Ost End Girls collection, 2013 Photo: Michael de Lausnay

Makers of their own time – Chapter 3: ATELIER E.B

Issue no5
okt-nov 2021
Fluïditeit

Metropolis M's research fellow Jessica Gysel meets with queer & feminist collectives that exhibit alternative ways of cooperation and collaboration. For her third text in this series, she visits Lucy McKenzie and Beca Lipscombe whose joint practice ‘Atelier E.B’ positions itself in the midst of mass culture – pushing it to its limits of responsibility and collectivism.

My first encounter with Atelier E.B was in 2013, at the occasion of Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie’s show Something They Have To Live With at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. It was her first solo show in the Netherlands, and explored her ongoing interest in that delicate moment when design, décor, façade, architecture, history, model making, drawing and painting meet. Interestingly, Lucy’s exhibition had an extra room on the side: the showroom of Atelier E.B, the fashion label she runs together with designer Beca Lipscombe.

It’s not everyday you get to meet someone who is able to pursue a prolific art career and run a collective fashion label at the same time. I visited Atelier E.B’s showroom, a three-day pop-up showroom at Magazijn in the Red Light District, fell in love with the clothing, and was smitten by some of the jewellery. The two showed their collection Ost End Girls, the first one that was intended for sale from the start. In the case of their very first collection Inventors of Tradition –one that was focussed on exploring possibilities of contemporary Scotland manufacturing– it was only later that it was commercialized.

It’s not everyday you get to meet someone who is able to pursue a prolific art career and run a collective fashion label at the same time

Lucy McKenzie, Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem (including Sublet), Norwich Gallery, Norwich, 2007

Lucy McKenzie, Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem (including Sublet), Arnolfini, Bristol, 2007

I was at that point seriously flirting with the idea of moving back to Brussels, where Lucy was already based. We talked about the city, about how much she liked its legendary music scene, its great vintage fashion, its vernacular visual culture... She told me to look her up once I’d moved there, even though she’d be gone a lot that year, because of a detective fiction writing course she enrolled in that took place in New York. I did move to Brussels in 2014 and have had many animated conversations with both Lucy and Beca ever since, especially about their respective practices in relation to Atelier E.B.

One of the things that I find really intriguing about Atelier E.B is their paravent-currency. Parallel to each new collection, Atelier E.B makes a paravent: a room screen of which one side is screen-printed by Beca, and the other by Lucy – a metaphor for their joint practice, honouring their separate contributions and specialities. At times they invite other people to contribute, sharing the canvas with other collaborators. The screen gets sold for a reasonable amount of money through one of the galleries Lucy is represented by. The money is used to cover the whole process of making the collection, including research, sampling and production.

It’s a nice thought: a paravent parasiting on the art world. In that sense, Atelier E.B breaks with the other collectives I wrote about earlier. There’s no interest whatsoever in retreating from society or detaching oneself from the art world. On the contrary, as Lucy explains: ‘As an artist I like recognizing the system I myself am completely part of, rather than pretending that it is my enemy. I guess we come from a really different point of view than some of the other collectives you spoke with. What we are trying to do is to live that more mainstream or conventional way of thinking, while still pushing it to its limits of responsibility and collectivism as far as we can. We are not coming from a radical position, and do not position ourselves as a kind of commune. It’s mass culture that we're interested in.’

Parallel to each new collection, Atelier E.B makes a paravent: an intruiging metaphor for their joint practice, honouring their separate contributions and specialities

Atelier E.B, Paravent Jasperwear / East Dunbartonshire terrazzo, 2018-2020, double sided folding screen in five parts, oil on canvas mounted on wood, silkscreen on cotton mounted on wood, steel frame, umbrella

Beca and Lucy met in 2000 in Edinburgh. Lucy became one of the models for Beca’s own fashion brand and gradually the two grew closer and closer and Atelier E.B started to literally take shape. ‘Atelier’ refers to the handmade, the direct connection with the client, the patterning and the intimacy; ‘E.B’ stands for Edinburg and Brussels, where Beca and Lucy respectively are residing. Atelier E.B gave Lucy an opportunity to take a break from her solo work, to further explore her interest in fashion and to experiment with different ways of collaborating in- and outside the art world. For Beca, Atelier E.B gave her a chance to stop working for big brands and to explore the heritage and vernacular fashion of her home country at her own pace.

