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MassArt’s Jennifer Varekamp is Fashioning an Eco-Chic Future

This is the second in a series of interviews with several of the expert table facilitators at EcoLogic’s 2014 fall benefit, Turning the Tables: Living Within Natural Limits. This dinner party with a twist will take place on October 23. To learn more and purchase your seat at the table, check out our event page here!

Butterfly Branch

Jennifer Varekamp is a costume and clothing designer and an Associate Professor in the Fashion Department at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design (MassArt), where she teaches a course she developed on “Sustainable Fashion,” as well as several other fashion courses. She is deeply invested in sustainable fashion, including the traditional techniques and artistry found in cultural dress. She has participated in numerous conferences and workshops on sustainability in the US, Europe and India.

Jennifer Varekamp is Fashioning an Eco-Chic Future

Jennifer Varekamp is Fashioning an Eco-Chic Future

Tell us a bit about your background. What experience do you have that’s connected to “Fashioning an Eco-Chic Future”?

My background is in costume and apparel design, and I have a master’s degree in education. For quite some time now, I’ve been exploring the use of sustainable methods and materials in my own work. I’ve attended conferences and symposia on the topic here in Boston, in Europe, and in India. Five years ago, I was invited to go on the Sustainable Design Tour of Germany. That was an incredible experience! The tour largely focused on fashion, but we also looked at architecture and product design, and essentially one’s entire lifestyle. I find that northern Europe and Scandinavia are further ahead with these things than we are. It was also important to me to make connections outside of the US, because sustainable fashion is a global issue. It can’t be confined to one country, since a garment can be designed in one, and then the raw materials can be processed in another, and it could be manufactured in a third, and then sold in a fourth.

The fashion industry has huge implications on the environment. The more I looked into it overseas, the more I wanted to find out about it firsthand. I decided to dig deeper by going to India to learn about the environmental impact of organic versus traditional cotton production. Cotton has a huge impact, because it covers about 2.5% of the world’s cultivated land, and uses 16% of the world’s insecticides—some of the most hazardous pesticides to human and animal health.

What led you to develop such a passion for sustainable fashion?

My interest in sustainable fashion first started for me on a personal level. I’ve always had an appreciation for traditional handcraftsmanship, and I have seen how “fast fashion”—cheaply made, mass-produced, disposable clothing—has in many places caused this aspect of indigenous cultures to become a dying art. I’m always looking to go out and connect to other countries and learn more about traditional crafting techniques. I also try to educate my students to value these traditional techniques and sustain them in current fashion.

EcoLogic also works with indigenous communities, so you can see how it hard to pass these traditions on to younger generations. Today, there are dyes and techniques that work faster, and there is such a demand to make “fast fashion” clothing instead.

What are some of your current projects?

Right now, I’m working on a collaborative performance project with an oceanographer, a choreographer, and a composer! The piece is inspired by our relationship with the ocean, ocean life, and the force of movement, which will be reflected in the dance. I am doing the costume design, and I wanted to work with all-organic fabrics and natural dyes to create my own textile designs. Then, I am making them using techniques like Shibori and Bandhani, which are traditional tie-dye methods from Japan and India. I also have been very careful in trying to minimize my waste. There are a lot of ways that we as designers can minimize what we throw away. Through this performance piece, we hope to raise awareness of some environmental issues—in particular, our impact on our oceans in the form of ocean acidification—and I have interpreted this message though some of the textile designs and color blending I am creating within the costumes. It is exactly this type of meaningful, substantive project that I love working on! The show goes up in November at the BU Dance Theater. It’s called Hoverdive.

I am also working on a collaborative upcycle project with my sustainable fashion students and Eileen Fisher, which is a company that is very focused on sustainable production. The students worked with donations of gently used Eileen Fisher garments and materials, and used them to redesign new garments for a “second life.” We are going to have an opening at the Eileen Fisher store in Chestnut Hill in October, leading up to Fashion Week.

I also co-founded the Sustainable Fashion Collaborative of Boston, an organization that connects designers to more sustainable resources, techniques, and ideas, while creating awareness for consumers so that they can make more informed choices.

In your opinion, how do you think EcoLogic is making a difference in the world?

EcoLogic is doing incredibly important work, because you work directly with the communities in rural areas and identify the issues that are pertinent to them. I find in my own experience that a top-down approach cannot work. The approach that EcoLogic uses to work on-site is geared towards long-lasting, tangible, meaningful solutions—not just a quick fix. I’ve seen firsthand how water sources and ecosystems are drastically damaged from the global demands on the land to supply mass-produced garments. For example, toxic dyes often end up in water sources, such as streams, that have a hugely negative impact on the communities—who are often unaware of the pollution.

What is the number one thing you would like the people sitting at your table to walk away with at the end of the night?

I’d like the guests at my table to be more aware of the issues that exist with “fast fashion,” and to have a better understanding that, as consumers, they can make choices that will have a lasting impact on the fashion industry. As consumers, we must be informed of how garments are made and the implications of that. Continuing the cycle that we’re in with “fast fashion” will have lasting negative effects on the environment, and therefore also on the people living in the communities where garments are produced. The fashion industry has trained consumers to believe they can buy clothes so cheaply, but you have to consider all the labor and materials that go into each garment. How could it possibly be that cheap without straining each level of production in a negative way?

I’d also like to break down the misconceptions about sustainable fashion. I want to show people that sustainable can still be fashionable! People often think only of rough hemp when they hear “sustainable fashion,” but there are many beautiful fabrics that work for several types of garments. We’re at such a different place now with innovation and technology in regard to producing sustainable fabrics, and I’d like to create some transparency in the fashion industry about how things are made, and about how they could be made.