Painting pants on, headphones turned up, hot drink in hand, and Ōtepoti/Dunedin visual artist/denim designer Meg Gallagher is ready to create. Hailing from Aotearoa’s deep south and rising to dress names as big as Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber and Jared Leto, and collaborate with others along the lines of Kendall Jenner, she has a drive to succeed and talent to burn. Vogue Italia was on the money when they named her ‘one to watch’.
Meg, how did you come to be doing what you’re doing? Ever since I was young, I found comfort and a quiet confidence in the arts — painting, sewing, photography, ballet. Strangely, although I was and still am easily intimidated socially, I was never afraid to put myself out there creatively. I decided to focus on a career in fashion design because I found the industry so alluring and wanted to explore the world.
For the past 15 years, I’ve worked as a designer for many brands, but I got especially lucky when I was living in Sydney and joined streetwear label Ksubi. The team was the coolest and taught me how to work with denim specifically. I continued to specialise in denim design and got to work on celebrity collaborations and travel the world sourcing vintage denim.
After a while, I realised I was achieving everything I’d ever wanted as a teenager, but something wasn’t right — I was burnt out and really missed using my hands and making something more tangible and unique to me. I started creating art by using denim instead of traditional canvas and manipulating it in a way I learned through my years in fashion. I straddled working in both fashion and art for a few years, but as my art career has progressed organically, it’s now become my primary focus.
You recently moved home from Australia — has that influenced what you’re making? Oh yeah — every day I get a buzz from how beautiful the New Zealand landscape is and I’m constantly taking photos to incorporate into my paintings. When I was young, I was an absolute ratbag and did not appreciate the stunning beauty all around me. Now I do and I’m making up for it — kind of like, “Sorry nature, I see you now”.
Your process seems to be a blend of control and chance… That’s the best part — there’s a great element of surprise in it that keeps me on my toes. Having said that, it might look all fun and free in my social media posts, but there’s actually method in the madness.
The first stage is choosing which off-cuts of denim I’ll use; each piece gives a different tone when washed, so I need to be smart when making my selection. Then I do a lot of dyeing, bleaching and washing to create organic textures in the denim. This part of the process is when I experiment the most, because each dye or pigment reacts differently with the bleach, resulting in some unpredictable magic.
I then choose a thick acrylic to use to paint layers into the pieces. I’ll keep working into the layers by rubbing diluted pigments on and off with a humble household cloth. I rarely use a paintbrush as I don’t like leaving textures that look obviously man-made.
Creating large-scale works has its challenges — did we spot some hung on your washing line on Instagram? You sure did! I absolutely love working large scale — the bigger the better, in my mind. I like to drape entire rolls of denim over the washing line so I can create sweeping lines. In my studio, I paint with my work stapled onto these huge plywood panels that allow me to move them to the floor when I want the paint to soak into the fabric and not drip. Come to think of it, gravity plays a big role in my process.
Do you WFH or in a studio? I do lots of my textile work outside at home because I need space and fresh air, but then the rest is created in my studio. I have a wonderful space in the centre of Ōtepoti that I share with a group of creatives. It’s the perfect vibe because we get to focus on our own work, but when we need a breather, there’s always someone around to reset with. We’ve started a ritual in the studio where we all sit down together mid-morning for a piece of toast and tea. It’s like a very wholesome smoko.
Do you thrive on routine or work when the mood strikes? I’d hate to crush anyone’s preconceived idea that I live this free-flowing, spontaneous artist lifestyle, but I thrive on planning. I have a son, so that plays into the need to paint when he’s at school so I have time for him at night and during the weekend. I will, however, defend my uncool nature by saying that as soon as I start painting, there’s no rigid planning person in sight. Maybe that’s why I like it so much — I get to embody an alter ego of mine.