When Lucy had an art show that travelled through a bunch of university towns and had its final stop in San Francisco, she invited Beca to become a part of it. Together, they put many of their discussions about retail into practice.

—Lucy 'I said to Beca: ''Why don't you have a shop in my exhibition? I can sublet a part of my show to you.'''

—Beca 'I thought: ''Sublet?'' – I had never heard of anybody sublet a space in another person’s show.'

—Lucy 'I thought it could offer you the chance to present your clothes to people that might would want to wear them, and to do so in an unconventional way: the clothes would just be there in the galleries. It was a fun way to test how an institution would deal with becoming a ''store'' and how visitors would deal with becoming ''customers''.'

—Beca'And a fun way to see how people would react to it. Will they touch it? Will they walk into the shop? Do they think it's art? You know, questioning everything.'

Passer-by, Faux Shop, Fondation d'entreprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris, 2019 Photo: Pierre Antoine

Passer-by, Faux Shop, Fondation d'entreprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris, 2019 Photo: Pierre Antoine

That tour marked the beginning of Atelier E.B, which continued to evolve over the years to come. ‘A slow burner’, Beca calls it. It did have a major exhibition however: Passer-by passed by the Serpentine Gallery in London, Lafayette Anticipation in Paris and Garage in Moscow. Passer-by was a show about art’s love affair with commercial display and mannequins. It featured historical artifacts, and a boutique presenting their last collection, Jasperwear. They invited a group of contemporary artists to make display scenarios for their clothing, including Tauba Auerbach, Beca’s mother, the tapestry weaver Elizabeth Radcliffe, and Anna Blessmann. For the show in Paris the American artist Eileen Quinlan made a special photo series that was integrated into the show, referencing to the history of display and contrasting the ‘behind the scenes’ with the polished state of a final display.

—Lucy ‘So many of our friends and colleagues are particularly interested in the shifting boundaries between fine and commercial art. The show was a big laboratory. You do a show about display but you have no money so what do you do? You put in your own labour, own time and investment. That show was brilliant for what we put into it, not just what the institutions did. In the end, after all the research and discussions, we made an artwork that was ‘‘just a display’’. We don’t like mannequins, so luckily we got the pleasure to work with the window dressers themselves instead. The work was in the end just a way of window dressing, shallow as that. It was just products and chipboard. But so much love and care went into it so it went beyond display, beyond fashion and beyond everything, to something that has our fucking soul in it. And then a big museum bought it.’

Working together with the Serpentine Gallery, at the time still known as the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, also confronted Lucy and Beca with some serious ethical questions. The gallery used to be sponsored by the Sacklers: a family whose company Purdue Pharma is behind OxyContin, one of the painkillers that is at the centre of the deadly US opioids crisis. The issue raised many public discussions in recent years, causing the Serpentine to stop accepting donations from the family and to drop the Sackler’s name. When Atelier E.B exhibited in the gallery in 2018 however, this dubious sponsorship had not yet been exposed and criticized in this way. When one of the contributors decided to withdraw from participating to their show that Lucy and Beca were confronted with it. After giving the issue a lot of thought, the two decided not to cancel their show at the gallery.

—Lucy ‘Serpentine has free entry and huge audiences, and we were bringing with us many artists who would never have the opportunity to access such an audience otherwise. With the good comes the bad, and how bad is it? That’s what we had to figure out. Can we show what we want to show? We want to operate within the ecosystem of feminism, but also as a fashion label wanted to situate ourselves in mass culture, which meant deciding what battles to focus on. It felt like equivalent to being featured in a Condé Nast publication.’

