madeline stocking
designer + creative facilitator
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feature interviews

A selection of interviews taken from Duomo and Warm System between myself and several different emerging and established artists in the Milwaukee community

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Simbi Laaro

 

( warm system 2018 )

It has been one year since LáAro relocated a few blocks from its original space on Brady Street in Milwaukee and about two since I walked in, searching for a Lapa for an African dance class I was taking. I met Simbi for  the first time and what I knew wouldn’t be my last. Here we have an interview between myself and Simbi Laaro, owner of Milwaukee’s West African Boutique, offering custom designed garments using traditional Ankara fabrics made by her team in Lagos, Nigeria. LáAro is an important place in terms local business for the city of Milwaukee as well as within the greater movemement in African culture in the US.

 
M - Can you tell us about the name LáAro ?  S - My father’s name is Usman Laaro, a politician and influencer in Lagos, Nigeria, where we are from. Lagos is in Quara state and he was running for governor there, very popular amongst the people. Some of the biggest musicians in Nigeria wrote music about him. Before I was born, he began to travel to Milwaukee to bring African goods and materials such as leather and fabric to all types of festivals in Milwaukee and Chicago…but never finished garments. During his travels to the Midwest he had seen an African store in Milwaukee and said “one day I would love to have this”. So, this is a brand dedicated to my father..it translates to “life has no duplicate, or, you only have one life to live”  M - As you grew up with this influence of trade, how did your relationship with textiles and these materials grow?  S - The textiles that we sell at LáAro are called Ankara, it’s a wax print made in Northern Nigeria. Growing up in Lagos until the age of 7, it was and is a way of life. It’s kind of how you see your clothing now. You go to the store, buy your clothes…it’s the culture. It’s what we wear to parties, weddings, on Friday’s, to work. My biggest passion comes from being separated from this culture for so long. When we moved to the US I didn’t dress in Ankara anymore, I started to wear westernized clothing..you know, jeans and a t-shirt. In my time traveling back and forth from Lagos to Milwaukee, I decided that I wanted to create a hybrid of both styles for LáAro. Traditional fabric mixed with this westernized style to really involve and showcase the beauty of the textile.  M - Where did you learn to design and fabricate these pieces? Who were your biggest influencers?  S - My mother. Her mother was a wholesaler of African fabrics in Lagos, selling Ankara and others to many stores there. My father’s mother was a tailor, making the clothes for our family since the 70’s using all kinds of West African materials. Right now I am focusing mostly on Ankara, which I love. I have traveled to many places in the world, seen many dull colors in fashion, but when you go to Lagos, the fashion hub of Africa, everyone is wearing vibrant colors! I wanted to bring that energy to Milwaukee.   

M - Can you tell us about the name LáAro ?

S - My father’s name is Usman Laaro, a politician and influencer in Lagos, Nigeria, where we are from. Lagos is in Quara state and he was running for governor there, very popular amongst the people. Some of the biggest musicians in Nigeria wrote music about him. Before I was born, he began to travel to Milwaukee to bring African goods and materials such as leather and fabric to all types of festivals in Milwaukee and Chicago…but never finished garments. During his travels to the Midwest he had seen an African store in Milwaukee and said “one day I would love to have this”. So, this is a brand dedicated to my father..it translates to “life has no duplicate, or, you only have one life to live”

M - As you grew up with this influence of trade, how did your relationship with textiles and these materials grow?

S - The textiles that we sell at LáAro are called Ankara, it’s a wax print made in Northern Nigeria. Growing up in Lagos until the age of 7, it was and is a way of life. It’s kind of how you see your clothing now. You go to the store, buy your clothes…it’s the culture. It’s what we wear to parties, weddings, on Friday’s, to work. My biggest passion comes from being separated from this culture for so long. When we moved to the US I didn’t dress in Ankara anymore, I started to wear westernized clothing..you know, jeans and a t-shirt. In my time traveling back and forth from Lagos to Milwaukee, I decided that I wanted to create a hybrid of both styles for LáAro. Traditional fabric mixed with this westernized style to really involve and showcase the beauty of the textile.

M - Where did you learn to design and fabricate these pieces? Who were your biggest influencers?

S - My mother. Her mother was a wholesaler of African fabrics in Lagos, selling Ankara and others to many stores there. My father’s mother was a tailor, making the clothes for our family since the 70’s using all kinds of West African materials. Right now I am focusing mostly on Ankara, which I love. I have traveled to many places in the world, seen many dull colors in fashion, but when you go to Lagos, the fashion hub of Africa, everyone is wearing vibrant colors! I wanted to bring that energy to Milwaukee.

 

M - The colors are what I really admire about the material. Do they have significance within the pattern and is that translated in your business?  S - Definitely. I’m not as knowledgeable about the specific significances as my mother is…when we go shopping she’ll tell me, “this is Yoruba, this is Ibo” etc. Each tribe has a specific type of style fabric that they choose to wear. Yoruba and Ibo are two of the main tribes in Nigeria, each having different meanings within their clothing. An important distinction to make is the grade of the fabric. There is A, B, C, and D. The design can look the same, but the quality is totally different; grade A being the thickest and D which will rip easily due to its thin quality. It’s really important to look at the labels, where it is printed and where it comes from. In this modernized age, people from Europe and China are now supplying fabric to West Africa, so when we shop for our fabric we look for material that is produced in Nigeria and Ghana. Here in Milwaukee we provide a variety of Ibo and Yoruba colors and designs because if you’re African American, you may not know your background or heritage so it is important to have full options to experience Ankara.  M - So when you’re in the shop, is it important for you to educate others on these histories and specific designs?  S - I often find that people come in with a specific style in mind. They say “I want a dashiki” and I tell them that dashiki literally translates to “design”. It’s the design of this type of shirt, the V cut and loose fit, but the material and imprint is Ankara. So when they come in and ask for a dashiki, I tell them it’s not a design that we carry right now but we do have Ankara. This is one way I try to educate the customers  M - Is it often that you find people coming in with prior knowledge of these designs and histories?  S - Rarely — it’s a pretty new thing here and that’s why we wanted to do this. There is a social movement around African culture right now where African Americans are becoming more in touch with their homeland. With that in mind, we feel that a lot of people could get into this business and do it wrong without knowing the history and knowledge of the materials and origins. We’re doing it right, producing 100% of our products in Nigeria.   

M - The colors are what I really admire about the material. Do they have significance within the pattern and is that translated in your business?

