After Art: Margaret Burton on Fast Fashion

An interview with Margaret Burton, an ex-artist who found her way into the fringes of fashion to criticise the industry from within.

Margaret Burton was one of those cases destined for art, nothing else made sense to pursue. In grade school she would win awards yearly and unlike all other subjects, art was where she would receive a sense of accomplishment. However, when she dedicated her time to studying art at university, she grew “tired of the social bullshit” and started seeking something that was, as she says, “more wholesome”. This surprisingly lead her to work in a scene that is often assumed to be the most vacuous: fashion.

Superficial engagement with art is direly common in fashion, but Burton’s approach to clothes is thoroughly researched, sculptural, conceptual, critically engaged and perhaps even disruptive to the very industry in which it operates. It hasn’t been so easy for her to convince her art peers that clothing can be compared to artworks, but nevertheless it speaks to the most pressing issues of our time; as an update to Jean Baudrillard’s words, we not only “live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning”, but a world with more and more production, less and less quality, and more and more trash.

Americans discard approximately 13.1 million tons of textiles per year, only 15% of which is assumed to be recycled. Textiles are estimated to contribute 5% of all landfill waste, with millions of tons of unused fabric discarded each year when dyed the wrong color. Additionally, for each ton of fabric dyed, up to 200 tons of water can be required, meaning 20% of all freshwater pollution is due to the making of clothes. Burton addresses issues such as these, now using her eponymous fashion label to pose questions such as: How can we operate outside of this destructive cycle?

Did you study art originally?

I studied at Cleveland Institute of Art, from 2010 to 2012, where I gained knowledge in visual communication and conceptual work. However, I was tired of students partying all week then coming to class with some deep mumbo jumbo and the professors ate it out of their hands. There were also students just making work for shock value – for example, putting crosses inside condoms, but having no reason behind it. I did not like pieces that left the viewer feeling just as, if not more, lost and confused than before having seen it. I wanted to make meaningful work that leads us somewhere nearer to wholeness.

Could you tell me what “wholeness“ means to you?

One of my favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, once said that “to write a story is an act of Naming; in reading about a protagonist I can grow along with, I myself am more named … To identify is to control, to limit. To love is to call by name and so open the wide gates of creativity.”

So wholeness, to me, is knowing one’s true identity. Neither philosophy nor theology has influenced my understanding of wholeness as much as art has. It is an indescribable feeling when you are touched deeply by a film, book, or piece of music. Art has a way of connecting you with something bigger than yourself. When you connect with an art form, you are naming a part of yourself – discovering another aspect of who you are.

When artists continue to be vulnerable in their process of seeking what is good and life-giving amongst the chaos, they create great art. Their works are an expression of their identities and the names they have discovered through their artistic journeys. When they grow in their identities, into greater wholeness, their works grow in their ability to help others in the naming process. Great artists help others discover themselves.

I’m curious to know more about how you went from making art to working with clothes and how you feel the two differ from each other?

I saw the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met in 2011 and was impressed with how this fiber medium linked so many other art forms, such as performance, sculpture, photography, and video. This lead me to Pratt Institute to get a more technical understanding of garment construction. Since then, I feel as though I have to consistently fight to convince people that clothing can be an art form and to treat it as something valuable.

Through the process, I came to understand that fast fashion is my greatest enemy. My research led me to the Panipat district of Haryana, India, which is the Western waste capitol for clothing. I first-handedly saw mountains upon mountains of clothes. Although India has created a market of turning our waste into reusable fibers, it is not as good as it sounds. By making money off of our waste, they are happy with us throwing away more and more. From my point of view, the waste mentality in the West is having horrible effects without people realizing. Cheap clothes make the buyer feel rich, which leads to accumulation and careless disposal.

"I came to understand that fast fashion is my greatest enemy"

Fast fashion, like clothing from H&M, Zara, etc.?

