Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Past Perfect": Beloved clothing, reimagined and remade

Posted By on 01.19.12 at 03:45 PM

Jamie Hayes in her remade gym uniform
  • Alix Lambert/jamielhayes.com
  • Jamie Hayes in her remade gym uniform
Like a lot of fashion-conscious women, Jamie Hayes likes vintage clothes—not just the old-school, womanly styles, but the quality of the material and the construction. The problem with vintage, of course, is that it tends to wear out faster than new clothes. A thrifted 50s girl’s navy gym jumper that becomes threadbare is essentially a one-of-a-kind item. But through an art and fashion project that involved 16 people and a trip to Vietnam, it lives again.

Hayes is a stylist, designer, and occasional DJ, an elfish woman-about-town. Her varied career has touched on sundry aspects of the fashion industry as she searched for something to do that would satisfy her fashion-fueled creativity. After graduating from Columbia College with a degree in fashion design, she got a job working for the custom handbag retailer 1154 Lill. She left in 2007 to become a freelance fashion stylist, borrowing clothes from stores and designers and coming up with ideas and layouts for clients as varied as Best Buy and Time Out Chicago. Friends occasionally asked her to design and construct things for them, but the demands on her time made the cost prohibitive. A chance conversation with another fashion-minded friend about some acquaintances who had had clothing made on a visit to Vietnam, where both the materials and labor are cheaper, intrigued her as a potential art project. It was a way to visit another country and have her friends’ clothes made according to her designs, without having to do any of the grunt work.

But when she started talking with friends about what they’d like to have made, she started to rethink simply taking orders and having them executed. People talked about the handbag within a handbag they’d always wanted or a favorite coat that had been stolen by a frienemy in high school. “The stories that came out about the thing they wanted and why they wanted it made became really, really compelling,” she says. “Then I thought, screw the business end of it—that never makes me happy anyway.”

She composed an e-mail to friends who had a personal style she admired—who she felt had an understanding and appreciation of fashion as a sociological art. She asked them to submit ideas for an item of clothing to be created or re-created, noting that “your stories about how/why an item can be meaningful, iconic, timeless, singular are what interests me.” She described the theme of the project as “plus-que-parfait,” which refers to the past-perfect tense in French, but as Hayes explained in her note, “translated literally, it means “more than perfect”. I thought this phrase nicely encapsulated my desire to build on past ideas, as well as to emphasize the desire to move beyond the ideal of perfection into something real, live, tangible.” Or, as she explained to me, “You always love things better when you’re like, ‘Oh, my friend gave it to me,’ or if it’s a hand-me-down from someone you really liked, or it was your grandma’s. That’s part of what this project is about—what is infused in an object, how you feel when you wear that.”

The goal was not necessarily to create an exact version of their dream item—she warned participants that she’d have to improvise materials when she saw what was available in Vietnam. But “doing a direct copy felt more boring and also more dangerous,” she said. “The person has this image in their head and it’s never going to be exactly that.”

The requests ranged widely. A friend in Atlanta wanted to remake a vintage printed shirt from the 30s. Another friend gave her a picture of a Balenciaga cocktail dress and matching jacket from the early 60s, downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum’s Web site. Someone else wanted a dress inspired by a Peter Pan-collared “Nancy Drew dress” her mother had made her as a child. A male friend requested shoes modeled after a discontinued style by Adidas. “Certain people were really specific about what they wanted, some people were like, ‘I like floaty things,’” says Hayes.

Musician Doug McCombs knew exactly what he wanted. McCombs has a longtime interest in vintage workwear, and even keeps a file on his computer of pieces that catch his eye on eBay and elsewhere. He worked with Hayes to design a bespoke suit that combined elements from work jackets he already owned, photos of work jackets he’d found online, and a tailored pair of pants. Part of his attraction to such clothes, he says, “is from my childhood, my family—that’s the kind of stuff my grandpa,” a carpenter, “would wear to work. My dad always had hunting jackets, shooting jackets. I like the way it looks, but it’s also real practical, comfortable.”

