Things seem to be moving along rather quickly for Artifact Textiles, a company that advocates for Slow Fashion by helping designers source their textiles locally. The founders of Artifact Textiles, Nica Rabinowitz and Adriana Lentrichia, graduated just in 2015 from Parsons' undergraduate fashion program and before long created their company based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. They're already working with designers like Mimi Prober and Aurora James of Brother Vellies - and in fact had their work incorporated into the Brother Vellies show this past fashion week. I met Nica at Manufacture New York where she also works as an Education Coordinator. But when I found out about Artifact Textiles I was utterly fascinated. Recently I sat down with Nica to find out how a Brooklyn native such as herself learned about fiber farming and what it was like to start a company so quickly out of school.
Katya - So talk to me about Artifact Textiles - how did it start?
Nica - Adriana and I were both at Parsons and were in this Eco section which was kind of this weird mash-up of people who didn't fit into the regular fashion design program. Parson's is kind of a microcosm of the industry, so this section was like being in the sustainable fashion world outside of school, which is much more inclusionary. It attracted some of the best and most committed students creating this sort of incubator atmosphere where everyone was thriving off of one anothers energy and ideas. Unfortunately they got rid of the program in my senior year and everyone went their separate ways.
Then over the summer Adriana and I met up again and realized we hadn't really talked since. We realized we were both interested in connecting with local fiber farms and craft. We thought, Well why don't we just start a company because there's clearly a gap between what designers like us want and what we can find. We wanted there to be a viable option for designers to have textiles completely made in New York.
So you grew up in Brooklyn, right? So how did you find out about the local fiber farms? It just seems like something you wouldn’t know about...I never knew of this sort of thing!
Yes I grew up in the City but I always had a love of nature and would go hiking or try to get away and I started going to the sheep and wool festival in Rhinebeck and meeting all the farmers and talking to them. I was also getting into natural dyeing and that was kind of the door into thinking about where my fiber comes from and where everything comes from. I started realizing wow, everything is coming from the earth, everything is coming from a farm.
It’s like the food movement
Exactly. I realized with clothing it's either coming from plastic or it's coming from the farm. And if it's coming from the farm, which farms? I started looking into the whole system of fashion and getting much more interested in the system than the actual physical designing.
I realized that there is this whole network of people within the Hudson Valley -essentially in the backyard of New York City- with enough resources to create all the clothing for NY. We have this local hub – well we could have a local hub of production for fashion.
What are the challenges?
Right now the infrastructure isn't set up. People don't know about each other, and the fashion industry and farmers speak two different languages! I started talking to the farmers and learning their language -learning a lot about micron counts and staple length and all the different breeds of sheep, goats, and alpacas.
I would come back and talk about it with people in the Industry and their eyes glazed over, even if they were in the fabric or textile departments. I began to find a way to speak both languages and find out what they (the fashion industry) wanted and connect them with the farmers.
How long have you guys been around now? When did you start?
We started a year ago, it's been about a year, it's been a crazy year. We started not sure of what we were going to do. We knew we wanted to create modern heirlooms, wanted to connect the fiber farmers to designers, and ultimately wanted to create this movement and build and promote it, but we weren't exactly sure of the best way to do this. We knew we didn't want to be a non-profit. We wanted to be a for-profit company without the goal being purely profit. We wanted to create a good company and prove it could be done. We started creating our business plan, we started figuring things out and people came to us, kind of like a baby that started a life of it's own. It's like the company is the third member of our team with a mind of its own. We ended up working with other designers and making the textiles for them and for their collections and sourcing for them.
So you just worked with Brother Vellies for their fashion week presentation - explain how that came about and what was the process?
Yes, well we met them at Premiere Vision. Thanks to Manufacture New York having a booth there we had the opportunity to meet a bunch of really amazing people and Aurora came to our studio. It was two weeks before the Brother Vellies show. They happen to be part of the CFDA Lexus eco-fashion incubator and they're really about sustainability in their own work. Speaking with us they realized our values align and mentioned all the excess and scraps in their studio. They asked if we could weave up their scraps and make a huge large-scale tapestry woven poncho in two weeks. And of course we said yes! We also connected the project to local fiber and made a sweater and a few pairs of socks for their show as well.
Wow. Do you think you'll keep working with them? Or you don't know or..
We’re definitely open to working with them again. We’re open to working with as many people as possible and getting the message out there. We enjoy working within different styles.
When you say get the message out there what...
What is the message? I guess the message is that you can make locally. One of the projects I did on my own time was creating a 150 Mile Radius collection. I made 10 pieces of clothing completely within a 150 mile radius, including sourcing the fiber but also the dye –everything all the pieces. Just kind of as a proof of concept.
Was that while you were at school or after?
