A Conversation With: CFDA Eileen Fisher Social Innovators Award Winner Carmen Gama
August 1, 2016
The CFDA Eileen Fisher Social Innovator Award recognizes young, talented designers who have innovative creative processes and goals for their creations. The Social Innovator Award provides its winners with exclusive access to specialized knowledge, skills, resources, and mentorship through yearlong rotational placements at Eileen Fisher.
Once named, each Innovator works collaboratively to solve specific design challenges within sustainability guided by Eileen Fisher’s team and design principles. During the inaugural 2015 residency, the trio of Eileen Fisher Innovators researched and produced strategic solutions within the Green Eileen initiative in support of Vision2020 goals.
NM Social Media Manager Meghan Jahr had the opportunity to sit down with the three 2015 winners Carmen Gama, Teslin Doud, and Lucy Jones to learn more about working with the Eileen Fisher brand and what they gained from the experience.
See below for our interview with Innovator Carmen Gama.
Meghan Jahr: What is your commitment to sustainability rooted in, and have you always had this as part of your identity?
Carmen Gama: Living sustainably was always part of my identity without even knowing it because I grew up in a household where my mother recycled everything — there was no waste. She taught me pattern-making on newspaper, and I always turned off the lights behind us. We practiced so many more ways of recycling and saving energy, but I never appreciated it until I came to the United States and started at Parsons. I was surrounded by a community of teachers who really taught me how to value garments. They opened my eyes on the problems the fashion industry was currently facing, and that’s when everything my mother taught me as a young girl sunk in. I really feel that I’m not going to go back to designing regular clothes. Rather, I’m just going to focus on designing clothes that have no negative environmental or social impact. That’s where I am now.
MJ: Have you always known you wanted a career in fashion, or did you simply wake up one day realizing you were a designer?
CG: I consider myself very lucky because I always knew that I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I was a girl, I always dressed up, and I would make my own costumes, not knowing that it would lead to a career. I was drawn to design, as my father was a shoe designer and had his own factory. My mother was a seamstress, and she also made her own clothes. When I was in my teens, I started watching Fashion TV, where I would see the runway shows from Paris, London, and New York. My first encounter was John Galliano for Dior. I think that confirmed, “Yes, I want to be a fashion designer like him” because he was so creative and colorful.
MJ: You were born and raised in Mexico. How, if at all, do you think your background reveals itself through your clothes and design?
CG: Mexico is a country rich in culture, color, textiles, and texture, which I think is entirely rooted into my design aesthetic, as I’m very color-conscious. On the other hand, I grew up in a town where everybody dressed the same way and shopped at the same stores, so I think that also prompted me to look for a different way of designing — I wanted to have my own aesthetic.
MJ: What are some of the obstacles that you’ve encountered with these reclaimed garments, and is there anything in particular that’s been extremely challenging?
CG: Damages are by far one of the most difficult obstacles, given the lack of running yardage. But, at the same time, I think damages are like beauty marks — they’re age marks on garments. This production system that we’re working in is totally different from a regular production system. We have to figure out how to avoid the damages to create new garments, or how to incorporate the damages as part of the designs. I think it’s very beautiful to wear garments that prove they have had a first life, and that this is going to be their second life. The biggest challenge that we’re going to have is how to tell the story to the consumers — to show them how to really accept that these garments are going to have flaws because they already were part of a previous life.
MJ: I like giving a second life to something, making it new again in a unique way.
CG: Exactly — it’s different. People should be educated on these new products, as I think it’s the future of the industry. Waste grows exponentially. Whoever realizes this first is going to be ahead of the game.
MJ: Can you explain your design process and what sets you apart from other designers?
CG: I think my design values truly set me apart from others. I’m rooted into designing for functionality, longevity, and how to make the consumer really value garments and engage with them, as well as appreciate the aging of the garment. My design process is very much about research. A strong design system has a larger foundation on research and what it is that you’re trying to talk about.
MJ: Right. You have to have an item that’s functional.
CG: Exactly. I think we’re beyond this era of “pretty clothes”. Yes, it’s important for customers to like the designs, but I think they need to be functional. Garments need to have a purpose for people to start valuing them rather than just disposing of them because they’re so cheap and not functional.
MJ: I completely agree. I have a lot of shoes that I’ve purchased in the past that are very stylish, but not very functional. I’ve learned to lean toward the more functional rather than just stylish.
CG: The problem is that sometimes companies don’t do both — and that’s what I’m trying to tackle. I want to create garments that are aesthetically beautiful and appealing, but also functional, rather than just a fashionable item that’s uncomfortable—like your shoes.
MJ: At Neiman Marcus we have the Make Some Noise® campaign that celebrates bold women with bold voices who are doing something in the community to make a change. All three Innovators exemplify what our Make Some Noise campaign is about, but what does making noise mean to you?
CG: Well, I think it’s really important. It’s not about showing off but more about setting an example in the industry. It’s important for people to see what they’re doing. So hopefully people will be inspired to take a big step, do things differently, and think outside of the box for a better cause or better good.
MJ: Can you go into detail about the Eileen Fisher collection you’ve been working on? Are there one or two pieces that you’re really excited about?
CG: Yes, we have three categories within this collection. The first category is to create what’s called an “engineer pattern,” and those garments are made with the fabric of the damaged garments. So we basically take the existing Eileen Fisher patterns and engineer some seaming in order to be able to use the fabric of the damaged garments.
The next category is one that Tess is focusing on because she’s a natural dyer. We’re dyeing silk tops with natural dyes because silk in general doesn’t damage much — it primarily stains. We’re calling it “stain from stains.
The third is the scalp inspection. I think that’s the one that I’m the most excited about. We have to take these damaged sweaters that have holes or stains and cut squares and turn them into a new fabric with a felting machine. The end result is a textural, multicolor fabric that we are then turning into Eileen Fisher styles. So I think that’s what I’m most passionate about, the felted garments.”
MJ: That is incredible. To wrap up, what is your long-term goal to make a difference in the world with this platform and this experience that you’ve been given?
CG: I hope that this is the beginning of a bigger plan. I think the future of this industry is turning waste into raw materials. So I think this project has been a great platform for us to set an example for the world, and to hopefully inspire others to take responsibility for the waste they put in the world. I hope this beginning project really does inspire other people.
MJ: It definitely has inspired me!
CG: And I have to say, after this project, my design principles have been doubled, and I can never go back to just designing pretty clothes. They need to be socially and environmentally responsible — it’s truly important.
MJ: It takes women like you to spread that knowledge — and spread the passion — so we can all take care of this planet. I think it’s needed, so thank you so much.
CG: Thank you so much as well!
Stay tuned to hear more about the experience from winners Teslin Doud and Lucy Jones.