S - Definitely. I’m not as knowledgeable about the specific significances as my mother is…when we go shopping she’ll tell me, “this is Yoruba, this is Ibo” etc. Each tribe has a specific type of style fabric that they choose to wear. Yoruba and Ibo are two of the main tribes in Nigeria, each having different meanings within their clothing. An important distinction to make is the grade of the fabric. There is A, B, C, and D. The design can look the same, but the quality is totally different; grade A being the thickest and D which will rip easily due to its thin quality. It’s really important to look at the labels, where it is printed and where it comes from. In this modernized age, people from Europe and China are now supplying fabric to West Africa, so when we shop for our fabric we look for material that is produced in Nigeria and Ghana. Here in Milwaukee we provide a variety of Ibo and Yoruba colors and designs because if you’re African American, you may not know your background or heritage so it is important to have full options to experience Ankara.

M - So when you’re in the shop, is it important for you to educate others on these histories and specific designs?

S - I often find that people come in with a specific style in mind. They say “I want a dashiki” and I tell them that dashiki literally translates to “design”. It’s the design of this type of shirt, the V cut and loose fit, but the material and imprint is Ankara. So when they come in and ask for a dashiki, I tell them it’s not a design that we carry right now but we do have Ankara. This is one way I try to educate the customers

M - Is it often that you find people coming in with prior knowledge of these designs and histories?

S - Rarely — it’s a pretty new thing here and that’s why we wanted to do this. There is a social movement around African culture right now where African Americans are becoming more in touch with their homeland. With that in mind, we feel that a lot of people could get into this business and do it wrong without knowing the history and knowledge of the materials and origins. We’re doing it right, producing 100% of our products in Nigeria.

 

M - What does the team look like in Nigeria?  S - We have a team of 20 tailors that produce all of our goods. Believe it or not, it is very difficult to fabricate in West African countries, especially Nigeria, because we don’t have constant electricity. The power will go out for 1 week…2 weeks. We use old school machines, which is why a lot of other people in the business produce in Europe, New York or Atlanta. This is why we did one full year of sampling and training to ensure smooth production in Lagos moving forward.  M - You learn to work with it!  S - Yes, here in the states we take things for granted, forgetting these conveniences are not always dependable or abundant in other places. I’ll be waiting on a package for weeks because they couldn’t put the buttons on, we just have to wait.  M - How do you deal with this as far as turnover and inventory goes?  S - Proper management. My mother and I are a great team, me being based here and her in Nigeria. As much of a boss I am, she is tenfold, always ahead and I visit Nigeria every 3-4 months to make sure everything is running properly.  M - This is a trip you are used to taking! Being born in Milwaukee, moving back to Lagos then returning to Wisconsin at age 7. Where did you grow up here?  S - Green Bay, actually. I came to Milwaukee to attend UWM for political science on a full ride scholarship for track  M - Is this when you developed a more concrete idea of starting a business?  S - I definitely learned a lot in school, but I came from a family of business owners so it wasn’t even a question really. The political science degree was important to me because of my passion for social justice. I want to enlighten people on what is really going on and allow that to inform my business strategy  M - In what way does this notion of social justice play into your business plan?  S - I told myself, “Simbi, you can make 1,000 pieces and sell them all”, but that is not the goal. The goal is to show the true value of what this means. This clothing is expensive back home, you can’t just bring it here and make it cheap for everyone to wear. It’s necessary to retain its true quality, so with general principles of supply and demand I transcribed that into making the business truly valuable.   

M - What does the team look like in Nigeria?

S - We have a team of 20 tailors that produce all of our goods. Believe it or not, it is very difficult to fabricate in West African countries, especially Nigeria, because we don’t have constant electricity. The power will go out for 1 week…2 weeks. We use old school machines, which is why a lot of other people in the business produce in Europe, New York or Atlanta. This is why we did one full year of sampling and training to ensure smooth production in Lagos moving forward.

M - You learn to work with it!

S - Yes, here in the states we take things for granted, forgetting these conveniences are not always dependable or abundant in other places. I’ll be waiting on a package for weeks because they couldn’t put the buttons on, we just have to wait.

M - How do you deal with this as far as turnover and inventory goes?

S - Proper management. My mother and I are a great team, me being based here and her in Nigeria. As much of a boss I am, she is tenfold, always ahead and I visit Nigeria every 3-4 months to make sure everything is running properly.

M - This is a trip you are used to taking! Being born in Milwaukee, moving back to Lagos then returning to Wisconsin at age 7. Where did you grow up here?

S - Green Bay, actually. I came to Milwaukee to attend UWM for political science on a full ride scholarship for track

M - Is this when you developed a more concrete idea of starting a business?

S - I definitely learned a lot in school, but I came from a family of business owners so it wasn’t even a question really. The political science degree was important to me because of my passion for social justice. I want to enlighten people on what is really going on and allow that to inform my business strategy

M - In what way does this notion of social justice play into your business plan?

S - I told myself, “Simbi, you can make 1,000 pieces and sell them all”, but that is not the goal. The goal is to show the true value of what this means. This clothing is expensive back home, you can’t just bring it here and make it cheap for everyone to wear. It’s necessary to retain its true quality, so with general principles of supply and demand I transcribed that into making the business truly valuable.

 

