A kids’ book about the dark underbelly of fashion

We spoke to author Serah-Marie McMahon about Killer Style and the legacy of her magazine WORN.

Serah-Marie McMahon, the editor-in-chief of WORN Fashion Journal for the 10 years it was in print, has co-written a children’s book with Alison Mathews David, author of Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. The resulting Killer Style adapts David’s research for a young audience, in a book that takes delight in enumerating various dye and scarf-related deaths, but also the large-scale hazards of fast fashion.

Presented as a kind of playfully gloomy coffee table book for children (those famous connoisseurs of coffee tables), Killer Style is a darkly funny text for nine to thirteen-year-olds whose cultural consumption falls outside that typical “young adult” Venn diagram of Sylvia Plath, Some Sports Team and Pornhub.

Some historical images are particularly evocative, such as a delicate drawing of a young woman throwing a fire blanket over her friend (whose immense blue skirt is going up in flames) or another illustration of a little girl in “NONFLAM” Flannelette whose caption (from the era) describes the fabric as “so strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

Yet, for a book about fashion, the graphic design is an anarchic disaster. It can be hard to appreciate the very real encyclopedic pleasures of Killer Style in the textbook-like din of colour and illustration all bleeding senselessly into the inside margin. There is a common design fallacy at play here, that fun and for kids inevitably means chaos. Not so.

However, if you’re demanding elegance from contemporary children’s literature you’ll end up indicting the entire genre in no time.

Killer Style is at heart informative, an assortment of grim anecdotes that succeeds in drawing kids’ attention not only to notable moments in historic fashion, but to several contemporary fashion workers’ plights. The book may be too cute, but its global awareness elevates it, including sobering details such as the desperately low wages workers are paid where garment manufacturing has been outsourced to the Global South. That’s something kids should be learning about — now if only the titles weren’t so alliterative!

This humourless child-turned-adult spoke to McMahon over the phone to discuss Killer Style and the legacies of WORN Fashion Journal.

Nora Rosenthal: How’s life after WORN?

Serah-Marie McMahon: Good. I mean I definitely was in shock right after but that was years ago. I really was already on my path to fall in love with kids’ books right when WORN was winding down.

NR: What especially about children’s literature really draws you in?

SM: I know, right? It’s so weird. It’s different. Actually it’s not that different at all. In children’s literature, the work I find most fascinating is when you take text and art and you put them together to tell a story which, if you look at copies of WORN – that’s what it was. It was really a highly visual publication. It’s also an area of expression I find has been underrated, something that a lot of people will blow off as being superficial or maybe silly or not worth time and attention and study, which is something that is true for fashion and children’s publishing. I think I always champion, and I know it seems strange to call them underdogs, but intellectually [children’s books] often are dismissed as something that make money but don’t really have a lot of substance.

NR: WORN always had a research angle but what was the initial inspiration for Killer Style?

SM: Well I was brought on to the project once it was already started. One of the people who works at Owlkids Books, which is the publisher [of Killer Style,] read an article about Alison David’s work and was like, “This will make a great kids’ book.” She approached Alison and she loved the idea but was having trouble writing in a voice appropriate for children. That’s where I came in.

NR: About this idea of an age-appropriate book, did you read kids’ books like this growing up? Other than novels written for kids?

SM: Like non-fiction? Yeah! I was a super big book nerd as a kid so my mom used to bring me to the library every day after school and leave me there for a few hours and most weekends. I read nonfiction books all the time. I remember this one my grandmother had that she gave me that was a Reader’s Digest book about birds for kids and I pored over that book. Again and again and again. And history books. I always wanted to know what was up with the world around me and I felt like nonfiction books were the way to understand that. I loved nonfiction as a kid.

NR: So people always talk about WORN as a very different kind of fashion magazine. Are there magazines you’re reading right now that you feel share this affinity for a more socially and historically rooted take on fashion?

SM: I haven’t read a fashion magazine in forever. I’m not going to lie, it’s been a really long time. But I feel like people’s general attitudes about clothing have become much more in line with WORN‘s… thesis, for lack of a better word. The idea that people weren’t going to take clothing seriously is much harder to understand now than it was in 2005. Mainstream fashion magazines at the time would never feature a plus-size person whereas now it’s not that uncommon. It’s not even so much, “Is there another independent magazine that’s doing the same thing?” as that the basic ideas of WORN have penetrated the outskirts of mainstream. Mainstream fashion has started to care about the same things that WORN cared about. It’s not resolved, but it’s better. It’s moving that way. We just understood that that’s the way things were going. ■

Killer Style’s Montreal launch is happening at la Petite Drawn & Quarterly  (176 Bernard) on Thursday, April 25, 5–7 p.m.