Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Internship on Ice

Last November, I packed my backs and travelled to the dark edge of the Arctic Circle to intern for three months as a “Product Designer” at a fashion studio in Reykjavík, Iceland. I worked with designer Sruli Recht, an Australian ex-pat who operates a studio he lovingly calls Vopnabúriđ (Icelandic for “The Armoury”) in the city’s old harbour. Sruli’s self-titled label could be best described as avant-garde, high end menswear – the collections usually offer a gradient of wearable clothing to wild show pieces. I was invited to come aboard his 2012 Autumn/Winter collection development team to assist in the creation of accessories and show pieces.

I know: what is an industrial designer doing in fashion? What initially drew me to Sruli’s work was his willingness to embrace technology in the fashion design process and a unique hands on approach to prototyping and developing clothing. The video captures his design process pretty well. I also immediately fell in love with the way his collections capture Iceland’s natural beauty. Though he often cites sci-fi novels and movies as his inspiration, his method of draping men’s clothing and utilizing natural, local materials creates something aesthetically romantic.

A seal pelt vest, from the 2012 SS collection Cast By Shadows
"Icarus, Post-Crash", a jacket made of seabird (svartfugl) breasts and wings, famously purchased by Karl Lagerfeld himself
To create the “product” pieces for his latest collection, we used a number of techniques including steam bending, laser cutting, thermoforming, and CAD, while also employing the talent of several generous Icelandic craftsmen and women, from a saddle maker, to a gunsmith, to a glassblower, to a carpenter. Now that men’s Paris fashion week is over, I can finally share what I was tinkering on – below are selected pieces from the latest collection, titled Field Dressing (a play on the term used in hunting).

Necklace made of seabird wings and bent ash wood
Seabird wing cuff, ash
These rings were conceived on paper, and modeled in Solidworks. Maintain your Solidworks skills - you never know what you'll need them for. Also, when we were developing these, I was urged to imagine them as buildings or monoliths (ahem, F&C...).

Three rings - two in oxidized silver, one in leather with a silver pin.
A rifle and knife (in its sheath), carved by master carpenter Guðmundur "Muggi" Stefánsson
I know my way around a sewing machine, but this bag is my first ever attempt at pattern-making. It was prototyped in brown kraft paper with just scissors and tape, first in tiny-scale, then half-scale. And as with the garments, the pattern was then scanned and vectorized in Illustrator so I could cut the muslins and final fabrics on the laser cutter.

Pannier/saddle bag in waxed canvas
I hand stitched this dolphin skin belt for a full day. It smelled fishy and it oozed grease upon touching it. Because it is almost entirely fat, dolphin skin cannot be tanned like fish skin or leather can. The result is instead something quite brittle and not "dry". However, the colour of the skin is incredibly beautiful: an awesome fluid gradient from yellow to blue. This is one of the few objects where I do not think the photos are doing justice. (The dolphin was found beached somewhere in the north of Iceland, so please don't get all PETA on my ass. Also, the belt is a one-off and probably more expensive than I care to imagine).

Belt of Atlantic white-sided dolphin stitched onto Icelandic reindeer leather
Treated leather belt with wire buckle
I was also thrilled to witness the creation of a couple new textiles for the garment side of the collection. Below is a vest constructed from a satin of individually handwoven Icelandic horsetail hairs. For the t-shirt, a textile was knit from spider silk thread produced by goats genetically modified to produce milk containing the spider silk protein. (video:

Horsetail-hair satin vest
Spider silk t-shirt
There are far too many things to blog here, and I've hardly touched on the actual clothing. If you care to click, the collection has been covered on these blogs:

What I learned

When I applied for this job I was probably falling in love with the idea of it more than seriously considering how I could glean some valuable design experience. So w
hen I was finally offered the gig, I had my reservations: would fashion experience be relevant, would it be a worthwhile internship, and can I afford to pay for this?! I decided to take a (designer’s) leap of faith.

In the end, I found fashion design to be further from industrial design than I thought. Maybe someone will disagree, but I think that freedom of artistic expression is much more accepted in creating fashion than it is in industrial design. 
Fashion designers still have to make compromises, what they are selling is a still a manufactured product, and they also have the enormous pressure of producing (and executing) new ideas every 6 months - but their work is an evolution of a personal creative perspective, and ultimately that is what people are paying for. The way a well designed piece of clothing might satisfy someone is different than the way a well designed office chair or pair of scissors would. That's not to say that either fashion or industrial design is more difficult or complex than the other. Trust me; after working at a fashion studio, I have nothing but a huge appreciation for the effort and consideration involved in designing and constructing clothing. But, I think as designers our intentions and design problems are inherently different. Whether fashion design skills can translate to industrial design skills, or vice versa, is up to each of us to feel out ourselves.

The most important thing I learned is how critical it is for any type of designer to nurture his or her explorative and experimental behaviours, and to embrace risk-taking. It was both challenging and eye-opening learning to work, not only how fashion designers work, but also how each of us as individual designers work. It can either be frustrating or incredibly freeing to put aside what you know about something and try to see and design as someone else does. Personally, I found it inspiring. And it highlighted the importance of never failing to be constantly inspired in unfamiliar and uncomfortable ways.

I was far too engrossed working on this collection to be able look at it objectively now, so I want to hear what you guys think of it. Thanks for reading!

Hi folks! For you fellow Carleton IDers who don’t know me, my name is Will Lau. I am an alumni of the SID, class of 2011. Nice to meet you!