the gentlewoman

The Reader

Alannah Cooper was 14 when she first picked up a camera – a Sony Alpha 200 given to her by her grandfather. She’s used it since to photograph her native Orkney Islands, located 16km north of mainland Scotland. But it wasn’t until a postgraduate project to photograph her fellow Orcadians that she found her metier. “Teran”, the winner of Central Saint Martins New Fashion Image Prize in 2018, has since formed the basis of an online community Alannah is building through which fashion enthusiasts from Paris to Papa Westray indulge their love of clothes. Sartorial inspiration can be found anywhere, says Alannah, but there’s no place like home.

Alannah Cooper

Lucy: Where does the word Teran come from?

Alannah: It’s the name for a sea monster in an old Orcadian story that appears in winter to make waves. But it can also describe a wild, young person. When I was researching Orkney I got really into books on local history and folklore that had been sitting in my parents’ house for years – ancient, first editions, some of them. I never really appreciated those stories until I left home, and now I feel the need to know more.

L: I’ve found it can go either way when people leave home; they either want to cut all ties or they gain a new appreciation.

A: I definitely fall into the latter! I became fascinated about rural out-migration so I made a book when I was studying at Heriot-Watt University looking at why young people leave and, increasingly, don’t return. North Ronaldsay, the most northerly island, has population of just 50 and they had to close the school because there were no young people left on the island. For my master’s at CSM, I knew I wanted to take the idea further so that it could include the community it focused on.

L: Is that how the workshops came about?

A: For sure. People engaging with clothes by styling themselves or making outfits really appealed to me. And I’ve always loved second-hand shopping. Most Orcadians shop that way out of necessity – there’s not exactly a high street there! So I worked with CLAN, a charity I’d previously volunteered with, and we did challenges like creating outfits using only purple-coloured fabrics or making accessories from homewares.

L: What a hoot!

A: It really was. I loaded up my dad’s car with buoys, ropes, objects found on the beach and borrowed pieces from CSM fashion students and got the ferry to North Ronaldsay. I photographed locals – lifeboat volunteers, people I met in the pub – wearing these amazing, avant-garde outfits. What surprised me was how much fun they had with it.

L: How do you think growing up on an island shaped you creatively?

A: On an island you’re forced to make your own entertainment so I was always sewing patchwork quilts or going to painting classes with my granny. I knew that I was interested in fashion, but it felt quite remote. My only connection to that world was reading magazines or watching SHOWstudio. It wasn’t until I left to go to university that I realised making clothes and dressing up with my friends was part of fashion, too. It doesn’t have to be happening in London or Paris to count.

L: It can feel like those metropolises have the monopoly on fashion.

A: Exactly! So I’ve continued the styling workshops and now feature them on my website. The briefs vary from something quite specific like “yellow” to something broader like “fashion in nature” and people submit images of their looks. There are currently more than 100 people taking part internationally. Eventually, I’d like to take the project on tour and photograph the people and communities I meet. I want to show how those people living in rural areas can properly participate in fashion, rather than just observe it.

Interview by Lucy Milligan, June 2019. Portrait courtesy of Alannah Cooper. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!