What Sustainability Means To Me. And Why I Hate The Word.
I had the noblest of intentions when I started my career in design.
I was sitting at my dining room table in Coconut Grove. Coacoochee Street, across from a nice park. It was around 8 at night and Danny had just stopped by to drop off a home sewing machine for me to use. He'd decided that I should make clothes, being that I was such an avid thrifter who'd spent my entire teen life patiently going through the racks at thrift stores, hangers clicking as they hit each other (the sound is still filled with excitement and anticipation when I find the time to hit a thrift).
I sat myself behind the machine and got to it. I distinctly remember "Small Town Boy" by Bronski Beat playing in the background. So whenever that song came out, that's when I learned to sew.
Danny had an ulterior motive. The hot club in town at the time was Fire & Ice. In that iteration the space had become a new wave hot spot, catering to Miami's fashionable. As a further aside, it's worth mentioning that Miami is at its core a fashionable place. Trends are embraced and discarded with abandon. Fire & Ice was Miami's most important boite where people went to swan in the latest fashions, dancing to electro beats, rock and rap. It was the 80's and those of us who were part of that scene considered ourselves to be not only in the know, but participating in fanning the flame of eternal style. It was a monumental task that we placed on our own shoulders, but we felt it was our duty to do so.
So. Danny's ulterior motive was this: he was producing a fashion show at Fire & Ice that would highlight the work of local designers. And I became an unwitting if obliging participant in his grand plan. I imagine I had a week, maybe two weeks on the outside, to design, cut and sew all the pieces that I would be showing. I had never considered my design philosophy, cut fabric or- as described earlier, sewn- before.
I was 18 at the time. My life had to that point been one of school, home and friends. Lucky for me, I met Danny and his circle of friends. Designers, artists and drug dealers (80's Miami, I ask that you don't judge). In spending time with this crowd who were 5 to 10 years older than me and becoming established in their careers, I was exposed only to their dreams and aspirations, not the masks that we are required to wear in our business dealings.
I learned a lot about art appreciation. I learned about how art and culture shifts might relate to broader social and world issues. And most importantly, I learned that creating art- be it fine art such as paintings or sculpture, or applied arts such as clothing or ceramics, puts us into a conversation about how our work resonates in a larger discussion about who we are as a society. Art is a language that can be spoken by anyone. It requires no previous training, only a level of interest in what is put in front of you. And, if you decide, participation in discussion about the work.
My recollection about my first pieces are fuzzy. Most likely I bought vintage barkcloth drapes from a thrift shop. Not the cotton ones, but the ones made from nylon- and quite possibly some fiberglass fibers. They would have had a loud atomic print, as that graphic style was important back then. I think I made both men's and women's pieces. An elastic waist pant. A mini dress. Some cropped tank tops (think Madonna and her "Boy Toy" time). I vaguely remember buying some scratchy wool blankets that became cropped jackets.
The show itself was lots of fun. Danny did a terrific job at assembling four or five of us who were similarly aged and defined as budding designers. It was a training wheel bike for us. I was excited to be part of the show, and made a decision to continue exploring that avenue. A big thank you to Danny for bringing that machine over. An auspicious start to a career that is now 39 years in the making.
Fast forward to 1994. Ten years since I sat at the dining table. I'm now sitting behind a pattern table at a huge Seventh Avenue company, making big money as a pattern maker and sample room coordinator. Managing a team of sewers in their 40's, 50's, 60's. People who have been sewing for decades- some since before I was born. All of these sewers are from Central America and the Caribbean.
I was given the job even though my past experience in the industry was reed thin. I'd had my own line of menswear that had a decent showing, selling at two major department stores and a number of boutiques around the world. But I wasn't able to sustain growth, and getting payment from the accounts proved difficult. I had no choice but to close up shop and get a job.
I kept that job for six years. I learned everything from the sewers. And I also learned a valuable lesson: as a white man, I was given opportunities that I wasn't prepared for. More on that later.
In 2001 I came out to California to celebrate a friend's birthday. I was unemployed and starting to feel a tug for something new. I'd spent many years in New York and was feeling run down. While in California a friend who I'd met while visiting told me about a job with a large company that he was working for at the time, I went in and got the job. Within a month I was living in San Francisco, working for a huge company and against all odds, back in my hometown.
I was now in charge of the technical design department for a large men's division. My job was primarily involved with global relationships, specifically people at factories and production offices around the world. I watched as technology took us off pattern tables and into a completely digital design world. Brian Eno had once said, when asked about the difference between analog and digital music: "Analog sound is that of water running over rocks in a stream. Digital is the sound of ice cubes hitting the bottom of a glass".
And that is what happened to my design career. I'd learned about design during an earlier time, when the principles of craft were applied to each piece. I learned about why a certain construction might be used, and how a collar shape should lay, from people who had spent years considering just such a thing. People who toil in back rooms. People who have no voice, yet whose expertise is behind those who do indeed have a voice.
