14 Minute read
Let me be frank right from the start. I am not a fashion journalist, my training lies elsewhere. And yet, here I am writing an article for the Fashion Contributor about South African designer, Lara Klawikowski, one of South Africa’s more intriguing fashion designers at a very exciting time in her career. Yikes!
I am nervous. Preparations are vast, research is done, technology is set up, and come the morning of the Covid-style interview, Skype decides to sleep late. Panic! With some rearranging of technology we shift platforms, tripods are being tossed out of sight, laptops are now attempting to record cellphones and my many lists are in the wrong places.
She calls me, I answer it and this lovely, warm, smiling, friendly face lights up my screen. The panic immediately evaporates.
“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence” – Pablo Picasso
She is friendly and easy to talk to. I want to know who Lara Klawikowski is. How she started on this path, so I start by asking her what she wanted to be when she grew up, a regular question I know, but I want to start at the very beginning, apparently it’s a very good place to start.
“I think from a very early age I wanted to be a fashion designer,” she starts. “I remember, I was always dressing up. I was always interested in clothing, piling on my Mom’s clothes, wearing things, and trying things on, dressing up.”
I picture a younger Lara, bathed in sunlight, wearing shoes ten times too big for her, large flowing garments being held up with belts and scarves tied around her waist, a big, floppy oversized hat that probably covers her eyes and a bright red lipstick that goes over the edges of her lips as a child’s untrained hand would apply it. A nostalgic scene a lot of people can relate to.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a fashion designer. And then, after school, I was only ever interested in fashion and design”. She explains to me that though she was academically strong, after matric she hadn’t yet decided what to do, should she become a doctor or enter some other academic field that she would’ve been well-suited for, so she decided to take a break and study fashion design while she decided what to do with her future. I wanted to study fashion so much and I loved learning about how clothes are made and I got sucked in. And I’ve never changed.”
“That’s really cool.” Did I just use the word cool?
“It’s almost like a dream,” she says with a beaming smile. She is living her dream!
“I’m very jealous,” I tell her. “I wanted to be an astronaut but that didn’t happen.” Shocker.
“You never know!” She laughs.
That’s right, it’s 2020! Stranger things have happened.
I ask her if she has a photo of her younger self dressing up, thinking how much I would love to see it; if the way she draped the clothes was in any way similar to how she uses fabric now but then I decide that some memories are personal and should be kept for yourself and your family.
“I used to wear my dolls clothes, I’d try to squeeze into my dolls clothes with my Mom’s clothes, everyone’s clothes. Anything that could be wrapped or draped or tied; we have a family friend who used to sew and she used to give us all her little bits of things she’d sewn together to play in. All that creativity; I only have sisters so also a bunch of girls dressing up. I loved barbie clothes. I loved looking at clothes. There are so many photos of me when I was little where I am looking at the clothes. There was always an interest in how it was made and what fabric it was.”
“So there was no doubt that this was definitely the career for you.” I think about how rare it seems to be these days, that we find our paths so early on, or that we get the opportunity to follow our desired career paths. I can’t help but think that Lara was destined for this. She has a gift and it wasn’t going to be ignored.
“I think always in the back of my mind, and also because of how the fashion scene is portrayed, it’s seen as this shallow, empty…” her eyes wander the room as she looks for the words, “as if people who are working in the fashion industry are, I don’t want to say stupid, but not as intelligent. It’s sort of seen as this vapid career path and I found that it isn’t like that. There is so much intelligent research and learning and it’s all about technology and progress and it’s really just so much more than what it’s seen as, as on a superficial level. So I feel confident as a fashion designer, I feel like I’m not wasting my brain.”
I feel a twinge of guilt in the back of my skull as she says this and I wonder if she can see it on my face. Just a few short years ago, I was one of those people who thought the fashion industry was ostentatious and “vapid” and full of pretentious people trying to outdo each other. But with the exposure I have been given over the last few years and having had the chance to peek behind the curtains of the industry, I have a very different opinion of the fashion industry now. Fashion designers are essentially sculptors that bring an added dimension to their art. With sculptures or paintings, you can admire the work from a distance but you aren’t allowed to touch. With fashion, not only do you get to admire the way that it looks, you get to climb inside it, feel it against your skin, see how it moves with your body, enjoy how it makes you feel. It can transform your mood, give you confidence, express your personality and desires. Fashion, to me, is art that you can experience on a very personal, physical level.
