There's something about Molly Goddard that got me as soon as I saw her BA collection four years ago at the Central Saint Martins show. Clouds of tulle in candyfloss shades of pink and white, gathered up with the most intricate of smocking at the hips, wafted down the catwalk: saccharine on the one hand, yet avoiding the pitfall of making the models look like dolls. Women could pile on this fabric associated with ballerina costumes, and be adorned with a heft of embroidery, but still not appear like over-decorated cakes – or, to use a pet peeve word of Goddard's, whimsical. The Molly bug bit me early, and to witness a designer so deft at articulating an alternative vision of 'girliness' rise through the ranks of fashion acclaim has been a joy. It's something that makes you uphold your faith in the industry when the likes of Adrian Joffe can see shades of depth beneath gatherings of tulle and smocking.
Therefore it will be a delight to fellow Molly acolytes that the young designer has chosen to revisit that first collection, the collection which was the beginning of everything, in her first exhibition, entitled What I Like at the Now Gallery in Greenwich. Replicating the idea of oversized babies' christening gowns that were its inspiration, Goddard – with the help of her mother Sarah and two seamstresses with extra large living rooms – has created seven tulle dresses and suspended them in the double height circular space, framed by floor to ceiling glass windows. Office workers passing by from nearby Canary Wharf or tourists visiting the O2 centre will be struck by these hanging tulle forms in virulent shades of neon pink, yellow and orange as well as subdued grey, white and black, as they hang like floating lanterns, catching the light from the similarly coloured film covered windows.
These elongated dress forms could have stood on their own with their imposing scale, but Goddard was intent on creating an intimate environment. On the walls surrounding the pieces are diagrams of basic embroidery stitches, as well as a table of yarn, needles and scissors. Everyone is invited to bring their varying level of skills to the tulle table and embroider the dresses as they wish. With their 30-metre hems and 20 metres of tulle gathered at the waist, there’s ample canvas to keep budding thread artists going until the exhibition ends in February. “I quite like the idea that there might be this amazing elaborate embroidery alongside parts that are more naïve,” she said as we walked through the exhibition last week. “Also that Greenwich is this business area, and an office worker might pop in on their lunch break to do something quite therapeutic. It’s not precious and it’s something that everyone can do!”
This idea of democracy was one that Goddard had from the very start, when she presented sketches to the gallery, as she was careful to avoid prematurely exhibiting her work in an overly lofty manner. “Fashion exhibitions are hard,” she said. “I didn’t want to do something where dresses were put on a pedestal and everything feels a bit untouchable. It’s a bit too early to be doing something like that for me. The fact that it’s interactive takes the pressure off a bit. It’s not like ‘I’ve created these lovely things and you’ve now all got to just look at them.' It’s all going to change over the course of the time.”
Goddard’s approach to the exhibition mirrors the attitude of her dresses. They aren't precious; they're not meant to be untouchable fairy frocks that remain static. Goddard has made that intent clear through her assorted seasonal presentations, whether they have involved her friends dancing at fake proms, models making sandwiches for a summer job, or raving it up in Balearic fashion. To wit, Goddard is hoping for a bit of diversity in the embroidery that will hopefully build up over the duration of the exhibition like thread graffiti. “I quite like the way that someone might embroider a sausage or something. Or football flags. Or swear words! It’s not meant to be all pretty things or too nice.”
What I Like essentially gets to the heart of what endears me to Goddard and her work. As she talks about encouraging people to get the commuter boat to Greenwich to see the exhibition (“You can sit at the back and have a beer and a packet of crisps!”) and getting people to play with the dresses and sit inside them like tents, I thought about the amount of messy fun I’ve personally had wearing Goddard. I’ve swung about in all that gathered fabric yardage underneath the New Year’s Eve moonlight in Aussie outback whilst dancing to a Jamie xx set. I’ve played hide and seek with a toddler in the mille feuille layers of one particular Molly dress. I’ve also walked to the cornershop in one, raising amused eyebrows but also compliments from the most unlikely of passers-by.
On the opening night, both male and female guests got stuck into the embroidery straight away. Before long, a triple shaded vagina and a penis had already appeared on one of the frocks alongside more traditional floral motifs. It’s that precise dichotomy – of prettiness gone awry – which is the thing about Molly that gets to you.
What I Like is at NOW Gallery until 19 February 2016.