A chat with Manuela Dack

Caymanian artist and fashion designer Manuela Dack has been called ‘one of the most interesting designers of the moment’ by Italian Vogue and her recent collection, inspired by memories of growing up in the Cayman Islands, received critical acclaim at this year’s London Fashion Week.  

On a recent visit home, Manuela visited the National Gallery to talk to fashion students and the wider public about her collections and experiences as a young designer in one of the world’s most exciting fashion capitals. 

Here she sits down with National Gallery director Natalie Urquhart.  

Natalie Urquhart: What inspired you to become a fashion designer and how did you break into the industry? 

Manuela Dack: I have always been drawn to creative industries. For me fashion is the ideal balance between art and design and I enjoy the challenges that come with the functional constraints of clothing, as well as the business side of the industry. I find creating something in an industry that encourages you to be so creatively free and at the same time design for a specific market really interesting.  

NU: How would you describe the Manuela Dack brand? 

MD: It is hard to define it at this stage because as a ‘brand’ it is still in its infancy. There is so much I have in mind for the immediate and long-term future, but it has always been my goal to build a brand that has longevity and provides something of value to the market so at this stage the focus is on building solid foundations.

I have put a huge emphasis on quality and craftsmanship from the start and it’s those elements that I want to keep at the core of the brand as it expands. 

NU: How have your experiences growing up in Cayman influenced your work? 

MD: I don’t think you can grow up somewhere like Cayman and not have it impact you creatively. Elements from Cayman have been a common thread throughout my artwork as far as I can remember. I think it is largely responsible for my fascination with layering colours and fluid textures and combining old crafts with innovative techniques.  

NU: You’re known for your innovative combinations of fabric and layering as well as your emphasis on the cut and detail, tell us more about this? 

MD: Over the years I’ve become quite obsessed with contrast and balance in design. As a result I work a lot with contrasting fabrics and textures, layering up different colours and fabrics to create an interesting finish.

I like to challenge the fabrics and use them in new ways, for example using printed leathers that appear very structured but feel light and soft, or creating an impossibly light silhouette where the structure and hold of the dress is hidden inside.  

So development in smart materials or innovations in fabric become increasingly fascinating.  

NU: What is your creative process like? 

MD: I wouldn’t say that I have a set ‘creative process’. I don’t sit down with a blank page and think ‘now I’m going to create something!’ It’s much more organic. I am constantly collecting inspiration from all kinds of sources.

It could be anything from vintage clothing, to photography books to research in architecture. When it comes time to design a new collection I have usually been obsessing over something in particular for months on end and I’ll hone in on one part of that and make it the focus of the new collection.  

NU: You’ve just come back from London Fashion week where your new collection was featured, what were some of the ideas behind these pieces? 

MD: So with that research process in mind, the most recent collection, Autumn/ Winter 2012, that I just finished showing, was inspired by a collection of carved, engraved and inlaid wooden boxes that I owned. I was really drawn to this idea of cutting away and building layers of embellishment and it translated really well into clothing with the fabrics I use.  

NU: What are some of the highlights of your career to date? 

MD: I’ve been fortunate to have some really great press coverage. Some particular highlights include W magazine, Vogue Italia, Showstudio, Elle Japan, Grazia Magazine and Style Bubble.  

From a personal perspective, recognition from members of the fashion industry that I have respected means a lot. Meeting Isabella Blow, who had a huge influence on me creatively, and getting her seal of approval while I was still at college is definitely up there.

NU: What does it take to start your own label and make it as an independent designer? 

MD: Blood, sweat and tears.  

NU: Being creative, how do you handle the day-to-day stress of the business side of the industry? 

I watch a lot of films. I’m particularly excited about Wes Anderson’s new film that comes out later this year.  

NU: What would you tell students in Cayman who are looking to study for a career in the Fashion Industry? 

MD: Don’t listen to too much advice be it good or bad. Everyone will always have an opinion on your work. It is impossible to please everyone and in the fashion industry people are often quick to tell you how much they love your work but on the whole compliments are not useful.

You can always progress and improve, so find a handful of people whose advice you respect and listen to as much constructive criticism as they are willing to give.  

NU: What can we expect to see next? 

MD: I have plans to introduce more accessories, as well as more limited edition evening pieces. There has been a lot of interest for pieces at both ends of the market so it will be great to work on those two projects over the coming months.  

Manuela’s lecture was part of the National Gallery’s new Art Lecture Series, which invites visiting and local artists to talk about their work. In May, glass sculptor Davin Ebanks returns to the Island to talk about his latest collection.  


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Manuela Dack photo by Eugene Bonthuys