In the late 1990s I went through a retro phase, along with every other young person with dreams of fashion and too little money to fulfill them. I’d return home from outings to Goodwill with my discoveries: long inflexible leather coats, boxy vinyl handbags and itchy imitation merino sweaters. My parents were predictably distressed; this synthetic-blend poverty was precisely what they’d worked so hard to escape. I’d been raised pretty militantly in natural fibers, and my mother would get a kind of trapped, aggressive expression when explaining the dangers of polyester: “It doesn't let you breathe! It will melt onto your skin!” (Imagine my mother's German accent.)
I spent my 9th grade year with my father, who was on sabbatical in Berlin. This only made things worse. Whereas American shops occasionally yielded beautiful 1930s slips and beaded sweaters, everything of that era had disappeared in Berlin; burnt and lost during raids, traded away for food and cigarettes after the war, or simply worn into the ground, anything pre-dating the last war was a great rarity. Subsequently, the flea-markets I frequented sold only olive military coats (these were like unopened presents—were they American, Russian, German? In Berlin, anything was possible) and garishly bright eastern-bloc polyester fantasies. My father still calls this year my “Great Aunt Bonnie Period,” and the less said the better.
All this time I’d been altering the clothes I bought to fit, but rarely strayed from their original style. When I returned to America, I glutted myself on the modest array of natural fibers available in fabric stores; in rural Oregon, the selection was predictably small. I missed the variety and surprise provided by relying on old clothing, and I felt that the investment of time to make a garment from scratch should be rewarded with luxurious materials. I couldn’t afford new cashmere, but thrift stores were full of old sweaters, moth-eaten but beautiful, just waiting to be cut up and re-purposed.
I began re-purposing second-hand clothes because I had too little money to afford what I wanted new. Only in hindsight have I realized how my initially unrelated environmental and ethical concerns have shaped the way I design and dress. By rescuing these unwanted items and giving them new life, I am effectively keeping them from landfills, and because I use almost no new material, I’m not complicit in anyone else's questionable manufacturing practices. Over the years I've become acquainted with many kinds of fabric manipulation: knitting, weaving, dyeing, stamping, printing, and of course sewing, and the challenge of applying these disparate skills to unwanted materials, creating beautiful and innovative pieces of clothing, is one that I want to pursue as a career. I’m aware of the near-impossibility of producing a collection using only re-purposed garments, but a combination of old material and new sustainably-produced material seems like a viable alternative, and one that is increasingly attractive to consumers, even those not traditionally environmentally-aware.
We all have to wear clothes (most of the time). What we choose to wear, whether or not we admit we care about fashion, shapes who we are and how we think of ourselves (and each other). I do not want to create costumes, but I am interested in clothing that subtly pushes this performative aspect--clothing that makes us aware of the self-fashioning we undertake when we dress. It was this sense of dressing myself in history that appealed to me in the retro outfits I used to wear. I want to create clothing layered with history, to remind us, through its material and its style, that we are simply the most recent people in our long history subtly, delicately and calculatingly assembling and fashioning our outer selves with these raw materials, our clothing.