A Conversation with Melissa Lockwood

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Using salvaged fabrics, Brooklyn based artist Melissa Lockwood creates innovative garments that not only utilize recycled materials, but create awareness around the tremendous waste in the fashion and textile industries.

Lockwood’s lines IQtest and Punkautomatic produce complex pieces for men and women whose layered colors and textures are unlike anything in fashion today. I had a chance to visit Lockwood’s Bushwick studio to learn about her journey from sculptor to fashion designer, her work as an activist, and formal wear on a surfboard.

I know that you have a traditional fine arts background. How did you get involved in fashion design?

I got involved in fashion design when a friend donated a serger sewing machine to an artist space I was a participant in.  I had always enjoyed creating new looks with clothing I had modified to suit my taste.  But when I felt the ease and magic of the merrow serger, I was hooked.  I stitched and trimmed hypnotically creating stretchy, fluffy, one of a kind garments.

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By chance, I had a housemate who was engaged to a fashion designer from Holland who sold internationally.  He saw what I was making for myself and friends to wear and said he wanted to help me sell it so he took some items I made to a store in Soho. He mixed it in and the buyer said, “Nice stuff, but I know you didn’t make it.” They didn’t buy it.  But he took more garments I made from his fabrics to sell to a buyer from Tokyo, and they as well picked out my garments and said, “These are nice and I know you didn’t make them, but I want to meet the person who did.”  So he put us in contact and she came to NY, and bought a collection for her store and sent me to show a buyer for a store in Chelsea. They also picked up the one of kind line I was making.  I never studied fashion; I listened to the materials and played with the serger.  My work with salvaged fabrics began when a friend told me where she had seen a pile of fabric on the ground.  When I went there I saw big dumpsters full of fabric.  I took some of the fabric, as it was in dumpsters headed to the landfill.  The moment I saw it I knew I had to make garments with it, and that it was a responsibility to raise awareness about this waste.

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The fashion industry produces an enormous amount of textile waste every year, during the cutting out process of garments.  As the factories lay out the patterns on the fabric, a lot of space is left between the pattern pieces and the fabric out side of the pattern area is thrown away. How do your pieces address these issues of textile waste?

The clothing I make takes the off cut shapes and pieces them together, creating wearable garments.  I’ve analyzed many kinds of garment manufacturing waste and noticed a lot of fabric shapes that are easy to turn into garments. By experimenting with the off cut shapes, I realized the designers were missing the potential for whole new garments and disposing of this fabric instead. By analyzing the vertical stacks of identical pieces, one can find repeating shapes that are very accommodating to the human form. I feel this might be due to the nature of the original patterns for garments.

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You have a really unique aesthetic, bringing together disparate elements to form finished pieces unlike anything I’ve seen in fashion recently. Your work reminds me of collage, and the kind of multi-layered imagery of internet culture. Can you speak a little bit about your influences and how you came to work this way? Do you look to fashion for inspiration, or does your aesthetic come from other places?

With my IQtest line (which shifted to the exclusive use of salvaged fabric and a heavy emphasis on using factory off cut fabrics and not altering the shapes and still creating garments) I let the found shapes dictate what to do and what the garment would be. With my new Punkautomatic line, I use salvaged garments combined with salvaged fabrics. I don’t look to fashion, I just make things that make sense to me and please me. I make garments from a “form follows function” perspective, and a decision-making process based on what I enjoy.

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There is something really exciting in the way you create pieces with a strong juxtaposition between the meanings embedded in both fabric and garment. Textiles are incredibly coded and connotation rich, and I think your work does an excellent job exploring this. I’m thinking specifically of the wet suit dresses, which are incredibly fresh, smart and intriguing! Can you talk a little bit about how you play with the relationship between fabric and garment in your work?

I like to have fun with words and ideas…. so when I come up with an item I am often surprised myself to say what it is. A skirt made with wetsuit neoprene was a “wet skirt” which just sounds funny.  Or a “wet dress” or even a line of “wet wear.” I love water – the ocean, rivers, lakes, streams and rain.  I have been to places where one doesn’t want to carry an umbrella, but to just be able to be wet and enjoy it, and then let the garment dry while never leaving the body.

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The names of your clothing lines are IQtest and Punkautomatic. Can you talk a bit about where those names came from and how your work relates to Punk and DIY movements?

I chose IQtest, because I feel like fashion designers need to make informed decisions about fabric use. IQtest strives to inspire the fashion industry to stop sending so much fabric to the landfills. I chose Punkautomatic, as it is a really do-it-yourself idea; to create freely without planning or thinking. Punkautomatic is auto fashion; it is made with the philosophy of trust in the unknown and the firm belief in freedom of expression in creation and in wearing. Punkautomatic strives to inspire people to make creative garments by the re-purposing of existing garments.  Also, Punkautomatic hopes to inspire uniqueness in fashion choices.

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I understand you have been working on a project with Bangladeshi women, who have been the victims of domestic abuse and also are recent immigrants. Can you speak a little bit about how this project evolved? What it’s objectives are, and if there is a way for others to support this amazing project?

The organization the women work through is called Wishwas. Wishwas is an organization providing vocational skills to the women through sewing classes. The women come from different backgrounds; many are college grads and were professionals in Bangladesh.  I visited their Queens sewing school, and I met one on the Wishwas organizers at a fashion event.  For me the main question I’ve always been asked is “how can you possibly manufacture with salvage fabrics?” so I have chosen to work with a small organization and produce my fabric with the help of the Wishwas women.  I carefully put bundles of fabric pieces together, and they sew them. From there, I create a one of a kind garment. Over time, I have watched the women become confident seamstresses and salespeople.  People can hire the Wishwas women to sew, knit, crochet and needle point.

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Melissa Lockwood’s work has been featured in Williamsburg Fashion week, NYC Eco Fest, IFF Tokyo, NY Fashion Week “Project Subway” and War on Fashion Week. Her work is available for purchase at several retail stores both nationally and internationally. If you are in New York, you can check out her work at Brooklyn-based boutique, Better than Jam, and at their summer pop up on Governor’s Island.  Also at the Montclair, NJ boutique, Atelia, and online at RUNWAY PASSPORT

For more information on Melissa’s work, or to get a Lockwood in your closet, visit her website. For her site store, visit PUNKAUTOMATIC.

Melissa Lockwood is on Instagram as @punkautomatic.

Article by Janina Anderson, 2015.

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