Q&A: CHELSEA HICKMAN

Q&A: CHELSEA HICKMAN
Chelsea Hickman doesn’t follow the rules. That’s exactly why we’ve commissioned her to create the next line of MPavilion staff uniforms—upcycled from the uniforms of seasons past. We talked with the renegade fashion designer about her plans for these new threads, and more.
Chelsea Hickman doesn’t follow the rules. That’s exactly why we’ve commissioned her to create the next line of MPavilion staff uniforms—upcycled from the uniforms of seasons past. We talked with the renegade fashion designer about her plans for these new threads, and more.

Chelsea Hickman doesn’t follow the rules. That’s exactly why we’ve commissioned her to create the next line of MPavilion staff uniforms—upcycled from the uniforms of seasons past. We talked with the renegade fashion designer about her plans for these new threads, and more.

MPavilion: Hi, Chelsea! ‘Re-emergence’, ‘re-animation’ and ‘re-use’ are key themes in the upcoming MPavilion 2020 program. As the newly commissioned designer of our next line of kiosk uniforms, can you tell us how upcycling will play a part in your collaboration with MPavilion?

Chelsea: My practice focuses on upcycling by utilising old garments, found waste and fabrics salvaged from landfill to create both functional fashion and wearable art. Upcycling is a process of disassembling a pre-existing product and redeveloping it into a new thing. The difference between recycling and upcycling is that recycling requires breaking down a product into its raw materials and creating an entirely new product from scratch. Upcycling is a method of repurposing materials into a new product with some notable aspect of the original product still present. Upcycling can also be defined as altering or tweaking a product to increase its value or lifecycle. 

The obvious benefits of upcycling fashion include opportunities to divert waste textiles from landfill, extend material life by giving old products a new lifecycle and therefore hypothetically reducing CO2 emissions by counteracting the production of new ‘virgin’ materials. It’s estimated that around 501,000,000 kg of textile goes to landfill in Australia every year. It’s a shockingly unfathomable amount. To put that number into perspective – one cotton t-shirt weighs around 130 grams. 600,000 kg of this textile waste is unsalable goods donated to charity stores. 

Anything that is damaged can be chopped up and redeveloped into a valuable and fashionable new item. This is the theory that my fashion practice is based on. Re-use, restore, re-fashion!

 

MPavilion: From designing clothes that don’t subscribe to traditional design ‘rules’, to starting your own label as soon as you graduated from fashion school, your journey in the world of fashion has been a distinct one. Can you give us some insights into the ideas and choices that have informed your path so far?  

Chelsea: I’m originally from lutruwita/Tasmania where there weren’t a lot of options for pursuing a career in fashion. I studied art in school where textiles was less of a revered subject, so quite early on I was experimenting with my fashion ideas in an art context. I thought designing and creating clothes was exciting and I appreciated the tactility of it. Wearing your art is more engaging than hanging your art on a wall.

Alexander McQueen was my hero when I was a teen. I felt like I could relate to his story as we both received a modest upbringing, amongst other things. I was inspired that someone from such a humble background was able to create amazingly intricate, aggressive, emotional and dramatic sculptural pieces. I thought to myself ‘if he can do it, maybe I can too!’ Of course, my work clearly lives in a different category to McQueen’s since I became more interested in punk and politics as an adult, but my admiration for McQueen’s designs still largely fuels my ambition.

I did technically start my fashion label out of uni, but it hasn’t been my sole focus since I graduated. It wasn’t so much that I decided to create a fashion label for fun or for money, but I created it as a result of necessity. Studying fashion taught me that there is a desperate need for designers and creators who do things differently with a critical and assertive agenda, especially in Australia. The industry absolutely needs more designers who are genuinely dedicated to setting an example and educating consumers about fashion sustainability. 

I also started my label so I had the option to continually share my fashion work and fashion ideas. It goes in many directions, I don’t just make clothes. I experiment with fashion concepts through performance, installation, image, collaboration, painting, runways, video and collage. My ultimate aim is to abstract and disrupt a fashion industry in dire need of a systematic-overhaul.

