Apr 7, 2023
The inclusivity and ingenuity of Helena Eisenhart
Using vintage fabrics and found materials — from deadstock denim to a bloody wedding dress — the designer defies fashion's confines
We live in a moment when gender issues are at the front of public discourse, often in the most polarizing ways. Ask designer and conceptual artist Helena Eisenhart, and they’ll tell you the future will bring even more challenges to traditional norms, especially when it comes to fashion and gender. And that’s a good thing.
Through their garments, which often repurpose vintage textiles or eccentric resources (such as cassette tapes and, once, a blood-stained wedding dress), Eisenhart proves to the world that there is no specific archetype for what “fashion” is or can be. To them, what we wear is a reflection — a mirror that conveys all of the multitudes of life, feelings, emotions, and identity.
Their designs, available on their website, have been worn by celebrities including Rico Nasty, Dev Hynes, and SOPHIE, and Eisenhart, who made a splash at the recent New York Fashion Week, has even had some pieces on display in an Isamu Noguchi Museum exhibit.
Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Eisenhart about their unorthodox production and design process, and why going against the grain in fashion denotes a more inclusive and brighter future for all.
Your namesake brand was created in 2015, based out of Bushwick/Ridgewood. What parts of Brooklyn inform your work?
I started my brand the year I graduated from college at the Pratt Institute. I had just finished my first collection of eight looks made partly from upcycled materials, inspired by sci-fi films and my idea of fashion for a dystopian future. Moving from San Francisco to Brooklyn changed my work because I felt new energy that both matured me and expanded my ideas of what fashion could be. The people I was meeting and the new experiences I was having as an artist helped me become more experimental and playful.
How does your upbringing in the Bay Area influence your work?
The Bay Area will always have a strong influence on my work. It’s a more relaxed style that is less about “looks” and more about feeling. I grew up with a lot of hippie culture, and I wasn’t sure how my interest in high fashion would eventually mesh with the way that I was raised to have a slower, more artistic approach to creating. But somehow, naturally, this style has grown with me throughout my work here in New York.
You’ve created garments from things like cassette tapes and vinyl mesh screens sourced from construction sites. What is the strangest resource you have ever converted into a wearable piece of clothing?
Many of my textile experiments come from my use of objects found in and around my own house, as a way to release my creative and emotional energy. I have knitted and sewn-in favorite pieces of jewelry, or small trinkets given to me by old friends and lovers as a way to collage nostalgic memories, and I’ve used my own hair in pieces before as well.
Maybe the strangest was this: I loved upcycling wedding dresses for a moment, and once convinced myself to purchase a beautifully sequined, satin, and lace wedding dress from the ‘80s that had blood stains all over it. It was for sale at this junk store near my studio and no one had bought it for a long time, for obvious reasons, but something about it made me really want to work with it. I was actually very creeped out by its energy once I took it back to my home studio at the time but the details were so beautiful. I handled it only wearing gloves, and cut out the stains, dyed it, and reworked the sequined areas to make a veil and gloves for a specific look. I’ll never know if the stains were real!
All of your garments are designed with a unisex fit in mind. Why do you believe it is important, especially given the current political and social state of our world, to blur the lines of gendered fashion?
As someone who identifies as non-binary, it’s crucial to focus on a unisex fit in my work because that is what I believe needs to be seen in the fashion industry. Gendered fashion has traditionally perpetuated stereotypes and reinforced binary gender norms, which can limit one’s self-expression and creativity. By designing garments with a unisex fit in mind, designers can challenge these norms and create a more inclusive and diverse space in the industry that allows people to express themselves authentically.
Promoting unisex fashion can also contribute to greater social and political equality, as it can help break down gender barriers and promote acceptance of people of all gender identities. In a time when gender issues are at the front of public discourse, blurring the lines of gendered fashion can serve as a positive step towards more inclusivity and progress.
