A collaboration that resonates with how the Eastern bloc used to work under communism. In conversation with Central Saint Martins Womenswear Design graduate Alexandra Sipa
Zofia Zwieglinska: Your dresses resemble couture, marrying Eastern bloc kitsch with full-on fantasy. What led you there?
I was born in Bucharest, Romania, where I lived until I was eighteen until I moved here to study foundation at Kingston University. I have spent the last five years in London, with the exception of my placement year. I went to New York to intern for Oscar de la Renta and their atelier department, doing hands-on learning. I learned hand-sewing, hand-stitching, embroidery, and pattern making. Then I went on to do a design internship at Balenciaga in their soft tailoring department. It was a different world — I mainly worked on evening gowns, dresses, and experimental pieces, like those dresses at the SS20 show.
ZZ: The one inspired by the European flag?
I carried those dressed through the gardens for the show over my head, trying not to get them to touch the ground.
ZZ: Those dresses made waves at a turbulent time for the industry.
After I had worked abroad and moved so much — I lived in nine different apartments in my placement year — I wanted to regain stability and comfort, so I went back to Romania for two weeks and visited my grandma in Bacau, which is five hours away from my house. I was struggling to find a concept for my collection. I took photos of her house and surroundings and it came organically from there. She has this metal fence around her house and every time that I would go and see her, it would be painted in a different colour. You would be able to see the chipped away paint from before and fading from rain. The pieces remind me of a faded sense of her house and the excitement of being there and her relentless optimism. I wanted to show a very personal part of Romania – my interpretation of Romania, through the lens of living abroad for so long and this humorous, very nonchalant attitude that I grew up within my family.
ZZ: Your grandma seems like a matriarchal force to be reckoned with.
Growing up through communism, she had to have this positive outlook towards everything that was happening to her. It has remained with her – she is always positive and jokes if anything bad happens. It is a coping mechanism that I wanted to show in my collection. I am afraid to go over now, because in Romania there are not as many cases as in the UK. I asked my family if ‘is it okay? Are you up for it?’ They said yes.
ZZ: You use waste to create Romanian lace with old copper wiring. While fabric and thread is commonly upcycled, wiring is left behind in fashion, but you have used it in your collection.
It happened step by step, starting in my second year. I was stuck for the sustainability project at Central Saint Martins in our last term. I noticed that my phone cable was broken and there was a bunch of colourful wires in it. I started Googling and looking up Youtube tutorials on how to make lace from wiring.
ZZ: Why did you want to create gowns out of lace wiring?
At CSM you look outside of you for the first and second year and then as you come closer to the final year, you start looking inwards at what makes you who you are. I never expected to be in two departments that are focused on making gowns and couture-esque pieces, but it significantly influenced my work in my final year. I became a lot more comfortable with being girly and feminine. Growing up, if you wore too much pink or if you were obsessed with Barbie dolls that was seen — stupidly — as a weakness. Then it slowly came back as something that I love that I should not be ashamed of, so I embraced it. The wiring collection was the first time that I made a project about myself. It came from Romania and the décor in my grandma’s house that has TVs and doilies everywhere. She literally has five TVs around her house – there is even one in the garden, with a doily on top and a doily underneath. She pulls the electrical cables from inside the house to the garden through the window. Those doilies and the spiraling wires from her window were a starting point.
ZZ: How do you source the wires and incorporate them into your work?
I start at the Great Eastern Waste, a recycling plant that I discovered in London Fields three years ago when I was doing my sustainability project. Every week they get a new shipment of different wires from construction sites and I go and fill up my IKEA bag. I also get them from my uncles’ construction site, where I pick out whatever they were throwing away. Once I got the wrong one wires that had fibreglass in it. I saw these little pieces and I started to get very itchy. Now I am only picking out the safe ones that just have plastic and copper in them, so there is nothing toxic.
I open them up and separate them into separate boxes. The patterns for the lace garments need to be precise as it is hard to trim and open a large part of a piece once it is finished. Every pattern has the lace print on it to guide me as I build the motifs on the board. Once I actually start making the pieces, the process is very intuitive — even if I have a plan at the beginning, it always changes by the end of it.
ZZ: That must have been difficult to do at the beginning.
