Elissa McGowan is one of life’s rare gems. The super creative, super driven Sydney-based designer graduated from The Fashion Design Studio in 2013, and further proved that people in high (fashion) places have great taste when she was included as part of MBFWA’s Innovators that very year. Since then, she’s continued to make the kind of clothes our moodboard dreams are made of; improving the Australian designer landscape one thousandfold along the way. Elissa is hands down one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet — she’d give you the clothes off her back if you asked her to, and if there was ever a candidate for someone who we’d send into the future to represent our generation, she’d be it.
The yung talent doesn’t do anything in half measures (see below answers for proof), and was deservedly nominated for the prestigious Woolmark Prize this year. (Congrats, angel!) We recently hung out with Elissa while she was in Paris, the city of lurve, collecting inspiration for her next collection. There, we talked about the creation of her Elissa McGowan Universe (talk about a utopia), the link between health and beauty, her environmentally-conscious approach to design/life, and her definition of beauty. We also (obvy) took the opportunity to suss how she keeps such a #glowing complexion amidst the stress of putting together collection after collection. Take it away, dream girl!
What’s your skincare routine? Tell us about the products you swear by.
I still have problematic hormonal acne at age 27, as well as very sensitive skin, so I’m very careful about what I put on my face, and also with what I eat. Cetaphil cleanser is my favourite — it’s really mild. I use it morning and night. Of a morning, I wash my face with Cetaphil and then use Bobbi Brown Intensive Skin Supplement. I then follow up with Embroylisse moisturiser. Long nights working on deadlines often mean tired eyes, so I am obsessed with Eve Lom’s Time Retreat eye treatment. Eye drops are also a godsend — my go-to is Clear Eyes. A couple of times a week, I’ll use a Blue Chamomile facial hydrating mask mask by Aesop, and I also use a Dermaviduals peeling cream.
On the off chance I’ve worn makeup throughout the day, I remove it with Bioderma Créaline H20, and to remove any waterproof mascara, I use a bit of Egyptian Magic, which works like a charm. When I was younger, my mum taught me to take my mascara off with Vaseline if I got stuck without makeup remover, which also works like a charm! Of an evening, I use Sunday Riley’s Luna serum half an hour before bed — it’s my absolute favourite thing, and makes me G-L-O-W! 2-3 litres of water daily, minimally processed foods, and eight hours sleep a night are my absolute essentials. My approach to beauty is health-based — how you have been treating your body definitely shows on your face. For summer skin, I’m really into anything tropical, as well as body oils. I love body oils; coconut and monoï are my favourite. Lastly, when I travel, I love to spray Mario Badescu’s Rosewater Spray on my face!
Do you wear make-up? What’s your go-to everyday product?
I’m not a big make-up wearer. Most days I won’t wear makeup or foundation because I feel my best with fresh, clean skin. I’ve been like this since I was a teenager. Instead I try to emphasise my eyes and lips. For every day, I wear MAC’s brown eye pencil along my lash line, and if I’m feeling a more defined look, I’ll use Eyeko liquid eyeliner. It’s really easy to use in a rush. A great mascara for me is a must, as I have dark eyebrows and light eyelashes. I use Mascara Terrybly Waterproof from By Terry. I seem to touch my face and eyes a lot, especially when I’m tired, so I try to use products that won’t fall off.
I have really pale lips, so for years I’ve searched the perfect natural stain or lipstick to wear. For me, they were always too pink, too red, or too brown. I’ve searched high and low, and my absolute favourite was introduced to me by my hairdresser Georgia Eriksson; Dr Perricone’s No Lipstick Lipstick. Of an evening, I love to do a bit more of a look, depending on my mood or what I am wearing out. I love 70s inspired make-up with a strong Brooke Shields brow — I use a YSL eyebrow pencil. I have green eyes, so I love copper and gold tones to accentuate them. I recently bought a palette by Mkup in Singapore, and the colours are perfect for me. I am a sucker for good branding and packaging (and anything gold), so I love YSL and Tom Ford for lipsticks. My favourite beauty product is perfume, mostly because it reminds of my mum, and I don’t get to see her all that often, so it’s like a piece of her I take with me everywhere I go. Sometimes I’ll wear a particular perfume if I’ve got something big on just so I can feel her near me. I wear Chloé most days. Lately I’ve been wearing Byredo’s Bal D’Afrique roll on — I like it because I can throw it in my bag and take it out all day with me.
What’s your haircare approach? And the products you use?
