An Interview with Vanessa of Madam Chino

Vanessa Devaki Andrew is an artist, illustrator, clothing & textile designer and producer, community educator and reuse entrepreneur living and working in Milwaukee WI, USA.  Milwaukee is also home to her USA-made sustainable reuse clothing brand Madam Chino which started 2003, and strives to remove the vanity and social irresponsibility from fashion through creative reuse.


Tell us about your  background 

I grew up in Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, USA and for my childhood formative years lived on a farm appreciating nature.  My father was a Hare Krishna, and we would go to the Krishna Temple in Chicago, sometimes bringing our cows and parading in the streets during Janmashtami, chanting and drumming with flower garlands.  I felt the uniqueness of this experience and it allowed me to appreciate life and culture outside of mainstream American living.

What is your personal story – education, prior work, and so on?

My family moved to an urban setting and began college not needing to soul search.  My grandmother was an artist, and artistry was in our family genes.  I was not as good at rendering as my sisters, but ideas and brainstorming was my forte.  Craftsmanship came after.  Before I started making clothes, I was sort of at the pinnacle of “anti-fashion.” In high school, I figured that high fashion equated vanity, and I wanted to make sure that my friends liked me for who I was and not for what I looked like. I combined many styles as a way to symbolically cross-reference every style simultaneously in hopes to negate any one of them and not be “labeled.” At the time, I didn’t realize that I was using fashion in an attempt to make a point and for self-expression.  And in the end, people would call me a “freak” anyway.

At 19, I began tailoring my own garments. I realized that there was a reciprocal determinism between what you feel like and what you look like. Using clothing as a tool of communication can transform the wearer to new states of awareness and consciousness. This happens when the wearer’s confidence and sense of self are increased through this amazing process of expression. I became Madam Chino in 2003.  As Madam Chino, I began reconstructing garments, mostly dresses and T-shirts on which I screen print my drawings.  I became very amazed with how various parts of clothing items could be cut and reconfigured to fit congruently elsewhere on the body with little to no scrap, which sparked my interest in zero waste design. I use all scraps and reformulated on a piece as surface design or save and recreate in smaller designs, which seemed to invent themselves based on the left over shapes.

Madam Chino

How did you get interested in ethical and sustainable fashion?

I was hesitant to begin a “career” in fashion because I didn’t want to support an industry so full of vanity and social irresponsibility. Besides wanting to make people feel good about themselves through expression, what finally gave me the “go” was realizing that reclaiming old clothing was not only stopping them from becoming landfill, but could circumvent new materials extraction, fabrication, and transportation. This was socially responsible! I use my old clothes, clothes that are handed down or donated to me, thrifted items, or bulk textiles purchased from rag houses.

How did your educational/professional experience inform fashion work?

As an artist by nature, and an “outsider” to mainstream media culture looking for unique and expressive clothing options not available in “mall stores” I began viewing clothing as “soft sculpture,” “utilitarian art,” “wearable art,” and “accessible art.”  I was working as an illustrator in the painting program at the University and stumbled into screen printing, which combined with reuse textiles, became an expressive mode of art.

Madam Chino

What is Madam Chino?

Madam Chino is a reuse clothing label.  Online it is completely made-to-order from recycled t-shirts as a way to consolidate listing individual, unique found-fabric garments, and to avoid over-production.  It is essentially very similar to American Apparel in that it is almost completely knit-wear by size and color, except I use recycled t-shirts; in order to create consistency, the articles are flipped inside out and buyers accept slight variation in color.  In person, the Madam Chino line is utilitarian wares and wearables from recycled materials with a much broader range including cloth napkins, dish towels, hot pads, washrags, mittens, hood scarves, laundry bags, tote bags, flag bunting, rugs, dresses with unique skirting, steering wheel covers, and many more all from recycled fabric.  These items are offered wholesale to local shops however the purveyor must accept the variation based on the nature of reuse fabrics.  This accounting for diversity while offering consistency is a huge logistical battle with merchandising reclaimed goods.

What inspired the title of the organization?

While thrifting one day I bought a shirt with white velveteen iron-on lettering that said “Madam Chino” and I wore it all the time.  “Chino” or “khaki” was a fabric I was working a lot in and I loved the idea that maybe I was “Madam Chino.” It inspired me to get into a creative persona to work with fabrics, cutting them apart and recreating them.  I adopted the name when I was not able to find anyone on the Internet using this name, however I do wish I would know who the first Madam Chino was.

What are some of its feature products?

For the made-to-order from recycled T-shirts line, there is a broad range of shirts and skirts, mostly for women but some adoptable for men.  I am working on creating a men’s line with raglan sleeves where you can switch the colors of the sleeves and collars out.  The goal is to be customizable.  Offline I am interested in finding all ways to use scrap fabrics, and have been making many quilted items, have spent many hours whittling away at scraps culling the pieces and sorting them.  The tiniest pieces I am weaving into rugs!  I am also taking custom orders, mostly creating heritage quilts, pillows with memory pockets, tote bags and messenger bags for people from their late as well as living relatives clothing, as well as costumes for dance squads, custom fits, plus offering classes and alterations/repairs in shop.

What are the main fibres and fabrics used in the products?

Most of the fabrics that I find or are given/donated to me are polyester or cotton blends either knits like t-shirts but also woven fabrics with different patterns on them.  I use a lot of Snuggies, which are bountiful in thrift stores as winter mitten liners, and quilt batting.  I love using 70s double knit polyester for gloves because it is essentially indestructible.

Who designs and manufactures the products of MADAM CHINO?

Madam Chino is made from all recycled textiles, either from donations, thrift stores, or industrial textile sorting facilities.  They are completely manufactured in house at Madam Chino in Milwaukee WI USA on used industrial sewing machines.

What personal fulfillment comes from this work for you?

To provide a service to others is very meaningful.  I find fulfillment from helping others and the planet.

What other work are you involved in at this point in time?

I am working with a few art organizations in Milwaukee providing in school supplementary art education through project-based learning and after school programs, integrating textile and pattern-making into socio-cultural programming.  I have been teaching community education for over 10 years and have worked with dozens of organizations.

Any recommended authors or fashionistas (or fashionistos)?

As far as videos I am very much into “Story of Stuff” and “True Cost” Movie.  I love how “Reformation” has popularized conscious consumerism, but there are many amazing artists and designers doing top notch stuff on etsy and elsewhere, and I applaud anyone hand-making or buying hand-made, even better if it’s from reuse, and organic fabrics.

Any recommended means of contacting, even becoming involved with, MADAM CHINO?

Email me!

What has been the greatest emotional struggle in business for you?

Not always feeling validated by society can be very hard.  Again, reaching out to others in a similar vein is very important for gathering a sense of community.


What has been the greatest emotional struggle in personal life for you?

I’m not sure.  I think when I have trouble, I look at my past experiences and it reminds me that I can get through it, and that helps.  It’s like art therapy or something, each project is a metaphor for life.

What philosophy makes most sense of life to you?

DIY, it’s the best.  It empowers people to take control of their own lives, and author their own culture instead of let someone else.

Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on the conversation today?

Thank you so much for your time and efforts in this field.

Thank you for your time, Vanessa.


About the Author

Scott Douglas Jacobsen researches and presents independent panels, papers, and posters, and with varied research labs and groups, and part-time in landscaping and gardening, and runs In-Sight Publishing and In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal.

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