Michelle Adam epitomizes resourcefulness; her handmade dolls and their clothing, as well as her accessory line, are made from discarded scraps.
Her choice in materials is motivated by her dedication to the environment, yes (her formalwear, too, is sustainable – made from ethically sourced cloth able to take eco-friendly dyes, and built to last), but also by her dedication to working through fears by tackling them on a smaller scale and to finding delight by shifting perspective.
At her studio in Portland, I spoke with Michelle about her commitment to broadening women’s aesthetic choices, the value of staying true to one’s art, and how to integrate one’s ideals into one’s work, seamlessly.
First I was wondering if you could just tell me a little about the projects you’re most excited about right now.
Well if I’m going on pure excitement – what I really want to perfect, what I’m hoping will turn out really well and that I’m really proud of – I’d definitely have to say working on the formal wear. I definitely like what I’m doing with my other projects. But I feel like they’re coming a little bit more from a place of being practical and experimenting with materials. Also I was hoping that between the different items on Scrapcycling and Patchy Pals, that that would be my day job. And it would give me the kind of flexibility and feed into the kind of skills I need to develop so that I could support the fashion line.
How did you get the idea for origami formal wear?
It was totally random, actually. I was on my third project for the last semester, and in between the last project that I finished, and this project, I was really burnt out. I went to my next class, and [the teacher] was like, “what do you have?” And I had nothing. I was like, “I’m totally blank. I will sit here for the class, so that you can count me, but I’m going to accomplish nothing. There is nothing in my brain.”
I went out with a couple of the other girls from class, and when I got home I was just like kind of scrolling through different images, trying to kind of build up a visual library. I think there was a little bit of a reference to origami in it, so I think I just did a random search online for origami. And then I did searches with fashion. I saw like, okay, well, that’s referencing back to the sculptural part, why I started doing fashion again at all.
The reason why I chose formal wear is because I feel like those elements – the folding, the types of materials that you need to use for that, aren’t casual wear. You can’t make it out of knitwear, right? It’s not going to be cotton. So, I kind of felt like if I was going to do these shapes and follow that idea, then I had to choose fabrics that were going to do it. And those are formalwear fabrics. And the shapes are more dramatic than you’re going to wear to an office.
I had always in the back of my head wanted to do a sustainable bridal collection. I felt like there was a real lack of sustainable bridal wear. There is a real lack of aesthetic choices. It was either super simple or too hippy for me. Or too Renaissance Faire. And none of those things are what I’m interested in. I felt also that I wanted to make sure that whatever I made, if it was in a display window, that you would stop.
The sustainable part of it, while it’s super important to me, has to be secondary to the function. I feel like there’s not a lot of high end fashion, runway worthy fashion, that is also sustainable. It’s very much heavy in casual. Like you can get organic cotton t-shirts. And that’s great! It really is. Because cotton’s a horrible crop. But, it’s not going to stop you in your tracks.
What aspect of the origami formal wear is sustainable?
Well, the fabric for one. I’m sourcing fabrics that are very low impact. That are either natural or the dyes that they’re using, they’re whitened without chlorine, for example. They are able to take eco friendly dyes. Obviously, if I’m making cocktail dresses, they’re not all going to be white. So then, what do I do? If I can’t find the color that I want, and I’m saying it needs to be sustainable, it has to be dyed in a responsible way.
I’m trying to source as much from companies that are super transparent as I possibly can. The silk organza is made in a village in India that the owner has gone and visited and they’re using foot looms, which require no electricity. They’re being paid fairly for their product. And it’s super high quality.
So there are a lot of different layers to what’s sustainable. If you buy something that’s an organic cotton, but it’s not manufactured well, and it falls apart on you after 2 months, is that sustainable? So the things I’m thinking about are, is it going to be durable? Is it going to be something that’s not so trendy that you’re only going to wear it once? Can I get it fair trade, as much as humanly possible? Can I get it organic? All these sorts of things.
Can you tell me about the other projects you’re working on now, and how you decided to work on them?
For me it was pretty practical – I have all these different little scraps. And I was trying to challenge myself. Like, what could I do with this that would be useful?
