Liliane Malemo is an artisan clothing designer who works with vintage fabrics to create the ultimate slow fashion: a fresh as a breeze design aesthetic that is deeply eco-conscious too.
“I didn’t want to get into fashion and clothing in the traditional way; I wanted it to mean more,” she says.
In conversation with Tempy for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, Liliane examines what it means to live passionately by her conviction that creativity, art and artisanal making can be a force for good in the world.
In this section we ask makers to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivates people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?
LILIANE: “I never quite know how to label myself or where I fit. I should say I am a Fashion designer or seamstress, but I have never seen myself as such. An Artist/Artisan/Seamstress I would say best describes me. Sewing is just one aspect of the things I do.
I had no interest in clothes or fashion growing up. But I was always drawing and painting; I loved art and design and CDT (construction, design and technology) classes in school. Building ideas, making mood boards, picking up ideas everywhere. My work is about the process of designing something and bringing it into reality.
I became a seamstress, or a designer I guess, by chance thanks to my Art & Design college teacher who encouraged me to do a Surface Design Technology degree (fashion textile) as I didn’t really know where to orientate myself in Art; nor what I wanted to do after I completed my Art & Design course.
I knew it was right for me from the time I started the course and seeing how much I enjoyed it, as it was similar to what I had studied in Art & Design. Experimenting with different media, learning the different techniques of fabric manipulation such as embroidery, silk screening, dye, machine knitting etc. I struggled with the pattern cutting and sewing side and it wasn’t until after I graduated and did several work experiences (including starting ‘Orybany’, an eco-ethical clothing and gift shop in Brussels, with my friend Juliette Berguet) that I really got into sewing and making my own clothes.
I got into recycling years ago before it was a popular thing to do, after meeting a woman who ran a shop in England called ‘Petit Miracles’ where she helped refugees and people who had left the prison system by training them to renovate and recycle furniture and furnishings. I thought this was amazing. I realised then I didn’t want to get into fashion and clothing in the traditional way; I wanted it to mean more. The whole concept inspired me.
In this section we ask makers to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’
I didn’t always have a dedicated space to work. In the past my bedroom or dining room was also my workspace… Imagine the mess!
Now I live in my atelier which I re-mastered so that it can also be a living space. It’s a great thing because it means I can work at absolutely any time of the day or night when I am home. On the other hand I find that I end up not socialising much and using work as an excuse not to do all the other things I should be doing.
It’s important to have a dedicated work space because you can leave things as they are and just pick up from where you left, without having to tidy or put away everything. For me I find that it keeps the creativity flowing, not having to set up your work again and continuing in whatever it is you have started.
The space was a blessing in disguise. After I left Orybany I had no space for my furniture which I had brought here when I moved from the UK. It was all being used in the shop. I was living in just a room at the time and with the commute from the shop to home and finishing late at night I wished I had a place to work and live.
I had organised to meet up for dinner with Juliette, her family and a few friends. Everyone cancelled at the last minute with the exception of me and her uncle who owned this space which I had spotted at the back of his building.
It was a place used for parties so there was a bar in it but no bathroom, no kitchen. I asked about renting to me and said I’d rebuild it a bit, not having the finances to rent a studio and a home. So it all worked out. For the first year I washed my dishes in a bucket, but I made sure to get a bathroom! It was worth it to have a massive space and finally be able to put all my stuff in. I decorated it using all recycled things like tables, sinks etc. It was really cold at the start, there was not heating so I had to buy wood for a stove – find out how and where to buy wood, which type of wood – it has been an adventure. My space and my work are really extensions of me, my values and likes.
I have a sewing machine and an overlocker which is essential for making clothing and things like heavy fabric weights which are really good, but also everything for DIY: hammer, saw, pliers and all types of hand tools. I’m ready to build anything. Sometimes these are useful in making clothes too. I would love to have a pop button machine, fixing pop buttons and grommets by hand can be quite fiddly so those little things just make it easier.
Working with recycled, repurposed, and unwanted materials is the core of my work and my brand, ‘ORII ReUp’ (ReUp is for Reuse, Recyle and Upcyle). If a fabric is still in good condition it can be reused over and over again. With time it becomes vintage. I’m really careful about what I buy and where from – it has to have strength and be a good quality natural fabric. Sometimes to make something I will mix old and new fabrics to be sure it’s strong. The problem with using vintage or pre-used clothing is that they can be worn down and tear easily.
