Slow Chicagoans : Slow Fashion Edition

Jamie Hayes and Gerry Quinton are two Chicago gals you're going to want to get to know. Not only are they Chicagoans - who more than approve of the avocado toast trend (more on that later) - but they also just happen to be changing how we think about fashion. And they sure got this Chicagoan doing some heavy thinking after having a chance to talk shop with them. Together, they own Department of Curiosities in Logan Square - a collaborative space housing Jamie's company Production Mode and Gerry's Morua. Ethical leather and corsets, oh my! I know. Are you as excited as I am? Okay. Good. Without further ado - let's get to the good stuff.

What would you be doing right now on a typical workday?

Wearing so many hats! We produce our lines ourselves, in-house, so a typical day would include cutting for production, sewing or working with our stitcher to have work sewn, inspecting work, not to mention researching, sketching and pattern making for lines in development, fitting work on clients and fit models, and marketing, selling, and shipping work. And of course super glamorous work like taking out the trash and trips to the hardware store round out our days.

What's the best part about your job? The hardest part?

The best part is autonomy - we can create whatever interests us. We can schedule our days in the ways that work best for us. We can surround ourselves with a community of creative people and clients that inspire us.

The hardest part is staying organized and focused. When everything and anything is possible, it's so important to create and maintain parameters for working. It's hard to switch hats so many times during the day and for us, this year will be about how best to organize and use our limited time and resources, and figuring out when and how to delegate/collaborate with other people so as to continue to create and produce at a high and satisfying level.

What do you think is the biggest obstacle for Chicago's fashion systems (particularly in regards to "slow" / sustainable fashion) to overcome? How does this relate to any obstacles you are aware of in our food system?

NAFTA and subsequent trade agreements have meant that in the past 25 years we've gone from having over 50% of our clothing manufactured in the US to merely 2%. So our infrastructure, from weaving mills to fabric sales reps to patternmakers to contractors, has been decimated. Add to that the rise of fast fashion in our industry, and domestic designers really have trouble competing - especially since many customers now are really only familiar with fast fashion and may not understand the differences in quality - not to mention the deleterious effects of fast fashion on the health of workers, our economy, and the planet. The appreciation of quality fabrics, cut, and construction is also diminished by fast fashions emphasis on disposable clothing and ever-evolving trends. Plus it's rare for people to learn how to sew these days and thus our connection to how clothing is made has been diminished.

Many similar same obstacles exist in the food industry, and many have been addressed by the slow food movement - so we're very inspired! For example, as consumers of food, over the past several generations, we've been increasingly disconnected from the sources of our food supply - because much of our food is coming from far away places, because it's often being grown by vast agribusiness, and because much of it is processed into something that barely resembles food.

The effects of these issues are similar in both the food and garment industry - small farmers struggle to stay on their land, whether growing food or natural fibers for processing into cloth or livestock for wool or leather are grown on farms, and struggle to compete when using "slower" practices like organic and free-range farming. In the fashion industry, we also have the issue of vulnerable workers (often young girls sent from the rural villages where farmers are struggling to keep their land) migrating to mega-cities to work in the garment industry for 80+ hours/week for very little pay, often sending the majority of their pay back home to try to keep families on their land or to fund the education of children in the family. Because production happens somewhere so far away, because we no longer understand the vast amount of human labor that goes into making clothing, and because the price of clothing is so cheap now, it's easy to forget to value clothing at all - it's become a disposable commodity.

In doing so, we lose so much. Not only do farmers and garment workers suffer from low pay, but also the planet suffers because so much of the industry is unregulated and dyes, pesticides, and chemicals resulting from garment manufacturing are being dumped into our soil and waterways. Not to mention the vast amounts of textiles that end up in landfills each year. But also notable is that we've lost our connection to our clothing. Clothing - like food - can be a source of joy, culture, and self-expression. We have to get dressed everyday so we might as well make what we wear reflect our values and personality and choose something meaningful and healthful, to workers, the planet, and to ourselves.

 A Production Mode black leather bag.

A Production Mode black leather bag.

What wins for fashionista brunch - avocado toast or artichoke toast?

Avocado toast! Gerry was born and raised in Costa Rica with native avocados and then lived many years in England where the avocados are very sad and subpar. Jamie has always lived in the not-tropical Midwest and would consider a localvore diet if avocados and mangos were allowed exceptions!

What is your favorite Chicago Fashion related social media account to follow? Are there any Chicago food related account you follow that stand out (aside from SFC, duh)?

Chicago Fair Trade! The Fair Trade movement is another place where slow food, fashion and appreciation of craft and artisanal production meet.

 A stunning and romantic corset piece by Morua.

A stunning and romantic corset piece by Morua.

How does your work relate to the Slow Food objectives (good, clean, fair)?