M - What made you decide the East Side neighborhood of Milwaukee as the home for LáAro?  S - That’s a great question because a lot of people, especially African Americans, come into the shop and say “why this side? We’re not over here” …I say “ do you usually come over here?” - “no” - “then why did you come over here today?” - “to see this” … so I pulled you over here didn’t I? That’s the goal. To make you feel like you’re not stuck in one place where you feel like it’s the only place you can be, but to pull you somewhere that you think you don’t belong. So with this shop, I’ve had African Americans from the Northside come down to see something..come to a place they may be afraid of, but the reality is that they are welcome and they are accepted. They just have to try. Over here, I am able to reach that goal of engaging with and bringing together all different types of people. We placed ourselves to not serve any one kind of person, but all kinds of people who find beauty in what we make.  M - What do you feel is the biggest appeal of Brady Street?  S - I have clients from all over the world, Italy, Argentina, Miami, Germany…every time they’re in Milwaukee they come to Brady Street. It’s a popular and historic street filled with different walks of life. This is how we begin dialogues, conversations and make connections. This is how I get to meet people such as you. Perhaps if I were located on the Northside we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. It’s about making people step outside of their boundaries, making them think differently and not believing what everyone else says! Being here has been a great success  M - I’m curious about the people who *do live around here, who may not identify as African. How is LáAro received and what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?  S - We receive a lot of love. The owner of the Futon Store across the street buys our fabrics to resurface their furniture. Brady Street has a lot of culture, but it is missing African Culture. That’s where we come in. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I think about this; I’ve taken a couple of my white friends to Nigeria and they are embraced and told to please wear Ankara! They want them to show how much they love and find beauty in these things. As long as you understand and appreciate it, free of any negative notation, embrace it! Embrace the feel, the movement. We have to understand the different dynamics…cultural appropriation is not really experienced the same in Africa or other places outside of the States. If you are White, Latinx wearing African clothing, remember that you are also White, Latinx wearing Chinese made clothing, or clothes made in Guatemala etc. There is a fine line in deciding what to and not to do…it’s definitely in the message. LáAro’s message is not to only provide to one race, what kind of brand is that?! Our message is that when you buy, we can produce more, and when we produce more, we are feeding people in Nigeria whose lives are not as beautiful as ours. It is really important to know where production stands, and our production is in Lagos Nigeria. So when you buy here, you are helping a vast amount of tailors and their families to sustain themselves by embracing the beauty of these goods.  M - Do you ever encounter people who wouldn’t necessarily think to educate themselves on the fabric if you are not doing that directly in your exchange?  S - I have 2 types of customers, people who are familiar with the fabric, and people who just love the arts. They see the creativity of the patterns, the colors…they love it and want to support it. But most of the people who love the arts always ask questions! That is when I educate them and they fall more in love with it. I haven’t had any customers who are trouble…that is where price point comes in. I don’t sell my stuff really cheap, so if you want to come in and just find any old thing to wear, you’re going to be paying at least $70-100. That price point makes you think twice   

M - What made you decide the East Side neighborhood of Milwaukee as the home for LáAro?

S - That’s a great question because a lot of people, especially African Americans, come into the shop and say “why this side? We’re not over here” …I say “ do you usually come over here?” - “no” - “then why did you come over here today?” - “to see this” … so I pulled you over here didn’t I? That’s the goal. To make you feel like you’re not stuck in one place where you feel like it’s the only place you can be, but to pull you somewhere that you think you don’t belong. So with this shop, I’ve had African Americans from the Northside come down to see something..come to a place they may be afraid of, but the reality is that they are welcome and they are accepted. They just have to try. Over here, I am able to reach that goal of engaging with and bringing together all different types of people. We placed ourselves to not serve any one kind of person, but all kinds of people who find beauty in what we make.

M - What do you feel is the biggest appeal of Brady Street?

S - I have clients from all over the world, Italy, Argentina, Miami, Germany…every time they’re in Milwaukee they come to Brady Street. It’s a popular and historic street filled with different walks of life. This is how we begin dialogues, conversations and make connections. This is how I get to meet people such as you. Perhaps if I were located on the Northside we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. It’s about making people step outside of their boundaries, making them think differently and not believing what everyone else says! Being here has been a great success

M - I’m curious about the people who *do live around here, who may not identify as African. How is LáAro received and what are your thoughts on cultural appropriation?

S - We receive a lot of love. The owner of the Futon Store across the street buys our fabrics to resurface their furniture. Brady Street has a lot of culture, but it is missing African Culture. That’s where we come in. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I think about this; I’ve taken a couple of my white friends to Nigeria and they are embraced and told to please wear Ankara! They want them to show how much they love and find beauty in these things. As long as you understand and appreciate it, free of any negative notation, embrace it! Embrace the feel, the movement. We have to understand the different dynamics…cultural appropriation is not really experienced the same in Africa or other places outside of the States. If you are White, Latinx wearing African clothing, remember that you are also White, Latinx wearing Chinese made clothing, or clothes made in Guatemala etc. There is a fine line in deciding what to and not to do…it’s definitely in the message. LáAro’s message is not to only provide to one race, what kind of brand is that?! Our message is that when you buy, we can produce more, and when we produce more, we are feeding people in Nigeria whose lives are not as beautiful as ours. It is really important to know where production stands, and our production is in Lagos Nigeria. So when you buy here, you are helping a vast amount of tailors and their families to sustain themselves by embracing the beauty of these goods.

M - Do you ever encounter people who wouldn’t necessarily think to educate themselves on the fabric if you are not doing that directly in your exchange?

S - I have 2 types of customers, people who are familiar with the fabric, and people who just love the arts. They see the creativity of the patterns, the colors…they love it and want to support it. But most of the people who love the arts always ask questions! That is when I educate them and they fall more in love with it. I haven’t had any customers who are trouble…that is where price point comes in. I don’t sell my stuff really cheap, so if you want to come in and just find any old thing to wear, you’re going to be paying at least $70-100. That price point makes you think twice

 

M - Is LáAro your main project?  S - I still have my day job, which is teaching English to Chinese students online. I do that 4am-9am so that I have the rest of my day to dedicate my time to LáAro. My business partner Andrew and I have been doing it for years. It has been the success of my business because most of the income I make from the shop, I put right back into it. We’ve only been there for a year now. It was a successful year that allowed us to remodel the interior of the store. Eventually we would like to build a modernized factory in Lagos for the tailors who produce our goods. Nothing huge…a modest factory where I put my best tailors and they produce the highest quality possible. That is our next step. After we launch our online website (March 2018) and see how that goes.. we will make our moves from there.  M - How do find time to sleep?  S - Oh we sleep like normal people do! We started teaching online before opening the shop so that we could generate income while traveling and living in South America. Our sustainability is from the laptop, especially once we see how this online store goes, we can go anywhere we want. We just have to have someone in the shop.  M - Is that a goal of yours? To be remote and travel  S - Yes, if I want to stay on top and have the best designs, I need to see what people are wearing all over the world.  M - Where would you like to go that you haven’t been to yet ?  S - Colombia for sure.. I’m going to Cuba in May. I love Afro-centric countries, or just cities where you see a sense of African hybridity. I target those communities to really feel them and to see how they are still in touch with their African roots.  M - What about the music?!  S - In the shop I play Nigerians latest and greatest hits because the music industry there is just new and doing phenomenally. Like..Drake is doing songs with Nigerian Artists, all these big names are collaborating. I love pairing music and fashion to really spread the love of Nigeria, that’s the movement! We have the Spotify playlist on our website :) If you ever meet a Nigerian, you will see that we take huge pride in our home  M - Would you say that Lagos has the best fashion you have seen?  S - Without a doubt. It’s underestimated…best dressed, best tailors, best designers!

