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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with writer and fashion designer Lira Leirner

Writer, Cultural Sociologist, Fashion Designer and self described "Jack of All Trades" Lira Leirner talks to Amelia's Magazine about her fashion line, the differences between social and political sociology and the merits of reading.

Written by Sally Mumby-Croft

Initiating a relationship over the Internet is an age-old tale and I have friends who have successfully trodden this path, side effects medications but not without some initial trepidation. There’s always the joke about boys being deluded about their height, patient often adding an inch or four to their profiles (or being axe-murderers), ask and girls uploading old photos when they were a good few pounds lighter (or being bunny boilers). However, beyond the aesthetics, how much do you really know about the person you are communicating with online? And turning the spotlight on you, how far are you willing to stretch the truth to ensure that you are presenting yourself in the best light, without being branded a liar?

Produced by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who directed the brilliant docu-film “Capturing the Friedmans” in 2003, Catfish is the directorial feature film debut of Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, which explores these themes, human psychology and the social networking, mobile and electronic technological landscape as a medium for communication, closely following a ‘virtual’ relationship as it unfolds over Facebook and phone calls. Made with a budget of only around $30,000, the film was an unlikely hit at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, which had audience members and critics alike hyperventilating with excitement.

When I received my invite to the press screening, I was urged to read as little about Catfish as possible to avoid spoiling my experience of the film. As I would urge you to do the same, I can tell you that writing this review is going to prove difficult but here goes…

Filmed using a grainy handheld camera, the story goes like this: the film’s protagonist is Nev Schulman, a young, charismatic, sleepy-eyed New-York based photographer who becomes involved, via Facebook, with an eight-year-old art prodigy named Abby who lives in Michigan. Abby approaches Nev to ask for his permission to use a photograph for a painting and a fraternal relationship ensues between Nev and Abby, which becomes increasingly complex as Nev becomes involved with the rest of her family: Abby’s mother, Angela, and Abby’s attractive horse-riding, guitar-playing, party-loving 19-year-old sister, Megan, along with Megan’s intricate network of friends.  Needless to say, a less fraternal relationship develops between Nev and Megan and before we know it, they are “sexting”, amalgamating naked photos of themselves and speaking every night via the plethora of the latest electronic technology that we have at our disposal today. Nothing, however, is quite as it seems as the film takes several unexpected twists and turns to reach a not entirely surprising yet poignant conclusion. 

One of the film’s key strengths lies in Nev’s engaging hopeless romantic, drawing empathy from his viewers as we are taken on a journey of his evolving feelings for Megan and her family. Throughout the course of the film, we see Nev experience infatuation, doubt, anger, disappointment, betrayal and then sympathy - feelings of which are all doubtless familiar to us, whether in the virtual or real world. The way in which the film is shot, where Nev talks directly to the camera as if we were talking to a family member or a close friend (fitting really seeing as Schulman is Nev’s brother and Joost is one of his best friends), makes us feel as if we are there, as a confidante to Nev, which helps us to bond and identify with his character.

Where David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’sThe Social Network” is about the creation of Facebook, Catfish is a film about the consequences of such creations, which may explain why its subject matter has resonated so strongly with audiences, seeing as approximately 5 billion people of us across the globe have a mobile phone subscription and 500 million of us are active users of Facebook (although I exclude myself from the latter).

At the risk of revealing too much, “Catfish” goes far deeper than simply being “another film about Facebook”. It throws up moral questions such as to what extent one can engage in innocent harmless fantasies before they start to infringe on the wellbeing of others. This issue, however, is not strictly confined to the realms of an online environment, although it can be argued that modern technological advances, especially social networking, has made this deception somewhat easier to play out and sustain.

There has been much debate about the authenticity of “Catfish” and I for one am not completely convinced that we are all being taken for a ride, however, regardless of whether or not the movie is a hoax, Catfish is an absorbing, thought-provoking and affecting indie about hope, crushed dreams and the society that we live in where social media and modern technology provides a platform for our inner-narcissist, potential to deceive or desire to escape reality to a fictional world where life is less grim. In Joost’s own words, “Our profiles are a chance to present ourselves to the world in a way we can completely control…”

Read our exclusive interview with the director of Catfish, Henry Joost, here.

Catfish is out at selected cinemas across the UK now.

