Marchioness > Archive > Volume 1 > Fennuala Belle: A Spooky Girl Like You [Published April 2022]
Interview by Dottie Brooke / Edited by Jessica Ann Richardson
Fennuala Belle: A Spooky Girl Like You
With designs that will make you feel like a BONAFIDE GOTHIC HEROINE, designer and wannabe-witch Fennuala Belle discusses the MACABRE INSPIRATIONS behind her new collection, from the BRÖNTE SISTERS to B-MOVIES.
You know when you have a vision — a fashion fantasy — that prompts days of wistful window-shopping or, more likely, online browsing? I have often been haunted by an outlandish vision of myself in a basque or bustier or the loosely termed ‘corset top’. It’s a classic, historically feminine structure, but one that's now back in style and rapidly gaining popularity in recent years. It could be versatile, I reasoned; I could pair it with leather trousers, boyfriend jeans or French knickers (ooh la la). I knew this purchase would be indulging my secret desire to look like a busty extra on a period drama, think Liv Tyler in Harlots or Elle Fanning in The Great. I could already imagine the entirely unnecessary photoshoot it would precipitate: I’d lounge seductively on my duvet, the room filled with tealights. I’d bask in the scent of warm vanilla and vintage satin as I sat statuesque, selecting the shot while stubbornly ignoring the growing cramp in my left leg. It was during one of these late-night scrolling sessions that I discovered Fennuala Belle and her penchant for a certain spooky type of femininity.
It was the ‘Annie’ corset that originally caught my attention: sewn in pink sateen and styled over ostentatious, pussy-bow blouses, it felt as if it had been plucked straight from Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. It wasn’t long before I noticed its gothic cousin, the ‘Dahlia’, in black velvet with ruffles along the neckline. I thought about how its trailing ribbon ties would fall seductively across the shoulders, how the boned structure would cinch in the waist and display one’s tits spectacularly. I’m ashamed to say, dear reader, I have yet to go full-Lady-Bridgerton, but with Fennuala’s designs singing their siren’s song, my debut as a gothic heroine is surely not far off.
Westminster graduate Fennuala Belle has caused quite the storm since debuting her collection ‘Pew Boy’, a pun on the infamous Playboy magazine, at London Fashion Week in 2020. Heavily inspired by adult movies of the 1970s with a focus on ‘naughty nuns’ and the occult, it showcased red PVC corsets paired with habits and quasi-religious garments. Given her love for all things macabre (she describes her personal style as ‘somewhere between Pride and Prejudice and the Addams Family’), it’s little wonder that Fennuala has now found herself drawn to the strange and unsettling world of David Lynch; her latest collection ‘Annie’s Apparition’ takes its name from Twin Peaks’ Annie Blackburn. With promotional photographs that have the eerie feeling of a half-forgotten fever-dream, models pose awkwardly as if puppeteered, with vintage brooches strewn throughout their long plaits.
You describe your personal style as 'Cottagecore Goth' and 'wannabe witch'. What is it about these aesthetics that appeal to you?
I’ve always loved historical, romantic clothing — I love anything floaty, ethereal and witchy. I’ve always been drawn to gothic themes, romanticism and dark colours. It’s the juxtaposition of fairy-tale, prairie-esque vibes against the dark, gothic, flamboyant side that appeals to me.
Do you have any authors, artists or filmmakers, dead or alive, who inspire you?
Classic gothic literature; the Brontë sisters, Bram Stoker. One of my favourite books is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I love anything that’s completely over the top and theatrical, especially when horror meets romance. I’m a big David Lynch fan too. Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are two of my favourite films and I think they could definitely form the basis of a future collection. I also love Federico Fellini films. I did a couple of small projects in my second year of Uni based on Juliet of the Spirits and Fellini’s Casanova. The costumes and imagery are just incredible.
What's your favourite item of clothing you've made to date?
The green ‘Emma’ dress from ‘Annie’s Apparition’. I named it after my mum because I loved it so much! It’s the dress I always wanted to have — I’m obsessed with velvet and love the bottle green colour. I used a vintage embroidered tablecloth for the bib which I love. The ‘Millicent’ white dress from Pew Boy also has a special place in my heart. This is the garment that’s had the most press attention out of anything I’ve made.
You've said your collection ‘Pew Boy’ was inspired by pornographic movies of the 1970s and the occult. Can you elaborate on that and what drew you to these references?
I love everything about 1970s culture, music and films, and I knew I wanted to create a collection that was inspired by [that era]. When I started my research, I was initially drawn to low-budget horror films and b-movies, mainly because they were so irreverent and comic, whether intentionally or not. There was this big occult theme running through a lot of it. I became fascinated with this witchcraft revival that happened in the late 60s and 70s, and all the pagan influences in film, fashion, music. I even wrote my dissertation about occult influences in the clothes worn by counter-cultural musicians in the era – going into detail about paganism and the counterculture, the Age of Aquarius, [underground director] Kenneth Anger’s films, [English occultist] Aleister Crowley, [his philosophy called] Thelema and so on.