M - Is LáAro your main project?

S - I still have my day job, which is teaching English to Chinese students online. I do that 4am-9am so that I have the rest of my day to dedicate my time to LáAro. My business partner Andrew and I have been doing it for years. It has been the success of my business because most of the income I make from the shop, I put right back into it. We’ve only been there for a year now. It was a successful year that allowed us to remodel the interior of the store. Eventually we would like to build a modernized factory in Lagos for the tailors who produce our goods. Nothing huge…a modest factory where I put my best tailors and they produce the highest quality possible. That is our next step. After we launch our online website (March 2018) and see how that goes.. we will make our moves from there.

M - How do find time to sleep?

S - Oh we sleep like normal people do! We started teaching online before opening the shop so that we could generate income while traveling and living in South America. Our sustainability is from the laptop, especially once we see how this online store goes, we can go anywhere we want. We just have to have someone in the shop.

M - Is that a goal of yours? To be remote and travel

S - Yes, if I want to stay on top and have the best designs, I need to see what people are wearing all over the world.

M - Where would you like to go that you haven’t been to yet ?

S - Colombia for sure.. I’m going to Cuba in May. I love Afro-centric countries, or just cities where you see a sense of African hybridity. I target those communities to really feel them and to see how they are still in touch with their African roots.

M - What about the music?!

S - In the shop I play Nigerians latest and greatest hits because the music industry there is just new and doing phenomenally. Like..Drake is doing songs with Nigerian Artists, all these big names are collaborating. I love pairing music and fashion to really spread the love of Nigeria, that’s the movement! We have the Spotify playlist on our website :) If you ever meet a Nigerian, you will see that we take huge pride in our home

M - Would you say that Lagos has the best fashion you have seen?

S - Without a doubt. It’s underestimated…best dressed, best tailors, best designers!

 

 
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Elmer Moore + Jess Goehner of Milwaukee Denim Co.

( warm system 2018 )

Elmer Moore and Jess Goehner are the faces behind Milwaukee Denim Co (MDco), a selvedge denim company that hand-crafts and designs jeans and other accessories. They just began production in Fall 2017 in  Milwaukee’s Clarke Square neighborhood. Elmer is the executive director of Scale Up Milwaukee, ex-modern dancer and overall  man about town, having met him in 2015 from his frequent visits to my job at Form Fine Goods where we would exchange rants and rambles. MDco’s first product, the Five-Panel hat,www was and is still sold at Form alongside Directive leather goods, Jess’s personal business where she creates custom leather accessories. They did not know one another in 2015, but soon began a friendship that grew into starting local production for Milwaukee Denim Co. 

Here we have the story as told by Elmer, the founder, and Jess, the magician of fabrication. This story takes place at the Factory, where MDco happens and where the shop dog, Raisin, keeps everyone in check. A certain kind of folly ensues when the three of us are put in a room together, so good luck and be sure to check them out!

 

   M - Tell us about the inception :)  E - So in 2013 I moved to Milwaukee to work as director of business development for Allen Edmonds  M - Oh, Alan!  E - Good ol’ Al brought me here from New York, where I had moved after undergrad then returned to attend grad school…with a meandering story in between.  M - Are you originally from New York?  E - Baltimore Maryland, a place that actually has an interesting overlap in terms of culture and history with Milwaukee. I ended up going to Pennsylvania for undergrad to study modern dance and art. Naturally, those interests brought me to New York where I worked for a video production house during the day and danced and played in a band at night.  M - what do you play?  E - Well, if I’m meeting someone who plays piano I wouldn’t tell them that I play piano, but I can play *on the piano you know. I had a recording studio and just kind of…experimented. There was a time that I was living in Brooklyn and would host open mics with a group that would freestyle rap and we’d record it all.  J + M - we’ve already learned so much about you in these 2 minutes  E - Somehow we will get to how we got here. So I was living in New York after undergrad and then 911 happened, I watched it happen. This put me in a dark place for awhile after that, it was important for me to leave to New York. Which is how I found myself working for this growing brand, selling retail in Brunswick, Maine. 22,000 people and incredibly white. Maine is the whitest state in the country, but the interesting thing about Brunswick is that it had a Navy base there which made it unnaturally diverse.  M - Was this your first time working with a start - up retail business?  E - It was when I started to feel good about the idea of retail, I love the experience of having someone come into a space you’ve created, putting things on their body and letting them do their thing. Living in Maine was the first time I was exposed to Manufacturing, one of the parallels with Milwaukee. I found myself spending more of my time with people making big things, though…like bridges, houses and farms. I farmed a lot there  J - Who are you?  M - What did you farm?  E - The coolest thing I ever farmed … I mean I had like big gardens, but a couple of months into living there I met this guy who became my best friend. He was this bachelor farmer who bread and raised draft horses. Anyways, I started to go everyday. It was catharsis and healing as I was going through some stuff. We built something called the Pumpkin Project, which consisted of us teaching high school kids how to farm using horses. A couple acres of pumpkins…  * collective laughter *

 

M - Tell us about the inception :)

E - So in 2013 I moved to Milwaukee to work as director of business development for Allen Edmonds

M - Oh, Alan!

E - Good ol’ Al brought me here from New York, where I had moved after undergrad then returned to attend grad school…with a meandering story in between.

M - Are you originally from New York?

E - Baltimore Maryland, a place that actually has an interesting overlap in terms of culture and history with Milwaukee. I ended up going to Pennsylvania for undergrad to study modern dance and art. Naturally, those interests brought me to New York where I worked for a video production house during the day and danced and played in a band at night.

M - what do you play?

E - Well, if I’m meeting someone who plays piano I wouldn’t tell them that I play piano, but I can play *on the piano you know. I had a recording studio and just kind of…experimented. There was a time that I was living in Brooklyn and would host open mics with a group that would freestyle rap and we’d record it all.

J + M - we’ve already learned so much about you in these 2 minutes

E - Somehow we will get to how we got here. So I was living in New York after undergrad and then 911 happened, I watched it happen. This put me in a dark place for awhile after that, it was important for me to leave to New York. Which is how I found myself working for this growing brand, selling retail in Brunswick, Maine. 22,000 people and incredibly white. Maine is the whitest state in the country, but the interesting thing about Brunswick is that it had a Navy base there which made it unnaturally diverse.

M - Was this your first time working with a start - up retail business?

