Fashion design is often full of fantasy and extravaganza but for designer Alexandra Armata beauty also resides in practical and utilitarian garments that people can easily wear. This ethos has deeply infused her new project 30 Jeans in 30 Days or, as she also likes to call it, Quaranjean – a challenging collection of jeans that initiated as a way to experiment with denim and cope with the UK’s third lockdown.
Born in Canada but raised into a Polish family, Armata has always felt in the middle between two cultures. This mixed heritage enriches all her projects, from Identitat, the collection with which she graduated from Central Saint Martins last year, to her latest, which focuses on a garment that symbolised the West in Soviet Eastern Europe.
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You graduated from Central Saint Martins right when the pandemic started. How has your life been since then? What challenges have you faced?
It was a rough start. Our year and Master of Arts exhibition were cut short a couple of days and we didn’t even get to say goodbye. It felt like everything happened overnight. Everyone at university was like “oh it’s fine, we’ll have a month-long vacation,” and then the next day everyone had booked their flights home and was packing up the studio in a panic. It was surreal.
I went back to Canada thinking that I would see all my family and be relaxed for the whole month, and then five months later I was still there pulling out my hair.
The biggest challenge was finding a job, which I haven’t found yet. At the end of the MA, you’d normally start looking for one but the market was dry and nothing was really going on. Everybody has now learnt how to adapt and work alongside the pandemic, whereas before people were still trying to figure out what to do. I thought the job hunt would be a bit easier at first, but it was a mess. I had interviews and then halfway through the process, I'd get an email saying that the budget had changed and the position was gone. However, I don’t know how the hiring process for designers is normally like, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I guess it is bad.
How would you describe yourself, your work and your brand for those who don’t know you yet?
My work is deeply inspired by my upbringing, my culture and my heritage. A lot of it comes from looking at post-Soviet, Soviet and communist-era clothing from Eastern Europe through my own eyes – my upbringing in Canada gives me a really interestingly distorted view of what the fashion at the time looked like. But I like to make it a bit more contemporary too so that it’s still relevant for our times.
I’d define myself as practical, utilitarian and detail-oriented. I like making clothes that people can wear, not so much a fantasy world but one that can easily be applied to daily life. Although I also like to have fun with my work. My process is very much focused on disassembling clothes in a sense, but also reassembling them in a way that they can still be worn. I manipulate where seams would normally fall so that the silhouette, the shape or the fit is distorted and becomes a bit more unconventional, but I never like to stray too far from what people can actually wear.
How and when did you decide to create 30 jeans in 30 days (or Quaranjean)?
As I mentioned, I finished school in March 2020 and went back to Canada. Like a lot of people, my mental health took a big hit then. It almost felt like defeat – I had gone through one of the best courses in the world and then ended up back at my parents’ house, where I hadn’t lived in years. It impacted me. Not only the isolation but also how it almost felt that it was limiting my progress in my career.
After six or seven months of trying to find a job, and finding literally nothing around me, as a practical person, I had to do something that forced me to be more active in my work again. It was then when I was introduced to a project called 100 Chairs in 100 Days by Martino Gamper. The whole point of it is that he finds a ton of discarded chairs and redesigns them by combining them in unexpected ways, making a hundred different chairs in a hundred days. So, when I came back to London, back into another lockdown, I thought that I had a whole month to do something like that.
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Central Saint Martins is well known for its approach towards teaching, fashion and work ethics. How has all of this influenced the way you worked on this project, which is focused on one garment only instead of a whole collection?
It has given me more confidence. Perhaps before CSM I would’ve hesitated a lot more before executing a project or chasing an idea. It taught me that the only way to fall through an idea is to go for it and do it. Whenever you start a project, and I’m sure it happens to a lot of people, you wonder if it’s going to work out, if no one will care about it or if it will turn out like shit. But it gave me the confidence that whenever I start something, no matter where I find myself, I’ll always be able to come out of it with something. No matter how unknown the end result might be, it’s not at a lost cost. There’s always some opportunity in there.
Jeans are a big staple in everyone’s wardrobes, but there are many other interesting garments too. What made you choose jeans for this project?
It is like a puzzle – I had different ideas that then I combined together into Quaranjean. I’ve always loved working with denim, and I’ve always wanted to start a brand that incorporates denim, so I thought it would be good practice. I think jeans specifically signify so much and have been linked to many different subcultures. And they are very versatile.
I also wanted to have freedom. When you make a collection, everything has to be very concise – there has to be one overarching concept and everything has to be designed in service of communicating that idea. But making thirty pairs of jeans is already the whole concept of the project and enough to link them all. It also gave me the freedom that with every individual pair I could do something completely different and unexpected.
Even for your MA collection, heritage has played a key role in your designs. How is this project related to your personal experience and family?
Growing up, I heard a lot of stories from my parents, and the first fashion-related one was always about jeans. They always talk about how when they were young, everybody coveted a pair – they would save an entire month of salary in order to purchase a pair of American blue jeans. They were like a symbol of the West, and even freedom in a cheesy way. They also symbolise youth empowerment, reunification with the West and political power.
During the communist era, imports and exports were limited in Eastern Europe. Jeans were one of the things that were not allowed to be imported because of their link to the West and their propaganda. Their symbolic power was really strong at the time, and my parents held on to those ideas. Hearing them talk about this engrailed the power of jeans in me. There are very few garments that have that kind of power, that ability to communicate that entire history.
