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An Interview with Marit Ilison

20 Jul 2020

The dresses and colourful pieces created by this Estonian designer get us daydreaming with every collection. This season, her work takes a historical approach to a creative, new capsule collection featuring prints inspired by the past. Come meet an inspiring artist!

Could you please tell us more about the context behind this capsule collection?

In general, when I create something as an artist or a designer, I am interested in the relationship between the body and space. Every day when I wake up, I question the world we’re living in and the systems that rule our societies; everybody is in a rush and stressed, are there any possible alternatives? I believe that during our time in this physical life, it is important to take the time to nourish our souls through joyful moments and positive physical experiences, and clothes are a part of this physical experience.

Clothes make up the first space that surrounds us. When I build or approach a garment, I don’t think about what the surface of it will look like, I first create a shape and allow myself to be inspired by the feeling it gives me. For example, when you line a pocket with beautiful silk, you don’t see it from the outside, but every time you touch it, you experience a positive physical feeling.

You seem to have a very sculptural approach to garment-making…

I really enjoy bringing an idea and its accompanying pattern to life in 3D, but my goal is not only to create simple minimalistic forms, but to instill them with meaning. The inspiration behind the idea elevates the garment, taking it from being just a covering for the body to being part of something bigger, part of a bigger story, and the wearer plays a part in that.

I am interested in our relationship to the Earth. Our material possessions are ephemeral, we can lose them all. What we can't lose is our ability to feel, our memories. Part of my creative process is to evoke emotions and to hopefully create a feeling that will last, a feeling that someone can keep traveling back to. To create a bridge to a moment in time, to a past experience.

How did this capsule collection come about?

Many of my projects are nostalgic. I use my childhood as a starting point and treat my work as an opportunity to go back there and explore. It all started with a memory. I pictured myself with my grandmother in 1986-87. We were in a field together; she was perched on top of her horse-rake—a metal structure drawn by a horse that was used in agriculture back then—with me on her lap. Today, it would be considered dangerous to hold a small child while riding a moving piece of machinery. It is so romantic to me, that idea that children shouldn’t be (and weren’t) shielded from life, that work had to be done and children were right there in the middle of it.

Something I clearly remember is that, while working, she was wearing a cotton smock, a classic garment from the Soviet Union era. Because I was sitting on her lap, she kept having to fix her smock to keep it from opening up, and that’s why I remember it so clearly.

It was just so nice to be there and witness that time. The Soviet smock dresses were very common, and most people had to wear them even though they weren’t too fond of them back then. They were mass produced and literally everybody had the same one.

They were made in the Kreenholm textile factory. Before WWI, it was the largest textile factory in Europe, serving the great Russian Empire. It was located in the city of Narva, a city full of beautiful buildings. The Estonian government ended up selling the factory to a competitor, who unfortunately let it go out of business. Because of this, the families of that city who were all working in the factory ended up losing their jobs and had to help demolish their own workstations.

I am trying to find the beautiful moments even in the dark times in history. I also like this idea that workwear can be a flowery dress instead of a minimalist suit. In that period of time especially, I believe our world needed more of that feminine power; that feminine energy. I think, in a greater sense, that energy embodies the source of life.

Tell us more about Estonia and Tallinn…

I'd like to emphasize, we are not just “a country next to Russia.” I am really proud of our country and the kind of places and locations we have now. They’re modern and relevant. There is this place I designed in the harbour that is very inspiring. The evolution of Tallinn is breathtaking; it is like nothing you would imagine. It is one of the coolest cities in Europe and the world. It's the perfect combination of nature and high-tech. It was an honour to see my work in the Kumu Museum, the greatest honour I could have in Estonia as an artist.

How did you source the fabric for your “77 Chintzes” (77 Dresses) exhibit and the capsule collection that followed it?

I was given access to the archives of the now-defunct Kreenholm factory along with a very prominent historian who is also the curator of the Kumu Museum. She is an older woman, but very interested in contemporary art. I am the first person to work with the archives in a contemporary context. Going through all the archives' fabrics was a very tedious process; most of the colour palettes were very simple and dull because the factory could only work with four colours at the time and needed a special permit to buy dye from Great Britain.

No matter how I feel about the source material, I try to work with it long enough to find a positive angle and when I approached the archives, there were many different paths I could have taken to making the final selection. I ended up narrowing it down to the ones that could be considered as contemporary prints that would feel very current to wear today. Scanning the fabric samples to print them onto larger rolls to create the collection added a layer to the creative process. In the end, you can’t really tell the difference between the original and digital versions and it is interesting to blur the line between past and present.

I was then invited by the curator of the Art and Fashion Exhibitions at KUMU and I quickly knew what I wanted to do because I had already worked with the cotton smocks in a previous project. 77 dresses make up the final work and I ended up choosing 92 patterns, as some of the dresses feature multiple patterns. You can’t resist beauty and even if, historically, it was a mass-produced garment that people didn’t really think too much about, the fabric makes it special and unique.

The cut of the installation’s original smock dress is one that I had developed before; it is from a pattern book from 1964 called Workwear Pattern Book and I took one work smock pattern and updated it. The reason I was interested in working with the original pattern from that era was to experience the space they had around their body back then. The way the installation translated into the capsule is through the fabrics and shape of the smock dress, which you can wear with your favorite belt. Each dress has a label telling you when the print was made. If people are interested in learning more, I would encourage them to research the history of Estonia.

 I am very happy that this collection is exclusive to all of you in Canada.
It is very meaningful to see this work reach a larger public.

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