INTERVIEW: Louise Kennedy

Fòcas Creative Director Arpita Shah interviews Fòcas India shortlisted artist Louise Kennedy, a documentary photographer based in Edinburgh, about her long-term project Lolitas.

© Louise Kennedy

F: Louise, you’ve spent a long time photographing the elaborate sub-culture of Scotland’s Lolitas. What is a Lolita?

L: A Lolita is a person who wears a Victorian and Rococo inspired fashion, which originates from Japan. A Lolita often wears a main piece such as a Lolita dress and then accessorises with many layers; it’s about modesty and covering, or as some Lolitas shared with me, the reclaiming of their body. Lolitas are very particular about the length of their dresses – you must ensure the dress or skirt not too short otherwise it is not Lolita. A Lolita will wear various items of clothing underneath the lolita dress such as a blouse to cover her top half, a petticoat to make the dress or skirt fill out and give shape, and bloomers to cover their lower half. It is this idea of covering the body or having a fashion full of layers which has attracted many Lolitas from eastern parts of the world. For a very exciting and outlandish fashion subculture there is considered structure to it and guidelines which should be followed.

If you were to ask a Lolita in the street what they are wearing…what’s it called? A Lolita would most likely say a ‘Japanese Harajuku street style’ fashion. This is because the name of the fashion can often give the wrong impression of this fashion subculture with many people associating the title with the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

A documented history of the Lolita fashion can be very difficult to find but in the 1970’s there were fashion houses such as Pink House, Milk and Pretty who were creating fashion items with a Lolita look. The fashions name was first coined by Mana, a Japanese musician and fashion designer, best known as the leader and guitarist of the visual kei rock band Malice Mizer in the 1980’s. The 1980’s brought the new romantic’s style to Japan and Mana created a clothing label called Moi-même-Moitié which had two lines of designs “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat”.

© Louise Kennedy

F: It’s quite a secretive sub-culture, isn’t it, and your subjects are quite young. How do you establish trust with them?

L: In the beginning, trying to reach out to these young individuals was quite daunting. I am not a Lolita therefore I was at an immediate disadvantage. I started to think about what things we have in common, a fascination with Japan and its culture, its fashions, Japanese anime, gaming etc. I thought the main common interest we have is in Japans exciting and ever changing fashion subcultures.

I have been drawn to Japan since my high school years, I used to take my fashion inspiration from ‘FreshFruits’ a book of street style photography by Shoichi Akoi. Shoichi would stop many of the wonderfully dressed individuals who walked through Harajuku square Tokyo, ask for a photograph for his magazine and he would take note of what they were wearing, their interest in music, art etc. I later went on to buy the book Gothic & Lolita which was a similar book to Freshfruits but with a completely different fashions inside.

I decided that they best way to approach the lolitas was with respect, honesty and to share with them my passion for Japan and its culture. If you see a Lolita in the street and are polite, and ask for a photograph they will willingly oblige, however photographing them in an intimate setting such as a bedroom is a different challenge completely. I built trust with them one step at a time – I chatted with Lolitas online and within their community and asked the community if anyone would be willing to meet me…then finally one Lolita agreed to meet with me.

I met her in Glasgow, in the Willow Tea Rooms, she was dressed in a beautiful Alice in Wonderland Lolita dress and all of her accessories were in an Alice theme. I shot some street style photography and interior portraits of her and asked her lots and lots of questions about the fashion subculture and the Scottish community.

I felt I had to prove myself as a good photographer (Lolitas take a great deal of time and consideration over their outfit and if you do not point out any outfit mishaps or unwanted areas on show- you may not get another shoot with them), a non-judgemental observer and listener (many people have approached lolitas with a pre-conceived idea about what a lolita is and shot images without asking the person about the fashion or why they wear it), and again you must have a genuine interest in Japan.

© Louise Kennedy

F: Will you keep going until you have a large-scale typology or is Lolitas a finished project?

L: Yes. I began my project in Scotland and met Lolitas from the most rural areas of the country to the busy cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. I found more information with each lolita I met and photographed whether in their homes, in team rooms or within the streets. I realised that not only did their unique interests and passions come through in the clothing they wore but what translated through the images was a sense of their location, background and time wearing the fashion.

Location, background, accessibility and culture can have a big impact on how Lolita fashion can be interpreted and worn, so my aim for the project would be to create a global Lolita book. I will travel to different countries to document the diverse interpretations of Lolita, its different communities and the wonderfully creative individuals who devote themselves to this vibrant fashion subculture.

Louise is a documentary photographer from Edinburgh, who is fascinated by people, cultures and unexpected places. She graduated from Edinburgh Napier University, Photography & Film, 2014 and has spent the last couple of years documenting the lives of Lolitas. Louise is primarily a documentary photographer, but also enjoys photojournalism and editorial projects.