INTERVIEWED BY: Clare Coulson
Becoming an illustrator was originally the ambition for Canadian Ryan Mercer, 31, who grew up in the suburbs of Toronto before moving to the city to study. ‟But I fell into fashion because it combined everything I enjoyed,” explains the designer shortly before completing his final year at the college. ‟Research, illustration and a making process, constantly running back and forth between all of those.”
After completing his BA at Ryerson University in Toronto, Mercer applied to study womenswear at the Royal College of Art: ‟I knew if I wanted to move past the Canadian fashion industry which is quite small, I would have to go outside Canada to push myself creatively. I knew it was going to be a massive leap.”
And his time at the college has lived up to his expectations with an inspiring first year working with Julie Verhoeven (‟as a class we totally fell in love with her”) and a challenging environment that has helped him progress his aesthetic exponentially. ‟They don’t guide you in one direction, they just want you to experiment and give it all you have.”
In total contrast the Esprit project provided welcome parameters: ‟There are no restrictions here, so having a set of rules can actually be quite refreshing.” Mercer began by looking at images of artists’ studios and spaces and the idea of the residue of their work – the drop cloth on the floor, easels covered in paint and the layered remnants of their work. Additionally he researched the idea of Patti Smith as a muse in the 70s and the squeegee paintings of Gerhard Richter during the 80s. All of which culminated in some abstract prints that have a distinctly urban edge.
He then created his own squeegee paintings on ten vast canvasses before putting them into Photoshop to create the digital prints. ‟I wanted them to be as big and free as possible. I think they were scared I was going to get a bit too posh,” he laughs. ‟But I think everything stayed gritty and tactile looking. I’d never done head to toe prints but hopefully I captured a painterly spirit.”
The monochrome prints were used on elegant long silk shirtdresses paired with matching leggings and on fluid silky tees. Taking the theme into knitwear proved to be even more challenging.
‟I’m not a knit specialist in any way, shape or form so I collaborated with a first year knitwear student at the college and we went through a testing process to find a way to capture that painterly smeared look.” The solution was to use fluffy, thick mohair, which was worked into colourful stripes, which were then brushed to give a blurry effect that echoes the haziness of the digital prints.
Mercer also looked into using by-product salmon skin from Iceland and Germany but ended up using leather on sleeves and collars on his denim coats and jackets. ‟It’s really interesting to look at these new materials but it’s still a relatively new product and not that affordable.”
As part of the brief to create a sustainable product he also aimed to keep materials in as natural form as possible and to minimise damaging processes. Although it was most important to create something rigorous that can stand the test of time: wanted to make things that people will fall in love with and treasure. Something that has a life beyond one or two seasons. So that’s how I approached it.”
In addition students were asked to put more of a commercial spin on their designs for this project – something that Mercer embraced wholeheartedly. ‟Sometimes as a student you get lost in yourself which is a great thing and you can be as self indulgent as you want to be but at the same time this is a business that you are going in to and there are customers. It was a good discipline to have to create clothes that they can wear on a day-to-day basis. Clothes that Esprit customers will feel comfortable wearing but that challenge them in some way too.”
For now he is focussed firmly on his next move, which hopefully includes finding a job in Paris, London or New York. ‟We have just spent the last couple of weeks seeing scouts who come to look at our final year work. I would love to move for Paris and work for someone like Balenciaga and here in London I love Celine,” says Mercer. ‟Otherwise,” he says with a laugh, ‟It’s back to the provinces.” Somehow that seems very unlikely.