model & designer
“The core truth of my art is expression of the divinity within us all.”
Fashion designer and model Sydney Duncan has always been a multi-disciplinary artist. Her command of both 2D and 3D mediums - whether it be drawing, painting, sculpture, sewing - knows no bounds. Based out of Franklin, TN but grown into a worldwide sensation, her accolades include Nashville Arts, Vogue Italia, Harper’s Bazaar, music videos, fashion shows, and countless photoshoots. She started modelling at fifteen, and designing shortly afterwards, premiering her designs in a high school art show. From there, she graduated from O’More College of Design (now the O’More School of Design at Belmont University). She currently lives in Thailand, working with The Mindfulness Project.
For the Threads issue of Blood Tree Literature, we are honored to feature Sydney’s Sacred Nature (2018) collection. Hauntingly beautiful, reverentially feminine, and thoughtfully balanced, her work evokes a sense of awe in every soft flutter of fabric, juxtaposed with sharp embroidered imagery.
BTL: You’ve been traveling extensively the past few years. What common threads have you experienced in the communities and cultures across the world? How have they informed your professional and artistic direction?
SD: I’ve witnessed how people are basically the same, no matter their environment. There are obviously variations from culture to culture and of course individual to individual, but when all else is stripped away, what every person I’ve met seems to desire at their core is to be heard, seen, and understood. We all crave to know that we are significant. We all long for love. In this incredible opportunity to travel as I have been, I’ve been granted exposure into our collective needs. As a designer focused on environmental sustainability and ethical treatment, it is imperative to me that my work gives this world more than it takes. The how and why of that are refined with every new culture I am integrated into.
BTL: Do feel like your career path has been linear, from studying at O’More College of Design to creating your various collections, teaching embroidery classes and fashion camp, featuring in galleries and fashion shows, volunteering with The Mindfulness Project, and modeling across the globe? As a lifelong multi-disciplinary artist, what about fashion design is the brand-maker for you?
SD: My path has actually felt incredibly sporadic, but in a way that I rest quite assured is more linear than it seems when all is said and done. I think, and I’ve heard from others, that if you watch me closely, everything that I do appears incredibly random and disconnected. It takes a little patience and several steps back to see the bigger picture. I have to be honest that oftentimes the end results are just as big of a surprise to me. When I first left home to travel indefinitely, I feared that I was sacrificing all of my momentum, and that I’d fall behind my talented and driven peers. Ten months in, and it seems quite clear that this experience will have monumental effects on my creative pursuits. It has been a process of refining. Communities like The Mindfulness Project, though on the surface the antithesis of luxury fashion, provide exactly the sort of counterbalance and spiritual/emotional grounding that enables me to create from the most sincere place possible. That is my prayer and meditation, that my work have more meaning than I could have anticipated. The more I mature, the more clear it becomes that I’m just the faucet—all I need do is open up the tap and let the holy water flow through. As far as fashion as my brand-maker is concerned, that outlet has just seemed to be the best method of application for the largest majority of my passions.
photography: Heather Durham
BTL: From a collaborative perspective, working with models and photographers and other creatives, what is your favorite part of the artistic process?
When you have the right team together, and the creativity is palpable, it’s an absolute rush. It is incredibly freeing to work along other creative individuals who “get it.” In those moments, ideas and enthusiasm feed into one another until they’ve grown like wildfire. As soon as I can see the photographer start to get excited, I get excited, and thats when the really wild ideas start getting tossed around. And when that lighting is just right, oh baby! The chapel shoot for Sacred Nature was a dream, but what you don’t see in the photographs is every roadblock faced to make it happen. You don’t see models stuck for hours in traffic, or broken zippers, or the entire team helping to dust all of the pews to get the lovely woman cleaning the chapel out quicker. It’s the challenges encountered that make it all so exciting and rewarding!
BTL: In your artist statement for Nashville Arts, you’ve explained that juxtaposing the intricate embroideries and gentle coloring with sheer, form-fitting textiles and stark imagery in your Sacred Nature collection intends to explore the intersections of sensuality, spirituality, the complexities of womanhood, and personal vulnerability. Why do you feel those relationships are integral to interrogate in your art?
