Tell us about yourself – family background, personal story, education, and previous professional capacities.
I started in the fashion industry in 1999 in St. Louis, working at a boutique after college, and sewing after my senior year in college because I wanted something hands-on and concrete. I was studying English literature, and while I loved to read and write, it was abstract and alienating for me. My personality type doesn’t mesh with it.
It is nice, at the end of the day, to have a pile of work, see what you’ve accomplished, and in a concrete way. I moved to Chicago to get a second BA at Columbia College in Fashion Design. I was lucky. I got a job in the industry while I in school. It was at a handbag company called 1154 Lill Studio.
The company was a real pioneer in mass customization. As a result, we needed to make everything one-by-one, made-to-order, and with a quick turnaround time – three weeks. We made everything in-house first and then in the Chicago area. It was a lesson in production management and efficiency. I was seeing local manufacturers firsthand, which was rare at a time when almost everybody was offshoring.
My consciousness was raised in working with contractors and realizing that a lot of people don’t get paid fairly, making friends with stitchers, and hearing their stories of immigration and exploitation in the sewing industry. So, I started asking questions and becoming conscientious.
I ended up getting a graduate degree, a Master’s degree at the University Chicago in Social Work. I focused on labor rights in the garment industry. I worked as a labor organizer for a few years in Chicago. Primarily, I was working with undocumented, Mexican population–frontline workers.
I was giving training on worker’s rights and helping to organize campaigns in the work place. However, I missed working with my hands—the colors and textures of fashion–the more direct creativity that world affords. Following this, I joined Chicago Fair Trade and became involved in that movement as a volunteer helping to pass a Sweatfree Ordinance at the city and county level in Chicago.
Also, I took on a lot of freelance work with fair trade companies. I worked for SERRV. They sent me to China. I did some work in Peru, in the Lima area. Also, I have done a lot of technical design for local companies in ethical and fair trade fashion. Finally, I launched my own line in January of 2015.
You argue for a living wage for workers. Why is it important for the sustainable and ethical fashion industry?
It is important across the board. I’m focused on fashion because that’s what I do for a living. It is important in a more global level as well. Fashion, clothing, and sewn products are some of the most labor intensive industries in the whole world. It is a ‘race-to-the-bottom’ industry.
Anyone interested in women’s rights, supporting those most easily exploited, or eradicating poverty, would do well to look at the fashion industry because that’s the ‘bottom.’ We can find the easily exploited people there.
If these workers can be paid well and treated fairly, we can do a lot to improve the rights of women and young girls, eradicate poverty, improve health outcomes, increase literacy, and so on. It is a huge issue. We need to be aware of it. In Chicago, the labor movement cites $15/hour as the living wage.
So, we pay above that for our stitcher. That’s how we gauge that here, but it is different in each city and country based on the cost of living in that place.
To separate two ideas floating around in the conversation, the phrase “ethical and sustainable fashion,” but this belies two separate and related ideas. Ethical fashion on the one hand; sustainable fashion on the other hand. To start, what is the importance of ethical fashion to you?
For me, the importance is the human factor. Nobody should be dying while making our clothes. Even so, 2013 was the deadliest year on record in the fashion industry. If you look back historically, it is similar to the beginning of the 20th century in the US with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. People die while making fashion. That’s ridiculous.
What we’re speaking of when we say ethical fashion is really baseline, sadly. People should make a living wage. A wage that allows them to live on and support a family. To be frank, $15/hour in Chicago would not be enough in Chicago, but it’s better than the minimum wage in Chicago.
Secondly, people should work in a healthy and safe environment. Sadly, that’s not the case in a lot of the garment industry, especially that which is offshored.
What is the importance of sustainable fashion to you?
The issues are similar. There’s overlap, but sustainability refers to the environment and issues affecting the planet. I come out of the labor movement. So, I am less educated about those issues, but even if you just look at sustainability from a human perspective, the health of the planet has huge ramifications for everyone.
We are all connected. We should care about what is happening on the other side of the world. It is about human rights. We all deserve basic human rights, and beyond that, the ability to thrive and grow. From the human perspective, the pesticides that are used to grow our cotton, the petroleum that is used to create polyester, the dyes that are used to create the colors in the fabrics … all of these things affect the workers who are applying those pesticides or dyes. They go into our water supplies. It is about treating out world well. There is huge overlap between issues of sustainability and ethics.
My favorite term is slow fashion because this takes into account the quality of the product and the design. It’s coming out of and inspired by the slow food movement, the tenets of which are to know the provenance of this food or, in our case, the clothing. So, where do our clothes come from? What about the raw materials like the cotton, wool, poly, or leather? To have transparency about that, to appreciate and value the item, the experience around it, to slow down, buy less, buy higher quality. That’s important information to provide as a designer. Because, to be honest, you cannot do everything perfectly, especially as a small company. You might not know all of the labor conditions in the factory that makes your zippers or buttons, but you can choose the highest quality zipper. This can allow the garment to have as long a life as possible.
Sometimes, we have to think about competing issues and balance those all out. Slow fashion is the most honest way to do that as a designer in my opinion.
What was the inspiration for Production Mode – and its title?
(Laughs) Coming out of the labor movement, I have done a lot of neo-Marxist readings. I was thinking about means of production and the organization of work, and what brings people joy. I was thinking about that when I named the company.
But the inspiration goes way beyond that. At the end of the day, I am a designer. I love fashion. I think we need to make a lot of changes in the industry, but I love clothing as a means of self-expression. It brings me a lot of joy. I think it brings a lot of people on this planet a lot of joy. It’s an expression of who we are: our culture, identity, values. It doesn’t have to be a superficial, passive consumer experience. It could be tailored to fit your body exactly. That’s how it was used for generations—until recently, in fact.
Now, it is a disposable thing. It doesn’t have to be that way. One thing I always want to be a part of the company is the concept of artist collaboration. It stretches me as a designer. It makes sure there is something unique about the product and timeless.
For example, for the first line that I launched, I collaborated with an artist named Paula J. Wilson. She designed an all-over print for leather. Another artist, Nora Renick-Rinehart, executed the print and applied it to leather. It is not something seen often with leather. It is limited edition. It is designed by a well-known artist. So, there’s a whole story. I can trace the provenance of the materials, the print, the execution of the print, etc.
For the next line, which I’ll launch in the Fall of this year, the fabric is designed in collaboration with an artist named Nuria Montiel. It is executed by local weavers called the Weaving Mill in Chicago. They are located about a mile from my studio. They have two industrial dobby looms. It is a collaboration between the four of us to produce the fabric for the line. It can’t be found anywhere else. It was inspired by Nuria’s art work, influenced by the textiles of the Bauhaus movement, and Peruvian and Mexican textile traditions.