Rite of Passage Looks At Our Relationship to American Made Textiles

Photo by Matt Coch

On October 20 and 21, 2018, Giovanni Daina Palermo and Libby O’Bryan come to the Textile Arts Center to launch their new collection Rite of Passage, a collection and presentation that looks at our relationship to American made textiles. The women’s wear collection is woven and sewn just outside Asheville, North Carolina, and is a beautiful intersection of textile culture, history, and design straight from our friends in the Carolina Textile District. Built to symbolize the elegance and sophistication of American made textiles and the meaningful role that clothing holds for all of us, Rite of Passage is not just a collection of clothing but an exploration of the relationship that our bodies have with the textiles that adorn us and how the garments we wear reflect and affect our psyche and empower our identity.

We caught up with O’Bryan to learn more about the new collection, her inspirations as an artist and designer and what she sees as the future of sustainable fashion.

What inspired the launch of Rite of Passage?

I started a sewn product development and contract cut & sew company (Sew Co.) in Hendersonville, North Carolina in 2010 when the founders of The Oriole Mill invited me to do so in their facility. The two companies act as a single, vertically integrated manufacturing facility. Sew Co. was founded in order to preserve the skill of sewing in our domestic manufacturing economy after witnessing so many jobs move overseas during my career in the fashion industry. I also wanted to support the independent designers who were my peers.

Being a contractor is great – there are parameters to problem solve within (which I actually love) and we don’t have to sell what we make (which is hard for me as a maker). But we have all these beautiful fabrics that are woven at Oriole surrounding us and we are interested in flipping our revenue model on its head a bit so that we can find ways to actually be profitable. Our values drive us, but I have to remember that we are a business. We want to move to a worker-owned cooperative (because it’s our crew that holds all the skill and they deserve that), so we have to be financially viable.

My partner, Giovanni Daina-Palermo, and I have worked together and talked about doing this for years. After my youngest child turned two, I finally had the time to take the plunge.

Photo by Nicole McConville

How do you think your work as a conceptual artist informs your work making more concrete, usable items like clothing?

While studying at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was heavily influenced by Frances Whitehead’s question “What do Artists Know?” There are many answers, but the ones I’ve held to are that we know how to solve problems and subvert cultural norms. Yes, we’re making a useful object for survival – clothing – but we’re looking at ways to solve problems like the extinction of skill, the perception of industrial manufacturing, and how we consume and engage with objects. Hopefully we can do some subverting in the most digestible way.

Rite of Passage is not just a clothing line, but a collection whose goal is to symbolize American-made textiles. In that sense, they are more like “artifacts” as you call them. Do you think that the future of clothing design will involve more symbolism like this? Is the future of sustainable fashion not just selling a product that’s sourced and sewn ethically, but also one that helps to showcase the culture that it came from?

I think that as makers (designer, artist, craftsperson, etc), we have a responsibility to help our culture evolve. I think garments are inherently symbols of our culture and the more of us that are producing sustainable and ethically, the more likely that is our legacy.

Along those lines, the main textile in this collection is Jacquard. What is the cultural and historical significance of these textiles in particular?

Jacquard looms are actually the direct precursor to the development of the computer – it’s totally binary: zeros and ones, under and over, miss and pick. I think it’s fascinating that the evolution of basic cloth making (thousands of centuries old, discovered by so many cultures independently of each other), is what has brought us to this wild digital age. The Jacquard looms allow each warp thread to be controlled independently so that you can achieve much larger, more intricate and varying graphic motifs and woven structures. The Oriole Mill weaves with only natural fibers of the highest quality so that no chemicals are required and so that the natural qualities of the fibers can be encouraged with just a simple water finish. Their fabrics are deeply textural and durable. It’s small-batch, artisanal production at an industrial scale.

You are launching the collection as more of an in-person experiential event, similar to an art show. Why is that important to you?

We want to create an antithesis to the Amazon experience and create real, lived experience that can have deeper, more meaningful impact. We want to engage our community with multiple senses, get to know them and learn from them.

Photo by Nicole McConville

How long have you been running Sew Co. and what changes have you seen in that time? What do you see as the future of American textile production?

I started Sew Co in 2010. It was the height of the American Made mania and we’ve since seen some customers lose their market share to growing competition, but we believe that authenticity has deep roots.

I have learned so much, but most importantly I learned real fast that I was not going to change the world by myself. Finding some key employees taught me so much. And Sew Co. is a partner of The Carolina Textile District where many small textile manufacturers come together to help solve industry-wide problems, share client contracts and provide support for each other.

I believe in the power of relationships and caring for each other to revitalize this industry. We can do so much more, be so much bigger – while still staying nimble and accessible – when we work together.

For more info on the Rite of Passage Brooklyn launch at the Textile Arts Center, go here.