E - It was when I started to feel good about the idea of retail, I love the experience of having someone come into a space you’ve created, putting things on their body and letting them do their thing. Living in Maine was the first time I was exposed to Manufacturing, one of the parallels with Milwaukee. I found myself spending more of my time with people making big things, though…like bridges, houses and farms. I farmed a lot there

J - Who are you?

M - What did you farm?

E - The coolest thing I ever farmed … I mean I had like big gardens, but a couple of months into living there I met this guy who became my best friend. He was this bachelor farmer who bread and raised draft horses. Anyways, I started to go everyday. It was catharsis and healing as I was going through some stuff. We built something called the Pumpkin Project, which consisted of us teaching high school kids how to farm using horses. A couple acres of pumpkins…

* collective laughter *

   E - So I’ve been a handful of different Elmers. After my time at the retail store, I was working in multicultural recruitment for a very wealthy prestigious school, Odin College, talking to kids and families about higher education. I feel lucky that I got to understand more about myself through these experiences. Where I fit in the universe / what I care about / exist for .. and that is to change and support the lives of young people. But, there came a point where I realized I needed to further my own education to do what I wanted to do on a grander scale. This is when I moved back the New York for Grad School. The important connective tissue here is that within all of these different things that I was doing, it took a long time for me to figure out how they connected  M - Does that ever induce any kind of anxiety for you?  J - That was my life too…still kind of is. For a long time I didn’t understand how they connected but I got used to it and it started to make sense  E - you can only clearly see a pattern in hindsight. “Make the road by walking” — which I feel is something we do everyday here at MdCo  J - Woof  E - yes, indeed  M - so that connective tissue …  E - Grad school! I applied to Columbia twice and got totally denied the first year because I was a terrible college student, but I actually worked really hard. I would say that I count my successes in people, my time working with people revealed this hard work, but as for academic yield I didn’t have much to show. Grad school is like 2 years of looking for a job, which is when I realized that while I exist to change and serve the lives of young people, I don’t necessarily have to do this for a job because I’m going to do it anyway! I think every job is like 3 different things .. what you are physically doing, what your are doing in terms of an industry or a topic, and who you do it with. I had to do some soul searching as to what that needed to be, realizing also that it can’t be all three, so you get 2 of the three. I wrote a list of places that I wanted to think about all day with companies that I believe that I could embed myself into and I wrote letters to the CEO’s. Because I’m an artist, I love hand made things, which translates to manufacturing in the business world. This is where Allen Edmonds comes in, the reason why I came to Milwaukee. I could see some things that they were doing wrong and I wanted to help. I was hired in January 2013 and moved here by May 2013.  M - How was that transition for you coastal bodies?  E - My wife Nicole was like “I can’t believe we’re moving to the middle of the country”. Both of us being East Coast people. But I took her to the lake, which is like an ocean in the Midwest! It was pretty amazing, the weather was bad, but she could start to see it. Our first impression of Milwaukee was that it reminded us very much of our neighborhood in Brooklyn, Williamsburg before it became “Williamsburg”. Also the first 30 dinners of my time here had French fries … many fish fries.  M - Do you like polka music?  E - You know the thing that makes Milwaukee amazing, something that I had noticed at first but couldn’t put words on, is the lack of irony in the culture here. When you move from New York city, everything there is done with irony. You know you go to Williamsburg and theres some dude with a nasty stache and he’s like “yeah I’m doing this to make a point” … who knows what the point is, there’s just an evident self awareness.  But theres really no irony to things here, people honestly love polka. It’s honest and ernest and weird. I remember talking to someone much younger who said “when I get married I’m going to have a polka band play” and I was like … you’re not kidding!

 

E - So I’ve been a handful of different Elmers. After my time at the retail store, I was working in multicultural recruitment for a very wealthy prestigious school, Odin College, talking to kids and families about higher education. I feel lucky that I got to understand more about myself through these experiences. Where I fit in the universe / what I care about / exist for .. and that is to change and support the lives of young people. But, there came a point where I realized I needed to further my own education to do what I wanted to do on a grander scale. This is when I moved back the New York for Grad School. The important connective tissue here is that within all of these different things that I was doing, it took a long time for me to figure out how they connected

M - Does that ever induce any kind of anxiety for you?

J - That was my life too…still kind of is. For a long time I didn’t understand how they connected but I got used to it and it started to make sense

E - you can only clearly see a pattern in hindsight. “Make the road by walking” — which I feel is something we do everyday here at MdCo

J - Woof

E - yes, indeed

M - so that connective tissue …

E - Grad school! I applied to Columbia twice and got totally denied the first year because I was a terrible college student, but I actually worked really hard. I would say that I count my successes in people, my time working with people revealed this hard work, but as for academic yield I didn’t have much to show. Grad school is like 2 years of looking for a job, which is when I realized that while I exist to change and serve the lives of young people, I don’t necessarily have to do this for a job because I’m going to do it anyway! I think every job is like 3 different things .. what you are physically doing, what your are doing in terms of an industry or a topic, and who you do it with. I had to do some soul searching as to what that needed to be, realizing also that it can’t be all three, so you get 2 of the three. I wrote a list of places that I wanted to think about all day with companies that I believe that I could embed myself into and I wrote letters to the CEO’s. Because I’m an artist, I love hand made things, which translates to manufacturing in the business world. This is where Allen Edmonds comes in, the reason why I came to Milwaukee. I could see some things that they were doing wrong and I wanted to help. I was hired in January 2013 and moved here by May 2013.

M - How was that transition for you coastal bodies?

E - My wife Nicole was like “I can’t believe we’re moving to the middle of the country”. Both of us being East Coast people. But I took her to the lake, which is like an ocean in the Midwest! It was pretty amazing, the weather was bad, but she could start to see it. Our first impression of Milwaukee was that it reminded us very much of our neighborhood in Brooklyn, Williamsburg before it became “Williamsburg”. Also the first 30 dinners of my time here had French fries … many fish fries.

M - Do you like polka music?

E - You know the thing that makes Milwaukee amazing, something that I had noticed at first but couldn’t put words on, is the lack of irony in the culture here. When you move from New York city, everything there is done with irony. You know you go to Williamsburg and theres some dude with a nasty stache and he’s like “yeah I’m doing this to make a point” … who knows what the point is, there’s just an evident self awareness.  But theres really no irony to things here, people honestly love polka. It’s honest and ernest and weird. I remember talking to someone much younger who said “when I get married I’m going to have a polka band play” and I was like … you’re not kidding!