(All images courtesy of Rogue)

Lira Leirner is a Goldsmith’s Sociology and Culture graduate and the writer behind the wonderful blog: The Portmanteau. Recently Lira has delved into the world of fashion design with her self titled label: Lira Leirner. Amelia’s Magazine had the pleasure of discussing Lira’s multiple interests ranging from cultural sociology to fashion via white collar crime and art, decease whilst exploring the reasons behind a collection that consists almost entirely of dresses…

Who is Lira Leirner and what do you do?

Like many who do what they love, health I’m a little bit of a Jack of all trades. First and foremost, whichever way my career takes me, I’m a writer. However, the name has become detached from myself and when I hear what used to be my name and surname I tend to think not of myself but the fashion line it labels. Said fashion line offers mainly quirky yet classically cut dresses. I focus on luxurious materials and a classic youthful look which is more playful than preppy but continuously carries a demure elegance without losing a hint of sexiness.

Illustrations by Danielle Andrews

Have you always known what you wanted to do?

I had an amazing primary school teacher who supported my writing heavily. I went to a Waldorf School for my primary school years, and we had to write an essay every day. It never felt like homework to me, so I had a lot of fun with it, exploring the different formats ranging from reportage to theatre pieces to poetry to absurdist writing. My fellow students would actually mock my teacher’s end-of-day catch phrase: “And remember – two pages minimum. Lira, ten pages maximum”, which was quite funny. I knew I was going to become a writer from a very early age. As much as the topics of interest may have varied over time – from philosophy and law to white collar crime to fashion – writing was always at the core of my actions. Even when I started working, writing was still at the core in some form or another, ranging from content manager to translator to copywriter.

Fashion, on the other hand, slowly crept into my life although I tried to ignore it for a long time as I enjoyed being the black sheep in the family, the non-artist, non-designer who was leaning towards academic subjects. I started creating pieces because I couldn’t find anything that fitted my petite frame as well as my classic yet quirky and high maintenance taste and in doing so I opened the floodgates of ideas. I started for practical reasons but it became quite quickly apparent that there were other people out there who liked what I was doing, which pushed me, of course.

Having graduated from Goldsmiths Sociology and Cultural Studies BA, what were your thoughts on the course?

In comparison to Cambridge University or LSE, Goldsmiths focuses on the cultural aspect rather than the political aspect of sociology. This allows for an approach closer to the way I see the world, that is, to take into account, among other criteria of course, language, media and style to understand a certain phenomena. However, I must say, sociology requires you to spend a lot of time on your own and is not the most sociable of courses. I spent a lot of time with the design ‘crew’ as my partner Stuart Bannocks is a designer – so much so, in fact, that I now still interact with the teachers and students from that course, while my sociology tutors and lecturers barely recognize me when I happen to run into them.

Why did you start Lira Leirner?

Contributing to a field that interests you I find to be an undertaking a lot more satisfying and noble than mere consumption, so sharing my steps into fashion design was the natural development in that direction. And, as Confucius pointed out… Do a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.

How is Lira Leirner (the company) doing?

Well, lets put it this way – at the moment I get more press attention than sales.

Your collections entirely consist of dresses, what attracts you to this particular garment?

A dress can be both simple yet complex in terms of cut, which allows for a big playground and to explore the shapes of the wearer. It is one of the biggest garment canvas in terms of the surface it covers, apart from the coat. A dress is also an entire outfit and therefore a lot more satisfying to put thought into – it finishes as a complete piece, and I can be almost certain that it will be used as a statement rather than accompanying piece in any outfit. In the end, I just love wearing dresses. It’s the garment which makes me smile the most, so why not focus on that?

Aside from your musings on Fashion and Culture, you are also researching white collar crime – what is about white collar crime that has gripped your attention?

It’s difficult to answer this question without delving too deeply into very personal and psychological reasons. Due to certain circumstances in my life and certain people that I’ve been exposed to from a young age, which worked very well as a deterrent role model, I guess I’ve developed an almost obsessive, deeply rooted disgust for dishonesty, greed and exploitation of trust. That, more than anything else, is at the root of white collar crime. It fascinates me because it’s behavior I don’t understand although I can objectively follow its logic.

Illustrations by Danielle Andrews

What are your thoughts on menswear?

