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Pop-can Tabs, Upcycled Textiles and the Future of “Sustainable Fashion”

Sustainability and fashion aren’t two words usually paired in the same sentence. The fashion industry is based on systemic obsolescence. And as the recent tragedy at a Bangladesh clothing-manufacturing facility cruelly demonstrated, fashion’s trickle-down effect—new season = new colors, styles, fits, fabrics, etc.—among mainstream retailers is to produce more for less, often at the cost […]

Redefining, Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability, installation view, courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design.

Redefining, Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability, installation view courtesy of the Goldstein Museum of Design.

Sustainability and fashion aren’t two words usually paired in the same sentence. The fashion industry is based on systemic obsolescence. And as the recent tragedy at a Bangladesh clothing-manufacturing facility cruelly demonstrated, fashion’s trickle-down effect—new season = new colors, styles, fits, fabrics, etc.—among mainstream retailers is to produce more for less, often at the cost of human life.

The rise of vintage and other resale clothing shops is a boon to the eco-friendly and price-conscious among us who still like to buy something “new” now and then. As for off-loading the unused, ill fitting or worn out items from our closets, numerous charities will take the stuff off your hands. So, other than purchasing used clothing and donating to Goodwill, what else comes to mind when sustainable becomes an adjective attached to fashion? Dresses made out of beverage-container labels, soda can pull-top tabs and other detritus? Gowns made of recycled or upcycled tablecloths? Tops and shorts from vintage fabric?

Anny Li-Fen Chang, Eco Pop Dress, collar detail. Photo courtesy of Goldstein Museum of Design.

Anny Li-Fen Chang, Eco Pop Dress, collar detail. Photo courtesy of Goldstein Museum of Design.

Examples of each, unsurprisingly, are part of the Goldstein Museum of Design’s current exhibition, Redefining, Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability on view until May 26 and available online here. By the way, the delightful, high-collared A-line pop-can tab dress, designed by Anny Li-Fen Chang, a faculty member at the University of North Texas, was inspired by Vasily Kandinsky’s 1926 painting Several Circles, and is comprised of 2,500 spray-painted tabs—and would be truly fun to wear.

So would Rosetta LaFleur’s (a faculty member at the University of Delaware) floor-length gown constructed, in part, from salvaged upholstery-fabric yarn woven into a halter top. In artistic beauty and inspired construction, M. Jo Kallal’s (also from U of DE) zero-fabric-waste suit is breathtaking. Hand-constructed with needle felting, the suit was patterned on a “Hokusai-like ‘wave’ similar to those depicted in Japanese waterfalls cut from folded paper,” she says.

Rosetta LaFleur, Amalgamated Anemones,  detail. Photo courtesy of Goldstein Museum of Design.

Rosetta LaFleur, Amalgamated Anemones, detail. Photo courtesy of Goldstein Museum of Design.

The exhibition, juried from 200 submissions, includes 46 pieces from 30 designers from the US, Australia, Europe and Asia. In the exhibition are works created through up-cycling, repurposing or the reclamation of clothing, materials or products. There are garments with multiple purposes or looks—dresses, for example, with skirts that can be raised (cocktail party) or lowered (evening gown). Other designers converted heirloom or memorable garments or household textiles into shorts, tops or accessories.

SherrySandenWill_4 SherrySandenWill_1_cropped

The late, great Alexander McQueen’s influence (dresses of shells, flowers) is clear in a knee-length dress by Sherry Sanden Will, a student at the University of Minnesota, festooned with ¼” thick slices of wood collected from dead branches. Martin Flores (a student at Michigan State University) may have been channeling a posher punk Mad Max in his zero-waste jacket. Another student from the U of M, Lauren Kacher, took medical scrubs in distinctly day-glow, sci-fi direction.

The exhibition also includes a lovely dress of traditional, biodegradable, organic Korean linen, and an up-cycled and over-dyed 1963 jacket from Bjorkman. The best quote, however, comes from Colleen Moretz (a faculty members at Immaculata University) about her multi-purpose wedding gown constructed from three damask tablecloths rummaged from friends’ closets: “The biggest challenge in using these repurposed table linens is working around the stains.” She found a way and the result is sumptuously old-world.

Redefining, Redesigning Fashion: Designs for Sustainability is up through May 26, 2013 at the Goldstein Museum of Design, University of Minnesota – St. Paul campus.

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Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities arts journalist and dance critic.

Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)