Each of your items of clothing is made with care at your studio with an emphasis on circular design as you repurpose found materials and incorporate upcycled vintage fabrics and trims. How does incorporating sustainability into your projects complete the story you are conveying through your work?
My goal is to reduce the negative impacts of the industry through responsible production and consumption practices. This includes using eco-friendly materials and reducing waste. I have found that upcycling found materials and incorporating vintage fabrics helps me tell a more interesting story about the life that garment or fabric had before. Many fast fashion brands also rely on cheap labor and unsafe working conditions in developing countries to produce on a larger scale, which can perpetuate poverty and exploitation. Sustainable fashion brands prioritize ethical and fair labor practices, ensuring that workers receive fair wages and safe working conditions. I aim to produce only what I can sell, which is why most of my pieces are made-to-order and one-of-a-kind.
You recently presented at New York Fashion Week in February. Now that the excitement has calmed down a bit, tell me the themes of that collection and show and why you chose to make the statement you did at this time.
The Fall/Winter 2023 collection uses upcycled and deadstock materials to create a unisex collection with a deconstructed take on traditional uniforms and dress codes. Inspired by the power of dress to convey identity and conformity, the collection challenges rules and explores the concept of disguise. The neutral color palette reflects a numbed and machine-like reaction to the world, influenced by climate change and the pandemic. The collection draws inspiration from youth culture, abuse of power, and altered perceptions of reality. I chose to make this statement at this time because I have been feeling a more somber view of our future, but wanted to take that point of view I was feeling and create something more optimistic — while showing a bit of darker humor alongside it.
What was the most fulfilling part of getting to show your work at NYFW?
The most fulfilling part of being able to show my work at NYFW was that I was able to work with a very talented team of people to produce a body of work that could be seen in person on a larger scale. I had a lot of fun putting together a group of people that I believed would collaborate well together, whether it was for a photo shoot or a show. Most of the time, my work is viewed online, but because of the detail in my garment construction and fabrications, it’s very important to show each piece in person as often as possible.
Your practice is interdisciplinary; you marry the worlds of art and fashion and insert your own identity into every collection. Why do you believe an intellectual approach to clothing is essential for consumers — perceiving fashion as art rather than just a commodity to be worn and then trashed after a few wears?
Wearable art is important in fashion because it challenges the traditional concept of clothing as simply functional garments and transforms it into a form of artistic expression. It brings a unique and individualistic perspective to fashion. Wearable art also provides an opportunity for artists to experiment with unconventional materials, shapes, and designs, creating unique pieces that are not typically seen in mass-produced fashion. This can lead to innovation in design and production techniques and can inspire other designers to push creative boundaries.
This way of working encourages people to think critically about the relationship between fashion and art and to question the societal norms of what is considered fashionable. This can lead to a greater appreciation for creativity and individuality. This process also makes it so that most garments last a longer period of time, as opposed to a mass-produced garment, because of the time and care put into making it. This type of clothing is not made to follow trends or to be thrown away. It’s made to be collected and cherished and worn for a long time.
As we touched a bit on identity previously, tell me more about your identity and how you champion it through your brand.
I’m a non-binary artist with a mixed cultural background. My mother is Filipino from Olongapo and my dad is Swedish and German, from Omaha, Nebraska. I grew up in various parts of the U.S. — Las Vegas, Portland, Oregon, and different parts of the Bay Area, and I now live in New York. My work reflects my playful and experimental nature, influenced by my diverse upbringing.
It is evident your work has been resonating with audiences for some time now. How do you plan to continue to do so? How will your craft grow and flourish as our world shifts?
I plan to continue collaborations with various artists and designers that align with my work in sustainability and create more wearable art or performance pieces. I aim to expand the types of garments and objects I create into a more wearable art realm with some ready-to-wear pieces made to order one at a time. I’m always looking into different processes of how to consume and produce more ethically to create a guide for myself and make sense of how I create.
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