A HUG: What Makes Clothes Art?

How many collars does it take to sanctify a jacket?! Are all textile scraps sacred?! Who is hugging who here?! … [my thoughts while first seeing A Hug on Instagram]

Every semester my fashion/media students at the Academy of Art University introduce me to a new cohort of “influencers” as we discuss social media impact on creativity and wellness (both at the individual and collective levels). Every time I “discover” someone new to be wow-ed by. A Hug was one such discovery. Recently, I collaborated with my students to interview designer / textile sculptor Alex Henkes, the passionate mastermind behind this terrific upcycling label based in Madrid, Spain.

“One-of-a-kind clothes for one-of-a-kind people” is your studio motto. It is the antithesis of current fashion consumption mode which strives to position mass produced items as unique 🙂 Is it even possible to be one-of-a-kind anymore?

It is hard to be one-of-a-kind. We are bombarded by images, and they leak into the back of our minds. Everything already seems to exist. All artists copy in a way because we have centuries of creations in the subconscious. But we can always take something and make it better. I try to make shit designs that ended in the garbage better. Each garment that comes into my hands, I try to find a solution to make it beautiful again, to make people want to wear it, to give it a second chance.

Every second chance is one-of-a-kind, that is true! How do you feel about competition in the fashion industry?

Every creative mind that puts their hand into upcycling is welcome. I don’t see mass-producing brands as competition. They are so in the past, from another era. I am working for the future. And in the future in my head, those brands will not exist anymore because they tried to kill the planet.

“All good stories start with a hug” is another beautiful slogan you have. What is the most surprising story that started with a hug for you?

The brand itself. I was working for a designer who did not appreciate my creativity. My function was to organize things, so I had all this unrequited creativity brewing in me. I didn’t know where to start. One night at a bar I got introduced to two people who later became very important in my life. I can’t tell if it started with a hug or two kisses…This is Spain! [Laughs] We were so different but immediately drawn to each other. One time, after many other meetings, we were walking home a little bit drunk and hugging in the street. That hug became a symbol of a moment. In this moment – we are friends! My thought was, Wow I would love to make a garment where you could see and feel this beautiful, strange union. I asked my friends to give me one of their jackets. I put them together with mine into a single garment. It was a bit off, a bit odd, many arms and colors, but it was “us”. A hug between friends. That’s how it all started.

You say your source garments are “unwanted/discarded”. What does that mean? How do you find them and how do you know what to do with them?

I work with second-hand garments, not vintage clothes. Vintage is normally good by itself, so it makes no sense to “destroy” it for something else. I work with items which have some design flaw that made people throw them away. I always say garments find me. Some days I find nothing when I go into stores. And other days I walk in, and some piece goes “me-me-me!!” I have to trust my instinct and listen to the garments. They already have an idea how they want to be reincarnated and to which family they want to belong … I don’t work in collections. I create families of clothes. Family members have different stories but are united. When I meet the garments, I wait for the right moment to sit with them and explore all the details, inside, outside. Then, out of the blue, something clicks. Oh wow, look at that, let’s do that! The materials tell me what they want me to do. It does not work out if you try to force it.

What is your earliest fashion/style memory? A moment you realized wow clothes and accessories can be a way to express myself/something? 

The reason I am a designer today is because my father had a massive collection of art books. I was five or six years old looking through them, but not understanding much. And then I found one. The One. It was about John Galiano at Dior: his first collections with sketches, cuts, images, catwalks, everything. I remember thinking, “Wow he made all this!” He took his dreams and turned them into reality. It was amazing. That’ s when I started to say fashion was my thing!

You studied at some of Europe’s most influential art schools: Central Saint Martins, Marangoni London, ESMOD Berlin. In your experience, (how) is the current education system equipped to support students uninterested in fast fashion, luxury conglomerate, status quo type of design? 

I wanted to do upcycling before I knew there was a word for it. I remember my teachers telling me no. “Don’t use recycled and found materials in your designs. It will bring the value of the collection down.” I was spending so much money on textiles. I felt I had to adapt to what was expected of me. Now I teach first year design students myself. However, I teach them to think sustainably, to reuse materials and break the toxic cycles. I think traditionally universities have been factories producing students for industry jobs. They still don’t really teach how to work against the fashion system. It is very hard to find that. I am trying with other colleagues. We are inventing new tools and practices for students to use in the future so that we don’t keep killing the planet.

Looking back as a designer, what has been the most valuable and the least impactful part of your fashion education?

Back then what I hated the most was having a great idea and taking it to the teachers who were so overwhelmed with other projects that they would always cut it down, make it smaller, make it “manageable”. It put me down over and over again. I was crying all the time. I really hurt in the deepest of my heart. I would break down, sleep for half the day, and then work harder. It gave me the extra energy needed. Oh you don’t see my idea?! You’re too tired to understand it?! Ok, I will prove that you’re wrong and this is f*cking amazing! Now that I fight against the whole industry [laughs], I understand it probably helped me the most in my development.

How would you describe your personal style? (How) does it differ “at home” or “online” or “in public”? 

I get dressed once in the morning. I don’t change my clothes 3-4 times a day. I am not an influencer. [Laughs] Not everyone understands my clothes and my style. I like to feel comfortable. I like big shapes. I love garments that have no commercial value anymore because they’ve been lovingly worn for so long. My friends say I am vagabond chic. All the layers, off sizes, the comfortable-ness. At the last moment I try to chic-ify it with accessories. Friends say, “Dress up! We’re going out!” But I am already dressed up… otherwise I’d just be in my pajamas. [Laughs]

Who else would you recommend following on Instagram for people interested in upcycling? Whose work continues to intrigue and inspire you?

I really try not to saturate my mind with external images. It’s hard, we are constantly bombarded, there is no way around it … I love Lou de Bètoly. Whatever she does, I’m always like “Nice!” … Martin Margiela, of course, over and over again. Once in a while I find things from his archives that maybe did not become well known and it’s like a little trigger inside. F*ck! Sh*t! He did it before! [Laughs] I love how he constructed garments. The simplicity of how he did things is very inspiring.

What’s your favorite “escape” offline from the pressures of work, creative process, etc.? 

I am always working even if in my thoughts. The absolute coolest place for art and design in all of Madrid is Colección SOLO. I also like to go to the countryside to escape from the cement, the buildings, the noise of a city. Traveling truly helps me “unplug”. I get to a new place and turn off my phone. I am just there to be and to discover.

What is the biggest misconception about sustainable design and upcycling? What advice would you give aspiring designers looking to experiment or dive into this niche/market?

Sustainable design is not upcycling. Upcycling is a form of sustainable design, but you work with materials that already exist and heavily influence the design process with their possibilities and flaws. In sustainable design you start with an idea, you go from scratch, but you focus on every step of the process: sustainable materials, sustainable practices, sustainable lifestyle. Yes, it is harder than “traditional” fashion, but it’s worth it. Advice for aspiring designers? Listen, it is a must. Sustainability is the future. It’s not like you get to decide if want to be “sustainable”. No, no, no! From now on, everyone will have to be a sustainable designer. Otherwise, you belong to the past. It may sound fatalistic, but … if the planet is burning, who needs new clothes?!

Follow A Hug on Instagram @aHug_official

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