Aych McArdle has three idols. The first is Lady Gaga. The second is Sydney-based fashion journalist and blogger Patty Huntington. And the third is Otto Busch, a theorist at the legendary Parsons School of Fashion in New York, who once said, “Fashion is not a game of illusions, but another reality, and this other reality of fashion can be used as a tool for addressing change in our physical and social world.”
This is a concept close to Aych’s heart. A two-hour discussion with Busch – conducted while the pair was stranded, by fog, at Wellington Airport – “radically changed my thinking around fashion systems and the role of fashion in society”. Aych’s current project Performing the self: Opening discussions on diverse gender identity, which they are working on for their Bachelor of Art and Design (Honours) at AUT, similarly looks at fashion as a tool to address – and affect – change. “My work is a reaction to binary discussions of gender,” Aych says. “I’m looking at how I can communicate that gender can be a fluid state and looking at artistic and pop culture mediums to explore that in. Fashion is my training and my background, but with this programme it’s a bit more flexible and a bit more open so I can branch outside of mediums that I’ve worked in before.”
The project comprises three main experiments, conducted over the course of the year. The first was a piece of live performance art, performed on the opening night of the recently-held Faerie Tales exhibition at Auckland’s Snakepit Gallery. The exhibit, curated by Rebecca Swan, was themed around ideas of gender and identity and the performance piece elaborated on those themes. “There were separate pieces where people talked about their own journeys and identities and I also shared a piece around the ‘magically gendered’,” Aych says. “I was this mythical, faerie-like creature in a big swan costume with huge claws, sitting at this glitter box with teacups all over it and candles everywhere. The character I played… opened up a story book and read a piece about the magic world, the faerie world, a place where their fabulous body might make sense. Where difference is not alienating but central to the understanding of self.
“I really wanted to talk about experiences around gender in a way that wasn’t super political or theoretical, but which was connected to real people’s life experience. Because I think when someone sits down and tells you their story, you immediately connect and your mind is just a little bit more open. That’s the kind of energy I want to create in my work.”
The next step of the project is to create a zine and the third and last piece of the year will likely, at this stage, be a moving image piece. However, Aych says their to-do list is huge – long enough for a Masters project and maybe, after that, a PhD. “I’d love to get into more of the theory around clothing and gender, because what we wear says so much about us,” they say. “I want to talk about this gender ‘thing’ in a really easily relatable way, a way that claims an identity space for gender fluid people.”
Claiming that space can be a tricky negotiation – as Aych can attest from personal experience! Recently, after casually clarifying their gender identity to their friends on Facebook, Aych went out to dinner – and returned to the computer some hours later to find the thread had exploded into a hundred comment-plus argument. “I uploaded onto Facebook as my cover photo this scribble that said, ‘Hello, my name is Aych and I use gender-neutral pronouns. Awesome!!!’” they laugh. “I was thinking that this was just a cute, really friendly reminder to my friends but I had no idea that it would create such intense debate around gender, its existence and the huge role it plays in our lives. It made me realise that these educated, 20-something-year-old hipsters hadn’t had the space to critically think about sex, gender and the socialisation we experience so early in life!”
Aych jokes about implementing a mandatory ‘Gender 101′ class at primary school to combat reductive messages about gender identity; to teach kids that gender exists on a spectrum and that sex and gender are not one and the same. “The way that we live is so gendered and it’s so binary in its construction. At primary school, girls line up on one side and boys line up on the other… and that’s teacher-enforced, that’s not natural!” Even in the fashion Industry – known stereotypically for its inclusion of gay men and love of flamboyance – that binary is often rigidly enforced, with runway shows divided neatly into womenswear and menswear. “What about if you don’t identify as either of those camps or both of those camps or somewhere between those camps – what does that mean for fashion? And even in terms of my own gender identity, if I’m asking people to use gender-neutral pronouns but I’m wearing a dress, that gets really confusing for people,” Aych laughs.
“Hopefully, some of the work I create this year – [which is] really fun and is easily accessible – will create a site of real empowerment and a site of identity for gender fluid people and also have a ripple effect in terms of starting conversations with the outside world.”
One method Aych uses of starting those conversations is through their blog, www.aychblog.com, which they began in 2008 in their final year of their Bachelor degree. Originally used as part of a marketing package for their graduate collection, Aych kept the blog going after graduation as an alternative route into a recession-gripped industry. It was after posting a photo taken with renowned US blogger BryanBoy – now a judge for America’s Next Top Model – at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2008 that the blog really took off. “It turned into something I could never have imagined!” Aych laughs.
From there, they hit Rosemount Australian Fashion Week in 2009, right as the craze for social media began to really sweep the fashion world. Aych was quoted in one of the Sydney morning papers talking about the influence of social media and bloggers on fashion – “I remember thinking, ‘I’m just this kid straight out of fashion school!’” they laugh. They’re now a regular fixture at fashion events and can often be seen in the social pages, hobnobbing with designers and wearing huge spike heels or a ‘That’s so gay!’ t-shirt. Recently, they were featured alongside three other local fashion bloggers in Spy magazine, a New Zealand Herald insert, in a piece entitled ‘Influential, stylish and broke’.
So what are Aych’s plans for the future? “My life dream is to continue blogging up a storm and become a bad-ass fashion writer,” they say. Firstly, though, the rest of their Honours year calls – and with it, the opportunity to further explore fashion as ‘another reality’. “We’re living in such an exciting time – politically, socially, environmentally. We talk about all of that through our clothes and clothes are also affected by all of those things. I think it’s a really interesting time to take our thinking about clothes to a totally new level.”
| Anna Loren