MA Design graduates 2016: Katherine Tse uses home resources to expose the effort behind manufacturing clothes

For her graduation project from the MA in Design: Critical Practice, Yuen Wa Tse (Katherine) took on the laborious task of making silk underwear with home resources, in order to highlight the effort that even the most mundane clothing items require in their manufacturing process. She also aimed to produce items uncoupled from the fetishisation of gender identity:

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How did you decide on fast fashion and gender identity in fashion as the topic for your graduation project?

Fashion is intimately tied to our human bodies and our identity. Fast fashion can been seen as an outgrowth of high fashion in its aim to accommodate a more expressive individuality. I am particularly interested in the authenticity of an individual’s sense of self, gender and sexuality through fashion.

Tell us a bit about the research you did to develop your project.

The research can be seen as two main parts: gender and identity in fashion, and silk material. I read theories about the articulation of the body, gender and identity in fashion and the current events happening in the fashion industry. “Looks” are assigned by the fashion world, and people are eager to “display” themselves (their tastes) rather than be concerned for one’s authentic identification (gender, sexuality and sense of self). And the acceleration of the environmentally unsustainable production and of consumption results in tremendous pollution. The ‘critique’ of this project was formed by the design and the making of “Permeable Barrier” (underwear). Permeability is necessary to create the see-through effect; showing one’s inner feelings. The design is to detach the fetishisation of gender identity. The making of the garment is to communicate the need to decelerate pace in the fashion cycle.

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What were the challenges and difficulties in the process of making silk garments with home resources?

Location (temperature, humidity, water) was the obstacle. The breeding of silkworms and the making of silk originated in ancient China. The cultivation was a production practice by farmers at home, and I had a misconception that the raising of silkworms was not as complicated since it could be done at home, but it turned out that it was a laborious work. I was stunned by the fact that almost one third of the silkworms were found dead two days after I received them from the silkworm store! I later came to realise that they need really, really delicate care; their container must be cleaned regularly and their food has to be very fresh (the mulberry leaves had to be washed in clean water). The silkworms were still at the larval stage during the Design Festival.

How did you manage (or try!) to keep the garments you made uncoupled from the gender stereotypes of the fashion industry?

Our mindset of masculinity and femininity changes with social movement. The gender boundary is blurred now by the intervention of the fashion world. Fashion designers are somewhat challenging gender differentiation by re-introducing unisex collection and rules. Body modification (e.g. tattoos, piercing) is cross-gendered, yet, one of the ultimate means of expression of one’s individuality. My design “Permeable Barrier” (underwear) is to offer a more feasible way to express one’s inner self through an environmentally, socially, and ethically conscious solution (silk) in fashion. It is aimed that one’s individuality to be both visually and physically pronounced through a partly hidden and partly visible feeling; it also emphasises the wearer’s bodily characteristics. The design of the underwear has to be simple in order to accentuate an individual’s masculinity and femininity.

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What is design to you? Do you have a philosophy or aesthetic specific to your work as a designer?

Art to me is a medium for one to reach out; it is to present one’s inner feelings, whereas design, to me, is a practice of “reaching in” an individual. Design itself can communicate with its users; it accommodates people’s needs. As a designer, I would trace into the fundamental issues of each subject that I deal with. I believe our habitat, ethics as well as society are the most important regardless of the subject matter.

What was your background before this MA, and how did you decide to study Design Critical Practice at Goldsmiths?

My background was Visual Communication Design. I had been developing a design practice based upon technical application during my previous studies; I was designing the “thing” mostly. But as I moved forward, I realised that enhancing design techniques was not enough. I wanted to sharpen the way I think and examine “things” (learn to be critical), therefore, I chose Design Critical Practice at Goldsmiths.

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How was your experience studying at Goldsmiths, and how did it compare to your initial expectations?

My studying experience at Goldsmiths was valuable and inspiring. Tellingly, it was similar to my initial anticipation. In terms of the studio work, I was encouraged to look into theories and to question. As for the teaching, I was fully supported by my course leader throughout the year. I was trained not only to define the issues critically, but to apply my critical thoughts to my research and design.

What are your career plans now that you’ve graduated?

I’m currently preparing for the application for a PhD; I hope to carry on and develop this project. As for long-term plans, I aspire to devote myself to the academic field.

[This interview has been edited for clarity and concision]