Using Fashion to Cross Borders — An interview with Rachel Washington

May 11, 2015 Artists, Interview

Rachel Washington is a multi-disciplinary artist with a focus on fashion, graphic design and teaching.

Tell us about the roving installation you’ll be doing at Porous Borders. What gave you the idea to do it?

The idea emerged when I saw the call for artists to explore what they thought the border means or how the border affects either side of it. Like I always do with my research, I started with the Thesaurus, looking for other words for border and outskirts came up. I thought that was perfect because my field is fashion design, so I decided to make skirts based on the cultures on either side of the border of Hamtramck. They’re gonna have a big “Out” incorporated into the design.

How does the roving installation work?

That’s actually an idea that was developed when I met with Richard and Dave — I was thinking they would be on a mannequin, people could look at it or touch it if they want. They said there would be volunteers, so maybe these skirts could move through and with the festival.

What brought you into the field of fashion design?

It really started with a Barbie stencil. I don’t know if my cousins got the stencil or I did, but we used to be in the basement drawing, tracing the bodies and then drawing clothes on them. I never thought of it as an occupation or a career path until high school, when people began to tell me it was an occupation. We had a few illustration classes at Cass Tech, where I went to high school, from there I said I really like this and want to know more. That’s when I decided to go to art school in Georgia and then studied abroad in France.

I got the oppurtunity to study it in a whole different culture, which really appealed to me, because my family is really African American — like before you leave [for college] you’re going to go to Africa, you’re going to know something about your culture. That was cool to get to know about mine, but there’s a world of other cultures, so that’s what attracted me to this particular project.

How are you and your project tied to Hamtramck and the border?

I’m not really familiar with Hamtramck, my dad grew up here a little bit. I remember going to a house that was on the border, he took me to the backyard and said put one foot here and the other one there; ‘You’re in Detroit and Hamtramck at the same time’.

I got the opportunity to learn some more and meet some people. I actually met the mayor of Hamtramck who gave me some fabric for a skirt and another woman, Deanna, who has a studio right outside of CCS, she gave me information about Bosnian culture and gave me some supplies as well. People have been really open about sharing their culture, even though I’ve only been looking into the fashion portion of it, I’ve met some people who have been really inclusive.

I was kind of nervous, how it would seem for me to walk up to somebody and ask them to tell me about their culture in a couple minutes. I was trying to get a little bit of inspiration to help me put a little bit of their culture into these skirts, as much as possible.

I wasn’t trying to recreate traditional garments because they are really intense, really detailed and I only had a month to do it. So using a little bit of their culture, hopefully that shines through in the project, but also to make it American and Hamtramck and Detroit.

Going to Cass Tech, SCAD in Georgia, Africa and Southern France, how has visiting and living in these different places shaped your perspective on borders and boundaries?

Growing up in Detroit, going to school in Detroit, up until I went to college, I traveled a little bit, but being in Detroit, which was primarily African-­American, I was sheltered in a sense. When I went to art school in Georgia I met bunch of different people from a bunch of different places and that opened my eyes and let me know how much I don’t know.

I think it has made me more accepting of things outside of my comfort zone, but I do realize that borders are meant to divide territory and property and in that they divide the people. I realize a lot of people don’t even want to go outside and find out about other people or they’re really standoffish. That’s how I approached this project — I was nervous how I would be perceived, me asking somebody about their culture, I didn’t want to be offensive, I didn’t know what I could ask, what I should ask, or even how I should dress…

I think the borders around Detroit have definitely made me a little ignorant about what goes on outside of them, which I don’t like, but I do think stepping outside of those borders has opened my eyes and made me more receptive. I hope that with this festival more people can learn and be engaged, no be afraid to talk to somebody because they don’t really know how it’s going to be perceived.

“I think it has made me more accepting of things outside of my comfort zone, but I do realize that borders are meant to divide territory and property and in that they divide the people.”

As a textile artist myself, I understand that clothing negotiates better between the self and the other, whether that’s physically or otherwise. I’m wondering how you think we can utilize clothing and fashion to better negotiate these borders to build bridges between borders and establish dialogue?

Before I try to approach it with fashion, I try to think about it from an information and research point of view. Pushing the boundaries of fashion is going to make people talk, which is what I’m trying to do with the skirts. I want someone to look at it and say I kind of recognize that print from my culture or heritage, but this other one is unfamiliar.

I’m not 100% sure. I think that pushing the boundaries and doing things that are a little bit extreme, maybe not too extreme, but out of the box… I think making it something interesting and making it something people will be drawn to and want to ask questions, but really pushing the envelope is one way.

— Interview by Levon Kafafian