Meet Ellen McKenna: Art Becomes Fashion

Meet Ellen McKenna: Art Becomes Fashion
Nerida Hansen
Nerida Hansen

Melbourne-based artist and pattern designer, Ellen McKenna, is a beast with colour. It is her secret weapon and she is not afraid to use it. For Ellen, 2020 has been one of her most rewarding and exciting years professionally. There’s no knowing where it will stop.

Here Ellen has an online conversation with our blog editor, Jacqui Taylor, to tell us more about her recent successes such as her exhibition From Art to Fashion, past creative lives, her design reboot as she calls it and hopefully earning a full time living from her work.

 Hi Ellen, it has been a busy year for you. Despite a global pandemic you have achieved a lot, you have even said it has been your ‘best design year yet’. Tell us what you have been working on and why.
A lot of my successes this year have come about from my design ‘reboot’, which happened last year with the introduction of painting into my repertoire. I feel like 2020 has been a year when all my hard work and planning has come to fruition. I like to call it ‘planting seeds’ (I think that actually came from Oprah). For example, it was whilst doing the Camberwell Art Show (which I had one painting accepted into) that I found out about the Town Hall Gallery art space and exhibition opportunities they offered. I had to develop a lengthy application for that and then I was accepted and my From Art to Fashion exhibition and fabric collection was launched. I then used the exhibition as my project for the The Design Files/Laminex awards application for which I’ve now been nominated as a finalist in Textile Design. Therefore, Camberwell Art show lead to the Town Hall Gallery exhibition which lead to The Design Files awards. One thing leads to another and another and so on!

Your exhibition, ‘From Art to Fashion’ has been a big hit. Tell me about it, where it is and what you have learnt from the experience?
The From Art to Fashion was exhibited at the Town Hall Gallery in Hawthorn. It was conceived as a step-by-step visual journey, showing painted canvas artworks, patterned fabric displays and sewn garments. I wanted to explore the role fashion plays in our lives. I’m passionate about seeing garments as items of worth, treasuring their place in our wardrobes, and with the idea of keeping our clothes, season after season.

I’ve learnt that I really enjoy putting together an exhibition and the long term goal of an exhibition. I also learnt I am quite good at the planning, visualisation and liaising components of putting an exhibition together.

 Talk to me about the process/journey of turning your art into fashion/garments.
For the concept I painted six canvas artworks, I then created six repeat patterns which I had printed onto fabric. The fabric was displayed as a sewn wall hanging, a bag and then finally as a garment which I designed and created. The garments all have a vintage flavour to them, as I always intended on wearing the dresses after the show. Plus, I love a bit of vintage flair in my fashion! These all hang on the walls of the gallery next to each making the visual journey very clear.

As an artist, do you like to see your art become fashion? How does it make you feel?
I absolutely love it! I’m a huge fan of fashion – and how clothes can transform a person. The positive power of dressing for pleasure and confidence is huge. I’m also very interested in fashion history. It can be quite fascinating to look at how fashion changes over time, and how what’s going on in fashion is a reflection of what is happening in world history at the time. It is a thrill to think I could be part of that with my art making its way onto garments.

Let’s chat about your childhood. Where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I grew up in Sydney near the base of the Blue Mountains, however I moved to Melbourne when I was 19 to go the Victorian College of the Arts. I’m still in Melbourne – I love it here.

Who was your creative influence when growing up?
I didn’t find my passion for design until later in my life. In my past creative lives I have been a dancer (ballet/contemporary), a singer, an actor and a pianist. I was fortunate to go to a performing arts high school, The McDonald College and there I was exposed to many genres of art, design and performance. It was truly fabulous! Looking back that is probably where I feel in love with creative history – whether it be art, music, design, dance or costume design. Also, my parents are both creative in different ways. They have always encouraged and facilitated my creative learnings and explorations. 

When did you first think, ‘I could make a living from my art’?
Well, I’m not actually making a full time living from my art yet, but I’m working on it! For me, I’m finding it to be a gradual process – every year making a little more income and gaining a reputation and broadening my reach. It takes a lot of patience and persistence to make things happen. You can’t sit around waiting to be discovered. I just don’t think it works like that – well, not in my experience anyway. This year has been the first year that I have felt a full time living from my art could be possible. This is my hope anyway!

