While it’s still too early to determine which dress will go viral and acquire a precursory ‘the’ this season – becoming The Dress of summer 2021, if you will – in a corner of the internet there’s already a frock putting in the work. Made by Santa Barbara-based, sister-owned label Doên, the Amarillo is a thigh-skimming baby doll with puff sleeves and a body of patchwork.
The dress, and its calf-length sibling, the Darby, are bold signifiers of the craft- and cottagecore trends that emerged towards the end of the last decade, picking up momentum in 2020. Brought to you most prominently by TikTok – read: Harry Styles’s J.W. Anderson cardigan challenge – the patchwork trend specifically has manifested in multiple forms. Entertained by contemporary London labels like Asai and Chopova Lowena – think Asai’s Hot Wok top; Chopova Lowena’s magpie approach to recycling – in Delaware Asata Maisé has a waiting list’s worth of fans ready for her deadstock-derived pieces. At Chloé, where Gabriela Hearst made her debut as creative director earlier this month, the trend’s stamina was confirmed via looks informed by patchwork leather and repurposed coats.
According to Morgane LeCaer, data editor at global fashion shopping platform Lyst, the trend’s recent boom is in part a consequence of multiple lockdowns: “With nowhere to go and an endless amount of free time, many fashion lovers around the world have been feeling the need to find a new creative outlet. Fuelled by celebrity endorsements from the likes of Harry Styles, Ella Emhoff and Tom Daley – as well as nostalgia for 90s and early 00s fashion – craft practices including the art of patchwork, tie-dye and crochet have been finding a new lease of life.”
Unlike other iterations of the wider trend, the patchwork aesthetic has been adopted across genders: menswear label Bode, founded by Emily Adams Bode in 2016, is perhaps its biggest champion, with fans in Styles, Jay-Z and Jeremy O. Harris. With the emergence of another label occupying similar sartorial territory in Stan, from California-based designer Tristan Detwiler, last month saw “quiltcore drama” arise with a widely-publicised GQ piece by Rachel Tashjian. Examining the trajectory and crossover between the two labels, Tashjian’s ultimate question considered ownership.
Of course, no one actually owns this look. The needlework practice originated in ancient Egypt, and became a ‘technique of economy’ in the 20th century, employed during wartime to use up scrap fabric or extend a garment’s lifespan. A device frequently administered by the working class to prevent waste and save money, patchwork only really became a style feature in the context of clothing during the '60s and '70s. And as LeCaer noted previously, the current trend is reminiscent of that experienced in the late '90s, when, as per the 20-year rule, the look was first welcomed back onto the catwalk and throughout city centres.
“I had some early patchwork memories from my Mum. Then working with Oxfam at the very beginning of my career I made some patchwork using knitwear, this appeared in my first ever piece of press in i-D, so I guess it stuck,” designer Jessica Ogden tells Refinery29. Based in Jamaica, Ogden was a regular fixture at London Fashion Week from 1996-2006, renowned for her commitment to the same aesthetics we’re seeing today.
“From the start of my collections sustainability was an important part, the re-use of found fabrics, whether that be quilt, handkerchiefs, scraps for appliqué. It was about re-working the discarded fabrics to allow that to shine again,” she continues. “I was obsessed with patching, mending, appliquéing: re-using all. It has far greater visibility now – before it would be difficult to explain to buyers why ‘production’ of one-offs would not be exactly the same.”
While the sustainable model of reusing fabrics remains integral in the work of Ogden and Bode, there is a wider historical and cultural narrative to unpack about the employment of patchwork by brands whose price points don’t align with the trend’s earlier politics. As sustainable consultant Aja Barber noted in her recent Patreon newsletter, it’s the separation of the poverty that made patchwork a necessity and its current application, that is uncomfortable and ultimately feels disrespectful; the repackaging of the ‘make do and mend’ attitude for audiences susceptible to buzzwords by brands potentially only keen to create wealth.
Beyond such appropriation, there are also individuals who’ve embraced the resurgence and used it as a vehicle to employ the skillsets they already possess: Kara Hazan, a Brazilian-born California-raised artist and single mother began Small Museum during the pandemic. “Quilts have always been a part of my life, my first one was given to me by my grandmother. After a year where the world was turned upside down, jobs and careers ended, and uncertainty ahead, creativity was a solid foundation I could find solace in,” she tells Refinery29. “I have always been a slow fashion maker of children’s clothes, since my son was born almost eight years ago, and have always used found materials to make garments that couldn’t be easily replicated and sold for cheaper by fast fashion companies.”
Hazan’s business, which operates via Instagram and Shopify, sells quilted jackets at price points that average about $300 USD and can take up to a few days to make. Like Ogden, the sustainability factor is central to her work. “The fashion industry as a whole produces so much waste, it cannot go on forever. All the slow fashion and sustainable makers are just the beginning of this necessary change,” she says. “The topic of sustainable fashion is riddled with so many nuances, and as of now, only certain people can even afford it. For the customers who can, I believe it is very important they support small business, and sustainable products. When you have the ability to support artists, support change in how we consume, and support sustainable fashion, the choice becomes clear.”
At Chloé too, where Hearst closed the show in a statement coat of leather patchwork, there is more at stake than appearances: according to Vogue, the brand had already decreased the AW21 collection’s footprint by 400% compared to AW20. But what about high street brands, where the onus is on fast fashion moments and price points generally aren’t concerned with ethical matters? “It’s difficult to say whether these brands are turning to the trend as a way to prevent fabric waste, or whether they’re simply adapting to the latest look du jour,” reckons LaCaer, “but one thing’s for certain: the appetite for traditional and sustainable crafts is growing.” For their part, while concerned with nostalgia, Doên don’t claim to be sustainable, for reasons they highlighted with Vogue last year.
So what does it mean when brands are making big bucks from a practice like patchwork? This is hardly the first time a trend has arrived from a place of disengagement – throughout history aesthetics have been stolen from communities of colour and the working classes; co-opted with a new vocabulary to satisfy a temporary demand that doesn’t extend to those for whom its part of an identity. It’s complicated, basically. Although not without immediate, if temporary, answers, as Barber writes: “Doesn’t mean you don’t buy the quilted jacket, does mean you acknowledge that people without funds made clothing from quilts for a long time now.”
“It is nothing new, our grandparents had to live like this to a certain degree, so it feels like full circle,” Ogden concurs, underscoring how the landscape differs today. “With the pandemic there is an even bigger drive to be resourceful, and to watch the younger drive of designers take up initiatives that are now second nature to them is great. For the bigger companies, it will be the consumer that will drive the consciousness, so we can hope there will be a stronger drive for transparency.”