 

MPavilion: It sounds like your work is driven by an ‘ethical approach’. What does this mean for you, exactly?  

Chelsea: My fashion label is still in a relatively early stage where I am able to hand-make everything myself and charge a fair and decent price for my labour. As my practice develops and my business grows I am dedicated to ensuring my fashion is as safe for the environment and human life as it possibly can be. I still have a ways to go with claiming I am totally sustainable, but I learn something new every day to make my practice more responsible, ethical and transparent.

 

MPavilion: One of the most impressive aspects of your collaboration with us is that you’ll be making these uniforms by hand! Can you tell us a little about what this process looks like, especially during quarantine? 

Chelsea: My hand-making of the items ensures the total ethical production of each garment – an important aspect of clothing manufacturing that is often not prioritised or transparent in the fashion industry. When I say ‘hand-make’, I just want to clarify that I am still using sewing machines, so it’s not like I use a single needle and thread to hand-sew every item in that sense. 

The nature of upcycling garments comes with a couple of quirks. Upcycling requires disassembling second-hand garments and piecing together odd amounts of fabric to develop a new garment. Garments are usually created en masse by stacking multiple layers of  metered ‘virgin’ fabric, bulk cutting garment pieces to then be constructed via assembly line. Upcycling requires a more tactile, flexible and individualistic approach to garment creation, which is understandably a more time consuming process. It can be frustrating and fiddly, but the unique and customisable outcomes are absolutely worth the more rigorous upcycling procedure.

Quarantine hasn’t hugely affected my process, luckily for me. My studio has unfortunately had to close due to the lockdown which means I can’t use my beloved giant table but I’m quite happy working from home in the meantime.

 

MPavilion: Now, the famous dinner-party question, but tweaked for our times: if you could have a group video chat with four people, alive or dead, who would they be?

Chelsea:

1) My convict ancestor, Richard Kemp. Kemp was sentenced to transportation from Kent (I think) to ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ in 1804. He and his brother in law were sentenced to death for stealing a sheep, but for some reason Kemp’s sentence was changed to transportation instead. Kemp didn’t serve time in a cell as such, but he was a slave to Reverend Knopwood. He was released in 1813 and was “granted” thirty acres of land at Forcett, which is where a lot of my family still live today. He never went back to England, despite leaving behind a wife and son. He remarried a convict woman, Mary Deal, in 1921. She was sentenced to transportation for forgery and served time at the Cascade Female Factory. So many people were sentenced to transportation for the most bizarre reasons, like stealing a potato. It’s all very weird and horrible so it’d be interesting to catch him on the video chat to have some real-talk about the whole experience. Fast forward a couple of hundred years and then there’s me. Maybe my convict ancestry is why I’m such a loose canon.

2) My Great Auntie Claire. She had three sisters and a brother and made clothes for all of them. She died shortly after I was born, but apparently she loved the crap out of me and thought I was the bees-knees. When I started showing an interest in sewing, my Nan gave me all of Claire’s sewing patterns from the 60s and 70s. I love looking at old photos of my Nan and her sisters. I would gush over how beautiful and fantastic their clothes were, and Nan would say ‘Claire made them for us!’ She even made my mum’s wedding dress. I’d love to be able to chat with Claire and properly show her all the clothes I’ve made using her sewing patterns.

3) Lucien Greaves – the co-founder and spokesperson for the Satanic Temple. He’s an extremely badass social activist. I want to pick his brain about ways I could effectively protest against injustices caused by the fashion industry. I also think it would interest him to chat with my convict ancestor about transportation sentencing and slavery in colonisation.

4) My mum! I usually spend this time of year in Tassie, but as I am currently banned from entering the state due to the pandemic, I would really appreciate having my mum in on this fantasy video chat. She misses me and I miss her and it’s all very sad. Plus it would be a good opportunity for her to get to know Lucien, considering he will be the Satanic celebrant at my future wedding.

 

Chelsea Hickman was also one of the dynamic panelists at our MRelay: Climate Crisis event, held during MPavilion 2019. You can listen to that talk—and many others–by visiting our magnificent Podcast Library.