by Mae Colburn Indigo dyeing workshop at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery. Photo: Chris Hyun Cho
‘Alternative Fashion Strategies: Design Incubator with Green Eileen’ (March 30-April 5, 2015) in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was a little like a game of Twister. Students, designers, farmers, and members of the public maneuvered around a portable loom, a knitting machine, an industrial sewing machine, and various other hand-crafting implements stationed throughout the gallery to examine the interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, testing areas of contact and overlap. Throughout the week, design samples accumulated on walls, tables, drying racks, and even on the radiators, whether de- and re- constructed sweaters, needle-felted fleece, or indigo dyed garments. Some were made in advance of the exhibition and others at workshops held throughout the week on topics ranging from fiber processing to bengala dying to machine knitting. A sense of purpose coursed through the exhibition, and so did a sense of excitement, the kind that emerges when people and materials meet.
, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.
Mae Colburn: Let’s start with some of the broader ideas at work. What motivated you to put on the exhibition?
Laura Sansone: Well, I’m interested in this interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, specifically agrarian businesses, and specifically how those things can work together […] I think it can really help to create economic diversity and grow these smaller enterprises. That’s what motivated me to do this project and what motivates me in my own work as well. […] It’s not always appropriate for them to work together, but I think that it’s a way to start to see a shift, those moments when these two entities can come together - it can shift the economic power and be a good way to rethink how things are structured.
MC: And the idea to shape this into the ‘Design Incubator’?
LS: This started off as a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the students here at Parsons. The Green Eileen program is an initiative with Eileen Fisher where they take back clothing from their consumers, so they have people send back clothing and they resell it in green Eileen stores but the secondhand clothing that they can’t resell they call ‘third life’ and they ask designers to repurpose it. So I had been working on that, and in my quest to repurpose her clothing, I was mixing it with materials from the Hudson valley, from Upstate New York, […] so I started using those materials in combination with the repurposed secondhand clothing, and that became the parameter for the course I teach at Parsons, and also for this partnership. That’s really where this all began.
Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi
MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?
LS: The prototypes were from students, and then we added to them during the exhibition. We had lots of workshops going on, and as we generated work we would hang it - so it was kind of an incubator where things were growing. The printed matter came from someone that I had met at the Textile Society of America conference in 2014, Helen Trejo, who is a PhD student at Cornell University and is writing her dissertation about the feasibility of a Fiber Shed in New York State. So we’ve been exchanging information over the past year and I asked her for permission to display some of her research and so a lot of the diagrams that were included in the exhibition were from her. She had some really great maps that showed where the mills and fiber farms are in New York, so that sort of located those for people who came into the gallery to see the work.
MC: What was a highlight of the exhibition for you?
LS: One highlight for me during this exhibition was having people from the farming community come and actually speak to the students about their experiences as farmers and fabric producers. We were talking about the supply chain and one of the farmers who came actually said, ‘I’m going to start right at the beginning of it, and I’m going to tell you what I feed my sheep,’ and I thought that was so incredible to have fashion and design students sitting there and listening to this and making that connection, that it starts with the fiber that comes from the animal, that it starts with the diet, and how that effects the quality of the fiber and the form – I think that’s a great lesson.
MC: To encourage designers to consider other variables beyond say, color and drape?
LS: That’s right. So for me, waste is essential. It’s something that I’ve always cared about and wanted to consider as a designer. Like, where do my cutoffs go? If I’m generating product, what kind of impact does it have? And with the natural dyes as well, we use the waste from farms, we use the carrot tops and concord grapes that you can’t sell – there’s this link to the origin of where things come from, and how that can be integrated into the design process. […] So [at the workshops] a lot of students were deconstructing sweaters and we were re-knitting them and I thought that was really exciting. I also have students who are working deconstructed sweaters into felted pieces, which is really great – mixing the fleece with the Eileen Fisher’s mohair and merino and cashmere materials.
Map of New York State Fibershed showing fiber farms and mills. Helen Trejo Fiber Science & Apparel Design, PhD Student, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University.
MC: I thought it was interesting that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t appear in any of the material related to this exhibition.
LS: I was trying not to because what happens is that if things get overused – language – they become diluted and people start to dismiss it as something that isn’t important. So I think it’s really useful to always be rethinking things and reframing them. I think that’s part of growth in general. […] I was also trying to steer away from this word ‘artisanal’ because I think that’s also becoming diluted, but that it’s actually really important because ‘artisanal’ can talk about a smaller way to produce things, you know. It can talk about localizing things.
MC: But you did use the word ‘fashion’?
LS: Of course, absolutely, because I really want the fashion industry to play a critical role in changing things. I think it’s so important, because they’re responsible for a lot of the waste that we see in the supply chain – where we’re diminishing value where we could be increasing it. So yes, but I also see what I do as being completely cross-disciplinary. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with interiors. It’s dealing with architecture - we’re starting to think about how wool can be used as insulation, wool that is waste wool.
MC: So how do you envision the project moving forward?
LS: Well, I would like some designers, especially those who are located in New York and who are on this large-scale level, to build ties with some of these local artisans. They’re doing it globally, but I would really like to see it happening here in the U.S. So that’s something that I would like to see, and for me as a professor, I try to get my students to take on the responsibility of educating consumers. I think that trying to encourage them to design ethically and then to sort of take on this role of educating - I think it’s really necessary for designers: to take on this big task of shifting consumer behavior. You know it’s huge; in a capitalist system, it’s a huge thing to take on and designers need to take on that role.