Lara, I believe, is very much an artist that puts all of her soul into her work with the full intention of the wearer getting to experience something that was made with great heart and consideration.
I ask her if she had a favourite “thing” as a child. I am still fascinated with her childhood.
“I had a doll that I would dress and I would pile layers and layers on her. That was my favourite thing to do. I was given this doll as a gift from my Russian granny when I was 1 year old, so there’s a photo of when I was a baby with her and you see her throughout my childhood with all these clothes on.”
“Do you still have it?” I ask excitedly.
“Yes I do, she’s actually so tiny.”
I have this longing to see her now. This doll which played a role in Lara’s journey. But again, some things are personal so I don’t push.
“Obviously I don’t play with her, she’s in a box” she reassures me and we both laugh.
“I read that you have Polish and Russian heritage, has that influenced your work? The way you design?”
“Well, I was born in South Africa. I grew up here. My Dad was born in Poland and his parents were Polish Russian. My Mom’s Dad was Polish but she was born in South Africa. So the languages have been in the background and we’ve always had bits and pieces of the heritage around. Last year we went on a trip with my Dad and we did a road trip across Poland, it was interesting. Things that I’ve seen in my work, things that I’m inspired by, like textures, it’s all over Poland. Wherever we went, museums, galleries, it was there. So it was quite nice to see there was this innate Polish inheritance in things that I am naturally drawn to even though I haven’t been that exposed to it growing up in South Africa. So, there’s definitely something. Something that I’m drawn to naturally.”
“Can you think of three things that you can’t live without?”
“I guess, just to stay sane, I have to go for a walk every morning and I have to do 20 minutes of yoga. I have to do it just to feel okay. Creativity, I love designing and drafting patterns. I feel like I have to create, to feel like I’ve taken something and made something new and in that way contributed to life.”
I smile, seeing the passion flicker in her eyes.
“Do you have a favourite fashion movie?”
“That’s tough,” she says as she thinks for a moment. “I love movies, I love fashion movies, I love any movie with beautiful cinematography and costumes, there are so many.”
I do think it’s unfair of me to ask her for just one as I know that I can never name just one favourite movie or one favourite song.
“Recently, the Queen’s Gambit” she continues. “I can watch it over and over again just because of the cinematography and the patterns and clothing, when she goes to Russia, all the details. So beautiful. Everything about it.”
“Who would be your influences, or your heroes?”
“That’s also a tough question. I think one of my favourite designers is Iris van Herpen because of all of her avant-garde pieces, also her use of technology. Her work really resonates with me. It changes, I’ll watch a fashion show from one of the international fashion designers and think you know, this season I really love what Donatello Versace has done. I just love this, or you’ll see a designer and like their pieces. I guess I can’t say there’s just one. It’s more about the actual design and the actual connection. If it’s a subject that’s inspired them that’s inspired me too. It’s more about what they’re designing at the moment.”
“If you could collaborate with any other artist or musician, who would you like to work with?” I continue.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Viviane Sassen’s work, the photographer.”
I have no idea who that is. Later, when I Google her work, I can see exactly how her work would go well with Lara’s designs.
“It would be cool to see my pieces photographed and do a collaboration. That’s been in the back of my mind. I’m always looking at the work that’s being done. There are so many cool textile designers as well, it would be quite nice to work with them. And also more artisans, people who do interesting African woven textures, something like that where I can use those materials, design patterns, and prints in line with my work. I think I always tend to think of who I can collaborate with, with the finished product. I’ll create something and they can use those pieces in a story. It’s fascinating to see how stylists and photographers and people, anyone wearing my work, interpret the designs in their work and lives. I think that’s the real collaboration with fashion. How the clothing gets worn, how it gets used.”
“Where do you get your inspiration from?”
“I think it always starts with fabric; if there’s an inspiring texture or a piece of something, or just a small element. It could be anything, it could be food or….”
“Oh wow, really?” Imagine food being used as inspiration for clothing.
“Nature or plants or flowers” she continues, “small design elements and I find my mind kind of hones in on a small detail and it sees a dress or a pair of pants and I think it’s fun trying to work out how you can make it wearable and understandable for people. I think my top inspiration is definitely taking an unusual material and then turning it into something you can wear. The surprise people have. Like, ‘no way, that was made from that? You can wear it?’ That’s my ultimate joy.”
“How amazing,” I think to myself, “to have the vision to turn food or discarded plastics into beautiful clothing.”
