wayne Clark number of Dynasty. There was actually a garment industry on Spadina. You had the Festival of Canadian Fashion, which really sold to a mass audience Canadian fashion.
What really drove this era was this democratic idea of fashion: The Bemelman’s crowd co-existed and often crossed over with the Century 66/Peter Pan crowd. Someone like Sandy Stagg — who in the 1970s, owned Amelia Earhart, one of the first Toronto vintage shops — did fashion, but was closely involved with General Idea and ran Peter Pan, which was the it-spot on Queen W. in the 1980s for the arts scene. Fashion was intimately involved with art, music and design, which really drove the innovation.
So it’s sad that this is forgotten by the present local fashion community. It prevents us from connecting the dots between the works of Toronto designers in the past with the present. We’re robbed of context. New York City and Paris are considered fashion leaders in part because their histories and traditions are so visible. It’s a historical reference that helps critics to properly assess the collections (ie. the Dior New Look, or the Ralph Lauren Great Gatsby thing). We’re losing something vital if we continue to disregard past designers and labels like Marilyn Brooks, Zapata, Bent Boys, etc.
Do you have any insight on where the fashion scene in Toronto might be going in the next decade?
I’m optimistic that we will start to make the connections. Individuals like FAT’s Vanja Vasic, Toronto Craft Alert’s Jennifer Anisef, Fuller Woman Expo’s Georgia Greenwood, 69 Vintage’s Irene Stickney and Kealan Sullivan are leaders in their particular style subcultures who I believe have the right to just as much influence as Robin Kay, Joe Mimran and Barbara Atkin. But it’s up to us to dig deep and not appropriate these subcultures ruthlessly into the mainstream, but truly absorb the value of their politics and ideas.
This is why I get the sense — especially from my community work, and my own personal interest in Caribbean designers like Meiling and The Cloth — that we are going to see more diverse perspectives emerging. I hope that we just let go of trying to make Toronto be like New York and Paris, and maybe try to see it as something like Belgium, or even Trinidad & Tobago. These contexts that we privilege so much — Paris chic, New York sportswear — are old. We need to wake up and take on a more globalized view, and assess the relations between mass-producing fast fashions in Bangladesh with the rise of haute couture in Dubai. Or, you know, @-replying to a Lisa Tant tweet discussing the latest Flare shoot in Barbados by asking whether or not local designers were pulled. If Toronto recognizes and even empowers these diverse stylish possibilities, that might actually make us a world contender.
Photo credit: Alyssa Katherine Faoro.