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Memoir

“I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people’s trash”

Resa McConaghy had a decades-long career designing costumes for stars like Kim Cattrall and Helen Mirren. When the film industry ground to a halt during Covid, she started upcycling old fabric into elaborate couture

By Resa McConaghy| Photography by Brent Gooden
"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"

I started selling my designs in the early ‘80s out of my Queen West boutique, which I named “Resa” after myself. I had recently graduated from Sheridan’s fashion program. My husband played in rock bands around the city, and I promoted my clothes in underground fashion shows at nightclubs. I had a bit of a Bohemian artist thing going on for a few years, before I was pulled into the high-intensity world of film and TV.

My clothes were classic and avant-garde at the same time. I was heavily influenced by new wave and punk because of my husband’s involvement in the music scene. I’ve always loved using interesting fabrics. I remember making a pair of lace bell bottoms and lots of knitwear (thanks to my honour’s degree in knitting) with intentionally large holes and long, gown-like coats. 

In the mid-’80s, a TV commercial producer attended one of my nightclub fashion shows. She was having a problem fitting shirts on some busts she was using on one of her shoots, and she hired me to help out. At first, I juggled the work with my boutique, but since I was making much more money in TV, I closed the boutique a few years later to focus on costume design. I did commercials for everything from Levi’s to cereal. But, about three years in, I worked on one project that really turned me off. It was a commercial for a herbicide, and the guy selling it told me that he had a hole in his stomach from falling into a cesspool filled with the chemical as a child. “Why are you selling it, then?” I asked. He said, “I figure now they owe me something.” I thought, What on earth am I helping these people sell? I decided on the spot that I didn’t want to do commercial work anymore.

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"

I was also working on the occasional music video at the time—sometimes for free, since my husband was in the scene. Around the time I quit commercials, someone offered me a paid gig to design costumes for a low-budget movie called Black Roses, about demons posing as a rock and roll band. I jumped on it. I worked on some more films and gradually made a name for myself in the industry. The first time I worked with a real movie star was in 1996, on First Degree with Rob Lowe. He was an absolute doll. A couple of years later, Showtime discovered me, and I designed costumes for at least fifteen movies for the network. I worked on A House Divided with Jennifer Beals, which required building almost all of the costumes for the lead cast. It was set during the Civil War, and because all the women had given up their petticoats to make bandages, I designed skirts that showed the hoops poking through underneath. Altogether, I’ve worked on more than fifty movies and TV shows, with more stars than I can keep track of, including Whoopi Goldberg, Charles Bronson, Billy Zane, Rob Lowe, Kim Cattrall and Helen Mirren. 

Working in film was thrilling, but it was also exhausting. I had to wake up at four or five in the morning to get everything set up before the actors arrived, and the schedules would shift constantly. I’d be up at the crack of dawn for a few days, then suddenly we’d be shooting all night, and then it would flip again. I worked every weekend just to catch up and slept only when I had a chance. But it was a great career, and I worked with some amazing people. Helen Mirren even gifted me a beautiful bottle of champagne and a lovely letter when The Passion of Ayn Rand wrapped up. I went from having a little van on set to multiple wardrobe trucks and a team of people sewing my designs.

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"
Jade, made from vintage sham pillow covers and polyester faux silk. Photo by Resa McConaghy

Then, ten years ago, my mother died. I felt hollow in the aftermath. I was in a trance, just going through the motions of my day. Life didn’t feel exciting or beautiful anymore. One day, I was shuffling around, looking at my fabrics—I end up with a lot of leftover fabric—and I came across eight yards of beautiful red silk Jacquard I’d forgotten about. Inspiration struck. I thought, I’ll make a gown out of this, and I’ll do it while thinking about my mother. I didn’t draw it first or anything—I constructed it on the go using a Judy, a padded dressmaking mannequin you can stick pins in.

The silk had been in storage forever, so I had to iron it. I took the iron into the hallway and stretched the fabric out on the wood floor. I had a fabulous steam iron, and the steam was going and the fabric was looking great, when suddenly the fire alarm went off. There I was in my mini pink Betsy Johnson housecoat when the fire department showed up. Those big guys looked like they were eight feet tall in all of their gear. I looked up at them and said, “I love your outfits!”

