Interview with Ethical Fashion Site Trusted Clothes (Part Two)

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.

jamie hayes trusted clothes interviewThe Depart­ment of Curiosi­ties Space

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.

jamie hayes interview trusted clothesJamie pick­ing out leather at Horween tannery

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.

jamie hayes interview trusted clothes

Jamie Hayes & Gerry Quin­ton; photo cour­tesy of Frank Maga­zine.

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!