It’s difficult and quite frustrating. I’ve tried, but even the most fashion forward men I know were taken back by the pieces I created, the only ones they seemed to like were incredibly simple with just a tiny twist (such as a standard tie with a funky stripe), and quite frankly that’s just too boring for me. I know fashionistos will not be very happy with me saying this, but it made me realize that most of them have bigger mouths than the will to be experimental.

Most of them have gotten so used to the (infuriatingly) small range of choice, that they have become naturally born stylists, and prefer to take a few relatively simple pieces and put together their own look – to which they stick. There’s not much room for experimentation for me as a designer, as they’re very specific about what they want and even half an inch down or up is a deal breaker. Hopefully I can be proven wrong one day.

Where did the idea come from to use actual royal mail sacs?

I participated in a RAG fashion show at Goldsmiths many years ago now, and had just received a big load of packages following a shopping spree, which meant I had just spent the funds I needed. My eyes fell on the Royal Mail sack in the corner of my room, sadly entailing the contents of the money I had spent, and the idea became quite apparent. In a way, that money went into the right direction, after all. I sew a coat/ dress by hand, using packaging rope to create the details and voila… a few ripped and bleeding fingers and days without sleep later, this was my very first piece.

The image of the model wearing it during the show ended up being used on the cover of a magazine. I loved the iconic implication but most of all, the fact that it was up-cycled. I spent many days making sure I was there when the postmen came to collect their letters form the mailboxes – they would even shift some letters spread across bags into one in order to give the empty ones to me once I told them my plans.

My favourite source was the office at my old job, though. The bags tended to be brand new and just left in the locker in heaps, from years and months of collecting them and not knowing what to do with them. Finding a sack full of different colors was quite a score. It’s notoriously frustrating to work with as it frays quite quickly so the pieces need to be prepared, but it’s worth it.

What advice would you have for designers interested in starting up their own label?

Just do it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you what to do or for that perfect financial situation. When you have the idea and the drive, go for it. It may fail, it may turn out wonderfully, the important thing is to get going because if you don’t create it yourself, nothing can happen in the first place. Be the most excited person in the room – it’s your own thing, you can’t expect anybody else to be as excited as you are. The more excited you are, the more excited other people will be. Both these statements have seeped into my being over the years as it rubbed off from my partner Stuart Bannocks, who lives and breathes these with great success.

Follow a single person’s own vision. This is less obvious than it sounds. No matter how many people get involved, as long as it’s one person having the last say in all details, the taste and style will be a coherent one even when you’re experimenting. This makes it easier to specify the direction and to market the brand as a whole.

How was it to show a capsule collection during London Fashion Week?

A bit surreal. I was invited to be part of a Fashion Fete in Covent Garden, which in itself was a lovely idea. However, it meant that the majority of people around were not my target buyers at all, which resulted in situations such as having a deluded mother trying to haggle a £200 100% silk, handmade one-off dress down to £8.50 because “that’s how much her daughter spends on dresses in Primark”. I couldn’t help but laugh. Bitterly.

Where do you source the materials for your clothes?

A lot of the materials I use are one off, end of the roll finds from a local market stall or from clear outs I came across online. I pride myself in working with what I call “real” materials only; such as silk, leather, tweed, wool, cotton, or in the case of Royal Mails sacks, the actual sacks themselves. The quality of the fabric is important to me because it’s one of the issues I had with garments that can be found in most high street shops. The way in which I source my material, as I’ve pointed out before is environmentally friendly because I focus on local production, which cuts out transportation, and use “left overs” that aren’t really left overs, I’m not exactly dealing with snippets but yards and yards of gorgeous fabric that would be simply wasted otherwise.

As a blogger, what are your thoughts on blogging and do you have any favourites you would like to recommend?

A blog without content appropriate distribution is like a diary without a publisher. There might be a potential Anne Frank lurking in the ocean of being able to be found via google keywords, but until then, it is a private pool of potential only. The key is in the distribution through micro blogging (aka Twitter) and social media. As was pointed out in an article recently, google identified fashion to be the industry which uses social media to its advantage better than any other. In other words, fashion bloggers fit into the construction and intent of social media perfectly, making it quite a natural process. In the end a blog is just a medium, and it’s up to you to use it properly.