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Ideas are unlimited, but they don’t always come when we want them to. How did you push yourself to come up with a new design every day?
It was definitely a challenge. You have to be very creative in how you combine ideas and influences. I had the idea for the first one for months, and the next five or six were quite obvious, but after those, the designs start to get more unusual. As a collection, it is interesting to see the chronology of it and the story it tells in terms of the design ideas I had from beginning to end.
There was never a time when I was actually going to quit but there were definitely times when I had enough of the project. But then I was like: it’s not the most appealing number to end on, thirty is so much nicer; so I had to finish. I’m also very lucky to have a boyfriend that supports me and always tells me “If you start it, then you have to finish it.” And it’s actually funny because I was going to do a hundred jeans in a hundred days, but my friend was like “don’t, that’s too much,” and I’m glad. Thirty was already exhausting, so a hundred would’ve been impossible.
Despite all these different styles – from a pair that exposes your cheeks to another one with hand-shaped pockets – the collection looks cohesive. What’s the common thread that infuses all the garments and makes them Alexandra Armata?
To be honest, you are the first person who says they are linked. I do agree but it was never my intention for them to be so. Maybe it’s the fact that I made them and my perspective as a designer. There’s one base idea that kind of evolves through the jeans – it’s not like every pair has two or three different bizarre combinations. You can see that the core is a jean and then there’s one idea that’s implemented. And the ideas are not entirely abstract, they’re still rooted in reality and relatable. So, I guess the obvious application of my ideas is what is visible throughout the collection.
Which pair do you love the most and why?
The first pair. It was an idea I had for months and I look at it as the catalyst to make me start with the project. In terms of the structure of denim – five pockets, a centre front fly, belt loops – it has everything that’s meant to have for a classic structured pair of jeans but with one deviation – the fly is extended along the thigh. I love it because it’s practical but exciting, it’s not trying too hard but it’s not too simple. It’s a good balance of not being overdesigned and being applicable for life.
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I personally found the kite-shaped pair very interesting. Could you tell us more about it?
Martino Gamper had to collect discarded chairs, so to be faithful to the inspiration, I had to collect a bunch of charity shop jeans. Part of the process of that was going to charity shops, searching on eBay and also on Facebook Marketplace. The latter is actually almost like a catalogue of a junkyard, which is really cool. I find a lot of random things there, including the kite. Kites have been incorporated into garments before. I think Dries Van Noten has a collection where they were strapped onto the back of a shirt, but never the way that I did it, which was replacing the nylon with the actual jean fabric. I was also at that point in which I had to be very creative with how I was combining things, so the designs I was coming up with were entirely unique.
Who did you design the jeans for? Do you consider them menswear, womenswear or are they designed for everyone?
I didn’t really have anyone in mind. Partially myself because I knew it was going to be shot during the lockdown and it had to fit me. I was the only model available. That was my only limitation in terms of who I was designing for. But I would really love to see men wearing them – if there’s a man that’s a similar size to me, he can wear it as well.
You sourced seventy-four pairs of jeans from local charity shops and wholesalers to turn them into your own pieces. How was the process of upcycling pre-loved garments and making something new out of them?
It is very tedious. Normally in fashion production, you have one large rectangular piece of material and it’s very easy to organise your pattern and arrange it. It’s quick and easy to cut out. Upcycling adds another whole step into the process – you don’t have the luxury of a piece of fabric ready to go, which adds an extra two or three hours of labour.
It differed a lot of the time but, generally, I had to come up early on with a process that was time efficient and that would disassemble the pre-loved jeans in a way that I could utilise as much fabric as possible. For example, cutting the jeans apart in a way that would give me the most amount of fabric that I could utilise. Something that I also started doing early on is saving everything that I didn’t think I could use and then, in the end, I found a design to be able to use these pieces in the seams, pocket bags or waistband jeans.
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Upcycling is important to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. What else do you do to help to solve the issue? Have your views on this subject changed due to the Covid-19 pandemic?
In terms of other things that I do, I suppose being a one-woman brand is sustainable by itself. I don’t rely on factories that manufacture everything, and it’s all done on my own in-house. So, I’m not spending a lot of resources and energy.
My views are now different too. On a small scale, seeing how much more waste people are producing because everything has to be somewhat disposable and one-time-use made me become more aware of the climate change situation. We’re producing so much waste, but it’s a time in which we can’t really do anything because people’s health is at risk. In general, related to the pandemic or not, climate change is very real and obvious – the temperature is bizarre no matter where you live, it seems to be out of control.
The power of social media is undeniable. Has it helped your project and personal brand? How?
Yes, I usually hide all my projects in a combination of being self-conscious and also being protective of my ideas. I tend not to share too much, but it was different with this project. It’s closely linked to my mental health and, since nothing else is really going on for me, I thought sharing it would be better than not doing so. And I’m really glad I did – I received so much positive feedback. It has also got a bit of attention, which is always a plus.
What did you start doing after the project was over?
After I finished, I took two weeks off because it was exhausting. There were times when I would be sewing until two in the morning. But now I’m very well-rested.
I’m going to start my own brand, which is going to be focused on sustainable denim. It’ll be a mix of my MA and this project. It’ll go back to those Soviet-era jeans and it’s going to be named after me. I’ve always dreamed of having a brand with my own name, so I’m not going to give up now. It also feels more professional.
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