I find fabrics in various ways, sometimes from the fabric shop but for me using something that everyone has kind of kills the originality of what I’m trying to make. Often I buy clothing by the kilo in second hand and vintage shops – sometimes they have odd meters of fabric too. And don’t let me forget ‘CYCLUP’ where I get my fabric and also display some of my collections. All the material must then be washed, dried cleaned and checked for holes, tears, stains etc, before reusing them. As you can see its work and time consuming, but definitely worth it.
I’m always looking for quality fabrics; that’s important. It has to be either cotton or linen. If I can find a dress in extra large where maybe the style is a bit old but the fabric is still really good I buy it straight away.
I often mix and match old and new fabric, because even if it’s second hand it can still be quite new. You can find some really unique fabrics this way. I like vintage because they are original, I don’t want to use something you can find anywhere and everywhere. My hope is I can give something very unique to my customers as they are coming to me for a tailor made piece of clothing. Tailor made is great on one hand because you don’t have to have lots of stock but on the other hand it’s a lot of work with getting fabrics, all the adjusting and making sure everything fits well.
I also get deadstock (fabric left over from a run of designs) from Dries Van Noten. I go to Antwerp when they have a sale every year in their warehouse. The place is amazing, they have one day for selling left over clothes and one day for fabrics. You can get some really nice limited run prints there.
I love what I do; it feels more like a hobby than work – when it’s not repetitive. Opportunities have made it so it can become something I can partially live on, including the support of friends and family that have always encouraged me to take the step to make my passion a profession.
I have been very fortunate, having started by opening Orybany with Juliette has given me experience of both maintaining a shop and being involved in the business development aspect, including selling products and liaising with other artists. It has been an enormous help in the development of my own brand and finding the balance.
I found the formula that works best for me in order to be financially stable and enjoy my art, was to partially have a stable source of income by working part-time and creating and selling my products on the side. I am registered as a small business with a limited income allowance that I cannot go over per year. I choose this option because it removes the stress of having to overwork to make a living and gives me the flexibility to choose my projects and customer orders. Based on my experience, I found that being independent is a lot of work and time consuming, and often kills the creativity part for those of us that are artisans/craftsmen.
On weekdays with the exception of Monday, my routine is 10am-7pm regular job then 8pm till past midnight – creative work when I am not too tired. The weekends and Mondays are a melting pot of everything I can possibly do: sew, clean the house, administrative work, social media, photo shoot, mood board and preparation of garments presentation, delivery and collect of goods, visit friends and family, and REST!
BEING IN THE WORLD:
Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?
I think it depends on the individual and the motivation behind the work. Some of us just want recognition; others want to make a living, and some just for the pleasure and the love of sharing. But I would say for many of us we want to just share the things that fascinate us and what we find beautiful, a part of our universe. For me to exist or be recognised is an extra; It’s not my aim. But let’s admit it…… to have your work be appreciated by others does feel GOOD!
My main goal is to be able to fully make a living of my Art without the financial pressure.
The fact that I ran Orybany meant I have lots of contacts with people in events, shops, designers, customers. People saw my work and know me and would tell other people. So I didn’t have to work hard to get known or be online. I get regular orders and requests, just enough to balance with my other job. It’s all been word of mouth. It has saved me from having to advertise or sell online, the pressure is not there. It’s a good balance right now as I work part time too, I wouldn’t have time to take on too much more work. I make a lot of stuff all the time, masks, shirts, wedding dresses – but I don’t have the time yet to photograph and post everything to social media. Maybe I will in the future, maybe I need someone who likes doing that to help me.
Currently I am working on promoting my brand and eventually having a professional website. In the meantime I use Instagram to share my work and my universe. I am not active on Facebook although I know it’s a great tool to advertise and connect with people. But years and experience have taught me to pick one thing and stick to it – I just can’t be in all places. Also being an artist/artisan, every moment spent on social networks – and we all know how time consuming it can be – is time away from my craft, even if it’s a necessity in order to grow and be noticed.
BEING IN OURSELVES:
Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?
I often have self doubt in the value or worth of my work. I tend to undervalue its worth because I think to myself – “no one is going to pay that price for a garment.” This is especially an issue with the large variety in cost the clothing industry offers. And this kind of thinking is because I am always comparing myself to the market price, which I shouldn’t because we all know that handmade and industrial products have a different creative process, not to mention that clothes made by big companies are not always ethical and fair trade thus justifying the ridiculously low cost of garments or accessories.
A friend of mine always told me how you value your work is how you value yourself. My work puts quality over quantity; ethics over exploitation. I’m learning to not compromise or sell my creations for less than they are worth.