'Dress yourself into a state of joy' and other style lessons we're taking from this cool Canadian collab

Montreal designer Rose McMahon and Toronto artist Laura Dawe on courage, clothes as self-care and more.

Montreal designer Rose McMahon and Toronto artist Laura Dawe on courage, clothes as self-care and more

(All photography by Katrina Cervoni)

If you played dress-up as a kid, you probably remember that feeling of reaching your hand into that tangled abyss of old Halloween costumes and poofy princess dresses, pulling your new identity out of the seemingly bottomless trunk and twirling around in it for hours, until someone told you to please stop. Inherently playful and often euphoric, this manner of dressing feels so far away from the routine most us now practice each morning as we stand in front of our closets, brows furrowed, thinking, "What am I going to wear today?" And it's exactly that joy-filled experience that Montreal fashion designer Rose McMahon is hoping to recapture with her new collection for Rightful Owner, aptly titled "Joie de Vivre".   

A vibrant array of feminine florals and polka dot-speckled tulle with gingham and ruffles galore, McMahon's Spring/Summer 2018 line is the result of a collaboration with another Canadian maker, Toronto painter Laura Dawe, whose art appears on the silk that covers numerous pieces within the collection. Known for her striking, moody portraits of women and female bodies, Dawe's paintings perfectly complement McMahon's ethos, bringing an element of sophistication to the line's soft edges. It's hard to believe they had never met before the process all started. "Like most things these days, it started on the Internet," McMahon recalls. "It was as simple as Rose sliding into my DMs on Instagram," Dawe adds, "As soon as I saw her work I was like 'I want to wear this. I want to touch this.'" The rest, as they say, is sartorial history.

We caught up with the designer and artist to chat all about the collection's beginnings, taking inspiration from Anne of Green Gables and how we can do a better job of dressing with joy in our everyday lives.

Tell us a bit about how this collaboration came together. Where did the idea for the "Joie de Vivre" collection come from?

Rose McMahon: I never really know what I'm going to make, or how it's going to feel, until I'm in the studio working and building, but I knew that I wanted to start with really beautiful textiles. I was a bit panicked about how I was going to accomplish this, but finding Laura was so easy. I asked Chloe Wise, an artist that I had just collaborated with, who she thought was doing something beautiful and interesting these days. The second I saw Laura's work I knew she was the perfect artist for this collection. She had videos on Instagram of her working to Rihanna's Anti, and that's probably the album I've listened [to] most in the studio, so I just felt like we were cut from the same cloth. We decided together on the painting that she would make for me, and it was then my job to make it into fabric.

Laura Dawe: I have, many times, painted the three women in floral, swirling together, that are featured on some of the silk. They are from a photograph I took of my friends and it changes presence and meaning every time I paint it. For Rose it seemed like a great jumping off point. We sat together and chose the colours, talked about the feeling we wanted.

RM: I think Laura's art really set the tone for the whole collection. Her use of colour is much kinder to the eye than something I might naturally be drawn too. So we ended up with this really feminine fabric of women very intimately lying down together. With this soft silk there was a laziness, a calmness that I had to roll with. I was eight months pregnant when I started making the clothes, so I think it fit that the clothes would be soft and feminine.

We love how unapologetically feminine the "Joie de Vivre" collection is. Is this something you set out to evoke from the outset?

RM: In a way, yes! I am and always will be a "more is more" and "don't stop" kind of a woman. I grew up with only brothers and still, in every photo of me as a girl I have bows, headpieces, frills, velvet and ruffles on. There really is just nothing tomboyish about my aesthetic. As a designer you can definitely follow the pack but I believe that people will always respond better to something that is true to you. And there is something exciting about doing something different, a little rebellious and yes "unapologetic!"

LD: I just want to say that I my full name is LAURA ASHLEY Dawe. Florals and this type of femininity are literally my namesake.

We couldn't help but notice the amount of puffed sleeves (which are famously Anne Shirley's favourite sartorial statement) that pop up in the collection. Coincidence or conspiracy?