   M - Ha, all too true. At what point in your time here did you start to imagine the beginnings of MdCo?  E - I was on a flight back from New York, Allen Edmonds was doing a design contest with Parsons, the winning student’s shoe design would be flown to Wisconsin to see their show put into production. I was sitting next to Noel, one of the designers at Allen Edmonds..a dude with full sleeves. He does not look like Allen Edmonds. Though their shoes can be beautiful, it is not a place where they are really thinking about fashion and style…they know their guy is a 55 year old banker, white republican banker, cause that’s who they are and that’s who they go after. Anyways, Noel and I were just talking… the words Milwaukee Denim Company came into my mind…it sounded good to me. I looked it up to see if it was available and bought the domain name  M - I feel like buying domain names is like being stars hah  E - It was amazing to me that no one had thought of it! I decided I was going to work through this until I reached an unsurmountable obstacle. While at the time I wasn’t sure if I would stay in Milwaukee, here was this beautiful distraction. This thing that had the most self fulfilling air about it, when you talk about it it sounded like a real thing! So I started to figure out how to get it done  M - Step one, what does Milwaukee Denim look like?!  E - There were some things that I believed from the very beginning about the branding. Number one is that I wanted to make beautiful things, beauty is very much aesthetic but it also about having an idea and an intention and achieving that. So if we wanted to make something that is visually unappealing but we hit the head of the nail, that’s a beautiful thing. Now those Balenciaga Dad Sneakers though, I will not grant them beauty. They’re just hideous.  M - It’s definitely a look. I’ve always had an issue with Sketchers…  E - Me too, though I did have a pair of Sketcher boots that I rocked the crap out of  M - Why does this not surprise me?  E - So to make clothes you need a brand, people to make them and a place to make them. I understood what I wanted for a brand pretty early on.. I wanted to tell the story of Milwaukee and make things here. Because I was traveling back and forth from NewYork, I found that nobody from there knew anything about Milwaukee, I had met literally one person who had ever been there. This person  told me that West Allis is often referred to as Dirty Stallis and broke down the segregated areas of the city for me. I now love Milwaukee, but it is not an easy place to move to.   M - I’m curious about how you conceptualized the telling the story of Milwaukee through this brand as someone who hadn’t grown up here, who was relatively new to the city…where did you start?  E - For awhile before moving here I had been following and studying very closely this brand Chinola, a 100 year old brand whose name was bought 10 or 15 years ago by these very wealthy couple of people that decided to reinvigorate the brand. They started making watches in Detroit, employing displaced auto-workers, re-training them to do this precision work. I was watching them from New York basically invent a brand out of thin air that was was geographically based and they were taking their sweet time. This was in the back of my mind about Milwaukee, it’s funny because what we think about Milwaukee and what Milwaukee thinks about Milwaukee has nothing to do with the truth or what the rest of the world thinks about Milwaukee. Coming from the East coast, this Milwaukee inferiority complex didn’t fit well with me. Milwaukee felt familiar to me in a way because Baltimore is very similar, Maine and Wisconsin, very similar. So after some time I started to really like it here, cultivating this brand was taking away the obvious tastes of the city; gritty, industrial, and the not so obvious, it’s black, which noooobody outside of Wisconsin seems to know!  M - Was it difficult to figure out how to start production here?  E - Yes, I failed miserably for a long time because I couldn’t find a way to make this geographically based  M - And then a Jess walks into the picture

 

M - Ha, all too true. At what point in your time here did you start to imagine the beginnings of MdCo?

E - I was on a flight back from New York, Allen Edmonds was doing a design contest with Parsons, the winning student’s shoe design would be flown to Wisconsin to see their show put into production. I was sitting next to Noel, one of the designers at Allen Edmonds..a dude with full sleeves. He does not look like Allen Edmonds. Though their shoes can be beautiful, it is not a place where they are really thinking about fashion and style…they know their guy is a 55 year old banker, white republican banker, cause that’s who they are and that’s who they go after. Anyways, Noel and I were just talking… the words Milwaukee Denim Company came into my mind…it sounded good to me. I looked it up to see if it was available and bought the domain name

M - I feel like buying domain names is like being stars hah

E - It was amazing to me that no one had thought of it! I decided I was going to work through this until I reached an unsurmountable obstacle. While at the time I wasn’t sure if I would stay in Milwaukee, here was this beautiful distraction. This thing that had the most self fulfilling air about it, when you talk about it it sounded like a real thing! So I started to figure out how to get it done

M - Step one, what does Milwaukee Denim look like?!

E - There were some things that I believed from the very beginning about the branding. Number one is that I wanted to make beautiful things, beauty is very much aesthetic but it also about having an idea and an intention and achieving that. So if we wanted to make something that is visually unappealing but we hit the head of the nail, that’s a beautiful thing. Now those Balenciaga Dad Sneakers though, I will not grant them beauty. They’re just hideous.

M - It’s definitely a look. I’ve always had an issue with Sketchers…

E - Me too, though I did have a pair of Sketcher boots that I rocked the crap out of

M - Why does this not surprise me?

E - So to make clothes you need a brand, people to make them and a place to make them. I understood what I wanted for a brand pretty early on.. I wanted to tell the story of Milwaukee and make things here. Because I was traveling back and forth from NewYork, I found that nobody from there knew anything about Milwaukee, I had met literally one person who had ever been there. This person  told me that West Allis is often referred to as Dirty Stallis and broke down the segregated areas of the city for me. I now love Milwaukee, but it is not an easy place to move to. 

M - I’m curious about how you conceptualized the telling the story of Milwaukee through this brand as someone who hadn’t grown up here, who was relatively new to the city…where did you start?

E - For awhile before moving here I had been following and studying very closely this brand Chinola, a 100 year old brand whose name was bought 10 or 15 years ago by these very wealthy couple of people that decided to reinvigorate the brand. They started making watches in Detroit, employing displaced auto-workers, re-training them to do this precision work. I was watching them from New York basically invent a brand out of thin air that was was geographically based and they were taking their sweet time. This was in the back of my mind about Milwaukee, it’s funny because what we think about Milwaukee and what Milwaukee thinks about Milwaukee has nothing to do with the truth or what the rest of the world thinks about Milwaukee. Coming from the East coast, this Milwaukee inferiority complex didn’t fit well with me. Milwaukee felt familiar to me in a way because Baltimore is very similar, Maine and Wisconsin, very similar. So after some time I started to really like it here, cultivating this brand was taking away the obvious tastes of the city; gritty, industrial, and the not so obvious, it’s black, which noooobody outside of Wisconsin seems to know!

