Revealing patterns? Interview with Erika Maish

For designer Erika Maish, the making of her garments demands perhaps more creative labour than in the design process itself. “There’s a level of enjoyment that’s in the physical crafting of fashion – it’s not always about the efficiency in making and materials when it comes to sustainability.”  

Based in Los Angeles, Erika Maish graduated from the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins in 2019.  Inspired by iterations of American spirituality, suburbia and the microcosm of the ‘Valley Girl’ her unique modular approach to textiles has seen her craft trenchcoats from can tabs and bikinis from mottled healing beads – all tongue-in-cheek but laboriously hand made with an elegant precision.  She has since gained a large following of fashion stylists, celebrities and crafters alike.  But beyond that glossy culture, you can see she’s an artist with a view to question the workings of the industry and harness it for good.

“It’s frustrating to see the lack of effort reforming the industry.  We’re always saying, not now, we don’t have time.  The whole world shut down and it’s a time where if you had wanted to change things, you could have.  We’re still not.” 

Maish took on crochet as a more soothing form of making during the lockdown in a time where many young labels were suffering. Serendipitously, she found her footing selling a crochet collection faster than she could have imagined.  In response to some of her younger clientele who weren’t able to afford a piece of her handmade creations, Maish released a pattern for download – a move, she notes, that is not often practiced in the fashion industry.  This costs just $30, and has allowed her to maintain realistic and ethical working practices for her one-woman brand, while spreading her creations further.  I spoke to Maish to posit the question – Could this open source approach be part of the future of the industry at large?  

RR: Going to Central Saint Martins, you’re there for the fashion education, for the environment of creating your style, rather than considering a wider context like ethics.  How did this element of social action come into your work?  

EM: I think a lot of it is paying attention to the news.  I’ve always been interested in sustainability as well, and a lot of social causes and that’s something I used to do more of as a kid.  I did sewing class when I was really little.  We’d always do projects, like quilts to send to orphanages, lots of engaged projects for the community.  Definitely, when I’m at home, that’s become more of a focus.

Linking to that, I’ve been thinking about the wider effects on community from fashion, particularly when it comes to my production chain.  

Having Opening Ceremony buy my graduate collection and then having to produce it all myself was CRAZY purely because of how labour intensive it was.  It’s tricky because you have this established system in the industry where you outsource it to a less developed country for cheaper labour.  They have a lower cost of living, but let’s not forget it’s still the same amount of labour.  Something has to change in that relationship.  

It also then brings up the weird line of the distinction between designer and maker.  

RR: That distinction is something that’s not really considered closely in the fashion media; celebrating craftsmanship often is a kind of a bonus or USP but not a requisite for brands across the spectrum of high street and sometimes even in luxury.  Is that something that has pushed you to exploring the sharing of patterns?

EM: It seems like it’s something unique to both knitting and crochet, but historically they have always been very community oriented activities where people actively share patterns.

There’s also a limit to how much I can create by myself, and what a lot of people love is the fact that I am making it in the studio.  There is thought to expanding my studio and getting more designers in to also make the garments, but I saw this as an opportunity because so many people like crocheting themselves.  It’s a way to outsource the production – I’ll sell you the idea but you can take on the making.  You can be your own quality control.  I like working with private clients where you can actually fit it to them.  That’s kind of cool with this, because they can do it themselves – they can measure and make it any size, convert the pattern, use the colours they actually want in it.  

It’s also been really cool to put a pattern out by download – that way people all over can have access to it, and it’s also been a really great way to make a passive income as a young fashion brand.  

RR: Do you think this is a model that could be realized in the rest of the fashion industry?

EM: I feel like it’s tricky, because everyone is so secretive and possessive over everything.  The pattern approach is how things how used to be with couture collections though – where they sold the patterns, and department stores made cheaper versions for people.  I think it would be interesting if people went back to doing that.  Back then there wasn’t the aspect of these fast fashion outlets, making things so unhealthily cheap. 

Your approach to sharing the pattern actually lends itself well to sustainability, as the customer then gets a chance to understand the value of making the clothes and step away more from that fast fashion mentality.    

Definitely, I mean, I’ll get those comments from people about the pricing being too high, but then I think ‘Actually, this is as cheap as I can go by the hour without exploiting myself.’  This is the reality of making hand crafted clothes ethically.  So in this way through the lower cost of the pattern, the garment can still get to people who can’t access it otherwise.  It would also be really cool if it also introduced and encouraged people to get into making.

RR: Do you think that accessibility is possible in fashion, given that a lot of it is marketed on exclusivity and desire?  

EM: That’s the thing, I also wonder if I’m attracted to fashion because of that pulling desire.  I don’t want my clothes to be ‘exclusive’ to just someone, but at the same time I’m aware of these Instagram clothing companies where the aesthetic is slightly similar, but the creative intention behind it is different.  It’s tricky whilst trying to make it accessible to not let it get easily confused with these brands or rather the influencer culture and how that operates. 

