For the last few years I have been teaching in the final year program for Bachelor of Design students at the College of Fine Arts. This program gives students the opportunity to propose and develop their own conceptual projects and I have been lucky enough to teach many talented students and supervise many excellent projects. Last year, two students stood out for the quality of their work and the relationship of their ideas to my own research in product design concerning the factors of production which express, or don’t express, within the experience of consumption.
Emily Yeung is a young fashion designer tackling a big ethical issue within the fashion industry – the exploitation of garment workers in developing countries where they are subjected to low wages and unsafe working conditions. This issue can be perplexing for designers wishing to do the right thing, but faced with that fact that Australian companies produce the vast majority of their clothing overseas, complicit in the economic forces which create the problem. There are arguments to be made that producers need to be both more aware of this situation and intervene directly to make sure that garment workers are not exploited. Yeung’s project Eight Storeys addresses the importance of raising awareness within the fashion design industry in a novel and provocative way.
Starting with her research on the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and inspired in part by my project Smash Repair, Yeung developed an exceptionally designed video and range of garments which powerfully express the tragedy of such events and at the same time makes a proposal for a local, autonomous and alternative production system which, while highly conceptual, steps away from the moral quagmire of mass-production systems. As Yeung states, this proposal addresses “the demise of local manufacturing and emphasises the need for transparency in supply chains.”
The video is well worth a look:
Yeung’s project was first exhibited at the 2013 COFA Annual Graduation Galleries and awarded the Design for Social Activism prize.
It was later awarded the Dia Gotya Nomination from the Design Institute of Australia (2014) and the Hatched Award Nomination from PICA | Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (2014).
Lyly Lao is another Bachelor of Design graduate interested in the manufacturing conditions of products and materials – in her case, leather. Her research began with a visit to one of the few remaining tanneries in Sydney and the observation that the very complex process of tanning leather (and many chemical ingredients used, often poisonous and environmentally destructive) are almost completely hidden to the consumer within the experience of leather products, such as shoes and bags. Noting the evidence in the archaeological record that the earliest human societies had more ‘organic’ methods of tanning leather using animal waste products such as brain, blood and urine (methods still used in some places, such as the infamous tanneries of Morocco), Lao developed her own DIY techniques for cleaning and tanning pig skin she obtained from a local butcher. An interest in the properties of skin lead her the art of tattooing, which she incorporated into her final design: a self-tanned pair of Men’s shoes with tattooed logos.
Leather tanning at a Sydney tannery:
Lyly’s own process involved cleaning the fat off the pigskin she was able to obtain:
Tattoo experiments on pig skin:
Lao’s shoes are not necessarily commercially attractive (though personally I think they are beautiful) but rather the point of Lao’s project is expose the materiality of the product and draw its origins and production conditions closer to the consumption experience. Her shoes, which retain the hair and ink branding from the pig, are far more animalistic than typical leather shoes, and raise the association of pig skin to human skin, accentuated by the visual device of the tattoo. The project asks whether we should be consuming leather at all, but at the same time evidences the possibility of alternative, non-industrial leather production without the need for chemicals and processes of risk to human heath and the environment.
Lyly Lao’s project was exhibited and awarded the sustainability prize at the 2013 COFA Annual Graduation Galleries.