What makes Production Mode unique?
I think the proprietary/exclusive materials. Also, the level of transparency—that I share where the materials come from, who is making the garments, the fact that you can come into our studio and see firsthand how things are made. As well, I would 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 spent on these patterns. The fit is good for ready-to-order, 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.
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. 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 hide!”
The search began for the best quality leather. Leather is touchy if you’re talking about “ethical” fashion. Some people say that because it is an animal dying in order to produce something it is not ethical. I respect and understand that.
Digging in deeper from there, I found one tannery left in Chicago. I was familiar with it from my former job as a handbag designer, but I hadn’t dug as deep as I did in this case. I researched vegetable tanning– 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. That choice became really clear for me. I didn’t want to use a material that is carcinogenic. That 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, design, and aesthetic perspectives, thinking about the planet, the fact that the factory is unionized, it was an easy decision to go with Horween. In addition, it is wonderful. I can travel whenever I want and speak to my sales representative. Since it is a mile from my shop. All of the money stays within the local economy.
All of these things were serendipitous. All of the signs. Each pointed in one direction for the collection. Since Chicago’s fashion industry is decimated at this point, there aren’t a ton of mills here or fabric sales representatives. 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 designing, printing, executing, and stitching, you’re 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-printing expert. 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. I am involved in advocacy work in Chicago. Also, I do technical design for other ethical design companies.
I am involved in Department of Curiosities. It’s the space that I share with another designer, Gerry Quinton. Recently, we designed and launched a line of slow fashion, and ethically made lingerie under the name Department of Curiosities.
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. I am involved with the League of Women Designers in Chicago. A lot of entrepreneurs designing and working in Chicago, who are thinking about the ethics of how things are produced in their lines.
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, the ethics–people and the earth need to be respected, and we need to curb our own consumption levels. Also, I needed to question some of the main tenets of the industry. It is common to make the consumer feel bad about themselves and then to think that they can solve body issues, 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 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, 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.
Thank you for your time, Jamie.