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Costume designer Danielle Fagen explores mental health through costume, dance, photography and poetry in her textile exhibition Unravelling, at the Design Exchange as part of Fashion Art Toronto 2022.


Burning, 2021. Photo by Damian Siquieros, concept and costume creation by Danielle Fagen.

“Through my work, I begin a dialogue between art, craft and mental health, where I explore the intimate relationship between design and the body,” explains maker and costume designer Danielle Fagen. She is the mind and lead artist behind Unravelling, an intimate exhibition displaying a series of seven diptychs and the costumes featured in them – all inspired to mimic and depict complex states of mind and feelings from various mental health struggles. As part of Fashion Art Toronto 2022, Unravelling was on view at the Design Exchange from May 6 to 8.

We visited the exhibition and upon entering we were met with the carefully designed, folded textures of the fabric in the opening dress, inspired by imprints on the skin caused by night sweats and damp sheets on the body. Fagen noted three sources of inspiration in total for Unravelling: George Buchner’s play Woyzeck; mental illness as a feminized and romanticized stigma as represented in early Hollywood films; and the relationship of anxiety with physical sensations in the body.

Why do we present ourselves the way we do, and what does it say about us? Could we consolidate an emotion and sensations felt within the body into a physical textile? As a designer who focuses on exploring human nature through textiles, Fagen hopes to discover answers to these questions through the making of Unravelling. To learn more, we caught up with Fagen to hear about the inspirations behind the works, her creative process and the complexities of using textile as a medium. 

AGOinsider: The exhibition combines different forms of art: textiles, photography, dance and poetry. How do you see them all working together to depict the subject of mental health? 

Fagen: To begin, textile was chosen as the primary form of self-expression for Unravelling. I feel extremely connected to the tactility of textiles and how they can make us feel. I wanted to materialize the sensations felt within, to be represented outwardly and physically. 

I chose to have Alisia Pobega, ballet dancer for Les Grands Ballet, as the model because in my previous work with her, I could feel how sensitive and perceptive she was at expressing the most fragile emotions through the strength of her body. 

My personal experience with dreams are very fast paced and seem out of my control. I chose to collaborate with Damian Siquieros as his photography style is very ethereal, and I wanted to distill and pause the kinetic energy of my dreams, to create a sort of freeze frame in order to dissect them.

I collaborated with Bruno Pierre Houle in the set design in the photographs, and curation of the exhibit, to show how physical space can have an effect on our psyche. Exploring ‘forced perspective’, and materials mimicking shards of broken mirror and glass, exploring breaking perceptions and boundaries within ourselves.

Madelaine Caritas Longman’s poetry was chosen to represent my personal coping mechanism of journaling when confronting my personal struggles. Journaling aides in expressing the complexities of these emotions − and at times physical sensations − with words. 

AGOinsider: Manipulating textiles can be a very intricate and difficult process. What was the creation process like for you? Did you learn any lessons along the way? Any surprises?

Fagen: Anxiety and depression are both an emotional and tactile experience. I would wake from nightmares, sweaty, and with the embossed, organic, imprints of the sheets on my skin. To me, this image of embossed skin was representative of my state of mind and therefore sought to express this texture with fabric.

For me, the moment I touch a textile it expresses a feeling within. It’s important as a designer to know which fabric will respond to which cuts; what fabric has structure and what does not will determine the outcome of the garment. However, with costume design, you are always thinking of the psychological state of the wearer of the costume, as well as expressing the backstory of the character. I am interested in the backstory of the fabric itself. 

Once I match the textile to the inner tensions or the outer sensations such as embossed skin, then I drape the material on the mannequin in various ways, keeping in mind whether or not to constrain the body, or leave room for physical expansion to express another story.

There was a lot of experimentation with textile and embroidery. Some garments were mostly made but then did not seem to accurately represent the emotion I was focused on, or the story I wanted to tell, and had to start again from scratch. Much of this process was also supported heavily by my artistic mentor John Colm Leberg. The feedback from John, and the luxury of time that quarantine afforded, enabled me to really develop the images that had been in my mind for a number of years. Also having fittings with the dancer, and receiving her feedback, as well as taking short movement videos to explore how the fabric interacted with her body, informed many design decisions. 

While I had time to create, I also had a deadline and set dates for the photoshoot and vernissage. Embroidering the title dress was an extremely time-consuming task. While I tend to enjoy seeing fast results, this process taught me patience and the meditative qualities of embroidering on a large scale. I also adopted a far less perfectionist approach to my art, and I evolved in valuing the imperfect and the little mistakes that can sometimes create even more beauty, such as is valued in the Japanese Wabi-sabi philosophy of ‘flawed beauty’.

Installation View at the Design Exchange

Installation View at the Design Exchange. Photo by @shotbyallie

AGOinsider: How did you go about choosing what textile to use for the dresses?

Fagen: During COVID lockdown, I decided to experiment with fabrics that I already had from previous collaborations with Damian. A few years earlier, a colleague of mine showed me what happens to polyester organza when you set a heat gun to it. The fabric melts and contorts in an organic way, and very much mimics the texture of the sheet imprints on the skin. I chose the burnt organza to be my primary fabric for the whole storyline; however, some of the stories needed to be expressed with fabrics that are opposite in texture and sensation. 

It was very important to me that the old Hollywood glamour vignette, have dresses created from satin. The smoothness and shine of satin are immediately associated with the idea of perfection, and must be sewn as precisely as possible. Therefore, both the fabric and my interaction with it changed my artistic approach to the individual stories I was trying to tell.

The white cocoon coat was actually salvaged from a dumpster, and I found that it had been tossed aside but still had body and movement to be very telling. The gold cocoon gown in the final image was draped from a single piece of fabric left over from a previous project, and I was satisfied with the result almost immediately after pinning it on the mannequin the first time.

AGOinsider: What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibition?

Fagen: I would like the exhibition to encourage conversation about mental health; seeking support through community, and honouring one's complicated personal journey to a brighter road ahead. I would encourage everyone, whether artistically trained or not, to use art in a cathartic way, and face their challenges through creativity.

For more information on Unravelling by Danielle Fagen, visit and @daniellefagendesigns on Instagram. Keep up to date with the latest art and culture happenings around the city by signing up to AGOinsider.

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