Damselfrau - Itma-2020


The artist who designed and wore masks long before the pandemic

At present, masks are everywhere. We hear about them, we read about them, and we compare them. We wear them on the tube, in the shops, and on the midnight Pinot run to the supermarket on a Saturday night. While masks are currently a huge part of our everyday routine, they have been a part of Damselfrau’s life for many years. The London-based artist Magnhild Kennedy, who is better known as Damselfrau, will reinvent everything you may know about masks. Her pieces are vibrant, yet intricate. They are entirely enchanting and otherworldly, and, quite simply, we wish we were doing our Pinot run in a Damselfrau mask. Though many of Damselfrau’s posts are self-portraits, her hundred-thousand Instagram admirers never see her face. Nor do they hear Damselfrau’s story. Runway Gallery caught up with the artist to discuss the influences behind her pieces, from Norwegian costume tradition to Mats Ek’s Swan Lake, and a vintage store in Islington. 

Born in Trondheim in central Norway, Damselfrau shared how elements of her home are undeniably present in her work. “Norway has a rich and varied National costume tradition, and I can definitely see elements of the form-language and National Costume jewellery in my work”. Damselfrau continued: “The silver wedding crowns of the west coast are unbelievable. I’ve never been consciously inspired while making, but a ghost of it is definitely there”. The performative nature of Damselfrau’s masks is also traceable to her interest in the theatre, as she revealed: “I have a ballet background, so dance excites me. I once saw Mats Ek’s Swan Lake with Cullberg Ballet and it still the best performance I’ve ever seen. I’ve also worked with Norwegian playwright Lisa Lie, and her work inspires me greatly”. 

While remnants of National costume jewellery and Scandinavian theatre are present throughout her designs, Damselfrau revealed how her latest project quite literally incorporates a tangible piece of her home country. “Right now I’m incorporating a Norwegian hair wreath from the late 1700’s in a piece” shared Damselfrau, remarking: “That’s pretty hefty an object to handle”. However, working with a Georgian hair wreath is nothing unconventional for the artist who has also worked with two-hundred-year-old Japanese geisha hair, and lace, previously owned by the nineteenth-century author, Camilla Collett. “I’ll use anything if it tickles my eye. Confetti picked off the floor at Alternative Miss World, or an antique Japanese ear wax remover tool in the shape of a naked lady”.

Armed with the unconscious influence of her Norwegian roots, Damselfrau’s talent for mask design first revealed itself while working in a vintage store after moving to London in 2007. “It was the first time I could handle vintage couture, and turning garments inside out to have a look at the craft triggered something in me”. Damselfrau continued: “Looking at the stitches taught me a lot about technique. And just being around exquisite clothes, its’ inspiring, isn’t it?” When it comes to refining a favourite of these exquisite designers, the answer is easy for Damselfrau: “I like the work of many, but couture wise, my all-time favourite is John Galliano, hands down. He is spectacular. His work makes me so emotional. How he manages to saturate the work to the extent he does, but still leave it with so much air and space to breath boggles my mind. I was so excited when he took over at Margiela. It’s been wonderful to watch”. 

Damselfrau - Stikker 2012
Damselfrau – Stikker 2012

Today, Damselfrau no longer designs pieces to wear in London’s nightclubs as she did in the late noughties. Instead, she creates masks for the likes of Louis Vuitton, MØ and Baloji, while simultaneously sharing her work with her 126k admirers on Instagram. Though a lot has changed in 13 years, some things remain the same for Damselfrau, and one of those things is how she begins a design process. “It always starts with whatever material I have in front of me. I rummage around in my boxes of stuff, and there is always something I find there that sets the right tone and gets me going. Then I just play, pinning materials on a mannequin head. Once I feel a shape is emerging, I start making. A lot happens in the actual sewing, I go where the materials lead, so the finished product often looks quite different from the original sketch”.  

Damselfrau similarly revealed how, on occasion, she still shops vintage in the hope to discover pieces that will be incorporated into her masks. “I shop around the internet for kimonos and boro from Japan. I often use the kimonos in the photos I take with the masks. The last vintage thing I bought was a fabulous garnish beaded 80’s dress I’ve taken apart for mask making. No garment is safe with me, no matter how precious”. 

Every mask begins life in the same way, but which of her creations makes Damselfrau the proudest? “In 2012, I made a piece called Stikker. When I made it, I felt a shift in the work, and it suddenly felt very much like home and that I belonged. By then I had been trying at this work for 3 years, and suddenly with the making of that one piece, I landed”. Damselfrau also landed a commission from MØ, which, she shared, was made possible through the stylist, Coline Bach. “She’s been good to me. She got me in a Beyonce video back in the day as well” revealed Damselfrau, who continued: “Baloji found me through stylist Harris Elliot, who I’m very fond of. He came to see me in my studio in London. What a babe! We connected very well, and he has taken several of my pieces on trips to Congo for his film making. I love that the masks get to go on travels like that. Especially when the end product is as good as Baloji’s”. 

Unless a mask is commissioned, however, Damselfrau shared how her piece’s are used to decorate a ‘space’, rather than a body, or a face. “I very rarely think of the masks as ‘masks’ when I make them. It’s more about arranging materials in a space, it rarely starts with the idea of a person unless it’s a commission and the project demands it. The character shows up once it is done and someone activates it”. However, the specific restraints of a commissioned piece is a challenge in which Damselfrau thrives, as she noted: “It’s a different process, and I often find it complicated and I rarely find comfort and ease through it. But that stress adds other elements I sometimes really enjoy the outcome of. When I make pieces for myself, it’s all about play and fun and ease”. Despite these additional challenges, Damselfrau shared how “Edith Sitwell or Maria Callas would be very exciting to make something for. Both so powerful!” 

In the same way that Runway Gallery exposes the relationship between art and fashion, Damselfrau’s masks blur the boundaries between fine art and costume design. However, when asked whether she considers herself more as an artist or a fashion designer, Damselfrau revealed how she classes herself as “neither”. “I just make masks, and I try not to decide for them what they are. Let them fend for themselves. It’s how I’ve learned to trust the work to do it’s job”. 

Megan Slack for Magazine by Runway Gallery