Over the years that I worked for the large company I traveled around the world, over and over, year after year. Visiting cramped little factories in Cairo and mega-factories in the suburbs of Bangkok. Impressive corporate offices in Seoul, linoleum tiled and fluorescent lighted offices in Istanbul, Taipei. All of these places are meant to move units in and out of factories. All of these places are concerned with booking the largest amounts of units to a program as possible. And all of these places employ very talented, very capable people who will spend their working lives doing one task. Day in, day out- one task. Clipping loose threads from a buttonhole. Pressing the hem of a shirt. Interpreting design notes from an office 8,000 miles away to create a counter sample. These are the people who I think about when I think about the word sustainability.
Sustainability means colonization to me. It means the people who might have been crowded out of their villages by industry must now work within that industry to feed their family. It means the fish that they used to catch are no longer in a river, which has now turned blue from indigo run off. This is why the word sustainability exists. For large box stores to offer a pair of jeans for $14.99. For an internet site to create an opportunity for competitive pricing, undercutting that jeans price at a price of $12.99.
Sustainability means feverish purchasing mindset. It means that discounts, bargains and promotional offers make additional purchases irresistible to consumers.
I see all of this through the lens of a chance encounter that I had in Hong Kong. After a sumptuous meal with my coworkers, followed by a few drinks at the hotel bar overlooking Victoria Harbor, I hailed a cab into Hong Kong. On the drive over I engaged the driver in conversation. He told me that he'd been in Hong Kong for a year or so from his home in mainland China. He'd come to Hong Kong to find work, leaving behind his wife and son. And he worked 12 hour days in order to send money back to his family. He was looking forward to going back to see them- his first time since arriving in Hong Kong. He expected that would be the case for the foreseeable future.
I've spent many years working in design. And I've worked with many people vastly more knowledgable and seasoned than me. And often I'm left thinking "why me?" Why did I get to fly first class all over the world for years, sitting in office buildings listening to conversations that are moving millions of dollars and pieces of fabric from one corner of the world the another?
This is sustainability. Carbon emissions carting containers of product half way around the world. Low wages paying workers just enough to get by. Governments maintaining control over the lives of not only the workers but by extension, their offspring.
When I moved into San Francisco I needed a workspace. After years of making my pieces from the ground floor of my loft, I was screwed. I was moving into a small San Francisco apartment. After some looking I found a retail space in the Mission district with a workspace on a lower floor. I had unknowingly become a retailer.
I was still working for the large company and had to go through a fairly arduous non-compete discovery process. Once I was cleared, things fell into place for me with my brand. After being online only, I was now a brick-and-mortar retailer. I discovered that I really liked the theater of retail; creating an environment that lets the customer know what the brand and product means. Merchandising for seasonal and holiday shoppers. All the fun things.
One of the main things that I've learned since opening a shop- this will be my tenth year- is that small businesses are such an important thread in the fabric of a community. What we provide as a group creates the message that a place is sending out to the world. As an example, think about the bazaar of Istanbul. Or Causeway Bay in Hong Kong. Or Savile Row in London. These are important commercial areas, but they also speak to the specific tastes of the places where they are. The culture is specific to the place.
This is sustainability. However- there's a twist. Many of the places that I just described are now selling the product that is created in the factories that I discussed earlier. So this leads us into one of the great cultural conundrums: what is cultural identity in a world of globalization? This is sustainability, the task of maintaining heritage.
How I Fit In
I spent the past years building my brand as a design craftsman of leather goods. You can come into my shop and purchase a piece that's already made, or you can engage me to make a piece for you, to your specifications.
In the past few years I've been creating a collection of apparel. First for women, and more recently more men's pieces.
And unwittingly, I became a designer of sustainable fashion. Over the years I've collected fabrics from Japan. I started by buying arai hari (洗い張り), Japanese kimono fabric. I first came across these 14" wide rolls of fabric while strolling through a monastery in Tokyo. The rolls were in a reed basket which was so simply artful that I just stopped to admire the image. I bought the rolls of fabric and had them in my workshop for a few years before I did anything with them. Fast forward to now : I make dresses, shirts and other styles from not only the arai hari, but also from kimonos that I import and painstakingly deconstruct, only to reconstruct into pieces that I design to bridge eastern and western design philosophies.
This is sustainability. And this is the arc of my professional life: an exploration of design from around the world, and how it is all interconnected.
I've learned two things during my time on this earth:
1. Live with art. The meaning of the work will reveal itself to you over time. Let the work become part of you. You'll be enriched by the experience.
2. Make purchasing choices based on stories. If you are around me long enough you'll hear me say this (often): Stories are the most valuable currency in the world.
And I really believe that. Make your life a story, even if it means dragging yourself into some initially uncomfortable situations.
I send you all much respect and appreciation.
Hi, Friend. I have watched some of your growth and changes through the years… ever since that Fashion show at Fire and Ice. Sending you Love and Hugs 🤓
Love your story. Been shopping 🛍 with ya since ya opened on Mission. Always purchase your lunch totes. (4 so far). They are made so well and I always get compliments. It’s the only bag I carry for the last10 years. Got my eye on the one with a splash of pink. :)