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A Look Into the MEND Project with Founders Sara and Elaine

Introduce yourselves! Who are the creatives behind the MEND Project? SK: I am Sara Kollig, a 5th-year student studying industrial design at UC. I am also an oil painter of 7 years. EM: I am Elaine Messerly. I am also a 5th year studying industrial design at the University of Cincinnati. I enjoy sewing my own clothes and pattern making on the side. What is the MEND Project? SK: The MEND project is our senior thesis, but it has become much more than that. We started PART 1 of our program by having 3 open mending workshops, where we encouraged our friends as well as local community members to come and learn sewing skills and learn to repair or upgrade their clothes. PART 2 was a 2-day workshop that included a sustainability presentation, sewing demos, collective imagining activities, and a professional photoshoot showing the participant’s creations.

We wish to encourage self-reliance and freedom from exploitative fashion systems by embracing individual creativity and teaching young people how to sew and mend. We want to change people’s relationship with clothing and make them question who they are giving their money to, and what they are putting on their bodies. We also want to bring together a community around these ideas. What inspired you to start MEND? How does it resonate with your career or creative aspirations? SK: I was inspired to start sewing from an experience I had 4 years ago: my professor received a grant to hold a 3-month-long sewing education space where I learned to sew and upcycle clothing. This experience and reading about different ways of thinking about building a sustainable future have influenced me to create this program. I want to show other people the magic that inspired me to sew, create, and otherwise, manipulate my reality to be what I want. I want to work on the problem of clothing waste with my career and show people that while the problem is big and daunting, true justice and sustainability is a pleasurable act— creating with waste, finding joy in fashion, finding joy in community across differences. Elaine and I had similar goals and decided to join forces for our capstone.

EM: I was inspired by both my grandmother and mother to start sewing and I think the same excitement that they instilled in me for creating something from nothing is what inspired me. I hope to pass these skills and excitement on to others through MEND. There is something special about experimenting with your style and making authentic items. When someone asks you where you got something, and you can say “I made it” there is no better feeling. I think MEND gives us, Sara and me, a way to express ourselves as well as facilitate that same experience for others and pass on those feelings of pride and self-reliance that sewing can create.

Give us a rundown of your workshop: The Future of Sustainable Fashion! SK: We worked at a community organization in Pleasant Ridge called Community Happens Here. This organization makes community their #1 goal. They accomplish this by radical inclusivity, bringing folks into

the fold right from the sidewalk. We created this series of workshops to service this community. Part 2 of our workshop was specifically for high schoolers, the upcoming leaders, makers, and Mend-ers in our society. The highlights of our workshop were an introductory runway show to experiment with playing and styling fashions and a t-shirt editing activity. We also had a group futuring activity to encourage students' imagination muscles, visions of the future, of what they wish to see in their communities. Lastly, the photoshoot was a really fun way to wrap up our workshop, and honor the time and effort students put into making their creations.

At our workshop, a seamstress of 40 years came to help the students complete their individual projects. Jaden, a local high school senior was our behind-the-scenes photographer. Lastly, Leo and Maya are local videographers and photographers who came to do our final photoshoot and encourage kids to be themselves in their photoshoot. Why is sustainability, especially in fashion, so important? SK: Understanding sustainability is key to our future as a species. Sustainability is not an endpoint, rather it is a lens through which to view the world. Fashion is a perfect mirror for the other unsustainable systems that are harming our communities. The fast-fashion system today is only possible because of the foundations of exploitation laid by a global history of settler-colonialism. Clothing has become increasingly plastic, and increasingly cheap. Fashion brands have figured out the most profitable system is one where western consumers purchase and throw out our clothes at a high rate (Americans throw out 14 million tons of clothing per year).

This system is only possible because it uses quick, cheap chemical methods which damage the environment, and because it severely undervalues its labor (most of which is in the global south— India, Bangladesh, China). The system is also only possible because of increasing shipments of waste clothing to other countries, also in the global south (Chile and Ghana are two of the biggest importers of US/UK secondhand clothing). Our old garments choke their rivers, and damage local economies in the places these clothes are dumped. Accra, Ghana is the largest secondhand market in the world— in Kantamanto, the market there, around 15 million garments cycle through per week. This is far bigger than any secondhand reseller in America, such as ThredUp. (Aja Barber has great articles and info on this!) We must start to understand the global systems we were born into— the systems that force us to consume and waste rather than build and return materials to the earth as food. Sustainability asks us to look at the systems in which we are a part of— in the microcosm of our own lives. What is my relationship to clothing? What is my relationship to the earth? To colonialism? To white supremacy?

