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the Repair & Design Futures exhibit

This weekend Polychrome subscribers had a chance to see this fantastic exhibit at the Rhode Island School of Design as a group. Below are some images and impressions from this fascinating show which is a celebration of sustainability and craftsmanship across cultures.

Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at Peabody Essex Museum

One of the prime directives in the fashion community at the moment is how to make the industry more sustainable. We all have heard time and time again about how fashion is one of the planet's top polluters. I have many personal acquaintances in the industry, talented designers who have been very dedicated and productive in their careers, now struggling with the moral conundrum of having contributed to the environmental disaster that fashion is a part of.

Of the many facets of discussion among industry insiders about the problem, one that really resonates is that the average consumer no longer cherishes the things they are purchasing in part because they are so cheap. They are not entirely wrong. Things that are cheaply made not only lack perceived value but also often lack intrinsic value. These things are in fact cheap - poor materials, not well crafted, and certainly not meant to last. Why would you cherish them enough to invest time or money to repair them? In an era where most people are stretched thin for time, repairing one's own clothes seems like a waste of energy and time especially when a brand new replacement can be bought easily and cheaply. This is not even taking into account that the act of mending, which was a regular and normal part of maintaining one's wardrobe as little as fifty years ago, is a dying art. Most people under the age of 50 did not have these once commonplace skills passed on to them.

one of the many wonderful demos at RISD Museum on #InternationalRepairDay

artist Anne Marika Verploegh Chassé of Steifel Werks bespoke shoes giving a demo of her craft at the RISD Museum

This is the motivation behind RISD's "Repair & Design Futures" exhibit - to celebrate the art form of mending and repair. There are many fine examples of mending from pieces of clothing being repurposed to be something else to garments lovingly repaired with beautiful and intricate mending stitches, patchwork, and embroidery. We were very lucky to see this exhibit as a group this past Saturday, because it was also #InternationalRepairDay, which is held the 3rd Saturday each October. To mark this, the RISD Museum had many craftspeople present giving demos and repair workshops on shoes, clothing, and other items.


The range of pieces in the exhibit is a remarkable testimony to the fact that all cultures have participated in mending and in many places the clothes that have been mended have achieved a more elevated perception of status and beauty because of being so skillfully cared for.

There is a lovely example of this in a warrior's robe from North America which had been damaged several times in battle. Each time it was repaired, it was believed to be imbued with magic and protection for the next battle.

Pelvis with Moon - Georgia O'Keeffe

the exhibit includes many fine examples of North American indigenous textiles and clothing


It is apparently a modern construct to not value garments that have been lovingly restored in this way. A Polychrome guest mentioned that in Japanese tradition, the quilted Boro jackets and robes belonging to older men which were patched and repaired so skillfully (most often by their wives) denoted their venerated status in village society. The garments were a literal reflection of not only their years of life experience and wisdom, but also that they themselves were cherished members of families that loved them and honored them with such skillful workmanship. This is a wonderful sentiment. How can we return to this more sustainable mentality?

modern and antique examples of Indigo dye, Sashiko embroidery, and Boro at the RISD Museum

a wonderful display of indigo textiles and garments, both modern and antique, includes Boro and Sashiko embroidery

The exhibit also showcases some spectacular examples of handicraft being used to heighten awareness around important social movements and conditions. Pieces such as an abolitionist patterned textile design which had been repaired with meticulous stitches, and some very interesting protest banners from Guatemala that called attention to their causes with beautiful crochet and embroidered elements. These items would have been much more durable and transportable for native women than paper banners.

Many of these pieces convey the poignant stories of their creators, but also the urgency and importance of these issues are conveyed in the amount of care and time the work itself would have demanded.


Maybe by calling attention to the inherent beauty of a skillfully repaired item we can push back against the throw away mentality that is so prevalent today. It has been proven that people have a much higher value for something they have labored over and will even spend more time on a project they have already invested themselves in rather than cut their losses and walk away from it. If consumers felt more invested emotionally in their belongings they would be less prone to undervalue them.

Maybe the key to creating a more sustainable future for fashion is allowing people to see the humanity behind the making rather than just making them feel guilty about the negative aspects of fast fashion and over-consumption. This is one of the things Fashion Revolution is banking on. Each year since its inception they have promoted awareness for sustainability with their now-famous "Who Made My Clothes" initiative, which calls attention to the individuals manufacturing our clothes.

But, how do we take this to the next level? I would venture to say that a sweater hand knit by your grandmother would be more valuable to you than one knit by a stranger even if your grandmother bought it for you, and even if the garments were very similar. There is an emotional value in that labor of love. I think the next challenge for fashion professionals and marketers is to emulate that in some way in order to bring back the emotional value we have for our things. And after all, the lady who knit your sweater halfway across the world is someone's grandmother/ mother/ daughter.

Painted Dessert trend direction

image via Heart, Hook, Home

This exhibit definitely spurred some great discussion among the designers in the group! You still have time to see "Repair & Design Futures" as it will be on display through June!

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Sources: RISDMuseum | Sewing Machine Plus | the Guardian | Heart Hook Home

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