Hayes built up a sheaf of detailed notes, drawings, and photos, but her preparations for actually getting the clothes made in Vietnam were vague. She’d done some research on the Web and talked to a couple people who’d had clothes made there, but she was pretty much flying into the unknown.

She’d also picked up a partner: Alix Lambert, a New York-based artist, writer, photographer, and filmmaker whose projects have ranged from a book and film on Russian prison tattoos to writing for the HBO TV series Deadwood. Lambert, who had met Jamie through a mutual friend in Chicago, wanted to document the trip and the process.

Lambert’s participation gave Hayes an extra boost of confidence. “In the past I’ve been held back not knowing what the structure will be or the endpoint, and I’ve often not started things as a result,” she says. “I put it out there and immediately Alix called me . . . . The idea of doing it on my own was intimidating, not so much that I wouldn’t do it, but now I can’t imagine not having done it with her.”

Thanks to “a friend of a friend of a friend,” they found lodging with a family in Ho Chi Minh City and decided to stay there to have the items made, rather than going to Hoi An, a center for the garment industry. It might have been cheaper there, Hayes says, but “to us it was still ridiculously affordable.”

Hayes eventually worked with two tailor shops to have everything made. The hardest part, Hayes found, was convincing them to retain quirky details and cuts: “Anything that was nonconformist or just plain odd they didn’t quite understand.” Artist and musician Damon Locks, for instance, had requested a jacket modeled after one he wore as a punk teenager, cut extremely short—too short, according to the salesperson. “She was like, ‘No no, way too short, it make no beautiful!’” says Hayes. They also wanted to line everything, which in some cases would have changed the aesthetic effect. It spoke to their pride in their work, Hayes says. “They weren’t trying to make the cheapest, fastest thing—they were trying to make a beautiful item.”

Damon Locks and his remade jacket

The full extent of the tailors’ talents was revealed to her as she worked with them to create the Balenciaga copy. The Spanish designer was a master of cut, and Hayes couldn’t figure out how to do the dress’s matching jacket without seams, as it appeared in the photo she had been given. “This one was really hard, because I only had a three-quarters view,” she says. “They were like, OK, we got it. That’s when I knew I was working with a good tailor.”

When Hayes and Lambert came back to pick up the finished items after a week, there were a few surprises, ranging from different stitching being used for a detail to a rather va-va-voom green satin used for the Nancy Drew dress, rendering it a little more sexy than Hayes had intended. Hayes’s boyfriend had requested a WWI-style tweed jacket lined in shearling; it came back accented with faux fur instead. “It’s something you’d never see produced, it’s way too weird.” But when he put it on, he declared it “’kinda awesome.’”

McCombs was pleased with his workwear suit. “My ideal fabric would have been salt and pepper [fabric,] black and gray flecked heavy cotton twill or almost like a canvas.” Hayes ended up choosing a dark gray denim with a slight houndstooth pattern. Gray is a common workwear color, “so it’s actually fairly authentic as far as appearance,” he says.

Hayes was struck by the way made-to-measure clothes altered the perception of her participants’ feelings about their bodies. “Everyone would talk about what was wrong with their body and then they would put the garment on—‘oh my God, it fits.’ That was kind of a lovely lesson—it’s not that your shoulders are too wide, it’s that the clothes aren’t made properly.”

After delivery and some tweaking, Hayes asked each participant to write an essay about the item, and Lambert took formal portraits. Those, as well as notes and other materials related to the project, are now posted on a new website, www.jamielhayes.com,. They can also be seen at the LivingRoom, 1530 W. Superior, where there’s an opening for the exhibit this Friday, January 20, from 6 to 9 PM.

Hayes plans on more art and fashion projects as part of what she calls the “Past Perfect” series. The next iteration involves participants designing “their perfect uniform.” “I'm totally geeked to figure out how participants will interpret that style idea,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I love industrial uniforms dearly (my contribution to the Vietnam project was a uniform in fact)—but also am super interested in the idea of how our jobs, hobbies, subcultures create informal uniforms, too, and how we choose to subvert, personalize, or conform to those dictates.” She will also create custom items for interested individuals, having found an affordable way to have clothing manufactured in Chicago.

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