Jamie's line Production Mode uses vegetable tanned leather produced by local, unionized tannery Horween. The tannery provides living wage jobs, in Chicago, and so do we! Also, vegetable tanning is a slow, traditional process that uses only vegetable matter to tan the hides. This process is in contrast to the chrome tanning used in 90% of leather production in the fashion industry. Chrome tanning uses chromium - a heavy metal that can become carcinogenic if not properly disposed. Plus, vegetable tanning produces a beautifully variegated hide that develops a beautiful patina as it ages, and thus lasts much longer than chrome tanned hides.

Gerry's line Morua is focused on creating perfectly fitted heirlooms. They are the antithesis of fast fashion. Corsets and gowns are hand-crafted from start to finish for each individual. Measurements are carefully taken and several fittings are needed for a bespoke piece. Each pattern is drafted to the client's measurements, hand-cut from specialty and luxury fabrics, and stitched one by one in our workshop. The metal bones for corsetry are hand cut to size and tipped on our very own workbench. Finally, the binding is hand stitched invisibly and embellishments are applied by hand. Many of our favorite embellishments are antique laces, buttons, rhinestones and trims. These are not only one of a kind but were made in a time when more care and artistry were put into these objects. The amount of work that goes into an elaborate piece is more than in a hundred fast fashion dresses. The result is a cherished, well-fitting piece that will stand the test of time.

Jointly, under the Department of Curiosities brand, we are designing a line of 1930's and 40's - inspired silk lingerie. It will be handmade in our Chicago studio, beautiful, and built to last. We're currently in talks with mills in Italy and fair trade producers of hand-woven goods in India to find the prefect, high-quality, ethically-made fabric.

Most important to both of us is the concept of transparency. This concept of provenance of materials and labor is unfortunately still very rare in the fashion industry, mostly because brands are cutting corners everywhere they can and don't want to be held responsible for tragedies like the Rana Plaza Factory collapse of 2013 in Bangladesh in which over 1,000 workers were killed in a totally preventable - and foreseen - building collapse.

 A close up detail of one of Production Mode's vegetable-tanned leather pieces.

A close up detail of one of Production Mode's vegetable-tanned leather pieces.

What local sources do you employ to create your pieces? Why is it important to you to source local (in fashion, in food, or both!)?

We love to support local sources! It's a challenge to do so, however, because Chicago's fashion industry has dwindled so much in the past generation. Still, we're beginning to see things turn around in the US as more and more small brands and manufacturers enter the US market and more and more consumers begin to ask questions about where and how things are made.

As mentioned above, Production Mode sources leather from Horween tannery, located just a mile or so from our shop at Armitage and Elston. The natural color leather used in the line has been embellished with a screen print executed by Chicago artist Nora Renick-Rhinehart

Morua faces more challenges in sourcing locally. Corsetry relies on metal components from the medical industry of which the best come from Germany. Likewise, specialty heritage textiles specially made that have been in continuous production in Europe for over a century are not available in the US. Morua does source and re-purpose vintage and antique components for decorating and embellishment and supports as many small local distributors and manufacturers as possible.

Both of us cut and sew in-house so we keep it very local in that regard!

Likewise, our shop is located in Logan Square and we both live in the neighborhood and love our Sunday farmer's market.

All that said, we still love our non-local avocados and silks from abroad.

How do you see your corsets in particular (a fashion staple from the past) as a piece vital for the fashion movement of the present?

Corsets are fascinating for many reasons, including their loaded history, and the myths and assumptions that surround them. I don't see them as items of fashion, but as wearable objet d'art : little luxuries with the power to transform. For a wedding they are lovely and create the ultimate romantic silhouette; as undergarments they are supportive and empowering and for some even healing; and for special occasions and performance they are delectable showpieces.

 A hand-crafted corset by Morua.

A hand-crafted corset by Morua.

Why Chicago? And if not Chicago, where?

Chicago rents are so cheap that we can afford (barely!) our beautiful production space/showroom. We couldn't afford a similar space in say, New York. Also we are very inspired by our membership in the Leagues of Women Designers (LWD) - in fact we'll be hosting a show of member work at our space this December. As noted recently in Forbes magazine, Chicago has the highest percentage of female entrepreneurs in the world. We definitely feel that love and support here in Chicago!

Gerry lived in London for many years before moving back to Chicago and still travels there to work regularly. As a source of inspiration the layers of history, multicultural collage and creative street fashion, London is phenomenal. A part of Morua is always in London.

If not Chicago, Jamie could see herself potentially in Mexico City, where she worked for several months with a labor rights organization. Mexico City got a hold on her heart - the delicious food, community of artists and artisans, and its rich textile traditions.

Want to learn more about these fascinating fashion ladies? Check out the links below.

Department of Curiosities / Facebook

Production Mode / Facebook / Instagram / Blog / Horween 

Morua / Facebook / Instagram