I have been exploring my lace-making techniques for the past three years. The first time I tried making garments out of wires, they didn’t look close enough to a lace fabric or polished enough, but I really loved doing it, so I continued trying. Most of the time I’m making it up as I go; the entire process is a learning curve. Finishing the garments to a luxury standard is the hardest part, and it varies from piece to piece.
ZZ: How about the lace?
I started with a basic lace stitch that I searched on Youtube and developed into my own technique. I researched Western styles of lace, like Belgian bobbin techniques, reading a lot of books from CSM. For the A-line lace dress, I adapted Romanian point lace technique to finish the entire bottom of the dress and tuck away any loose wiring, creating decorative oval petals. The challenge is to find aesthetically pleasing solutions to practical issues. Every new look poses new challenges, but that’s what keeps the process exciting.
I would also just buy pieces of lace so I could mimic it. I must admit, I am still learning new things every day. Usually, lace-makers have thin pins and a pillow so I had to upgrade to a foam board and some dress-making pins with the pattern underneath. All the wires are different, so every time I find something new. It’s very intuitive.
ZZ: McQueen said that fashion “Is almost like putting armor on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.” Is that how you feel about it?
Not at the beginning, but now I do. When you wear a wired dress, it feels like a corset. My boyfriend tried them on and loved the heaviness of it. As an introvert, they make me feel protected.
ZZ: How did you source your other materials?
The lace used in the inserts is what I had around the house in Romania. The fur comes from a vintage jacket from a charity shop. Even the lining that is used inside is from an outlet in London. I was conscious of the way that I sourced materials. The embroidery done on it is by my friend Lynn L Yaung, who created it fully during the lockdown. I sent him parcels with all of the towel pieces and then he sent them back to me. Because of Covid, I had twelve hours to pack up everything from my university, say goodbye and that’s it. To be told that we couldn’t come back to finish, that was very sad. Luckily, I had lace to make, so that kept me busy for twelve hours a day.
ZZ: How is working with electrical waste recycling different compared to other upcycling in the fashion industry?
I like the idea of creating luxury out of trash and completely altering a material’s purpose. I see so many benefits in that – first being the cost. Because the wiring is discarded, the cost is very low, so the bulk of the spending shifts to the lace maker. This is the second benefit, as workers receive most of the profits from the garment sold. Right now, it’s just me and Lucas, but hopefully in future years, we will be able to hire full-time lace makers and expand our artisanal team.
It’s also an emotional choice at this point. I spent the past years refining the technique, so it feels very close to me now. It’s a source of comfort making new pieces.
ZZ: How did you choose the silhouette for the ruffled dress? It reminds me of an Iris van Herpen.
It was based on one of my grandma’s porcelain dolls. I want it to still be quite plasticky and doll-like, but still comfortable to wear. I worked on it non-stop from March until the end of May. My mum made the entire collar piece – I sent her the patterns to Romania with notes on where to put the colours. She sourced electrical wires from a site around her building and then she sent them back to me.
I taught her how to make the lace over Christmas, because I was preparing everyone around me, knowing how intense it would be before the show at CSM. They all needed a crash course in how to make lace. I always work together with my partner, Lucas Baker, who is the other half to my brand. He also learned how to make lace and would be very hands-on — he directed, researched and edited the film.
ZZ: How did the Kitsch culture become your inspiration?
I was between internships and living back at home during my placement year. I learned this technique with lace inserts when I was working at Oscar de la Renta, where they were making lace on satin and tulle and soft velvet fabric, but I was trying it out on beach towels that I had seen sold on the highways on the side of the road or in the back of trucks. My boyfriend saw the photos and said it looked like Romanian camouflage and that collided with my yearning for kitsch. The collection is about embracing it and this fun, low culture — this Eurovision-Esque aesthetic inspired by the Romanian royal family — taking it as far away from serious as possible. I see kitsch culture as the highest form of art.
ZZ: Fashion is figuring its way out of lockdown, trying to patch itself back together again. Sustainability seems to be the only way forward.
Haute Couture houses should look into waste for innovative luxury fabrics, as they have always been incubators for new techniques and ideas, ahead of ready-to-wear. CSM and other fashion schools should play a bigger role in this. I know that my school has been working to incorporate sustainability in every project, not just one in the second year. A lot of graduates in my year used sustainability as a starting point for their collections, so this will only get more global. Sadly during the lockdown, people working in fashion found themselves stuck and scared during this time of instability. Now is the time for those systems to change.