You know, and by scrap, I mean some people even consider 1 yard of fabric a scrap. Because, there’s not a whole lot you can make out of 1 yard of fabric.
Sometimes I would try and fix things and they wouldn’t be fixed. I couldn’t give it to Goodwill, because it was damaged. I couldn’t wear it or didn’t want to wear it. And I felt really guilty about throwing things away, as an environmentalist. So I thought, well maybe this isn’t big enough or good enough to make this big cool thing out of it, but if I make something smaller out of it, then that might work.
So I started challenging myself to do that.
The thing that’s nice about having the etsy store is it lets me try things, really low risk. So I tried doing the dolls. I had all these little silky things because [my friend] gave me all these little trims. They’re not things that I would put on myself. They’re not the kinds of trims that you use in fashion. But on a doll, it was super cool.
So I started wanting to play with it. Specifically, the dolls were about pattern making – how can I take these kind of girlyish things like trims, and turn it into something cool? Because the proportion then becomes interesting.
And how can I practice pattern making on a smaller scale that’s really low risk? I had a lot of anxiety about pattern making, so I wanted to practice and just amuse myself. And then I really liked it. I just thought they were really cute.
What does fashion do for you? How does it feed you? What aspect of your identity or personality do you feel it fulfills or satisfies?
I’m a very tactile person. I want to touch everything and I love fabric for that reason. I like manipulating it a lot. And I like how the shapes change when you put it on a body.
I like how when you put a certain item on – say you put your worn out jeans on, and you put a flannel shirt on – you feel one way. And then if you put on something like the origami dresses, they have corsets in them. They want you to stand up straight. You have different accessories and there’s this different occasion, right? So you psych yourself out for that. You’re like, “ok, well, I’m going to go and I need to put all this stuff on” and it’s very deliberate. I really like the psychology behind that. How what you wear informs your mentality. It changes how you perceive yourself. And it changes what other people think of you. Rightly or wrongly. How you present yourself. I really like that.
Who are some of the women who have inspired you?
I think I’ve always had a soft spot for brave people. I always try and pick somebody that’s like what I want to be because it helps me not be scared.
Coco Chanel really was the first major female fashion designer. And she was like, “I’m going to have control over my business.” I mean she had investors of course, and some of them were certainly dubious, but, she fought for her aesthetic. She believed that she was not the only person who understood a desire to have more humane clothing and real clothing for women. And I think that she really is what allowed the rest of us to have access to that.
Tori Amos was told no one wanted piano music and that she should give up on that and just be the female singer of the band. And have the guys with the big hair and the guitars. She listened to them, and she failed miserably. She vowed that she would never listen to anyone else’s vision for herself again. And she was right.
What is your dream for the future? Where would you like to end up?
[To] make those kinds of [origami] designs work. And really be known for interesting, high quality, sustainable, runway worthy wear. [To] keep control over all of the principles that I say that I’m working on. That’s what I want.
I don’t want to work for anyone else.
It’s funny, because I never really was like, “oh I want to start a business! I want to be a business person!” But I guess when you look at it, I want control over how much I work, how I work, how much I produce, and the quality of all of that.
So, yeah. I want to do that. I want to build a company. I want to have control over it and I want to do good things. I want to incorporate outreach into my business. Maybe I’d focus on women who have been in domestic violence situations. Who need skills. Who need a safe place to bring their kids, and I can offer them a little daycare, and they can be there in a safe place and learn.
I want to do something that has an emotional response. I want you to see it and be like (shrieks with joy). You know? And then the incidental part of it is all of this stuff probably would have ended up in the trash.
I want all of those things to be aligned – being an environmentalist and an activist and an artist. I don’t see why any of those things should be conflicting. And I don’t think that I am capable of making a choice. I also think that it’s much more efficient to just combine all those things and not compartmentalize. Don’t most people want a real situation that’s sustainable and meaningful, instead of charity? I do. So yeah, I’d like to create something like that.
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing your vision and your craft. Your work is inspiring and I look forward to buying your formalwear from your own boutique one day, and to watching your business continue to grow.