It was while I was at school and I continued it outside of school, this 150 mile radius limitation. It was like "wow, this can be done" and people just didn't know…it was just spreading the word that the resources are here. And you can do it.
So you do what exactly? You weave…
Yes we do all of it in our studio in Red Hook, we have a scaling model so we create custom textiles and we can go into production and work with local mills. We do everything ourselves, we weave, knit, spin and felt. We also do all the dyeing ourselves.
And you're right over in Red Hook?
We live there. There is kind of, it's kind of my life so there is no separation between Artifact and everything else I do.
Do you have a 5 year plan?
Yes..we do have a five year plan. We want to have our own mill within 5 years, that's our goal.
I think that's the next step. We can only do small scale orders, we start getting requests for anything over 200 units, there's just no way we can do that, and we'd love to eventually. So I think it's about slowly moving in the direction of creating a mill that could create high quality luxury yarns.
Where would that be, like in Westchester or Long Island or?
Probably within the Hudson Valley. There are a lot of older mills that used to be thriving and now are struggling so maybe helping a pre-existing mill and just kind of partnering so it doesn't necessarily mean starting our own but getting access to that equipment and allowing designers to make custom yarns for their collections.
It's really very cool what you're doing.
Thank you! Every day we get emails from different designers that we never thought would hear about what we're doing. People that I've respected for awhile, and it's just really exciting to partner with people that I respect.
I think the collaboration process is really great. I don't like just sitting in a silo and creating. I like to work with other people. It’s great to work with all different facets of the Industry- not just one kind of designer.
Do you feel like you're the fabric locavore?
(laughs) yeah...yeah yeah. I’m focused on local supply chains in general, it goes beyond fashion. The idea of the local hub model where you can produce everything locally no matter where you are. So we're in New York now but we see this as something that potentially in 10 years could grow and be a lot of different mills and areas: this fiber shed movement.
IS there a movement?
There is definitely a fiber shed movement going on in California. There's a great organization called Fibershed trying to connect local fiber farmers. There is not just wool farming there's also cotton, and hemp should be legalized soon. There's tons of natural dye stuff. It’s about seeing how we work with our land instead of just growing a lot of soy and corn.
And why don't we compost? You can compost your muslin, you can compost the cotton, so we can be this kind of closed circular cycle. It’s interesting to think about different ways of farming in the future and living our lives that are more connected to nature.
Even if you're not living on a farm, understanding where your clothing comes from - it really makes a huge difference in how people think, and then shop.
Yes, that brings up a huge part of the problem, education. Even a lot of people in the fashion industry are unaware of all of the steps in the supply chain. A lot of the time, made in New York clothing is not made in New York at all. It's made in over 20 countries and it can't even be traced because the textiles have gone through so many processes, touched so many hands, in so many different countries.
An important part of our mission is raising awareness, because people wonder why you need local clothing. So first it's teaching people why sustainability is important and then showing them here's a way to be sustainable.
I talk to people and realize they think that their clothing was made by a machine. They don’t realize that someone made it operating a sewing machine.
What has been most rewarding about starting Artifact Textiles?
The recent Brother Vellies collaboration was really an exciting time for us. Two days ago I went on Moda Operandi just to look at stuff that I could never afford but love to think about one day affording, and saw my poncho on there and I couldn't believe it. I think that was a real moment of gratification where I realized we're doing something and it's working.
What do you find the the most challenging or frustrating?
I think space is always an issue in New York City, and also time: I think people don't realize when you're using your hand how long things take. When you're not using automated machines, when you're making everything by hand it's literally slow fashion– it's really slow. And no matter how quickly we try to do things and optimize our process, we want to have that element of hand and we don't want to lose sight of the craft. So we're interjecting craft back in. People have to understand that things are going to take longer and you just need to kind of rethink the way your production process happens.
Do you feel like...the whole fast fashion thing, do you feel like there's a shift in how people are thinking or do you think it's just a trend? Do you have a sense of it?
I really like what Li Edelkoort talks about- as technology grows much more of our lives will be digital and on the computer and on our phones or through a screen so in response we really crave this tactility. We crave texture in response because we're still human and we still have this desire. I think that as things move in more of a tech direction there's also simultaneously going to be this desire for craft. I see this as more than a trend, I see this as an evolution, an expansion. I think right now it's still an uphill battle for people that really care about changing systems because it's not just changing fashion it's changing the whole system of production.
Right, so that's where the resistance comes because there are people and corporations who have invested a lot and make a lot of money in the way things are now
It's completely counter to the way things are working now. It’s a lot to ask both the consumer and companies to get behind - I think it's about creating alternatives and that become so exciting and making the consumer so excited that the bigger companies need to follow suit. It’s basically about getting people to demand better products and it's beginning to happen.