American designer Sarah Kauffman works with military parachutes and upcycled fabric scarps: «Parachutes have a story themselves which does not need to be manipulated»
Fashion can be a tool for escapism, transporting the mind behind the designs to places and times without leaving the space they are in. Designers like Gabrielle Chanel or Ann Demeulemeester did not source their inspiration and deviation from the buzzle of metropoles but through a journey of imagination and fascination for the unknown. Gabrielle Chanel – born in Saumur, a town in Western France, counting twenty-six-thousand souls of its inhabitants. With Chanel, she founded the pioneer of luxury fashion, defined by timelessness and elegance. Growing up in Arkansas, a town in the south-central region of the United States, Sarah Kauffman witnessed a similar childhood away from the urban eddying. She discovered her interest in the fashion and accessories industry through social media. «There are not many local creative businesses or outlets, but online platforms such as Tumblr served as escapism from the place I grew». Being the mind behind the label ‘Sarah Kauffman’, she looks at industrial materials such as military parachutes and fabric scraps with couture techniques, subverting them and being literal about them.
Longing to attain expertise and an impression of the scale in which the fashion industry was operating, Sarah left for the city that never sleeps in 2015, where she absolved design internships at Houses from Zac Posen or Oscar de la Renta to Giles Deacon Couture. An estimated 900 fashion companies have their headquarters in New York City, which is home to more than 75 fashion trade shows and thousands of showrooms. «The luxury sector is small compared to the fashion industry as a whole, yet are they producing so much. Interning at companies, I understood what it was to be in a team and how much product small teams are making». After finishing her technical fashion degree at Kent State University in Ohio, where Kauffmann got introduced to pattern making and computing, she felt the urge to study in an art-school environment. Identifying the potential of the European market, she emigrated to Paris and London. «The European market tends to be more exciting in regards to how they look at politics and how they think it is being reflected in the presentation». During her six-month sojourn she studied at the Paris-American-Academy, established by American musician Richard Roy in 1965. Kauffman attended a Couture technique course, taught in French by professional seamstresses, who worked at couture ateliers in France throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The period formed Kauffman’s approach and viewpoint on the industry and crafting niche. «Not the cultures influenced me, but learning the craft, understanding and appreciating hand scale. It is called Haute Couture for a reason».
Kauffman relocated to London to partake in the Central Saint Martins Diploma Program, followed by her Masters in Womenswear. «At Central Saint Martins, everything gets questioned. To sustain, you have to stand behind your idea. CSM was the first place teaching me to remember that we create products that serve people. You need to be aware of the answers to the questions: ‘Who is your woman?’, ‘What is your ethos?’». Kauffman emphasizes the importance of education in the fashion industry. Being surrounded by like-minded, forward-looking peers who would enter the industry to solve issues and introduce new concepts and perspectives would have taught her factors she did not learn during the courses. «Whenever we would have roundtable discussions, we would challenge one another. There are people that try to come to the industry not to compete but to solve issues and to serve their purposes», she explains. Imprinting was the experience at Alexander McQueen in 2019. For their flagship store opening in London, Kauffman’s MA Fashion Womenswear Pathway tutor, Julie Verhoeven, brought her students to its archive and exhibition space to engage in a live drawing session, intendeding to educate them on the importance of consolidating the sketching process into their work. «The drawings had purity and honesty to them. They ended up being used for a selection of the collection pieces, which were locally beaten and embroidered. I like the example McQueen set: How to work within a community and collaborating with more than one group».
The idea to work on collections in a collective and creating through the evaluation of designs during discussions within peers, induced Kauffman to outdraw her visions, defining the ethos her work was about. Along with the aim to empower women through tailoring and craftsmanship came the intent to produce sustainably. «I cannot remember hearing the word ‘sustainability’ during my internships back in 2016. Today, it is impossible to be a young designer without thinking about sustainability along the way. Now, we do not have a choice».
The idea of upcycling and incorporating clothing scraps and military parachutes into her collection pieces originated from Kauffman’s interest in utility garments and industrial materials research. «There is too much that exists already. The superfluous ends up in landfill, it was a natural development to work with the redundant», she says. «I want there to be humanity and a humbled sense about the clothing. If I am going to be experimenting and none of this is going to production, then I do not want to do it with new fabric. Parachutes have functional details about them. The printing, the double layers. They have a story themselves which does not need to be manipulated». Aiming to create a duality between femininity, the bold and dynamic, Kauffman geared the life and story of the parachute fabric into the narrative that the collection was going into.
She designed patchwork dresses, tops, and bodies for her MA collection, captivating through draping techniques, boldness, and allure. Each look is hip-centric in silhouette, emphasized by modernized chatelaines of chain, steel, and vintage silver pieces. «The industrial research influenced materiality, using Tyvec, drills, and military parachutes as key fabrics. The nature of the patchwork technique means I use every bit of fabric sourced and can upcycle existing garments and materials like surplus parachutes. I build my textiles and silhouettes on the form rather than flat, and rework toiles into final garments to avoid waste».
The fall collection looks were styled with knee-high boots made in a factory in Kauffman’s hometown and serve as a disruption of the elegance. «You think about old parachutes and the silk and the French ladies that used the parachutes from war to sew their wedding dresses. Yet is a lot of the research imagery from my grandfather’s wood workshop. I worked with him for the jewelry and took the materiality of the collection, pushing it in the direction of the workshop– cut up craft. It is celebrating handcraft and a slow approach to creating in an age of industrialization».
While acknowledging the negatives of Covid-19, Kauffman emphasizes the change the pandemic will drive. Consumers would be obliged to reflect and educate. «This is the most aware consumers have been. It is not a way that has been engrained into one generation but for several years. This applies to racism and political institutions. It is important to think about ‘reform’ in a bite-size way. We have to retrain consumers to be more aware and look for transparency». Though many creatives suffer from the effects the pandemic has on their working rhythms, and material sourcing, Kauffman’s working way did not have to adapt to the pandemic. «Jewelry and clothes are integrated. I am working on an eight-looks jewelry capsule collection at the moment – It is a way to keep your mind off things. For the new collection, I only utilized things I already own or donations from friends. The pandemic forces everyone to work more creatively and instinctively».
The designer does not see the fashion industry change in the niche of fast-fashion, yet she hopes for independent labels to expand their influence and presence on the market. Cutting out fast-fashion could not be the way, as it would deprive high-skilled workers of their jobs. Women in third world countries, who had been given the power of economic mobility and social recognition, could not be denied their works, but paying living-wages and providing them with safety at their workplaces would be the commencement to fast-fashion from a perspective of fairness. Conversations within communities and between designers and consumers would have to become essential to refine their awareness and education on ‘sustainability’. «Everyone has to be more progressive about how they work, how they deliver the product, and the conversation they are having with the people they are selling to. I hope that the future will be more ethics led and that businesses put effort into what they claim to be».IMAGE GALLERY