RM: Anne Shirley will always be one of my favourite heroines! I watched that series every single time I got sick from ages seven to probably fifteen. I have always loved how Anne's appearance is very feminine, but she is so adventurous and fearless. Anne is a rebel in her own right. She doesn't do what the other girls do, and it's hard for her. There's so much uncertainty about the path that Anne chooses for herself, but she follows her heart. So yes, Anne has influenced the puffed sleeves but probably also my entire life! I grew up in Thunder Bay, a place where fashion designers do not exist. I moved to Toronto, started my own business, and married a man from a different country. I think in a lot of ways my decisions go against the norm, and they have been difficult and isolating, but have ultimately been the right for me.

LD: Have I ever related to anyone more than Anne? I never think of her clothes, just her constantly getting into "scrapes." Such good intentions, and so hard on herself. God bless you, Anne.

Laura, your paintings reflect such a diversity of womanhood. Is this something that was important to you when putting the collection together?

LD: It's not something we discussed! But as women we are made to feel that there is so much to fear, and that our value is intrinsically linked with our sexual desirability. There are so so many ways to be a woman, all of them are right and all of them are valuable.

RM: I think the images we see around us really affect our self worth so I hope to always show a diverse group of people wearing my clothes. I want to continue to do more of this, and really break free from commercial ideas of beauty.

Rose, your last collection played with the idea of "dress up" and harnessing the joy that we felt playing as kids into adulthood. This collection feels like a continuation of those ideas. What do you think we can learn from our child selves in terms of our day to day approach to fashion?  

RM: I think our child self is our most authentic relationship with clothing and that is something I want to bring to every collection of clothing that I make.  When we are [children] we are uninhibited by ideas of what we believe we should be, we aren't trying to look successful, or sexy, or 'stylish.' We just do things that feel good when we are kids, so again I think it's important to wear things that make you feel good. My mother also has a theatre background and always encouraged us to use clothing to explore our imagination.

Shopping and trying on clothes can be an anxiety-ridden experience because it often brings all issues that we have with our bodies right up to the surface. How can the concept of "dressing for joy" help to combat that?

RM: This question really resonates with me because as a child I loved clothes so completely, but as soon as I hit puberty I developed a pretty severe eating disorder that lasted many years, and the joy of clothing was stripped from me. Shopping was extremely difficult and pretty much always ended up in tears. To be completely honest, I still hate malls and try to mostly buy vintage clothing, where you won't be bombarded with images of what you "should be." My eating disorder is the reason I did not get into making clothes until my late twenties, which is really sad, because this is definitely what I am meant to do here on earth. To me, an eating disorder is a form of losing oneself, because you are literally denying your body of what it needs to survive in order to appease the outside world. When you start dressing for yourself, it's like you slowly come back to the person you are, the person you are meant to be. This is something I think we need to come back to each morning, and not let outside images affect us too much.

LD: I also wear almost entirely second hand clothing, punctuated by a few very special pieces by designers I believe in. The joy for me is in the hunt for something well-made and inexpensive, or in supporting an artists vision. Clothing swaps are also a way to get and give items with a story attached, a way to bring a piece of your friend with you after a hang out. I think fast fashion is toxic, both environmentally and psychically, and I avoid it where I can.

What are your best tips for dressing with joy, energy and excitement in everyday life?

RM: I think we always just have to say yes if we like something, even though it might not be practical or what everyone else is wearing. And I think we need to understand that this takes a certain amount of courage and bravery, but not an impossible amount. Start slowly building your wardrobe with pieces that make you happy and inspire you, and I think you'll find that you have the courage needed to wear these pieces.

LD: I may tie a silk scarf around my leg, wear all shades of rust, paint a pressing thought onto my t-shirt, wear a formal dress with boots, wear heels with sweatpants. Psychologists say that by activating your smile muscles, like fake-smiling, you can make yourself feel happy. Sort of in this way I can sometimes dress myself into a state of joy.

With that in mind, do you think dressing up (and fashion in general) can act as a form of self-care?

RM: I never thought about it that way but I think it definitely can be. Last summer, my younger brother was going through a hard time and he asked me to make him one of my bright green taffeta hoodies as a way of treating himself. It really touched me that he wanted to celebrate getting over something difficult with one of my pieces. It was a way for him to take care of himself, and sometimes that's a hard thing to do, to do something just to make you feel joy. I think it's easier to spend money on something that will make us feel successful, but that might not ultimately feed our soul in the same way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.