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Dunedin textile artist Desi Liversage is turning the work of a lifetime into a commercial enterprise, reports Tom McKinlay.
There's a busy presence of rescued resource in Desi Liversage's North Dunedin home. But that is to understate the scale of the mission in which the textile artist and clothing designer is engaged. There is also a studio at King Edward Court full of fabric that is beyond the years she has left to sew, she says.
Around her lounge, portions of the assembled inventory are in various states of reassignment. Some as art, some as clothing. Some, just beyond the door to the garden, await duty suppressing weeds.
The wall opposite the couch where we sit is painted a rich red, inspired by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery exhibition Wonderwall, for which a wall was covered salon-style with framed works of art. There's a similar plan here, but so far the wall has little more than a single small kitsch silk painting, the sort of thing knocked out in vast quantities, and doubtless dumped in the same sorts of numbers.
Liversage picks up another example leaning against the bottom of the wall. She has about 200 of them in all. It also started life as a small silk reproduced masterpiece, but Liversage has added her own touches, by way of embroidery, including a landmine. Her few stitches have transformed the object from banal to arresting.
That particular piece was part of an exhibition at Blue Oyster Art Project Space a couple of years ago. ‘‘And then Banksy started doing it,'' Liversage says, ‘‘but not embroidering them, after me.''More recently Liversage's textile art has crossed the distance between the wall and the coat hanger - in her lounge a stretch of about 2m - as she has launched a couple of labels of repurposed garments.
Her label for men, Secret Men's Business, takes second-hand shirts and through the power of embroidery, gives them new life.
‘‘There are so many men's shirts that are just abandoned,'' she says. ‘‘I think the minute the collar gets grimy some men throw them away. So I launder them all and starch them and get them back to new and embroider pictures on them.''From Liversage, this comes off as a mix between mild motherly opprobrium and astute analysis of a wider issue.
For women there's Mad in Dunners, dresses from old tablecloths, the tags for which read ‘‘from reused and upcycled fabrics''. They also carry the advice ‘‘Wash when you need to and no more: water is precious''.
The men's shirts carry carefully stitched tributes to Picasso, Lewis Carroll and 1950s tattoos. There's whimsy here in industrial quantities, though everything else is on cottage scale.
‘‘I see it as a sort of rescue operation, that I have improved the shirt,'' Liversage says. ‘‘I really want people to see the embroidery first. I quite like using designer label shirts, not because I think they are better but because when you have done the embroidery on an Yves Saint Laurent shirt or something like that, somehow it is like thumbing my nose at that whole designer mentality.''
As far as she can tell, it's the embroidery - which takes between about two and six hours of hand stitching - that sells the shirts, rather than whether they started life in a boutique or a big-box retailer.
‘‘There's still a slight resistance among some people that it's a used shirt, therefore I should be charging a used-shirt price. I think that is part of the whole fast-fashion mentality.''
She uses the analogy of the fast-food industry, where the ability of the big chain brands to pump out pizzas for $5 a time leads people to expect all pizzas to be sold for that sum.
‘‘It is the same with clothes. I do not know how it is possible to charge $20 for a dress. Then you have to know that the person who made it in Bangladesh or China got nothing for it ... ‘‘I think people are so used to things being super-cheap that they fail to see value for money.''
Much of the labels' raw material comes from ‘‘free bins'' and op shops, although some things she's had for 30 or 40 years.
‘‘I am sure I personally support half the charities in Dunedin,'' she says with a wry humour that skewers her own serious purpose.‘‘I think once people know that you collect odd things they start to give you more things the same way.''
Despite such efforts, op shops remain beseiged by more offcasts than people can wear, she says, and our fast-fashion habits mean textiles clog landfills at the rate of millions of tonnes a year.
Liversage can do only so much, but she's determined to at least extend her efforts beyond selling at markets, her modus operandi so far.
‘‘My big five for 2016, one of them is to build up enough stock to approach retailers both in Dunedin and outside and try to get some things into shops,'' she says.
While Liversage's clothing labels are new, much of the rest of her endeavour continues themes that have been constants in her life, stretching back to South Africa, where she grew up.
‘‘I was always mocked as a child because I collected boxes to put things in and it was known in the family in capital letters as ‘Desi's boxes to put things in'. I never threw anything away.''
She would make dolls clothes from handkerchiefs and turn the boxes into houses. ‘‘And because I never had any friends at school my mother used to cut up dolls clothes for me and pack me off to school with little clothes that I could make for my Skipper doll at break. She would thread one needle for me and then put in a sliver of soap so that I could get the others threaded, because I was only about 7.'' Skipper was never short of an outfit.
‘‘I have ruined good shoes by trying to embroider on leather shoes. It has always been an obsession,'' she says, the claim pitched somewhere between self-deprecatory and boastful. "When I still lived in South Africa when my children were little, I would make fairy costumes for markets and things, so I have had little stints of doing odds and ends like that.''And all this despite failing sewing in standard five domestic science due to a misguided attempt to clean her sampler with a facecloth.
Her academic record has picked up since. Having moved to New Zealand, she was teaching high school English in Rotorua when her friend the art teacher spotted her quilting. Next thing she knew she was using her free periods to join the 15-year-olds doing school certificate art.
It didn't end there. It turned out, much to Liversage's surprise, that textile art was actually a thing and you could study it at the Otago Polytechnic Dunedin School of Art.‘‘I think I had a midlife crisis, and went to art school, and did a [bachelor of fine arts degree], and they didn't chuck me out so I did a master's and made myself unemployable.''Which is not to say she's not busy.
There's an exhibition in March, at Mint Gallery, which she thinks she will get done if she sews for about 14 hours a day in the interim. In it her art practice and clothing practice come together. It's called Beyond the Anti-Fashion Manifesto. ‘‘I am looking at what fast fashion does to us; does to the planet,'' she says.
One piece for the exhibition is a repurposed suit jacket found in a free box that looks like ‘‘some very angry person has slashed the sleeves off a very expensive jacket''. ‘‘So that one's called Live and let dye, because of the impact all of the dyeing of fabric has on the waterways."
Bright embroidered swirls of colour on the jacket boil up over adjoining blue, telling the story of Asian waterways poisoned by factory chemicals used to fix fabric dyes.
‘‘It is a bit of a risk hanging old clothes in a gallery but I couldn't think of a better thing to put the work on, all these cast-off bits of clothing.''Sketches based on the Rana Plaza collapse, in Bangladesh, in which more than 1100 textile workers died, will also feature.
Liversage picks up another work for the exhibition: ‘‘That's a climate chaos one.'' Its meteorological embroidery threatens to overwhelm the garment underneath.
By way of explanation she says: ‘‘Cotton growing, it is so huge that it has actually created deserts''.
A shift away from such wanton consumption is under way, Liversage says, citing Dutch trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort, whose Anti Fashion manifesto ends with the declaration: ‘‘Fashion is dead. Long live clothing''.
‘‘I agree with a lot of her points but I think there is a lot that she doesn't take far enough.''
Edelkoort's prescription fails to accommodate the fact that ‘‘most of us are quite poor,'' Liversage says. ‘‘And I think that's where I want to address it, being an old Marxist at heart.''After the March exhibition, there's work to be done towards an entry in a textile biennale in China, From Lausanne to Beijing.
Liversage exhibited at the last one in 2014. ‘‘I'm quite obsessed with sieves,'' she says, displaying a catalogue from the exhibition showing a full page of her works, as if such a declaration requires proof. ‘‘So I stitched sieves and tea-strainers.''
The artist and designer admits that if she spots a hole, she'll probably try to put a needle through it.