“You studied at CTCFD, correct? Was there anything during your time as a student that you didn’t want your lecturers to know about? That you can publicly say now.”
I don’t actually expect an answer to this question, especially if I think back on my student days. She laughs and by now I’m sure she’s wondering who on earth this woman is that’s asking all these personal questions, but she’s being a good sport and going along with it.
“I’m an open person”, she laughs, “so they know me and where they stand with me. I guess I’m actually a design nerd. I want to do everything right; I’m super diligent and dedicated.”
Sorry, no secrets are given away there, but her dedication and diligence are obviously paying off.
I like that. Chill, reliable and she takes the environment into consideration. Becoming a “sustainable designer” didn’t come about for her until about 5 years ago. As a student, she used recycled or up-cycled materials, leftovers or anything unusual that she could put together. The sustainable factor was always a part of her design practice however, it just didn’t get an official label until recently.
“I think also it is getting more credit at the moment and people are seeing the value in it, it’s almost become a luxury.”
She explains how previously, you wouldn’t want to tell someone that you made a glamorous dress from leftovers. People weren’t seeing the value in it yet.
“It’s better for the planet, it limits the waste so there’s definitely a growing understanding of being more sustainable and seeing that you can make something amazing from junk really. Waste, and that it’s not waste once it’s been made into something amazing. It is a quality product.”
The old cliché comes to mind, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. According to an article by Morgan McFall-Johnsen on Business Insider, the fashion industry produces 10% of carbon emissions and is the second-largest consumer of water, polluting the oceans with microplastic, not to mention the massive amounts of clothing that end up on the dumps. The article states that “the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.”
Doesn’t it make sense then, to be proactive and create beautiful fashion that is more sustainable and longer-lasting?
When she was first starting her brand, Lara was doing more avant-garde designs and using materials such as recycled inner tubing from truck tyres. In 2009 she won the SACTWU Condom Dress Design Competition for her creation using nearly 30 000 sponsored condoms, embroidering them through a mesh material to create an elegant, floral texture. She would take bits of fabric and see how it could create new textures by sewing, weaving, stitching, and embroidering them in various ways.
“That was always my starting point and then, from all those wild proportions, I tailored and tamed it so that it was more wearable. Anyone can wear the piece and it doesn’t look like you’re going to be performing on a stage. You could be going to work.”
Lara’s recent collection of wedding dresses have been beautifully crafted from upcycled and recycled plastic.
“I found that with bridal wear, most of the fabrics that you would use for a wedding dress are all made with synthetic fibers and they’re all essentially plastic and bad for the environment, and you wear a wedding dress once. So the idea was that if I could just use materials that were made from recycled materials or by upcycling, then I’m one step in the right direction. It’s really beautiful and it’s surprising that it looks so lovely and that’s probably the most sustainable work I’ve done. Because of the consciousness involved in it and also what it’s made of. The material is really sustainable. With recycled plastic, there’s a lot of transparency with where it is sourced from, how it is made and you don’t get that with materials that you buy at the fabric stores. There’s not enough information available. It is really nice to say to a client, this is the dress, this is the material and this is where the material was sourced. That’s a big part of sustainable design, being able to be upfront about the process and everything that is involved and not shy away from questions.”
“Do you feel that your personality shows through your work and your style, your clothes?”
“I feel it shows some of my personality. I have days where I wear really interesting pieces and there are days where I dress like a normal girl and you wouldn’t think I’m a designer. I think there is also the assumption that when you’re a fashion designer you spend your time in a glamorous ball gown with a glass of champagne at your studio. People don’t realise that you’re actually wearing normal work clothes and you’re working, and that doesn’t necessarily look glamorous. But I think that with my work, the things that I am interested in and the things that inspire me, show through.
Whenever I’ve done a new collection, I’ll always get feedback on how it’s noticeably different from what I’ve done before but one can see that it’s my work, it’s distinctive as my work. You can pick up a piece of my clothing and you immediately know, without having to look at the label, that it’s Lara Klawikowski. I think that’s very important when you’re a designer. I don’t want to be making more and more clothing, and it’s just there and it’s not identifiable, there’s nothing personal, it’s just more apparel, that’s not design to me.”
I went to many galleries and openings as a child, being the daughter of an artist, and so that is where I still think of art being displayed. Of course, that has changed now, but I ask her if she feels her work belongs in a gallery rather than on the runway and she tells me that on a runway, you get to see the clothes in motion, what it looks like on a person and that then inspires people.
