Trusted Clothes, an organization devoted to promoting ethical and sustainable fashion, recently interviewed me for their blog. Below is another excerpt from Part 2 of the interview, written by Scott Douglas Jacobsen.
What makes Production Mode unique?
The proprietary, exclusive materials. Also the level of transparency—I share where the materials come from and who makes the garments. In fact, you can come into our studio and see firsthand how things are made. I would also say the quality of the fit. I consulted with a technical designer with many years of experience working with leather to refine the fit. A lot of time and energy was spent on these patterns. The fit is very good for ready-to-wear, and then can be further refined for people that can come to Chicago for a fitting. That’s something a lot of designers don’t offer.
Your inaugural collection consisted of leather that was vegetable tanned from a unionized shop, Chicago’s Horween tannery. Why the Horween tannery for the inaugural collection?
For a couple reasons, one was a happy accident. I was discussing the custom print with Paula Wilson, the designer of the print. She said, “What color should the base cloth be?” I referenced one of her paintings. She said, “Oh, a hide color.” I had a lightbulb moment. I said, “No, no, you should print it on a hide!”
The search then began for the best quality leather. Leather is touchy if you’re talking about “ethical” fashion. Some people, understandably, do not see leather as ethical since an animal must die in order to produce it. I respect and understand that.
That said, there are many other issues of ethics in leather production. I wanted to be as familiar with my suppliers as possible. And there is one tannery left in Chicago, Horween Leather. They use the process of vegetable tanning– an artisanal, traditional way to tan leather that uses organic plant matter such as sticks, barks, and tree extracts. It is a 6-weeks process in contrast to chrome-tanning, which is a 6-hour process.
Chrome-tanning uses chromium, which is a heavy metal and highly carcinogenic. So the choice to use vegetable tanned leather became really clear for me. I didn’t want to use a material that is carcinogenic–especially knowing that these carcinogens will end up in our waterways or landfills. Also, I learned that vegetable-tanned leather tends to age much better than chrome-tanned leather. So if you think how vintage leather goods get that great patina versus a scuffed, worn out look that is typical nowadays, that’s the difference between a vegetable tan and a chrome tan.
In terms of the quality, aesthetics, the environment, and workers’ rights (Horween is a unionized factory), it was an easy decision to go with Horween. In addition, it is wonderful space to visit. It’s less than a mile from my studio, so I can go there whenever I want and speak to my sales representative. Plus the money I spend with Horween stays within the local economy.
All of these things were serendipitous, and helped provide the direction for the collection. Since Chicago’s fashion industry is pretty decimated at this point, there really aren’t many options in the ways of mills or even fabric reps here in Chicago. Horween is the last tannery left in Chicago.
The hides were designed by Paula J. Wilson, executed by Nora Renick-Rinehart, and then stitched by Klezar. What is the importance of this network of various individuals with different skill-sets to the overall production line for the final products?
We have this cult of artist or the designer. This idea that the person does everything themselves. Even if you’re amazingly talented and good at everything–designing, printing, cutting, and stitching, you’re only one person. You can’t do everything. Art and design are always done in collaboration, whether people are transparent about that or not.
I am not a screen-printer. I am a good stitcher for a designer, but I am nothing like Klezar. I do as much as I can myself, especially at first, to educate myself about a process, so that I can better communicate with the team. For example, I did do a few screen-prints on leather. However, there’s no way I could execute anything close to as wonderful as Paula and Nora. It takes years and years of practice to achieve their level of expertise.
A true collaboration becomes better than the sum of its parts. Everyone is pushing each other. Everyone is open to new ideas. Hopefully, what comes out takes you to a place you wouldn’t normally go with your own art work; I like to think that’s what happened with this art collection.
If people want to look more into things, they can look at the showroom/production space, the Department of Curiosities. What other work are you involved in at this point in time?
A couple of things. I am active in the Chicago Fair Trade, where we are involved in anti-sweatshop advocacy work here in Chicago. Also, I do technical design for other ethical design companies.
At Department of Curiosities, the space that I share with another designer, Gerry Quinton, we recently designed and launched a line of slow fashion, ethically made lingerie and nightwear under the name Department of Curiosities.
Also, I am going to have a pop-up shop at the theWit Hotel in Chicago in the month of August, and a fashion show on August 25th, showing both Production Mode and Department of Curiosities, at their rooftop space.
I’m launching the next Production Mode line in the Fall.
And I am involved with the League of Women Designers in Chicago.
You mentioned a shared value with Gerry. I suspect this for other collaborations as well. That leaves me to think, “What meaning or personal fulfillment does this work bring for you?”
So much personal fulfillment—that’s really key to me! I have worked in the fashion industry since 1999, but I actually left the field for a few years because I was missing that personal fulfillment. I had to do some soul searching. While I loved the process of design, designing and making clothing and expressing myself though style, I really needed to check in with myself and face what was going on in the industry.
First of all, I had to find a way to work in the fashion industry while still respecting a basic ethical framework–one in which people and the earth are respected, and in which we as consumers curb our own consumption levels. Also, I needed to question some of the main tenets of the industry. It is common practice in the industry to create and promote a culture which makes the consumer feel badly about themselves. Then we imply that they can solve those body/self-image issues through purchasing things, especially clothing, to make themselves feel better or to distract themselves from the ills in their lives.
I had to dig deeper and think, “What’s the social meaning of fashion? How can style be used in a positive way to build self-esteem, to help a person express their identity and culture – to find out who they are?”
My work post-graduate school has been guided by these questions and issues. That’s been key to me finding personal fulfillment in my work.
For me, fabric, color, textures, line and pattern bring me great joy. I hope I bring joy to my clients as well. There’s joy in art and design. All of those things keep me going and bring me great personal satisfaction. I feel lucky to do something that I love that is in line with my values. Sadly, I think that’s a rare thing in our culture right now. I wish it weren’t the case, but I feel lucky to be situated here.
With regard to organizations/companies, and so on, like Trusted Clothes and Production Mode, what’s the importance of them to you?
It is to show an alternative to the mainstream. That it is possible to create and purchase ethically-made, well-designed clothing. Also, to get people in the industry to question how things are made, and hopefully, to create a sea change.
I look forward to a future where there are no more ethical clothing or aggregator sites like Trusted Clothing. Ethical, sustainable manufacture should be the norm. Until it is, though, we definitely need to keep spreading the word and asking for change in the larger community.
Thanks to Trusted Clothes and author Scott Douglas Jacobsen for the interview, and for their support of Ethical Fashion!