SD: The Sacred Nature collection began a bit rebelliously, as I was getting pushback from my university for wanting to create undergarments for our showcase. I decided that if they were so afraid of the female body, then I’d give it to them on steroids, and I’d do it so well that they couldn’t afford not to show it.
At that point, I was, like many of my generation, fed up with all of the shame that came with being made of flesh and blood, and of that medium being molded into female form specifically. I was exhausted by all of the outside voices trying to convince me that what my soul felt to be true was wrong, especially those who used their interpretation of God to scare me into compliance. The divine feminine inspiration has lingered since, and for how long I’m unsure, but I am confident that vulnerability will continue to be an integral aspect of everything I do for as long as I’m living. The masks we all have been taught to wear are what cultivate shame and feed separation. Vulnerability and authenticity is our path to joy and real freedom.
BTL: The majority of your collections are lingerie. What about that type of garment feels important for you to create most, as opposed to your work in ready-to-wear and other shades of wearable art?
SD: The female form is art in itself, and so lingerie has felt like an opportunity for me to work with it, rather than against it, though I don’t pigeonhole myself when creating. While inspiration might be drawn from undergarments, that my finished pieces fit that mold isn’t the end goal. My greatest preference comes at the crossroads of various genres of clothing, and of art for that matter. Further than that, it does seem to spring forth from that feminist I’ve come to recognize within myself, or rather that spiritual-humanist who is drawn to the feminine. It isn’t always a conscious decision, and was even less so in the early days, but it all seems to keep coming back to a process of uncovering.
BTL: You’ve struck a lot of poses! Do you channel a style of modelling, or draw inspiration from individual shoots? Furthermore, in both your photos and your motion experience for Ben Hazelwood’s “Wanted” music video, how much do you experiment with movement in your posing?
SD: I often find myself drawing inspiration from painting and sculpture, and the awareness of line, balance, space, and other basic elements and principals of art, which may explain the body origami. If I’m not sore the next day from holding some sort of ridiculous one-legged lunge, then I don’t feel I’ve accomplished much. Of course it does, like you asked, tend to be something that differs from shoot to shoot depending on the mood and theme, though people usually know what to expect when they work with me. One can’t fear looking ridiculous if they want to get a wild shot! Movement is key, and it’s the slow glide from one pose to the next that gives the photographer the opportunity to shout, “stop right there!” when the lighting and angle are cued up just right. The movement you’re referencing from the video is the same as what you’d see on a photographers set. All it is, is a slow dance!
BTL: What are you currently working on, or expect to work on in the future?
“my intention as an artist is to serve and love with every ounce of creativity inside of me.”
SD: I have just completed an artist residency at the eccentric Helga’s Folly anti-hotel in Kandy, Sri Lanka, sculpting a cement lion statue for their garden, as well as doing a bit of mural work on a guest room balcony. The lion is a memorial to Helga’s late parents, while the mural, a bit more personal, is symbolic of a joyful rebirth. Within a matter of days, I plan to be back at The Mindfulness Project in Kohn Kaen, Thailand to collaborate on some mosaic work (the mosaic game in this country is STRONG). I’ve got a number of personal projects in slow process, but it feels a bit soon to unveil those. What I can share, is that my intention as an artist is to serve and love with every ounce of creativity inside of me. Doing anything other than that, in a world needing such urgent care, feels like an absolute waste of time. I ache for the universal suffering. My heart is torn for the innocent lives mutilated in Sri Lanka on Easter. The final touches of my statue were spent physically ill that my friend’s family might have been inside one of those churches, and knowing that sliding doors, a slightly different flight time out of Colombo Airport, and a few miles difference could have landed me in the same fate. Only so much can be witnessed in silence before wise and loving action must be taken. Human beings are capable of phenomenal transformation and restoration, we need only realize that.
BTL: What do you feel is a common thread in all your work, the core truth of your art?
SD: The core truth of my art is expression of the divinity within us all.