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"
Queen Isabella, made out of a purple textured dress and painted vintage curtain lace. Photo by Resa McConaghy

A few days later, I finished the gown and called it Strawberry Kisses. (I always name my gowns.) It didn’t take too long to complete because, instead of doing any cutting, I just draped it on the Judy. Then I posted it on my blog. My followers reacted really positively, and I was inspired to make more. It also helped me move through my grief over my mother—I could translate my sadness into beauty. Meanwhile, I was getting to a point in my career where I wanted to be choosier about what I took on.

And then Covid hit, and the film industry ground to a halt. I took the opportunity to concentrate on my gowns, and they soon became my full-time gig. I didn’t start out exclusively using recycled and upcycled materials, but my focus shifted over time. It happened organically— during stints when I wasn’t working on film or TV projects, I naturally gravitated toward creative, budget-friendly design ideas. My first time using an unusual recycled material was back in 2014, when I was inspired to make La Vie en Rosé, a gown embellished with 300 wine corks. I’d seen first-hand how much perfectly good material is cast off after a brief lifespan; mountains of clothing ends up in landfills. I wanted to do my part to salvage it into something beautiful. As a vegetarian, I’m a big advocate for sustainability. 

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"
Charlotte’s Song, made of scrap sequin material, plum satin crêpe and synthetic black voile curtain sheers

Making these gowns is a raw, creative process. I don’t sketch them out first, because I don’t know what I’m going to make when I begin—I just jump in. I work out of my home studio, which used to be my living and dining room. My inspiration often comes from the fabrics, which I get from my contacts in the film industry, my own stash from my film career, liquidation sales and friends who send me interesting things they find. My mind changes constantly as I go along, and the gowns’ names usually come to me only at the end, when I’m photographing them for my blog. I sew all of my gowns all by hand instead of using a machine, which is partly why it takes up to six months to make one. Some days I put in four hours and other days just half an hour. I think using electricity goes against the spirit of these art gowns. It’s like a form of meditation for me: the needle goes in, the needle goes out. Some people like to read in bed; I like to sew in bed. 

If I had to pick a favourite gown, Velvet Tango would be in the running. It’s dedicated to my friend Holly, who is a poet. I describe the gown as “poetry in motion.” Velvet Tango is made from a 25-year-old synthetic velvet coat and old black rayon with red lace flowers. I decided to put the slit at the back and the tail on the side, and it took about 50 darts—a stitch that creates contours in a garment—to get it to fit, which was a huge amount of work. It took me about five months to make. But every gown has its own challenges. Jade is made from old pillowcases from the Salvation Army, which my friend Kat sent me. It’s a hideous synthetic fabric, but it was free and old, and I figured, Who else is going to use this? I think it turned out beautifully. Cleopatra Capriccio is another one I love. It’s made from a 40-year-old table runner and a piece of sequin fabric I got from a movie. 

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"
Spring Rhapsody, made from a damask pillow case, upholstery and acetate lining. Photo by Resa McConaghy

Now, I want to run with the theme of sustainability. I want to promote the idea that you don’t need to go to Dolce and Gabbana or Armani—you can support the environment and wear an upcycled art gown. I have about a dozen gowns ready to go, and I’d love to lend them to high-profile people who attend big events, like the TIFF Gala or the Canadian Screen Awards. If someone wanted to buy one, I might be willing to sell it as-is, but I’m not interested in doing custom work. These gowns are about fulfilling my inspiration, not someone else’s. But sometimes I get inspired to make a gown for a particular person. Right now, I’m working on one for Charlotte Hoather, a wonderful opera singer from the UK whom I connected with online.

My renewed focus on sustainability has extended to embracing my age. I recently let my hair go grey for the first time. Pretending to be younger than I am? That’s not sustainable. As for my next project, since the pandemic started, I’ve been saving plastic mesh produce bags from the grocery store. They’re not recyclable, and they have a horrible environmental footprint—little birds who come to feed in landfills get the bags stuck on their beaks. When I ordered groceries during the pandemic, I couldn’t avoid them, but I also couldn’t throw them out in good conscience. So I’m going to make them into a gorgeous gown.

"I was a costume designer for film and TV. Now I make beautiful gowns out of other people's trash"

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