Jess Eaton fuses fashion and fur in an unprecedented way, creating intriguing and often challenging pieces that question the industry’s approach to animal products. We sent Andrew Gonsalves to interview her and find out more about the inspiration behind such an odd mix of media.
The idea for the first Roadkill collection came to her as an epiphany. Jess was talking about Trashion, a couture collection made entirely from rubbish, when she was asked what her next creation would be. ‘The first image I had in my head was a bomber jacket made entirely of fox, with tyre marks on them.’ This idea didn’t come to fruition as Jess realised roadkill rarely has tyre marks on it – the reality is more squished than that – and to create the tyre marks would’ve created an artificiality to the work, going against Jess’s ethos. Furthermore, the idea evolved from something quite provocative into a classier affair, surprising people with its sophistication. ‘The more I thought about it, the more conceptual a collection it became’, says Eaton. ‘I wanted to create something that would challenge our relationship to animals, and the value we give them.’
The collection itself is quite remarkable. As you’d expect, no two pieces are the same. To my eye, the most striking and severe garment is the feathered collar, which is strikingly similar to the one sported by Charlize Theron as Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, (It could be argued that Ravenna’s wardrobe was the star of SWATH, but let’s not digress), to the pigeon outfit which, whilst eye-catching, is infinitely softer and more stereotypically feminine. ‘I design things to express a facet of a female’s personality’, explains Eaton. Every woman can be romantic or a diva, cheerful or sexy. What I like to do is to empower women to express a particular one.’
Eaton uses the collection to express aspects of her own personality, but her commissioned work, (which includes customers such as Kasabian, Toyah Wilcox and Sarina Potgieter, wife of Queen’s Roger Taylor), is a fusion of herself and the client. ‘I get to know my clients. I’d have a coffee with them and then I stand in front of the mirror and try to be them. I become them and then decide what I would wear if I was that person.’ That isn’t to say that Eaton’s clients get exactly what they want when they choose one of her creations. ‘I’ll listen to what my client wants and then I’ll take it right to the edge. I take a risk, and take them to the very edge of their comfort zone. I will give them a Jess Eaton.’
The key to this collection is the availability of raw materials. At the heart of Eaton’s ethos is the idea of reusing nature’s resources and not being a part of the ‘Throwaway society’ that she believes we’ve become. “We have a very strict moral corset. No animal must ever be harmed or killed for what we’re doing.’ The animals Eaton uses come from a variety of sources: As the collection’s name suggests, roadkill is the obvious source, but Eaton also uses materials from animals that have been killed for food, those which have died naturally and those which have been killed as game. Earlier pieces have been created using 100 complete pheasants that she bought from a local butcher, ‘They became hats, necklaces and many dinners’. She created a ratskin coat using the raw materials from a store supplying snakefood – Eaton’s friend’s pet lizards got the meat and bones, so nothing was wasted. She also has a couple of local gamekeepers who bring her what’s been shot rather than putting it onto a bonfire. Eaton does get donations or requests from people whose pets have gamboled off the mortal coil. The day before we spoke she was handed a kitten and recently a woman brought in a thrush. The lady in question had been feeding the bird for a couple of years when her cat did what cats often do and killed it. The woman was distraught and brought the bird into Eaton Nott, Eaton’s shop-cum-workshop in Brighton, asking, (as you do), for the skull to be made into a necklace for her to remember it by. While this may sound grisly, there’s a strong ethical base to the way Eaton acquires her raw materials. No one is paid for what they supply her with. ‘I had a homeless man bring a bat in not too long ago,’ she says. ‘Even though I felt awful, I couldn’t offer him any money for it – we can’t offer anyone an incentive to kill animals.’ Eaton admits there’s no way of guaranteeing that 100% of her raw materials come to her, but the lack of financial incentive, and the fact that many of her donators often have a tale (or tail) to tell about the deceased creature they’re bringing in means Eaton can be more than reasonably sure that moral corset stays well-bound.
Eaton’s received no professional training to assist her in assembling her creations. She says it’s easy. Once the carcass is skinned and tanned so it turns to leather she then treats it as any other material. Eaton is used to working with less commonplace materials – Trashion saw her making power suits out of crisp packets – the challenge, as far as Roadkill has been concerned, was in collecting sufficient materials to meet the collection’s needs. Her ethical restrictions mean that she can’t ever be sure when a garment will be finished – she’s recently finished a coat made of 15 fox pelts that took almost a year to create as the raw materials appeared in dribs and drabs. The real hardship for anyone more squeamish than Eaton is, you’d imagine, the separation of pelt from pet (or any other creature that comes her way). But Eaton has no such qualms: ‘I’ve always done this. I was brought up in the country.’ Eaton’s always the matter-of-fact approach to nature that comes with a country upbringing. Possibly the ultimate recycler, she used to keep animal bones she found and, ‘If I found a dead animal I used to bury it and then go back six months later and dig it up.’
As a child Eaton went so far as to collect owl pellets from the local graveyard, which she dissolved in order to retrieve the bones from within them, and it was this (slightly macabre) fascination with death and remains that led to her collaboration with artist Jon Nott, who’s become her artistic partner and co-owner of the Brighton shop. ‘Eaton Nott’s wonderful’, she says. As far as inspirations go, Eaton says she has none. ‘I’ve completely cut myself off from the outside world. I don’t even watch the news’, she remarks. ‘I don’t like to be influenced in the slightest. I want to know in my heart of hearts that what I’m doing is coming entirely from me.’ This isn’t to say she doesn’t have influences. ‘I’m influenced by my childhood memories, and by my grown-up interpretations of childish things’, she says. And there’s the feeling that the books and films of her youth are an incredibly important part of Eaton’s identity. ‘Great Expectations really made an impact on me. I read the book at O Level and then saw the black and white film [the 1946 version starring John Mills and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham] and was really struck by them both.’ Indeed Eaton’s very first Trashion collection, which debuted in Germany in 1998, featured a bridal outfit that was her very first homage to the Havisham character.
Whilst not strictly a part of the Roadkill collection, there is one piece that deserves special mention – Eaton’s made a necklace. Now lots of designers make necklaces, but very few make them out of human ribcages. ‘It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve made’, she says. The skeleton was found in a bag at a boot sale. Eaton suspects the skeleton was once used by a medical student to learn their anatomical skills. (If this is the case then the half the chance the owner of the skeleton was a convict, possibly a man sent to the gallows whose remains were acquired by a student physician from times’ past). The skeleton wasn’t complete, which worked in Eaton’s favour. Both she and Nott are very strict on preserving the integrity of any intact skeleton that comes their way, out of respect and honour to the departed – however, if you have granny’s fingerbones knocking around, Eaton could knock them into a darling headdress…
Find Eaton Nott on Brighton’s Preston Street: www.eatonnott.co.uk
Interview – Andrew Gonsalves
Photography – Kenny McCracken