Rites of Spring
BY Keith Recker | April 21, 2009
Every May on Paris’ Boulevard Saint-Jacques a cult of devout fetishists celebrates an annual ritual. The object of their obsession is indigo – artisan-dyed in Benin, designed in Paris, and loyally purchased by a generous number of Western cognoscenti. The ritual is the annual sales exhibition of Heartwear, a sixteen-year-old non-profit collective of ten creative geniuses from the worlds of fashion, home, and publishing.
Don’t let the phrase ‘sales exhibition’ color your vision of the Heartwear phenomenon: this is no huggermugger bazaar. Housed in renowned trend forecaster and educator Li Edelkoort’s light-filled studio, rows of artfully clothed mannequins suggest a fusion of ancient and modern, of ebullience and restraint, of Cotonou and Paris. A cool white linen kimono explodes with a single indigo supernova. A blue-black jacket pricked with white tie-dye spots becomes the starry night sky. The long, irregular stripes of a pair of pants reveal (if you look closely) all the colors of the indigo process, from sky blue to interstellar darkness. The theatricality with which everything is arranged suggests reverence for the product, the process of creation, and the artisan partners whose skills and traditions are on display.
This blue and white perfection began in 1993 in the ruddy dust of Benin, when a group of textile experts and designers embarked together on a study trip. The group’s connoisseurship attracted attention: artisans were surprised that these strangers could identify their best pieces at first glance, as so few people, African or European, showed interest in their traditional ways of dyeing and weaving and crafting.
Across many happy encounters in ateliers, tin-roofed market stalls, and even in the middle of crooked village lanes, the group came to an unhappy realization: Much of the beauty they were surrounded by was in danger of extinction.
As in the rest of the world, West Africa’s old ways were being supplanted by manufactured goods available at low prices – usually imported from abroad. The influx of cheap African-looking machine prints, and a flood of Western used clothing, had even begun to erode the cultural value placed on traditional textiles. They had started to look old and out of date. Undesirable. Makers of natural indigo dyes and handmade fabrics no longer had much of a market. And where there is no livelihood to be had from a trade, its days are numbered.
Almost instinctively, the group invented Heartwear on the road as an organization devoted to finding, developing, sustaining and promoting the living artisanal expressions left in the world – within the disciplines of interior design and fashion. One member of the group stayed behind to develop, with the dyers, weavers and tailors they had met, a collection of indigo products, which were later sold at the first Heartwear sales exhibition in Paris.
Thanks to immediate and generous support from European press, Heartwear generated a following large enough to create the sales necessary to fund the next design and development effort. This has been the case nearly every year since – a fact which has allowed the group to continue its work in Benin, where it is still quite active, and add, at various times, projects with knitters in Bosnia, potters in Morocco, basket weavers in Kenya, and most importantly, makers of khadi cotton in India. Village-woven khadi, and nearly weightless garments made from it, complement the gorgeous indigo wares of Benin.
What are the results of sixteen years of work? A long and steady relationship with artisans – especially in Benin. Which means regular artisanal income. Which means a renewed life for the traditional arts and artisans that so impressed Heartwear founders in 1993. Alphonse Ahouado is a weaver in the old royal city of Abomey in central Benin. He comments on Heartwear’s work: “Artisanry occupies a central place in Beninese culture – and in our economy, too, though this is little understood. A quick tour of the courtyard of the historic museum of Abomey reveals a veritable crowd of experienced, talented artisans devoted body and soul to their métier, to their culture – especially in textiles. Heartwear is like a dose of oxygen for us. Their way of partnering has brought us orders over a long period of time. And we hope they will always continue.”
“Their way of partnering,” as related by textile designer and illustrator Karen Petrossian, the organizer of the original trip to Benin and a founding member of Heartwear, sounds quite personal. “You must get to know an artisan first: you show interest in what he does, you appreciate his savoir faire, you take time to visit his workshop. You ask questions about his techniques and products, about how he acquires his raw materials. You get acquainted with his family situation, and even with how he plans to pass his skills on to the next generation.” With this intimate base of information, Petrossian and other Heartwear members put together a design brief of drawings and photographs especially for each artisan they work with. “If we have prepared properly, there are generally no problems in generating prototypes from our designs. You just have to give the artisans time to do the work.” Petrossian adds, “Sometimes an artisan doesn’t make exactly what we’ve requested. Usually, just by revising a detail or two, things come out right. Sometimes, however, the artisan reinterprets the work in his own, unique way – and the result is surprisingly good.”
In addition to good products and better artisan livelihoods, there is a case to be made that Heartwear’s work has suggested a new way of thinking about product, talent, brand, and benefit. Li Edelkoort comments on the global consumer economy: “The world is now a market, governed by mega-mergers and mega-brands. Suddenly, almost naturally, men and women are looking again at handmade, man-mastered, artisan arts, as a refuge from mega-monotony. In terms of economy, employment strategies, and social development, we believe that quality arts and crafts will have a very important revival.”
Heartwear’s proposition that skilled designers need not direct themselves only toward making money for large companies or even for themselves is unique. And far-seeing. There is room in this world for broader thinking about societies near and far, and for what products are needed by makers and consumers alike. Just ask any Parisian wearing handmade indigo.
For more information about Heartwear, visit www.heartwear.org or email email@example.com. Heartwear’s members include: Andrée Broesecke, Sophie Carlier, Daniel Cendron, Li Edelkoort, Anne Etot, Marianne Honvault, Donald Namekong, Bess Nielsen, Karen Petrossian, and Yves Venot.