M - Was it difficult to figure out how to start production here?

E - Yes, I failed miserably for a long time because I couldn’t find a way to make this geographically based

M - And then a Jess walks into the picture

   J - I had known about Milwaukee Denim Co before I even knew Elmer, the first round of hats were sold at Form Fine Goods, where I was selling some Directive Made goods  E - It was summer 2015, Soup Brothers in Walkers point  J - I had just quit my job at the Milwaukee Art Museum, getting soup with my step mother who bumped into Elmer in an attempt to feel the softness of his jacket because she’s just forward like that, naturally I felt it too. We exchanged cards and started to meet for coffee regularly!  E - I think it’s important to talk about Jess having incredible personal gravity…  J - Welcome to my orbit  E - When we met at this Etsy manufacturing event shortly after our soup run-in, I remember having to decide which hat to wear. Meaning, am I going to be Elmer of MDco here or Elmer of Upscale Milwaukee?  (My day job) where I help companies generate revenue for growth. I am often very uncomfortable being 2 people, switching in and out of these roles. I had been talking to Jess and two other women about MDc then found myself switching into Scale up Elmer : “so, what is your dream for what you are doing with Directive? … How big do you want to be?”   J - “I just want to make a living ..and have just one job”  E - And I remember sharing that my dream for MDCo is 300 people,  $150,000,000 and onsite daycare. In terms of business around this time, before Jess got involved, I had just spent a lot of money getting he first pair of pants made. They were terrible, I was like O fuck. Fast forward to 2016, I tried a different route of hiring pattern designers, one in California and one in Michigan. They created a mens and women’s pattern. Then I hired a contract manufacturer to make a sample. But the big question in my mind was “is it Milwaukee denim if it’s made in California?”   M - I think that’s a crucial point for this brand  E - If there’s 100 people that would buy Mke denim made in Milwaukee, how many people would buy Mke denim made in California? It turned out to be about 75% who said they would buy made in California. But literally the week that I was going to put in an order of 100 pairs made in California, my grandmother died. I had this immediate voice telling me, “no, this is not how the story goes”, I reached a dead stop.  J - Then fast forward to summer 2017, Elmer and I were talking about my 12 jobs. I had tried to get him in contact with designers at Mt.Mary to get involved, but no one was down to commit.   E - In hindsight, there really couldn’t have been anyone else to do it but you. As every person is, we were incredibly naive!  J - Still are  E - But it’s working tremendously for us  J - well, I had never made jeans before but you knew me and my practice as Directive. But, I’m here because I believe you, I believe in what we’re doing. The vision is here

 

J - I had known about Milwaukee Denim Co before I even knew Elmer, the first round of hats were sold at Form Fine Goods, where I was selling some Directive Made goods

E - It was summer 2015, Soup Brothers in Walkers point

J - I had just quit my job at the Milwaukee Art Museum, getting soup with my step mother who bumped into Elmer in an attempt to feel the softness of his jacket because she’s just forward like that, naturally I felt it too. We exchanged cards and started to meet for coffee regularly!

E - I think it’s important to talk about Jess having incredible personal gravity…

J - Welcome to my orbit

E - When we met at this Etsy manufacturing event shortly after our soup run-in, I remember having to decide which hat to wear. Meaning, am I going to be Elmer of MDco here or Elmer of Upscale Milwaukee?  (My day job) where I help companies generate revenue for growth. I am often very uncomfortable being 2 people, switching in and out of these roles. I had been talking to Jess and two other women about MDc then found myself switching into Scale up Elmer : “so, what is your dream for what you are doing with Directive? … How big do you want to be?” 

J - “I just want to make a living ..and have just one job”

E - And I remember sharing that my dream for MDCo is 300 people,  $150,000,000 and onsite daycare. In terms of business around this time, before Jess got involved, I had just spent a lot of money getting he first pair of pants made. They were terrible, I was like O fuck. Fast forward to 2016, I tried a different route of hiring pattern designers, one in California and one in Michigan. They created a mens and women’s pattern. Then I hired a contract manufacturer to make a sample. But the big question in my mind was “is it Milwaukee denim if it’s made in California?” 

M - I think that’s a crucial point for this brand

E - If there’s 100 people that would buy Mke denim made in Milwaukee, how many people would buy Mke denim made in California? It turned out to be about 75% who said they would buy made in California. But literally the week that I was going to put in an order of 100 pairs made in California, my grandmother died. I had this immediate voice telling me, “no, this is not how the story goes”, I reached a dead stop.

J - Then fast forward to summer 2017, Elmer and I were talking about my 12 jobs. I had tried to get him in contact with designers at Mt.Mary to get involved, but no one was down to commit. 

E - In hindsight, there really couldn’t have been anyone else to do it but you. As every person is, we were incredibly naive!

J - Still are

E - But it’s working tremendously for us

J - well, I had never made jeans before but you knew me and my practice as Directive. But, I’m here because I believe you, I believe in what we’re doing. The vision is here

   E - So all the way in this meandering story, the vision has been the same. Always about making beautiful things, hiring people and paying them a living wage and the ability to support their families. I honestly believe that my purpose is about the families that we can support. The third piece is to rep Milwaukee and if that’s just showing the world the things that we make, I’m ok with that. But if it gets people to think “oh, this band is playing in Milwaukee, that’s where Milwaukee denim is, let’s go check it out!”, I really think we’re going to do that  M - That creates a greater sense of community within this brand, something that is taken seriously here. Who do you see as your demographic?  E - I want to make something that Milwaukee feels ownership of and proud of. Last year my big word was participate, this is participating in the telling of this brand, this story. By wearing this stuff and engaging with us, every interaction bends what we do. Obviously we have a kind of fashion vision if you will, but we’re always going to make sure that it’s not so disconnected with where we are today geographically. You know, I’m really clear that Milwaukee denim is not just for Milwaukee. It’s actually mostly not for Milwaukee  M - So do you see MDco kind of being this marker of the Midwest in terms of fashion manufacturing?  E - I don’t like the F word. … but I want to re-assert Milwaukee for what it already is. We make great things and we make them well, it’s a place with a ton of character. I just want to make sure the rest of the world knows it. But it’s not like the goal is wrapped up in some savior complex or anything  J - Because Milwaukee doesn’t need to be saved. It’s always been a place where people are pretty okay with how things are. It doesn’t bother us that Chicago is “bigger or better”, we are unapologetic about who we are. We’re not that cool, but in that it makes us kinda cool…right?  M - I think that shows through, even in conversation with people in Chicago, they always give an outside perspective of the charm of Milwaukee and what it has to offer. It’s sometimes hard to see through that when you’re here all of the time  E - Sure, which is why we have to create these spaces to reach beyond. MDco is not meant to be small, I want production to be on one side of the street and office functions and on-site day care for everyone on the other side of the street. We have not fully realized this vision yet  J - there are so many steps to take before getting there!  E - Infinite. But those small steps will lead to big things, and that is what Milwaukee is, we’re not small. In some ways we are the pre-eminent maker of things that are made today. It’s in our history. Craft Brewing for instance, it didn’t start in Milwaukee, BIG brewing started in Milwaukee. What we do is big! I mean, Harley is a great example. I’m obsessed with the idea of connecting consumers to the stories and ideas that people MADE their things, I always want to have a very human touch, even though industry is very mechanical and in-human, I want people to know that a human hand made these!

