In Pursuit of the Protagonist: A Hidden Journey of Innovation

Photography and Text by Sophie Webster

Designer Harriet Dowling

Model Aiysha Ilyas

Assistant Emily Ellison

Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine

When in a culture fanatically enamoured towards the finished piece, the understanding of process can become a naïve illusion. Increasingly the recipe for underappreciated or quickly forgotten creativity, this insular look at only the end result means the beauty in craft throughout concept and construction remains a hidden journey of innovation. A journey reserved only in secrecy to the practitioner when it is mesmerising to us all, unfortunately to me as a photographer the lack of spotlight given to the in-between processes removes a certain magic which emerges from original thinking. This editorial story ‘In Pursuit of the Protagonist’ therefore explores how elements of fashion craftsmanship transcend to become narrators in themselves as objects, fulfilled with meticulous symbolism, reference and imagination. 

Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine
Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine

Inspired by the words of Oscar Wilde; “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” my objective with this imagery was to identify the spirit of the sublime in the artistic vision of those around me. From this I wanted to show its integral involvement in the formulation of a great behind the scenes method of process, unique to the creator and unable to be imitated by others. A rare thing, this organic ability to view things as beautiful and necessary before others can even understand the approach is a way of seeing only held by a few. As realised by Wilde, we are all in the gutter but only some of us imagine in ways special enough to exceed our surrounding limitations and wider commercial boundaries.

Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine

Motivated by ideas of how a protagonist is born and characterised through innovative approaches towards fashion design, giving platform to the process I captured the craft developments of one designer, Harriet Dowling, from toile experiments to finished creations. Offering a new insight into the protagonist at work through exploring the designer as a building artist, both the beginning struggles and final successes are presented as equal victories of relevance in the arc of process. Here the gravity of anxious careful conceptual navigation is outlined to the audience as an integral part of the ambitious product. In short, the beauty is in the trying and the failing, something few creators would scarcely openly admit. Through using still life, I hoped to translate the idea that when fashion design is approached open-mindedly in respect as a constant art form, the narrative is already woven into the conceptually intelligent clothes, even before the introduction of a subject.

Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine

Forwarding a project based upon fragmented psychological states, the vulnerability of the mind as a catalyst for visual symbolism was expressed by Harriet through deconstructionist approaches. Through co-ordinating her garments in multiple interchangeable pieces of liberty fabric, this gesture of adaptive craftsmanship allowed opportunity for different looks to be paired. As a result, each time I photographed I was pursuing, creating and imagining a new protagonist, challenging all original ideas of her intended processes. This honest evolution of character in design was then captured in its true place of origin, the dense university workrooms. A setting so regular to practitioner, but so romantic to audience, the important use of this space aided me to represent the slow and dedicated path that must be undertaken in the pursuit of good craftsmanship. Reflected in this darkened, almost neglected setting, it became significant to me to show creation of craft as continually challenging, sometimes problematic and perhaps isolating, but always experimentally exciting – the exact emotions circling the atmospheres of these spaces. This insight into the design process from mannequin to model ultimately not just explores but celebrates every artist’s search for personal style, a search which remains strictly personal and protected to practitioner, but deserves to be paraded to all.

Sophie Webster, The Protagonist Magazine