Interview: Fashion Designers On Working With Chainmail And Creating Armor-Inspired Looks

Dress

Photo by Donna Granata. Model: Kristen Dalton.

From intricate chainmail dresses to armor-like leggings, it’s hard not to be amazed when we see fashion designers inspired by unique materials like chainmail and plate armor. Each style might conjure images of a medieval age when knights would have been more likely to be seen sporting these materials, but instead contemporary designers make us see how they can work and be extremely stylish in the present day.

It’s not easy creating elegant designs from metal materials or printed patterns that look so much like the real thing. So how do designers actually do it? We spoke with Elaine Unzicker of Unzicker Designs and Holly Renee of Shenova to find out.

Discover more amazing fashions—along with some behind-the-scenes peeks at their creation—and learn how these designers work after the break.

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Photo by Donna Granata. Model: Kassy Kanaar.

Unzicker has been working with chainmail since the ‘80s when she was an art student with a concentration in jewelry and sculpture. She told Fashionably Geek she fell in love with the material after attending a workshop on making chainmail. Now she designs and creates a range of chainmail fashion items including clothing, scarves, accessories, and more through her business.

“Designing a new piece is always a fun challenge. I usually start with a part of the whole and work from there. In designing a dress, I might start with a neckline creating the top portion of the dress and working my way down. I actually put the piece on at various stages to see what it looks like and to determine what will happen next. I allow the piece to guide me and direct me to the finished product,” she said.

Unzicker has studied medieval chainmail, but focuses on how the material can be used contemporarily. She said she feels the material has not been taken out of its original usage enough. Her goal is to explore new territory with it.

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Photo courtesy of Elaine Unzicker

Of course working with the metal material can be challenging. Unzicker notes that designs must work around the weight factor and it’s not a fast process; how long each design takes depends on its complexity. Unzicker can make an uncomplicated piece of jewelry in a few hours while a dress might take up to a few months.

“Several of my purse designs can be made in a day, but the purses with a flat metal bottom can take up to a week to complete because the bottom is attached to the mesh one ring at a time and each one of those rings is soldered. All of the connecting rings I interlock in all of my pieces are soldered,” she said.

The pluses of using the material include its unique drape and feel, and according to Unzicker, how “it conforms and moves with the body beautifully.”

To create her designs, she buys sheets of stainless chainmail and then uses wire cutters to cut the material one ring at a time to get the right shapes and sizes.

“In order to create a seam, I interlock one part to the other using a separate jump ring pushing thru each piece of fabric with flat nose and needle nose pliers. The seam will consist of several jump rings in a row which are then soldered shut for strength,” she explained.

To add color accents, she purchases anodized aluminum rings that she builds into chainmail shapes and attaches one ring at a time using pliers.

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Photo courtesy of Elaine Unzicker

With so much time and effort put into each chainmail design, it’s understandable how other designers might want to replicate similar armor looks on printed fashion items like leggings and dresses. That’s exactly what designers like Holly Renee have done.

Renee creates unique geek chic fashions inspired by armor, space, science, and more. Her armor designs reference the looks of steel plated armor and scalemail. While she’s never worked with actual metal armor, she knows people who do and said she admires their patience and craftsmanship.

Even though she’s not working with metal material itself, her designs are far from easy to create. Renee told Fashionably Geek her armor leggings were one of the most labor-intensive prints she’d ever created.

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Photo courtesy of Holly Renee

“This one was engineered directly onto the pattern piece, so the grunge distressing elements and the lines/bolts had to fall in exactly the right place on the legs. This took several hours, a lot of measuring and a few sample printings. It’s actually a bit of a similar process to when game designers create texture maps for a character’s clothing. The image goes from 2d to 3d so you have to position everything correctly,” she explained.

Renee tried several concepts before nailing the look, which she felt fit with the warrior character she intended to create. Her design process actually starts with the image of a character in her head and an emotion.

“For the armor fashion, I envisioned a strong medieval fantasy warrior woman. Strong is the new sexy! I looked at lots of inspiration photos from video games, fantasy art and suits of armor,” she said. “I was also inspired by the ‘40s and ‘50s retro pinup style stalkings with the seam line up the back, for an extra dash of sexiness. My goal in my designing is to always design around the female form to make them as figure flattering as possible.”

She also referenced sections of real plated armor and worked with the images in Photoshop before they were printed on fabric.

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Photo courtesy of Holly Renee

Her plated armor designs and pink scalemail dress follow a continual thread found in her Shenova brand, in that they were “initially inspired by the idea of powerful female warriors.”

“I wanted to create a design that would make the wearer feel like a Total Badass Femme Fatale! I imagine wearing them to the gym…maybe wearing some armor leggings might give you that extra little boost of confidence for your workout?” Renee explained. “I like bringing a bit of fantasy or role playing to everyday wearable fashion. It just adds so much fun to your day!”

Whether these designs are printed to look like armor or are real chainmail, they don’t come cheap. Renee’s leggings and dresses range in price from $79.00 to $119.00 while Unzicker’s prices can range from earrings for $30.00 to a unique dress for $4,500.00.

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Photo courtesy of Holly Renee

No matter the piece you’re able to afford though, there’s no denying wearing these looks will make you stand out. Though perhaps not as much as working with the material will.

“People are very impressed with how I work with chain mail. I always encourage people who have not seen my work before to try it on. Then they have the full experience of the quality of chain mail,” Unzicker said. “And, in most cases, people are surprised because their initial thought was that it would be too heavy to wear. They are also surprised to find out that it’s quite comfortable to wear. For some reason, people think it will be stiff or scratchy.”

Renee has also found her armor-inspired fashions get attention. They’ve actually helped act as an icebreaker to meeting other people.

“I can’t tell you how many cool folks I’ve met just from wearing my crazy printed fashions out and about!” Renee said. “Fashion can bring people together.”

See more of Unzicker’s work on her website. Renee’s designs can be found on Etsy and ShenovaFashions.com.

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