'After all, we are a business within the fashion industry, and I think we managed to use the art system for this purpose, to by-pass so to say the dominating structures there'

—Beca ‘After all, we are a business within the fashion industry, and I think we managed to use the art system for this purpose, to by-pass so to say the dominating structures there. Sales were exceptional with Passer-By, and we gained a lot of visibility. Fashion has changed so much this last decade. The idea of subletting a part of the show to showcase fashion was very pre-Instagram. At the time, you still had to be in a fashion magazine to even be noticed; you would have to do all these things to end up in Vogue. Instagram changed all this and has allowed Atelier to be visible worldwide. It gave us much more independence. It made us in control of how we wish to present ourselves. Of course it has its faults and limitations; it in no way replaces the experience of really meeting people that is of huge importance to us.’

To cater to this need for real-life contact, Atelier E.B made its own app Cleo’s, which was an integral part of Passer-By. On their website it says that Cleo’s is a social space, a tool to connect the Atelier E.B clientele to each other in the physical world. It’s also an intimate space: clothes become tools for both ‘being’ and ‘representing’ in the way that people can share pictures of them wearing the garments. Finally, it’s also an experimental space, an excuse to speak out, to try out and share all kind of other things, like news, showrooms and exhibitions.

—Lucy ‘The idea was precipitated by being somewhere and three people were all wearing our scarf. I made a joke, like OK we need an app or something to avoid this. Or encourage it. And then we’d have this experience where we had to go to Minneapolis for one day and because of our packing we didn't want to bring a lot of winter clothes and so we arrived in Minneapolis and we just packed exactly the same outfit without realizing it. But I loved it. I really loved it, and I thought how much I really liked that kind of thing, being part of a secret gang.’

Ost End Girls collection, 2013 Photo: Michael De Lausnay

Atelier E.B’s work begins with a lot of historical research, but in the end creates its own (fake) history and gives it a nice design. It keeps a delicate balance between referencing to the past and present, openly admiring fashion designers and artists like Madeleine Vionnet, Bonnie Cashin, and the Wiener Werkstatte: skilled people, with an interest in tools, making and patterning. Another way in which they present these interests is through making books. Personal favourites are The Inventors of Tradition I and II. These two books take a deep dive into Scotland’s unique heritage in textile making, and search for new connections between the past and present. They apply these findings to current issues and problems – with a twist, obviously.

Corona hit the world right after the last Passer-By show at Garage, Moscow, had opened its doors. Beca and Lucy both feel like it brought everyone in the business down to their level. Lucy took on lace making, and spent time in Bruges to learn from the edgers, who have been around since the Middle Ages. It’s in line with Atelier E.B’s ethos that every new collection is an excuse to learn to work with different places and techniques. They feel that both the fashion – and the art world are changing, but remain true at their core. They are still about the beauty of the mundane and local. About urging people to use their fantasy.

Atelier E.B exhibits a profound and long-term commitment to these worlds, with no room for quick ideas. The paravent currency is still there. It’s been coming and going, and at the moment it’s back. Lucy calls it their bank, and it keeps it possible for them to keep going and develop the brand. Beca: ‘As I said before, we actually are a business and I’m extremely lucky that my business partner has invested and doesn’t expect anything back pronto. You cannot make your money back in two years. It could take ten, even twenty years. You should have fun with it. ‘Caw canny, hold your horses, this is a slow and beautiful burner.’

OUT NOW: MAKERS OF THEIR OWN TIME - RELATIONAL ACTIVISM. EDITED BY JESSICA GYSEL. INCLUDING SIMON(E) VAN SAARLOOS, GRACE NDIRITU, ALINE BOUVY, CAROLINE WOOLARD, VALENTINA DESIDERI & DENISE FERREIRA DA SILVA. ORDER NOW, SEND AN EMAIL TO [email protected]

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