“It’s exhilarating”, she says of fashion shows.
She then also sees the upside of her garments being in a gallery, as you can get up close and take your time, looking at the detail, taking it all in. “But I think best of all is if someone actually buys it and wears it then you look at them while they wear it and see how it looks on them. I think the wearability component is very important. I can inspire everyone but it has to be wearable.”
“What have been the top three highlights of your career?”
Winning the TWYG Sustainable Fashion Award Change Maker. That’s definitely my top highlight, and the prize of R100k from Country Road. Also, winning the Innovative Material and Design Award at the TWYG Awards because my brand is all about creating innovative textiles and design. And, 10 years ago, when I won the SACTWU Condom Dress Design Competition, with prize money to start my whole business in fashion. Winning the Vodacom Durban July Young Designer Award as a student with a prize to go to London Graduate Fashion Week and attend all the shows was also a huge highlight. I had just graduated so seeing where I stood in terms of international fashion with other graduates was an invaluable experience. Another highlight was showcasing at Cape Town Fashion Week for the first time. Even though fashion weeks have become somewhat less important nowadays, when I was a student, if you were at Fashion Week, that was really special. It meant that your brand meant something and that it wasn’t just more of the same. It really set you apart from everyone else.”
“We spoke on this already, about how you felt about winning the TWYG Sustainable Award. What was that moment like? When you first found out that you had won?”
Her face lights up in delight and I can feel it, like warmth from the sun radiating through my screen.
“Oh amazing!” she beams. “I think because this year has been unprecedented and unpredictable. I was seeing a lot of the designers I’ve known right from the start, losing their businesses and there was this uncertainty and not really knowing what to design or what to do. I had just started with this whole concept of upcycled bridal wear and then all the weddings were canceled this year.”
“Oh, that’s true!” I gasp, thinking about my wedding planner friend who suddenly had all her clients cancelling their weddings.
“Everything came to a complete standstill. Winning was a relief and a bit of hope. I have funding now to carry on for a bit longer and see where it goes. Maybe this is meant to be; I’m meant to carry on despite this weird year.”
And what a weird year has been indeed. The Pentagon released videos of UFO sightings, monkeys ran riot in Thailand, Tiger King was a thing, Maggie Thatcher returned to our screens confusing Gillian Anderson’s male fans, Elon Musk and Grimes named their baby something that nobody can pronounce and let’s not forget, Kanye West ran for office in America.
“Assuming the world doesn’t implode on December 31st, what do you have planned for 2021?” I ask cautiously, not wanting to tempt any sorcery from the curse that seems to have befallen 2020.
“As part of winning the Change Maker award, South African Fashion Week has given me a sponsored show in Joburg. So I’ll be able to showcase my new Spring Summer 2021 collection. It will, of course, be a socially distanced show, so there won’t be an audience, everything will be pre-recorded and the digital shows will be broadcast on 29 April – 1 May 2021. I’m excited to be part of SAFW as I haven’t showcased in Joburg before. I’ll be working on my new collection, and I’ll be stocking a new boutique, Merchants on Long, at the V&A Waterfront from February. There’s a new stockist and there’s a new show. It’s a good start to the year.”
“My last question is the hardest one,” I say biting my lip.
“Okay.” She laughs nervously, wiggling in her seat in preparation.
“So since I’ve delved into your personal life, you get to ask me a personal question.” I feel this is only fair.
A look of relief sweeps over her delicate features.
“Okay haha. Who have I been talking to for the last 15 minutes.”
“OMG! Did I not introduce myself?” This would be so typical of me.
“You did, you did. You said you were a writer. Have you written anything that I would’ve read?”
Feeling somewhat vulnerable and seeing what it’s like to be on the other side of the….phone, I explain that I am a blogger and graphic designer. This is now a new path that I am following, a dream I’ve had for years but haven’t yet pursued.
I set her free, to go and enjoy her well deserved year-end break. For the rest of the day, while I prepare to close my studio and go on holiday, I keep thinking back to our conversation. I think of the little girl dressing in her mother’s clothes, dressing up her doll, growing into a young lady with a passion, who then matures into a young woman following her dream, who knew her path right from the beginning and didn’t stray. A woman of intelligence, creativity, and consideration who is making a difference in a world that is drowning in the mundane and non-biodegradable, and I feel inspired.
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