Mending Fashion

Mending the Fashion Industry: Scandinavian Style

The fashion industry is in need of repair. Familiar criticisms are easy to level: overproduction of low quality goods manufactured in unacceptable working conditions has driven down quality in favor of volume. Far harder to come by are clear solutions. Consumer apathy, the disparities of global economics, and rapidly disappearing knowledge pose formidable barriers to change. But there are inspiring examples of designers and artists succeeding in their rejection of our present models of textile and fashion production. Time, as Swedish artist Emelie Röndahl explains, is often their greatest investment capital.

Franz Petter Schmidt’s project Weaving Fabrics for Suits has nurtured an industrial loom back to life to produce woven cloth again. Toril Johannessen designed printed cloth based on the wax resist tradition and sourced a production run in Ghana—recently extending the project in collaboration with the Oslo-based fashion collective HAiK (Siv Støldal, Ida Falck Øien, and Harald Lunde Helgesen) to include garment manufacture. In neighbouring Sweden, Emelie Röndahl hand weaves large-scale tapestries, such as Rana Plaza: the Collapse (April 24th 2013), that critique the values we ascribe to clothing and its production.

Franz Petter Schmidt is a tailor, weaver, and dyer. As a Research Fellow at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, his Weaving Fabrics for Suits tests the harsh realities of reviving Norway’s textile industry. The project has restored a loom out of use since 1948 at the Sjølingstad Woolen Mill, a textile industry museum in southern Norway. Working from original sample books, Schmidt wove one of the Mill’s best selling fabrics from the late 1950s named 727, and oversaw the cloth’s final incarnation as a made-to-measure three-piece suit.

Collaboration is a significant component of the project, from the technical support and skills needed to bring a decommissioned loom back to working order to the fashion designers who have responded to the cloth. Trained as a tailor in London’s famed Savile Row, Liv Guri Østrem constructed the final men’s suit made of the 727 fabric to Schmidt’s measurements, which he jokes represents more hours of labor than he dares to ever add up—or wear. Siv Støldal also worked with Schmidt on another suit of green cloth. Rather than an archival reference, this fabric was based on Schmidt’s personal memory of the vibrant green color of the valley where he first worked at the Sjølingstad Mill 16 years ago.

Industrial production is a central focus of this research. While the finished suit of 727 fabric is the result of uncountable hours of trial and error, it also has the potential lifespan to justify its lengthy gestation. “Objects can follow the consumer through life, even become a piece in use by several generations,” he suggests. The cut of men’s suiting is far less prone to the whims of fashion, and here the suit is even designed to allow for expansion if Schmidt’s slight frame changes in the future.

Ultimately, Weaving Fabrics for Suits asks global questions of production values, but concludes with a particularly individual response. “The motivation for my work,” Schmidt reflects, “is based on intuition and linked to my biography. It has been about coming to terms with betrayal, loneliness, and sorrow. And, about being gay… On the deepest level, this work has been about mending and healing. Healing wounds and sorrow through reaching out, constructing, recreating, and sharing. Mending and healing myself, mending and healing the loom and the textile sample book in the archive.”

Fellow Norwegian Toril Johannessen is equally interested in the production cycle of textiles, but looked further afield for solutions to her ongoing project Unlearning Optical Illusions. Johannessen’s career began as a photojournalist and it is a photographer’s eye that led her to design a series of printed fabrics, initially for digital printing, with stylistic reference to the wax resist tradition popular throughout many of the west and central African nations. Initially exhibited as large-scale photographs of the cloth, the project then rewound to revive earlier stages in the textile production cycle. Travel to the Ghanaian capital Accra allowed work with a textile factory to print a small run of the collection. She collaborated (like Schmidt) with HAiK to see the project through to its logical end. With Johannessen’s bolts of printed cloth, HAiK sourced a garment factory to assemble a collection they designed in situ.

Norway no longer manufactures printed textiles or garments. Ida Falck Øien suggests that the high minimum wage in Norway makes it unlikely for garment production to ever return to the country. Some production of woven cloth has survived and, to a more limited extent, knitted cloth production. But “we all need to be part of a bigger change in what clothing is worth,” Øien explains. She also concedes that production that allows for digital solutions—such as weaving and knitting—requires less human labor hours and is more viable in a country with high wage costs.

Because of the limited availability of manufacturing within Norway, HAiK have, in recent years, produced their garments at a factory in Lithuania. But as Øien explains, the idea of sending Johannessen’s fabric printed in Ghana to Lithuania for garment production “felt counterintuitive” when Lithuanian culture was not a reference point for the project. Instead, the prints were combined with sport wear fabrics such as mesh sourced locally in Ghana, a solution Øien admits is “not one we would have thought of from Oslo.” For the fashion shoot, HAiK asked many of the individuals who worked in the Ghanaian factory to model the collection, closing the loop in the production chain with the same people who helped cut and sew the collection.

Johannessen and HAiK’s approach is an exception to the rule. Far more typical is a sense that the individuals who labor behind the garments we wear are invisible. The 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh , India, is considered the garment industry’s worst industrial accident. Swedish tapestry weaver Emelie Röndahl revisited this grave example in her large-scale tapestry Rana Plaza: the Collapse (April 24th 2013). The project began in the final month of her recent pregnancy during a time when she had growing concerns about the realities of child labor. Her decision to return to weaving eight weeks after the birth of her son was a conscious exchange of time: “I took some of the time from my son and gave it to them [child laborers].”

The weft of Rana Plaza incorporates clothing made by the Swedish brand H&M. Rather than a literal critique, the clothing is intended as a symbol of ubiquitous cheap fashion familiar to Swedish audiences where H&M originates. Suspended on a scaffold-like tower, the installation acts as a further reminder of the building’s collapse. The imagery of the tapestry is based on the first picture to appear in a Google search of the term Rana Plaza collapse—the interface through which most of us learn, and tend to turn away from, the facts of textile and fashion manufacturing.

Ironically, Röndahl admits that she does not like to weave, acknowledging its time demands make the process “boring and lonely.” But she also sees this tedium as an effective means of communication. “My angle is emotional,” she reflects. “My time commitment makes a lot of sense; when I am weaving others are not.” If the garment workers of Rana Plaza received inadequate compensation for the value of their lives and time, Röndahl invests her time in a critique of that imbalance.

How to mend the imbalances of the fashion and textile industries is a fraught question. But what each of these examples shows are individuals who do not find the current realities of production acceptable. Their solutions for mending arrive through enormous personal investments of time—to nurture a dormant loom back to life; to travel, design, and oversee garment production far from home; to weave in isolation. Each act asks us to reconsider the value of our clothing and the labor that goes into its creation.

Photo above & home page courtesy of Franz Petter Schmidt

Surface Design Journal fall 2016: 26-31.

Surface Design Journal