Could you tell me about your style? Have you always had this style or has it evolved/changed over time?
Since I’ve started painting I feel like my style is now Abstract Expressionistic, but it hasn’t always been that way. Previously I created my artwork for patterns using pencil and markers and I think it was a bit more graphic/minimalistic in style then. I’m a maximalist most of the time now! I’m not afraid to combine all the colours. If it looks good to my eye – it’s in. I’m also a maximalist in shape/motive - in terms of my patterns being busy and detailed most of the time.

When and how did you meet Nerida Hansen?
I met Nerida over the phone in 2016 when a friend of mine passed on her number to me. I wasn’t even doing repeat patterns then. In our first conversation she critiqued my work and sent me on a pathway of learning to become the pattern designer I am today. After that conversation, I taught myself how to do a repeat pattern in Photoshop using a book someone gave me and I spent almost a year creating collections and sending them to Nerida before she took me on with the agency.

What is the title of your latest collection for Nerida Hansen Fabrics? What can our customers expect?
My latest collection is called Art to Fashion and it is based on my art/design exhibition of the same name. Customers can expect lots of colour, painterly textures and big prints.

Talk us through your typical day. What do you do outside of work?
My days are full! In the times before COVID they consisted of waking very early, school drop offs, commuting, bread and butter jobs, lunch time trips to the art supply shop and art gallery if I’m lucky, shared housework, kids to bed and then art/design! Now, during our current lock down situation – I’ve been working my day job from home – but it’s pretty much the same in terms of fitting in my art around the rest of my life. I think the trick is to plan well. I spend the time planning out what task I’m going to work on before I actually get to sit down and create. If you want to do it and it is part of your ‘being’, you’ll find the time.

Who currently inspires you with your work?
I am very inspired by 20th century art, interior design and architecture, primarily the Bauhaus movement and the mid-century Scandinavian movement. However, as I mentioned, I’m also a historical fashion enthusiast. I’m also inspired by fashion from about 1920 to the 1980s. I’m a bit of a design sponge – I just love to watch documentaries (fashion, art, design, typography etc), look at books, look at magazines – everything is inspiration to me.

  What would be your dream project?
I would love to collaborate with a fashion label on a whole collection – that would be a dream! I’ve also discovered a love of exhibition creation and design in the last few years. Creating a commercial exhibition (patterns, art, fabric) for a major gallery/space would be fantastic too.

What is in the pipeline for you?
Always more paintings and patterns! I’m always on the lookout for future possible collaboration partners and I’m constantly looking at new ways to express myself. I’ve got my sights set on another exhibition for 2021 but I’m just in the planning stages of that. I’m also very interested in colour – colour trends, colour psychology and the use of colour in interior design and how that makes us feel. I’ve embarked on some interior decorating/design studies this year as well, in the hopes of combining patterns, art and interiors into my brand and creative business.

Give me three words to describe your art.
Bold, bright and optimistic.

What advice would you offer to those that are starting out as artists?
You have to really love creating and love the whole process because it may take a while to kick off. You have to be doing this even if you weren’t getting paid because that is also a reality. I also believe that you must be willing to be nimble and flexible as a commercial designer without letting go of your personality in your art. If a certain direction isn’t working commercially, you need to be able to recognise that, adapt and be brave enough to change direction, whilst still being true to your artistic vision.

I also think as pattern designers it is very easy to get caught up in making hundreds of designs in the hopes that buyers will find something they like. I don't think it's about that anymore - I think it comes down to doing 'things' – tangible authentic things like exhibitions or something like that and opportunities will develop from them. It’s important to keep pushing outside your comfort zones and don’t fear failure. Conduct your business with kindness, authenticity and give everything your best shot – because you don’t know where it will lead.

To shop Ellen's fabric collection visit and her prints are available at

Words by Jacqui Taylor
Head shots by Meagan George
Gallery images by Kirsten Bresciani

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