Personal Space: Interview with Fashion Designer Elizabeth Ilsley
Culture — 12.08.16
Words: Sophia Lee
Photography: Rosaline Shahnavaz
Elizabeth Ilsley is not a girl to be messed with. At just 21 years old, Ilsley’s tongue-n-cheek jackets have amassed over 21.56k followers on Instagram, a following from Rihanna herself, and an exclusive collection with Liberty. All in all, Ilsley is doing pretty well. In this exclusive interview for Teeth Magazine Online, we sit together in her pink-and-shimmer clad Birmingham studio, chain-smoking Marlboro lights whilst reflecting on the inspiration for her jackets, 15-year-old Facebook trolls, and Rihanna. Lots and lots of Rihanna.
So when did this all happen?
3 years ago this September was when I painted my first jacket. And things just kicked off from that Rihanna follow.
Yeah, then I had a shit ton of fake Rihanna’s following me.
What do you think of Rihanna?
I really like Rihanna; I think she’s so cool. I’m just gutted because last month I put on my first ever art show at the Custard Factory. A few days before the show I got an email from Puma saying we want you to be a VIP guest on Rihanna’s Anti-World tour. I could have had VIP seats and could go to the HQ before the show to meet all types of people. I was completely shaking. Like oh my god oh my god I was going to see Rihanna! Then I realised it was the same night as the opening night of my art show, so I just deleted the email. I didn’t want to see the email ever again! I couldn’t even do both. It was realistically impossible.
But at least you know you’re in her mind, I’m sure they’ll be other opportunities.
She can have however many jackets she wants! I think she’s a really good feminist, people think she’s not a good role model but I think the total opposite. She’s just herself. She’s not trying to be anything. If I had a daughter who was 13 or 14, I wouldn’t want her to be molded into every other girl.
Do you see yourself as a feminist?
Yeah, I definitely see myself as a feminist. I’ve just been brought up that way.
I grew up with a young teen mum, and I always thought that she should be powerful, and she was. I’ve always been one of the boys. I’ve just always thought to myself to not take shit from people.
I can definitely see the feminist connotations in your jackets. Do you think that’s why they’re so popular?
Yeah definitely. At first, I was shocked because what my jackets said was so honest. I thought I was being a bit gross, especially as they were so blunt about the body. Girls don’t get together and shave their legs. Girls get together before a night out and do their hair or their makeup. I’d never shave my legs in front of someone, it’s quite private, but people seemed to love it.
So is that where you got the inspiration for the jackets?
It started off as things I actually said out loud, mainly to my friends and to this guy who I was going out with. I was young and he was much older, so I didn’t know how to tell him I really liked him because I was quite intimidated. So I said, “I like you so much I even shaved my legs for you”. I had my first assignment for university around that time, so I went to the Salvation Army charity shop down in Dudley, bought an old leather jacket for ten pounds, took it home, and just painted, ‘I shaved my legs for you’ on it and put it on Instagram. Next day I woke up with thousands of followers, and then Rihanna started following me. And then I got dumped and got so much more inspiration and did lots of prints about being bitter.
Your space is really reflective of your work. This studio is full of things that have been doodled on, photography, and illustrations. And obviously, it’s very girly.
Yeah, the illustrations were just from a bored afternoon. Me and my best friend Hannah moved into this studio on Christmas Eve and we had no Internet, no chairs, absolutely nothing. All we had were things to decorate the place, so we just killed an hour by doodling on some photographs. I obviously like photography as well, which you can tell. I collect old cameras and just take really embarrassing photos of my friends on nights out. And I’ve always been obsessed with pink. At university, I always did these massive pink paintings, which actually looked really naff looking back…
Do you see your studio as your ‘creative haven’?
Yeah, I absolutely love it in here. I’m here every single day.
So you have to make it personal.
Yeah, definitely. It feels like I’m making it to what I wanted my teenage bedroom to look like when I lived with my mum. I always wanted a girly dream. I had a really small room at my mums and certainly decorated it in my own way but with a different style. I just had posters of Metallica stuck on the walls, and was obsessed with this one guy from Kings of Leon and had his face everywhere. I don’t know what I’d do without this studio. I started my leather jackets at home and started painting them in bed! Although sometimes you come in here and it just smells like an old dead cow!
And how do you paint them on? Do you use a stencil?
No, it’s completely freehand. Although it depends on how many letters are on the jacket. If it’s not too many words then I can just do it freehand. I did a jacket for Emma Watson recently and she wanted the slogan ‘Girls just want to have FUNdamental human rights’ which I thought was so cool, but how the fuck was I going to fit that on a jacket?! That took forever because I wanted it to be really neat and perfect but trying to fit fundamental was just so difficult!
The one-liners on your jackets are very comic but quite provocative. Especially some of the meme-like photos you post on Instagram. Has there been any negativity?
Mainly it’s been okay, but a 15-year-old girl did call me a misogynist on Facebook once, which was pretty funny. Dazed and Confused wrote something about me on their website and the Facebook link’s top comment by a girl calling me a misogynist. I clicked on her profile straight away. I needed to see what this girl was about! She’s not even allowed to have a Facebook account, she’s 15!
Has anyone tried to copy you?
I’m waiting for Topshop and Zara to copy the painted leather jacket idea. ASOS tried to do it, though; they came out with a collection of painted leathers with flowers all over their stuff. I just thought to myself ‘Shit, this is it. I’m done for. I’m going to have to go back to making installations and try to be an artist’. Then coincidentally that same week, I received a call from Liberty saying they wanted to meet me, so I was saved a bit.
Did you have to restrict any of your content for Liberty?
I tried to keep them as tasteful as possible. With the Liberty jackets, I’ve tried to be more broad, as I understand not everyone wants to walk around with ‘I’d love a good fuck’ on the back of a jacket. And I wasn’t allowed to swear or be really rude.
Would you ever do written prints on a different material or would it just be leather jackets?
I’m going to go into denim which would be good as I wear jeans all the time. I never really intended to have my own fashion line at the age of 21. I have no team, it’s just me! I feel like people are just throwing opportunities at me! It gets to the point where it’s just like “ah, please leave me alone for at least 5 minutes”!
So what did you always want to do originally? You had mentioned being an artist…
Well, I started drinking when I was 14, and then started getting really moody…I just wanted to be Courtney Love so bad! I stopped listening to Green Day and the Sugababes, and started listening to more of my mums music like her Manic Street Preachers album. Then I got into reading the NME, and just remembered looking at the pages and thinking ‘that’s really cool album artwork’. They just always screamed out to me. I always asked ‘Who did this? What is this about?’ And it was all Sarah Lucas. She really inspired me. Then I started looking at Pop Art, and Tracey Emin. When I was studying Art at school I had this epiphany – Tracey Emin’s bed is actually my bed at home! I started skiving my Maths and Science lessons to go and sit in my Art class to just paint pictures of The Clash. All I wanted to do was to be an Art teacher.
Gathering from what you’ve said, it really seems like your interests have culminated into one, into the form of these jackets.
Yes completely! Apart from cooking.
You could always give them to Nigella Lawson to wear on her show…
Yes, I’m obsessed with TV chefs! I don’t know how I’m going to get that involved next, but imagine if the Hairy Bikers wore my jackets! That would be so cool.
You can view and purchase Elizabeth’s jackets on her website