by Gillian Robin
I don’t completely remember the first time I met Leilah. I know it had been about a year ago, but I can’t remember the specific circumstances and, when I asked her about it, she was just as stumped. “Maybe through Cai?” she said, referring to a mutual friend of ours, but the details were fuzzy. It was unusual for me not to remember things like that, especially because Leilah was not the type of person you passively meet and immediately forget their name. When you met Leilah, it felt like it was for a reason. I remember hearing wild tales from our mutual friends about her, from her olympic-level athleticism to her trips to Bangladesh to teach English. She is a sharp, curious person, the kind that isn’t afraid to question things you say immediately upon meeting her, with an expression that reveals her confusion and skepticism. Last semester, Leilah and I had a class in the Art History department together. Although she was, at this point, only an acquaintance that I was vaguely afraid of, Leilah and I spent those classes in the basement of Moffitt freezing, sleepy, and frustrated together, listening to our professor practice lectures that he was going to give to people that were way more important than us. Afterwards, we’d walk the two flights up to ground level, complaining about the unnecessary esotericism and the normativeness of the content. This semester, we have a similar ritual, only our class is infinitely more interesting and our professor is infinitely more relatable. As an Art Practice and Art History student, Leilah has a nice overlap of interests with me, but diverse enough experiences to make our conversations important and refreshing to the both of us. This interview was inspired by a conversation I had with Leilah one Friday after our class together in her apartment.
Q: You and I have spoken before about how you’ve gotten involved in art. Could you explain that again?
Leilah: Sure, I think I first got into art through my sport. I grew up as a synchronized swimmer, which, although it is pretty technical, it’s more of an expressive sport, more like dance. It’s also expensive in the same way dance is; I was expected to buy new costumes constantly. Anyway, that led me to take a string of dances classes, from ballet classes to contortionist classes to flamenco classes. All this choreography-oriented art needed garments that expressed that expression, so I started making my own costumes. That, and the fact that I constantly needed new, expensive costumes. So I think that was my introduction to art. I also took some fashion classes in high school, but I was often frustrated at the outcomes of the store-bought patterns, because I felt like the outcomes weren’t mind. So I started manipulating them and making my own pieces.
Q: So you study art, but you make fashion. Why’d you pick art as the route to the fashion industry?
L: Honestly, it came down to paying for school. I’d gotten into a couple of fashion design schools, but they were expensive and the very-rigidly defined “fashion degree.” I didn’t want to be stuck at a fashion school if I changed my mind, and Berkeley gives me freedom to explore. Plus, there’s a lot of freedom in the Art Practice degree here, I can take classes that hone in on my fashion focus.
Q: Do you find any resistance with trying to bridge the art and fashion gap?
L: There’s always somewhat of a resistance towards wanting to include fashion in the art world. I think it has to do with the blatant commodification of fashion. The economy of fashion has a marketing concern; there’s more of an explicit supply and demand factor in the fashion industry, and that’s a truism that I’m willing to acknowledge. But I don’t necessarily think those same factors aren’t at play in the art industry. There’s heavy politics around the museum and gallery space, and no one wants to admit that fine art is just as wrapped up in “the product” as other commodities. So I think it’s a lot of internal anxiety in the art world. But when you really look at it, art and fashion systematically function in a lot of the same ways. There’s differences between cat posters and museum murals, just as there’s a difference between Forever 21 and Comme des Garçons. Accepting fashion as art makes artists and gallerists accept that art is commerce and production. And us artists have to admit that before we can challenge that.
Q: As a fashion designer, how to you hope to challenge that aspect of commerce?
L: I think that there’s something about making clothes for people, something about providing them with what they need that can even invoke feelings or questions about representation and self-determination in them. But obviously, there’s a lot of seediness in the fashion industry; there’s a lot of hiding what people are doing and where things are coming from, and consumers must choose with their dollar what is worthy and what isn’t. It’s a messed up, manipulated relationship, but it’s a relationship that can be mended through exposure, decency, and respect: knowing where our clothes come from and who made them. Again, I don’t think that the art world is void of this manipulations either. We still see shady Warholian workshops through people like Jeff Koons, only we validate that through concepts of intellectual property and “art as genius” mentality. What I feel about fashion is what I feel about art; once we start paying artists appropriately and consistently, we must start to question who and how our art is made and, therefore, legitimized, and we have to stop letting the intellectual or academic concept of “art” get in the way of our ability to critique the way it practically functions in society.
Q: What kinds of things are you working on now? Anything particularly related to this relationship between art and fashion?
L: In my painting class, I’m working on a dress that revolves around the same themes. On one side, there’s Bernini’s Faun sculpture, and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and on the other side I’ve painted Calvin Klein and Victoria’s Secret advertisements, sort of as a commentary on what I touched on earlier. I was thinking about the way we’re uncritical of pieces of art because of the context under which they’re disseminated. We’re less likely to formally question the advertisement in the same way we would for a work of art, because we recognize the commerce motivated its production. It’s a process of question that we need to shift into the fashion industry. There’s still people making those decisions, deciding whose bodies are represented and whose are expected to be manipulated before they’re represented. Obviously, there’s that relationship between the body, art, and commodification, or how the female nude is exploited for both fine art and fashion commerce. My plan is to photograph that dress on a variety of different body types in a classic studio setting, asking the model to pick which side they want to be the front. Then, the idea is to paint one of those photographs and leave another just as a photo, so the entire piece would end up as a diptych.
Q: That’s a rather elaborate process. What inspired you to think through all these mediums? More generally, is there anything about Berkeley that prompts you to ask certain questions or inspires you to make certain things?
L: I’m also a student of Art History, so I find a lot of inspiration in studying academic discourse and art theory and criticism. But I would say my biggest source of creative inspiration is from running FAST [edit: Leilah runs FAST, the fashion design and production club on campus]. It’s incredible that we can get enough funding to let 20 people from all walks of life to commit to learning a new skill and creating something for the sake of communicating an idea or feeling. It’s amazing. But also, just walking around campus inspires me. The thrift shop culture here is incredible, and people really use it to its full advantage. You’ll seeing someone in their mom’s 30 year-old dress and a blazer they got at Savers for $3, and they look amazing. See, that’s something you could never do with fine art. You can’t just hand a Baroque masterpiece next to an abstract sculpture next to a child’s scribble, it’s just not allowed. But with fashion, and thrift shops, you can sift through decades of creation and style and mix it until you’re satisfied with it. It’s democratizing in a way that art has yet to accomplish. When I see someone wearing something cool, it strikes me. Since we all have to wear clothes, and have to decide something to put on our body every day, it removes people from the hegemony of the institution, allowing us to see self-realized representations more than institutionally accepted qualifications of “Art” do. Once we can be critical of it, the way it functions in everyone’s life, then we can start to take the art of fashion more seriously. If we’re truly thoughtful about what we wear, then maybe we can open that conversation, equalizing the art world in way that postmodern discourse has been yearning for.
Fair Wages: A headscarf that doubles as a protest toolkit and protest sign. Inside it contains a water pack, bandages, pepper spray neutralizer, painkillers and more. This piece is designed for the women in Bangladesh who work in sweatshop in the garment industry.
A still form a performance piece and installation. In the piece three participants fill the clear vinyl dress worn by the artist with colored sand from the surrounding class containers. In this piece sand operates as a metaphor for the passage of time and memory.