Field Notes: Laura Siegel’s Work / Travel Diaries
When we say Laura Siegel is a fashion designer of today’s world, we truly mean world. The rising star of global, socially conscious fashion is keen on growing her artisan base, everywhere. “Today, we’re investing our efforts into research, into regions of the world with communities that share our values,” says Siegel. With previous and ongoing projects in India and Bolivia, as well as blossoming collaborations in Peru, Guatemala and Bangladesh, the designer envisions these efforts as ways to help artisans of a region preserve and further their craft.
In October of 2014, Siegel’s work was recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which named her a semi-finalist in the CFDA/Lexus Eco Fashion Challenge. That same month, director Jennifer Sharpe’s documentary, Traceable, premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London. Siegel is a main character in the film, which follows her journey to bridge the current disconnect between consumer and creator. There are risks and rewards for investing in socially conscious fashion, and Traceable explores how Siegel’s consciousness as a designer can turn fast fashion on its head.
No doubt, the most fun aspect of Siegel’s job is crisscrossing continents to learn from the people and places that inspire her collections. We caught up with the globetrotting, rickshaw-riding designer and asked her to share her field notes. Part interview and part travel diary, it’s a look at the inspo behind her designs, the relationships to her artisans, and what she craves most when she’s working abroad.
Your scope as a designer is positively eclectic. What makes it into your collections? At the beginning, it was an experimental process. I used to travel a lot before I started my line, so I was familiar with certain regions and cultures. I’d spent time in Southeast Asia. That’s where I would say it began: me doing research, connecting with people, seeing how the NGOs worked and functioned, and what crafts I strongly connected with. It was meeting amazing people that helped foster relationships in the beginning.
Do you work with mostly women artisans? It’s a mix of men and women, depending on where you are in the world. There are certain crafts that through tradition and over time only women have practiced. Same thing goes for the men. I work with some copper belt smiths, in Kutch, India. The men work on a portion of the belt, the women will work on another. These crafts that I work with are so ancient. It’s a representation, the way that their craft is woven. It’s a portrayal of their ancestors.
“These crafts that I work with are so ancient. For the artisans, it’s a representation, a portrayal of their ancestors.”
How do you shift something ancient into something fresh, modern? No matter how you're working, that’s always going to come with design. That’s a huge part of the design process. Experimenting, seeing things physically, you have to change what you initially had in mind. We scrapped one project where we had tried 15 colors in a piece using a hand-dyed process. But portions of the fabric would bleed, and a lot of fabric might be wasted [if we continued to pursue it]. And of course, we don’t want to waste fabric!
What are some home foods you miss when you’re traveling? Definitely salad and raw food. While I eat plenty of fruit and cooked vegetables, I actually want lettuce. Sometimes, I’ll be in a population that’s vegan and there will be times that I crave meat. Other places are dry, so I will want a glass a wine. I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but one time after I’d had a glass of water at a friend’s home, I asked, “Is this filtered?” and they said no!
What’s your favorite way to travel? Rickshaw? Plane? It depends on the city I’m traveling. When I first backpacked in India, I would take a public bus for eight rupees, but now, I only have so much time to run my business. So I take whatever method is quickest–train, plane, car.
For Project Eleven27, artisans in western India create scarves in memoriam for each of the lives lost in Bangladesh during the Rana Plaza factory collapse. What a beautiful connection to make across South Asian borders. It’s a whole process! The artisans we employ to handweave the scarves are very passionate creative minds. A portion of the proceeds go to Sreepur Village, a UK-based NGO in Bangladesh. We did a lot of research leading up to launching Project Eleven27 and felt they were doing an amazing job taking action. They’re helping people in the right way, like making sure surviving families receive care and helping keep children in school. We went last October to Bangladesh–my first time in the country–to meet with the charity and give them the proceeds.
How are your artisans seen in the final product? I want to hold on to the stories of the women I’m working with. I want to incorporate what surrounds their lives visually. The way that I drape is influenced by my early travels when I was a student at Parsons, where I established my aesthetics. My fascination with these cultures, the nomadic lifestyle, the colors, textures and fabrics, also lends itself to how a stylish woman seeks comfort but doesn’t want to sacrifice style.