RR: It goes back to tackling the idea of fashion as being elitist inherently – it’s accepting the fact that there’s always something to look down upon.  Which sucks, because not everyone in fashion thinks that way, but that’s just the way the system is set up.  

EM: To be honest, I don’t think you can be in a place of pushing away clients – you need a lot of people to desire it to make it work.  To have longevity you can’t pigeonhole yourself into one demographic either.  There are some really great designers who are able to keep the artistic side of what they do, and in doing so are acclaimed within the fashion community, but are also able to tap into that wider commercial appeal which is really lucrative.

I think a lot of the artistry is what you learn at school, maintaining that creative process and having more of an artistic output in how you do your shows.  

In an ideal world really though, fashion should be a welcoming space for self-expression for everyone, where we are not quite so quick to pass judgement.  

RR: Part of that creative process is that silhouette and concept, that are often unique to the perspective of a designer. As you rightfully said before, patterns used to be quite widespread- I remember the American Vogue ones with designs from Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.  They’ve faded out a little, probably as that element of possessiveness of design ideas grows with the advent of the high street.  Do you think in a way they’re another form of copying?

EM: I look at vintage patterns all the time.  I don’t look at it as copying; you just use them to learn how stuff is made.  I think that’s interesting in fashion now – every week I feel like there’s a new story on Instagram of someone being copied and getting really mad about it.  I just think that the origins of ideas is an interesting concept – who is original, what constitutes copying and what is open source?  Some things are so obvious with regards to being ripped off, but sometimes it is blurred where there are similar ideas floating around, where history is a reference point and people just remake and remake.  In other creative industries like music, sampling is really big, and people cover songs.  In perspective, there’s a finite amount of notes that you’re working with! People write songs about the same themes.  We don’t really have that kind of thought process in fashion.  In some way or another, whether this is it or not, I think fashion has to modernize.  A lot of fashion brands are losing money – Louis Vuitton on the other hand will probably always be fine, there’s always that luxury customer that wants that logo.  A lot of smaller ones that don’t have that level of branding and prestige can’t rely on the same system.  

There’s also a lot of revivals happening – where people put money into an old name to bring it back – like Halston or Céline.  It’s a bit strange – what was exciting about a brand like that at the time was how modern it was.  

RR: How do you feel about revivals in general?  Do you think it’s better for brands to have a heyday and call it quits, or do you think it is something worth pursuing?

EM: Heritage houses like Chanel or Louis Vuitton – there’s already enough of them.  It just feels like it would be better to invest in newer companies and designers.  As well with just diversity in fashion – a lot of it is just white men, and their name, and continuing their name.  As a designer now, when you work for that, the ideas you come up with under their company are their IP.  

Wales Bonner for example, she’s such a great designer and her work is so beautiful.  Maybe instead of trying to get her to be a Creative Director at another fashion house, just invest in her, so that she becomes that; just with her own name on it.  

RR: And what is it that you’d like to do with your own name going forward?  

EM: I would like to be a multidisciplinary studio – perhaps specifically also trying to develop more costume collaborations.  I worked with a choreographer here in LA and I found that whole process different but super interesting – working with dancers, it’s a whole different set of rules.  I made the sweater vest for that, based on the idea the choreographer was going for.  That ended up being really popular with people – they wanted to buy the costumes from the show!  That made me realize that I’m not losing out by releasing clothing on my own schedule – I don’t need to do the standard 2 collections a year.  There’s so much being made under such pressure there’s no time to think. If I do one collection and then a dance show, it’s fine; it’s just a different way that works for me.  It’s scary being your own brand, because there is that lack of accountability to anyone else, at least at this small stage for me, but at the same time it’s kind of the dream.  

RR: Can we expect more crochet creations or are you going to mix it up?

EM: I will keep exploring other techniques as I have so many ideas, but crochet feels very of the moment right now.  I plan on making a whole collection in a physical book that you can do all from home.  So the book is just going to be filled with these patterns.  Maybe it’ll be more of a notebook form where people can write in it – If people need to change numbers to fit their own body type, it would be a better way to do it to have space to do all the equations required to alter the pattern.  

RR: When can we expect this book to be released?

EM: I’m hoping to release it either at the end of the year or in conjunction with Fashion Week in January/February, along with some video tutorials too! 

Wesbite: www.erikamaish.com

Renuka Ramanujam

Renuka Ramanujam

Renuka is a multidisciplinary creative interested in anthropological phenomena, particularly in decolonizing aesthetics, and designing the way towards a future of sustainability and conscious materiality. Highly fascinated by human connection, she aims to bring about questions and discussions that will help a movement towards a more inclusive, aware and caring society.

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