Leo Carlton is a headwear designer who embraces freedom and fluidity in their work that we find reminiscent of the legacy of Lee Alexander McQueen. The subtleties of emotion are captured in each piece's form and expression. Leo Carlton's creativity is as elegant as it is sophisticated. A series of headwear pieces was created from 3D printed fermented plant starches. Each advocates for transparency and sustainability with a shift of design away from a culture of wastefulness and toward the efficient possibilities of virtual reality sculpture. Read how Leo Carlton envisions the future of the millinery industry beyond the stigma of flowers and feathers.
Why work with headwear? What is comforting about working with
headwear? What is uncomfortable?
Leo Carlton: I was always drawn to headwear because it felt like such an expressive area of the body to work with. There is an industry of traditional millinery and recognisable shapes, but then there is also an endless route of unlimited possibilities with design and material. For me, this creative process is a form of therapy. Headwear in my work is sculpture and experiments and the hardest part is making the object comfortably wearable and stable on a head.
Describe your experience at Sarabande Foundation. What did you learn
My time at Sarabande Foundation was an important and humbling experience where I had the time and space to delve deeper into finding and manifesting what I wanted out of this chosen career. Being there amongst other creatives growing their businesses and launching was the university experience I expected, but didn’t have. It’s a highly encouraging place to begin and you aren’t completely on your own doing it. Sharing ideas and methods and critiques is so necessary and having an environment to explore and learn within, built my confidence massively. From learning about intellectual property to doing my tax returns, it was the healthiest and most exciting catalyst for my practice. Even now, 3 years later, I am offered opportunities with Sarabande and am proud to be a part of the ever growing extended family that it can be.
How has Lee Alexander McQueen’s story and oeuvre impacted you?
Lee Alexander McQueen was a huge inspiration to me as a queer teen with a high interest in fashion, that left me counting down the years at school before I could move to London from the countryside. This level of fearless creativity I found so moving and something I felt I could relate to emotionally. Like ticking an ASMR box in my mind’s eye that I didn’t know was there. I was also obsessed with Isabella Blow (Philip Treacy hats) and their tragic story left such a mark on me regarding the importance of mental health and awareness in the fashion industry. Something that still has much room for improvement for the pressure and expectations on an individual.
How does your work embody freedom and fluidity?
Embodying freedom and fluidity in my work is very important. Primarily because I am a gender non-conforming water sign and because the work is for anyone and everyone interested. It shouldn’t be about exclusivity and should focus on acceptance and, ultimately, acceptance of self. So if you can wear the work and it helps the wearer embody that then i’m all for it. Headwear can make as small or as large a statement as you wish to make with how you present yourself.
Tell me about your series of headwear pieces from fermented plant starches.
What was collaboration like on this project? Why 3D print with biomaterials?
The first series of headwear printed in fermented plant starches, I saw as the result of an experiment. To be honest, the experiments haven’t stopped since and this collection has fully centred my working process and goals for a business. This way of working means you only need to supply what is demanded and the aim is full transparency of the sustainable process and a shared responsibility of the material impact between the buyer and myself. My graduate collection was 3D printed in polyamide nylon and I wanted to continue with this digital method, but in the real world, needed my traditional millinery foundation, learnt for 5 years under Stephen Jones. It didn’t feel there was enough of a product or know how of 3D printing at the time. It wasn’t until up to 4 years later that I was exploring virtual reality and the possibilities of sculpting with it, that it made sense to link this to 3D printing and at this point the availability of more bio filaments to work with. It was a no-brainer. Watch this space. I always wanted forms rather than frills in my headwear and this method has been the truest representation of how I ‘see’ that.
Extravagant hats and various other head pieces aren’t so commonplace in
daily wear today. How do you think you are trying to change how people view
Today, society doesn’t wear hats like it used to. The spaces for it seem to be fewer and further between at royal weddings and Ascot. I’m quite happy for my work to not fit here and I think this is an ongoing conversation because I often felt the millinery industry needed a shake up beyond flowers and feathers. My current working are finding a balance of what could be acceptable day to day, but also taking note of how a hat will spend 98% of its existence not even on a head and what other functions one could have so it doesn’t live it’s life in a box at the back of your wardrobe.
What is something you love about your profession? What is something
challenging about your profession?
I love that I can make this profession work for me by being as conscious as possible about my output, whilst also being creatively satisfied. It’s an ongoing journey and i’m learning all the time. At the beginning it was a slog and sacrifice to find my feet and that was the challenge. Always working for other designers and essentially fulfilling their visions (with some input dependent on designer) and not being paid properly for all the hours you have to put in. Just because a hat can be small, it could still take longer to make than the clothes. I was butting heads with the idea of the millinery designer in fashion actually just being a maker. The challenge I would have is clients not understanding I can’t make everything possible! The collaborations helped me get my name out there somewhat, but I will definitely be focusing on my own brand from now forward as I have far more to say with my own work than through the work of others.
The face and identity of the model is often hidden or washed by a mask,
makeup, or other material leaving the emphasis on your headwear. Is this a
conscious choice of yours?
In the shoot of the printed pieces testing the limits of what I could print, the masks on the model are actually two pairs of tights. I didn’t want the full face covered, but I wanted the full focus to be on the headpiece as the materials is quite ghostly. It can reflect quite a light, but can also be very subtle, so it was important to put the focus on the piece and not the wearer in this instance.
How would you describe your aesthetic and sense of creativity?
I would say my aesthetic and sense of creativity is very emotive and fluid. From a young age I felt I could see a form and expression for each of my emotions and I’m really using this now as a daily exercise. Not all of your work has to be put out for people to experience, it’s all an experiment.
Where do you see your designs in the future?
In the future, I’d wish to see my designs as much a part of a home relic as I wish to see them on a head. I think this balance between virtual and reality, digital and real will be and interesting thing to see change over time and where my work can fit within that. I’d love to see them in a museum and art gallery.