Artisanal aka “made in a traditional or non-mechanized way”. Alina Raetsep of SIX Magazine divulges on the one topic she is truly passionate about — traditional artisanal skill-ship. In China, mind you.
Knowledge that survived generations, in some cases hundreds of years. That is a truly Raetsep-fascinating and -gripping idea.
SIX Magazine’s Alina Raetsep is one doozy dudette who can be likened to the Secret Santa of sustainable design. When Raetsep started SIX Magazine, at times referred to as the Ethical Fashion Bible, she was an eager puppy jumping for joy at the chance to cover all sorts of ethical fashion. Over the years, that boiled down to one topic she is truly passionate about: Traditional artisanal skillship. Spotted across the vast and far-fetching lands of the Middle Kingdom, in this case. A gift passed on from parents to their children, from teachers to their pupils. Knowledge that survived generations, in some cases hundreds of years. That is a truly fascinating and Raetsep-gripping idea. It’s fair to say that nowhere in the world has the knowledge of the past generations been preserved to the extent it has been in Asia, namely China and Japan. Having lived and researched the subject in both places, when Temper asked her to jot something down on this topic, we were shooting straight down her lane.
Thus far the Temper intro to this one-of-a-kind Estonian ace in the non-fast fashion field. Raetsep, you sizzling Santa Baby, the floor is yours!
When I first moved to China I felt as if I entered a parallel reality, something of an “upside down” of the world – so many things were the same and yet everything was so starkly different. One of my all time favourite memories is riding my bike down Beijing’s hutong streets in the summertime. The incredible feeling I got passing ancient temples that stood the test of time despite everything that has happened to the world and to the country – I always come back to this image in my head when I think about Beijing. That was the time I fell passionately in love with the city, the food, the traditional Chinese courtyards – the lot. I was also privileged to have gotten to know some of the movers and shakers in the design and fashion world in China. As I spent time with them and got to see their work process I realized how important their roots were to them. They may have studied in London or New York, they may have lived elsewhere in the world, but China was in every fiber of their life and work. They dig deep in their ancestral land’s rich history and they tie the traditional elements to the modern China they live in, bringing spectacular work to life.
The silhouettes were haunting and the execution of the designs most impeccable. They made Wang one of my all time favorites.
One of such people I got to know was Vega Zaishi Wang. A young London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design-educated designer, Wang entered the fashion scene with a bang with her “Alpha Lyrae” collection. This eight-piece lineup harnessed electroluminescent technology to “evoke the beauty of cosmos”. To create her luminous dresses, Wang teamed up with the lads from Top Right Optoelectronics, printing the silk with images of various constellations and nebulas and then using electroluminescent paper to back the silk.
[A glimpse of enlightenment — courtesy of The Creators Project YouTube Channel]
Hanging out with Wang on the rooftop of her studio in the summer of 2013, sipping coffee and talking about her quirky tattoos, I remember wondering aloud about her most striking collection at the time, “the Nomads”. The silhouettes were haunting, and the execution of the designs most impeccable. This was the collection that forever made Wang one of my all time favorite designers. Wang’s answer to getting the best results: Italian fabrics and local Beijing seamstresses.
Her entire operation at the time was housed in a renovated traditional Chinese courtyard house managed by three sisters, and she took me downstairs to the workshop where I watched the incredible pieces come to life. Embroidery, stitching, everything down to zips and buttons made with such precision, such skill. It was all in the hands of the women who were recreating elements of their great-great-great-grandmothers work.
My time with Vega got me thinking about traditional Chinese clothing making and I started to look around for designers who were incorporating such traditions into their work on a larger scale. Enter Angel Chang of Atelier ANGEL CHANG, a rising star of innovative fashion design with the Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award and Cartier Women’s Initiative Award under her belt for such advancements like self-heating linings and color-changing prints. An urban New Yorker, Chang had little to do with traditional Chinese craft until she discovered that the hand-woven fabrics of the Chinese Miao and Dong minorities were on the verge of disappearing, and rushed to preserve the craft through her collections.
Arriving in China’s Guizhou province in 2009, Chang began to work closely with the weavers and embroiderers of several local mountain villages, producing entirely hand-woven and hand-embroidered traditional fabrics. The entire process, from cotton planting to fabric dying, used no electricity and no artificial elements – the fabric was dyed using native wild plants. “For my collections, I use natural plant dyes foraged from the surrounding mountain forests or grown on a farm land. These plants must be picked fresh and used immediately. This means that we can only collect and process them when they are available in nature – a pale yellow flower in May, black tree bark in August. My production calendar is consequently scheduled around those seasonal limitations”.
Over the following four years, Chang learned to live among the local communities following the cycles of nature and being entirely off-the-grid, producing an almost zero carbon footprint collection. A triumph for traditional craft preservation efforts, Chang successfully collaborates with local craftsmen on producing the one-of-a-kind fabrics that normally don’t make it out of a family household. Traditionally, such textiles and embroidery are used to preserve some of the history of the minorities who never used a written language to document their story. Each piece takes up to two years to complete and is worn for an average of 20 years before being handed down to children and grandchildren as heirlooms.
[A 2015 look, directed by Jonathon Lim, at Chang and her quest for handwoven sustainability — courtesy of the Atelier Chang YouTube Channel]
Chang travelled from village to village looking for those who still had the knowledge of such traditional embroidery. Today, an embroider of that kind takes up to one month to complete one piece for Chang’s atelier. “Each collection focuses on one type of embroidery or fabric-weaving technique that inspires me. Because each technique is unique to each village, I travel into that specific village, work directly with the locals, and learn the folklore and stories behind their methods.”
Creating the Urban Tribe book was a journey that helped preserve the traditional craft and promote it to their urban customers.
Another fantastic company who has a hand in preservation of traditional Chinese clothing making techniques is the Shanghai-based Urban Tribe. The founders describe themselves as a “fusion of clothes, jewelry, ceramics and tea”. Focusing on traditional materials and production, Urban Tribe creates timeless designs rooted in Chinese traditional design and culture while their main customer base are young urban Chinese. In 2013, Urban Tribe published the book titled “Needlework Interview: With Miao Mother and Daughter”. Calling it their biggest achievement to date, the brand’s founders travelled to several Miao villages in the Guizhou region and asked mother-daughter teams to collaborate on producing a traditional piece of clothing for the book. “Urban Tribe provided them with the materials and covered production costs…We conducted field interviews and filmed the entire process, made photo albums for charity and donated all the money raised to the mother-daughter teams”.
For the Tribe, the making of the book was the journey that helped to preserve the traditional craft, promote it to their urban customers and encourage those with the knowledge of making such garments to pass the skill on to the next generation. “Urban Tribe people come from the accumulated over thousands of years wisdom of nature and beauty. We neither should forget not dare to forget. Within the products of Urban Tribe we hope to integrate such kind of wisdom and beauty.”
We end this passionate Raetsep disclosure with a quote from Chang — in reference to the mad artisanal skills she found in Guizhou Province:
“It doesn’t matter if they spend two weeks on a sleeve or two years on a jacket. These clothes will be worn for a lifetime.”
That’s a truly passionate work of love, for life.