To live sustainably, we must base our systems primarily on our local environments. All of our social institutions need to start with a foundation of understanding of the land around us and how to care for it. The land provides everything we need to live if we cultivate it. We need to bond with our local communities and speak to each other across divides to be able to work together towards the future we want. This is why a sustainable future is a slippery thing to grasp— it looks different between different communities. This is part of the power— a sustainable future is one where multiplicities of solutions and cultures can exist.

Through fashion, through learning to sew, manipulate waste, and express ourselves through sewing, we learn that we can create microcosms of the reality we wish to see on a large scale. We have lost a big portion of our identity as humans to a hegemonic western worldview, displayed through fashion. Instead of the same 4 fashionable styles everywhere, Imagine each city having a distinct local style and culture created through the artisans and sewers working with waste. Learning to sew allows us to reclaim part of our power over the material world. Learning to sew from waste shows us to find value in what the larger culture does not. It allows us to break free from using clothing created by violent systems, and create our own future.

How can creatives and the general public work towards a sustainable fashion industry? In your opinion, are we on the right track towards sustainability? SK: The most important thing anyone can do is look inside themselves and their own lives. This mess was started long before us, and these systems are more pervasive than we realize. We have to look inside ourselves to understand what is learned behavior from the society around us, and what is natural to ourselves. Examining our relationship with clothing is the first step- do we just want to shop, or do we really need new garments? Who made my clothes?

The sustainable fashion industry lies with us, with the businesses and creatives around us that are sewing, making, and creating. Especially those who work from waste streams. Instead of throwing it out, get it altered to fit you properly, and give your money to a local seamstress or designer instead of a fast-fashion company. The easiest and cheapest thing you can do is to wear what you already have, mend and repair what you already have, and to shop thrifted. When you shop for thrifted clothing, look for quality, not clothes that will rip. Search for timeless styles— something you might pass on to your kids. Think of your clothes as permanent, rather than transient. Taking on a garment is a big responsibility.

We are not on the right track towards sustainability as a whole— I see too few conversations and too few actions around what we need to do to shift course. The people with fiscal power have no interest in a sustainable future because it does not increase their bottom line. Fashion brands have shown outright refusal to improve working conditions for workers, while at the same time greenwashing their products. Some policy decisions that would greatly help both conditions for garment workers and the environment is increased transparency from the fashion industry. Another would be living wages for garment workers.

That being said, we can’t rely on these institutions to do the right thing. The sustainable future of fashion lies with people and communities, not with big business. The future of sustainable fashion is your neighbor who uses secondhand yarn to make cardigans, your local upcycle designer using their creativity to create brilliant looks from clothes that already exist. It comes from the alterations businesses here in Cincinnati. It exists when you decide to mend the hole in your jeans creatively instead of throwing them out. The future of sustainable fashion is right in front of you if you look for it. What does the future of MEND look like? Any events, collaborations, or projects coming up?

SK: For now, MEND is just our senior capstone project, the beginning of an idea for the future. We don’t have any additional concrete plans, but we do intend to continue workshops for the public to learn to sew. EM: I don’t think either of us will ever stop teaching whether it is through MEND or other ways. But yes, as Sara said, we hope to hold more workshops in the near future. How can other creatives get involved with MEND? SK: You don’t have to come to MEND to be a part of it. Practice repairing your clothes (there are so many tutorials online). Try learning to sew, crochet, and embroider. Take what is old in your closet and revamp it with your sewing skills. MEND is a mindset- similar to sustainability, it’s a creative way of thinking about your clothes so you are throwing away the least amount possible. Soon we will have a zine of our event and how we did our workshop, to inspire others as to how to run their own workshops. Follow us at @mend_cinci for more information.

EM: A good place to start is to sit yourself down and have an honest conversation with yourself about your relationship with fashion. What can you do to depend less on toxic systems that are so prevalent in the world of fashion? Remember to use what you have, make what you can, and buy second-hand, local, and sustainable when needed. Anything else you’d like to share? EM: A huge shoutout to Community Happens Here in Pleasant Ridge, who allows us to use their space to hold our events!

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