The big fashion blogs in the industry I’d recommend are:
Tavi -> to keep tabs on the industry’s favourite witty girl
The Sartorialist -> for street style and photography
Style Bubble -> for hunting down small and quirky fashion lines
Fashion Foie Gras -> for fashion from a consumer’s point of view
Styleite -> for fashion news, big and small
The Clothes Whisperer -> for literature quality fashion wit and style whispering

Who are your favourite fashion designers or artists?

I have a split personality when it comes to favourite fashion designers but in all my preferences you can find a meticulously balanced symmetry of sorts. Asymmetry makes me nervous, in anything. On one hand I like fashion designers who manage to create simplicity within an architectural precision such as Calvin Klein, Valentino and Jil Sanders. On the other hand, I adore the theatrical statement pieces with intense attention to detail which you can often find in the vision of smaller designers such as Alberto Sinpatron but also in Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood.

When it comes to art, my preferences lies quite heavily within the environment I have grown up in – concrete art and framed concrete poetry. I think that when deciding what goes on your wall you need to be utterly personal – it’s you who will look at it day in and day out. Purchasing art the way I think it should be purchased, that is without the weaves of pretentiousness and hierarchy of value that I’m unfortunately all too familiar with in the art world, should take into account merely the immediate, personal reaction to a piece before you. I understand the intelligent purchase of art as an investment or logical, historical or poignant contribution to a collection but I don’t have much patience with such purchases in the privacy of a home.

Among others, I have pieces by Duval Timothy, Jose Resende, Kathryn Hall, Sarah Leirner, Pablo Picasso, Antonio Dias, Peter Keler, Doerte Helm, Betty Leirner and Jemma Austin gracing my wall.

Any book recommendations?

In order to recommend a book, I need to know the reader. There’s no recommendation one can do without starting with “If you like…” so I’m going to take some of my favourite books and explain why and who I would suggest them to.

“Down and Out in Paris and London” by George Orwell I would recommend to snobs who create a classic hierarchy into human experience. I create it, but it’s probably reversed as I care more about what I learn from an experience than what the symbolic value of that experience is in a social situation.

I’d recommend “Orientalism” by Edward Said to anybody I’d like to explain the xenophobia I had to deal with anywhere I went as a result of growing up in an almost constant stage of flux having lived in as many houses as I’m old, in five countries and many, many cities.

“Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” by Pierre Bordieu I’d recommend to anybody that works in the fashion industry.

Although fantasy books are a guilty pleasure for me, I did particularly enjoy the dark material trilogy by Philip Pullman (whose main character was names Lyra, go figure). I remember reading the first Harry Potter book from cover to cover on the evening of my birthday (such a cool kid, huh?) in 1998, years before it became so big, which didn’t hinder me from abandoning all life every time the next book came out.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini was one that had me running to the book store with every book that came out and spend the day cut off from the outside world as well. The Wheel of Time series, as I started reading it when quite a few books were published, came dangerously close to being abusive to my health as I would not move from my chosen spot for drink nor food nor toilet nor people coming in and out of the room until I had read all the books, which, despite being a very fast reader, took me a few days (there are 13 books, each ca. 500 – 900 pages long). This might sound extreme, but I approach fashion in the same manner; I created twenty pieces the week before fashion week. That’s not healthy, but was the only way I could keep up with my ideas – seeing them completed.

Where can we find your writing?

Most of my writing that is accessible online you can find on my blog, including pieces I’ve written for other websites. I have a small portfolio of poems and old articles uploaded to, however, some of it is in German. I am currently writing a book, so my online writing has decreased accordingly.

You gathered a lot of attention in a short amount of time…

I was lucky enough to pique the attention of some major fashion bloggers in London by coincidence, which eased the snowball into rolling on a steep hill. I do think that being a fashion blogger myself may have had an impact as I wear my own pieces out and about. This is turn meant they were exposed during events and meetings I was invited to as a blogger and attracted coverage as well as requests for interviews that way.

What are you plans for the upcoming year? Do you plan on returning to LFW for AW11?

I have been creating a more solid and bigger collection than the ones I’ve done so far and I think this is a collection whose production is likely to stretch into spring, especially with the winter months freezing my shackles into hibernation.

All photographs courtesy of: Jemma Austin, Terence Webb and Steve Bliss


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