My hair care approach is very low-key, basically non-existent. I have a fantastic hairdresser, Georgia Eriksson at Moody Hair in Sydney. I had really long hair for years, down to my waist, and Georgia recently cut it all off to my shoulders. I’ve always tied my hair up off my face when I work, so it doesn’t get in my way. Now it’s shorter, my hair is pretty easy to maintain. I shampoo only (conditioner makes my hair too soft which I hate) and let it air dry. I like my hair best with a kink or a wave in it, but a natural one, so as to avoid any heat. I use Sachajuan’s Ocean Mist in my hair when it’s wet. I also love Christophe Robin’s Prickly Pear mask for a treatment.
Who is your biggest hero and why?
Patti Smith is my biggest hero. I saw her recently at the State Theatre and got to give her some EM pieces. To me it was the ultimate privilege to share my work with her, as she has had such a profound impact on my life. Patti embodies raw energy, her words are so powerful and eloquent. She has challenged social constructs through her sheer existence as a woman and an artist. I think she’s very cool. As a designer, I really admire Stella McCartney for her ethical and environmental approach to luxury fashion. She has recontextualised luxury fashion, challenging conventions by not using fur or leather. Her environmental approach to luxury fashion makes her a true pioneer to me.
What’s the biggest beauty mistake you’ve made?
When I was thirteen, I was obsessed with washing my face with this Neutrogena face wash, so I did it twice or three times a day for a week. It dried my skin out so bad and burnt my skin. The worst part is that I didn’t even have a pimple at that age.. 😐
When do you feel your best?
When it comes to feeling my best, my number one priority is to get a good night’s sleep. After a good night’s sleep, I feel in control. My mental health is better, I am more focused and productive, I make better choices in regards to how I utilise my time, and my skin looks better. My friends think I am insane because I am so strict about getting enough sleep, but for me, it is absolutely the key to feeling my best.
How do you unwind?
I like to box — I’ve been going to Boxing Works for a few months now.
What’s the one word you can’t stop saying at the moment?
What songs are on high rotation for you at the moment?
‘Execution’ by Orion, ‘World Vision’ and ‘Execute’ by Tommy Genesis, ‘U Kno’ and ‘Roses’ by Abra, ‘Needed Me’ and ‘Sex with Me’ by Rihanna, and ‘Eidolon’ by LA Suffocated.
Where are your favourite places to shop, eat, and drink in Sydney?
To shop: I’m not a big shopper, but I love to peruse the Mitchell Road Antique & Design Centre. To eat: I eat Vietnamese a lot — Hello Auntie in Marrickville is really cute. For a more casual vibe, Eat Fuh, which is just a few doors up. To drink: Continental Deli in Newtown.
What’s your favourite travel destination, and why?
I’ve just come back from a month in Europe. Croatia is absolutely incredible — the Dalmation coast is seriously breathtaking. It’s an arid landscape of limestone and agave, palm trees, and the most incredible dark blue water. It’s so raw and stunning. The view of the Dinaric alps between Dubrovnik to Split alongside the coastline is unreal. Floating in the Adriatic Sea is heaven.
What’s your earliest beauty memory?
Summer holidays down the coast, aged four or five. My friend and I decided it was a great idea to put pink blush all over our bodies. Nek minute my mum pulled up in a car and we were in big trouble. One, for breaking into my mum’s make-up, and two, because I used to have really bad eczema, and mum was so worried it was going to cause some insane skin reaction. I don’t remember much else after that, but needless to say, that was the last time I hit mum’s make-up bag until I was a teenager.
If you could resurrect one beauty trend, what would it be?
Not so much a trend, but I really love that 70s/early 80s kind of beauty. I think it was more about enhancing a woman’s unique features. A raw, natural beauty. Enhancing your best features with minimal makeup with too much mascara, or lipstick, and no foundation. A glow from eating well. Strong unkempt brows. Naturally lit hair worn the way it grows. I think of a young Brooke Shields or Margaux Hemingway.
What’s your most treasured item of clothing/jewellery?
My absolute favourite is my EM necklace. I made it myself with my own hands and had it cast and plated gold. I wear it every day.
What does ‘beauty’ mean to you?
For me personally, to feel beautiful is to feel calm and confident within myself. To not be distracted by things I don’t love about myself. It’s about being at peace with the imperfect and embracing what makes me unique. For me, beauty in others is all about a magnetic energy.
What are you most excited for in 2017?
I’m working on my entry for the Woolmark Prize at the moment. I’m so excited to build the Elissa McGowan brand into a universe. We have so many exciting things ahead, including showing the brand in Paris and New York as of next season. We are in talks with some incredible stockists and developing the range beyond Ready-To-Wear. The EM UNIVERSE is coming!
What social and cultural issues are most important to you at the moment?
I am particularly passionate about climate change and environmental issues. As a designer, I feel a certain level of responsibility to ensure my brand has a minimal environmental impact, and to ensure the impact it does have is as positive as possible.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.
Words, Madeleine Woon. Photography, Stephanie Lou.