I also discovered all these 70s porno posters and occult-themed ‘Adults only’ magazines that would be like “Nudity in witchcraft! The true inside story”, books entitled “How to become a sensuous witch” and “Demon lovers and strange seductions” and films full of debauchery, about what naughty nuns do behind closed convent doors. It was crazy how so much of it was centred around sin and sex, and how men perceive these pagan and religious women. The whole thing was fascinating to me, the way these religious ideas were so sexualised. It made me think of [the biblical figures] Lilith and Eve, and the intensity of the Madonna-whore complex. It made me want to bring my own playful take on purity and sexuality. Maybe as a way of bringing some of my own feminist frustrations out through my work, who knows. It seemed to make sense that this would become the basis of research for the collection: that floaty, witchy Stevie Nicks-esque aesthetic had already been running through a lot of my previous work. I really wanted to hone and perfect my vision with my AW20 collection, so I decided to look more at the nuns as a source of inspiration – this felt more original and exciting to me. I started to research traditional religious dress and catholic nun’s habits, and even the silhouettes and craft in these garments excited me. I combined this with my research into 1970s kitsch and adult films, and then added the colour palette of 70s makeup ads, and out came the collection.
Let's talk about your new collection 'Annie's Apparition'. The macabre, vintage vibes of your latest photoshoot are to die for! Where did that title come from and what started it all off?
I wanted to create a new collection just after I first started taking orders for my business. I really wanted to make more clothes that were the kind of thing I would want to wear myself, things that were more wearable and sellable than my AW20 Pew Boy collection, which was designed for a show rather than as sellable garments. In short, this collection was inspired by this ‘Twin Peaks meets Haunted Victorian Dollhouse meets Alice in Wonderland' universe that I made up in my mind. I’m obsessed with Victorian children’s clothes and porcelain dolls, so I wanted to design a collection inspired by these. I came up with a narrative in my head where Annie [Blackburn from Twin Peaks] goes into the Black Lodge, but when she eventually escapes, she has been unknowingly bewitched by her evil doppelganger Alice, who has taken her down a rabbit hole into a haunted Victorian dolls house where they are trapped and have nothing to do but frolic around in fancy dresses and corsets.
The garments were designed with all this in mind, using a lot of plaid and tartan (very big in Twin Peaks fashion), doll style dresses and romantic shirts. I still wanted to have the frivolous and theatrical elements that have always run through my work, but all the while making the garments more wearable. The photoshoot was the really fun part where I could bring the narrative to life. I collaborated with the most amazing team, and we had the most amazing location of this old derelict house to shoot in. I really enjoy telling stories with my designs and treating it as if I’m creating works of art rather than just products.
What was your experience of showing at London Fashion Week?
It was amazing, definitely one of the things I’m most proud of in my career so far. I was so grateful as well because only a few students were selected to show their collections at LFW, so when I found out that mine was one of the chosen ten, I was over the moon. It was an incredible platform for us to launch ourselves and get our names and work out in the industry for others to see, and I was overwhelmed with the amazing response and press that I received after the show. It all feels a bit unreal even now.
Did you always aspire to have a career in fashion?
I always knew I wanted a career in a creative industry, but I don’t think I was 100% sure that it was the fashion industry I wanted to go into until I left school. I’d always been into fashion growing up, I did all the cliché things like making clothes for my teddies and customising denim jackets. But I was also really into art and drawing and painting as a child. I remember learning how to paint with my grandma where she’d show me Bob Ross videos and I’d be obsessed. It’s still one of my favourite hobbies.
You've got some luscious fabrics, like velvet and satin in your new collection. I also noticed a lot of deadstock. Is that a conscious decision and where do you source your materials?
Yes! It’s important to me to be as sustainable as I can with my business. The fashion industry is notoriously bad for wasting vast amounts of fabric and contributing massively to climate change, so as a small business it’s one of my aims to combat this. At the minute, around 60-70% of the fabrics and materials I use are either deadstock, remnant pieces, vintage fabrics (sheets, curtains, tablecloths). I source most of it online, normally through Etsy and eBay. I love frequenting car boot sales and antique shops as sometimes you can find some gems there. I found a few gorgeous vintage tablecloths at a car boot sale once. One woman’s trash is another woman’s treasure!
What do you listen to when working?
I listen to my eighties post-punk playlist, full of The Cure, Joy Division and The Banshees. I love a podcast every now and then too. I listened to a great one recently called “You Must Remember This” — it’s all about the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood: suspicious deaths, scandals, Marilyn Monroe conspiracy theories, Charles Manson…
How do you want people to feel when they wear your designs?
Like the best version of themselves. Like a fairy goddess. Other-worldly. I just want people to feel playful and romantic and confident. They’re really just clothes at the end of the day and I think we should all have fun, enjoy what we wear and wear things that make us feel good about ourselves! If I can make something that makes someone feel amazing, then hopefully I’m doing something right.
Is there anyone you'd love to collaborate with? Photographer, model or artist?
I absolutely love Nadia Lee Cohen’s work. I would die to collaborate with her! I feel like my designs and her photography style would go so well together and we could come up with something amazing.
It looks like business is booming for Fennuala Belle with a lot of your new collection selling out shortly after launch. What are your hopes for the future?
I’m so overwhelmed with the response so far and I’m so unbelievably grateful that I am actually able to do what I love every day! I’m planning a big restock soon for the pieces from my new collection and I want to work towards a new collection for summer 2021. I don’t want to push myself too hard, as it’s so easy to burn out, but I want to make sure I keep things exciting and keep people interested with new designs every now and then.
I want to work on some more dress designs, more corsets, more romantic shirts. I also really want to start doing some accessories, like ruffle chokers and bags. I would love to work on some collaborations with other small businesses and makers. I think it’s so important these days for young creatives and small businesses to support each other, and collaborations are one of the best ways to do this. My main hope is that I can just keep up what I’m currently doing and slowly grow my business. I’m having so much fun so far and this is only the beginning!