Yes, brands like Forever 21, H&M and Zara create a lot of cheap products and quickly move on to the next seasons and preseasons contribute to this cycle of collecting and discarding – whether they intend to or not. This leaves consumers poorer than had they bought better quality products that last longer. Additionally, people are sold the idea that products buy happiness. Therefore, in order to keep up, they need the next or newest products. Too many consumers feel it is embarrassing to not be up to date with the latest trends or to be seen wearing an outfit more than once or twice. They have been conditioned to toss what they have – or hoard it – and buy what’s new. But the damage does not stop with consumers. As this vicious cycle goes around it is leaving a devastating footprint on our global environment.

So how are your clothes constructed?

It starts with the deconstruction of old clothes – everything is seam ripped. The goal is to take the garment back to its 2D beginning before it was ever sewn. I want the viewer to see how many pieces of the puzzle it takes to make the garment they are stepping inside or putting over their head. By ironing out all the seams, taking away all the threads, you can see where stitches and folds used to be. T.S. Eliot says, “Poetry takes something that we know already and turns it into something new.” Perhaps art is seeing the obvious in such a new light that the old becomes new. I then assemble my clothing in a controlled but chaotic way. The reason is for the viewer to be enticed to look closer and maybe think: “I recognize that as a pocket but what's that piece next to it?”

"Raf Simons said: ‘You have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don't want to do collections where I’m not thinking.’"

What are your feelings about the current structure of fashion with its seasons, the designing of collections several months ahead, “capsule collections”, and so on?

To be honest, I try to ignore it. There may be people that will disagree with me, but for my personal sanity, I shut it out. Everything in our culture today is so fast, and quality is dying to quantity as a result.

I think there is a lot of pressure on creatives to produce work quickly to stay relevant, but then it lacks depth and respect. In my own process, I see how the result of many mistakes actually leads to something great. I have to allow myself time to make bad pieces. Through the process of creating any kind of art, the work tells me what it needs. I can only hear it if I take time to listen. So I feel it’s impossible for me to follow the current structure. In an interview where Raf Simons talks about his choice to leave Dior, he said: “You have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don't want to do collections where I’m not thinking.”

Circling back to what I said before about wholeness, I never want to get trapped making clothes for money. I want my work to always serve as a gift. Without the gift aspect, my work can never speak to anyone on an artistic level. Currently, I have been following one structure and that is the Lydia Rodrigues Collection in NYC. I would describe Lydia as a fashion curator: She chooses designers from around the world and sells their pieces twice a year at her salons. She has been selling my pieces since 2016.

That is great. It was through Lydia Rodrigues I found your work. Her approach removes the whole supply chain, connecting the buyer with the maker and therefore taking a big step backward, which actually feels like a crucial step forward: reconnecting communities, sharing knowledge of labour, and re-evaluating craft and value.

I couldn’t agree more.

You say you don’t want to get trapped making clothes for money, yet I feel like we are all, to some degree, trapped in wasteful production cycles just to generate living wages. So what do you do for money?

I now teach refugee and inner-city high school students in Charlotte, North Carolina, how to sew. The decision to leave the art communities of New York and Los Angeles was really hard because I thought if I left I would be cutting my chances of being an artist forever. But seeing how badly fast fashion affects these communities, it seems like the work of teaching is a better platform for reaching the wholeness that I want for everyone.

How did you come about teaching refugee and inner-city students specifically?

I was working for Jeremy Scott in LA, when I got a Facebook message from an old friend explaining his youth outreach work for Project 658 . He had noticed how kids were selling drugs and getting involved in gangs, just to spend that money on designer clothes and the latest Jordans and so asked me if I would come to teach the students how to sew.

This was pivotal, I always wanted to pursue my own collections, and I thought after graduating I had to go and work for someone like Jeremy Scott, but I wasn't learning anything new, and they were taking advantage of me. So I quit, and went to Charlotte.

During my first time there the boys learned how to create their own basketball shorts. A stylist saw one of the boys shorts on my Instagram and bought them for $175 dollars. The first thing he bought with them were Jordans.

CHÉ ZARA BLOMFIELD is a curator and writer. She lives in Berlin and Palma de Mallorca.

After Art is a series about people who have left the art world and what can be achieved out there. Last time she spoke to the founders of Nonfood, the company that challenges earth's eating habits with algae bars.