 

E - So all the way in this meandering story, the vision has been the same. Always about making beautiful things, hiring people and paying them a living wage and the ability to support their families. I honestly believe that my purpose is about the families that we can support. The third piece is to rep Milwaukee and if that’s just showing the world the things that we make, I’m ok with that. But if it gets people to think “oh, this band is playing in Milwaukee, that’s where Milwaukee denim is, let’s go check it out!”, I really think we’re going to do that

M - That creates a greater sense of community within this brand, something that is taken seriously here. Who do you see as your demographic?

E - I want to make something that Milwaukee feels ownership of and proud of. Last year my big word was participate, this is participating in the telling of this brand, this story. By wearing this stuff and engaging with us, every interaction bends what we do. Obviously we have a kind of fashion vision if you will, but we’re always going to make sure that it’s not so disconnected with where we are today geographically. You know, I’m really clear that Milwaukee denim is not just for Milwaukee. It’s actually mostly not for Milwaukee

M - So do you see MDco kind of being this marker of the Midwest in terms of fashion manufacturing?

E - I don’t like the F word. … but I want to re-assert Milwaukee for what it already is. We make great things and we make them well, it’s a place with a ton of character. I just want to make sure the rest of the world knows it. But it’s not like the goal is wrapped up in some savior complex or anything

J - Because Milwaukee doesn’t need to be saved. It’s always been a place where people are pretty okay with how things are. It doesn’t bother us that Chicago is “bigger or better”, we are unapologetic about who we are. We’re not that cool, but in that it makes us kinda cool…right?

M - I think that shows through, even in conversation with people in Chicago, they always give an outside perspective of the charm of Milwaukee and what it has to offer. It’s sometimes hard to see through that when you’re here all of the time

E - Sure, which is why we have to create these spaces to reach beyond. MDco is not meant to be small, I want production to be on one side of the street and office functions and on-site day care for everyone on the other side of the street. We have not fully realized this vision yet

J - there are so many steps to take before getting there!

E - Infinite. But those small steps will lead to big things, and that is what Milwaukee is, we’re not small. In some ways we are the pre-eminent maker of things that are made today. It’s in our history. Craft Brewing for instance, it didn’t start in Milwaukee, BIG brewing started in Milwaukee. What we do is big! I mean, Harley is a great example. I’m obsessed with the idea of connecting consumers to the stories and ideas that people MADE their things, I always want to have a very human touch, even though industry is very mechanical and in-human, I want people to know that a human hand made these!

   M - So why denim?  E - Denim didn’t come first, surprisingly. I think that Milwaukee is a beautiful word, said and seen, so the words just happened together. It wasn’t like, “oh man, I love me some denim”, I mean I love clothes. But the more I leaned into it, the more it made sense. There is a ton of symbolism and mythology in my mind about it, it’s very people based. When you think of Milwaukee you think industry, when you think of blue collar you think denim. That’s amazing, right?! But fundamentally denim is made of cotton, this beautiful organic material. So the process of transforming this material into a product literally translates and represents industry.  M - For those of us who don’t know, what *is denim really?  E - Historically it’s cotton, but it doesn’t have to be. Most notably it is recognized as a color and that color is made from indigo, a lucious crazy dying process, going from green to blue by oxidization. Denim is also the structure of the weave, it’s a three over one pattern, a warp then a weft. That’s why it looks different on each side. It’s rugged and wares well, that’s why when Levi Strauss invented it like 130 years ago it was being worn by people who were working in terrible conditions (miners, all that west coast development). The rivets were used in high stress areas because it’s better than a seam, a sewn joint. It’s been adopted and owned by so many different subcategories, cowboy, hip hop, rock and roll, hippies. It’s amazing  M - Can you tell us where you source your denim from?  E - Because of the Souths long history with cotton, that is where a lot of these denim mills have been. Cone Mills in South Carolina operated for 125 years and just closed this past December. It had produced the most sought after salvaged denim made in the United States, from this particular plant called White Oak Plant. The business grew beyond that plant, so the brand Cone Mills still exists, but White Oak is what closed. There’s a resale distributor on the West Coast that actually bought tons and tons of their denim before they closed, so that is where I buy the yardage for MdCo. There’s a ton of apparel construction that happens down in North / South Carolina, some in New York and Jersey area that tends to be a little higher fashion, and then West Coast is where all the denim is. Any larger bran Denim that you see that is made in the USA comes out of 3-5 different places here

 

M - So why denim?

E - Denim didn’t come first, surprisingly. I think that Milwaukee is a beautiful word, said and seen, so the words just happened together. It wasn’t like, “oh man, I love me some denim”, I mean I love clothes. But the more I leaned into it, the more it made sense. There is a ton of symbolism and mythology in my mind about it, it’s very people based. When you think of Milwaukee you think industry, when you think of blue collar you think denim. That’s amazing, right?! But fundamentally denim is made of cotton, this beautiful organic material. So the process of transforming this material into a product literally translates and represents industry.

M - For those of us who don’t know, what *is denim really?

E - Historically it’s cotton, but it doesn’t have to be. Most notably it is recognized as a color and that color is made from indigo, a lucious crazy dying process, going from green to blue by oxidization. Denim is also the structure of the weave, it’s a three over one pattern, a warp then a weft. That’s why it looks different on each side. It’s rugged and wares well, that’s why when Levi Strauss invented it like 130 years ago it was being worn by people who were working in terrible conditions (miners, all that west coast development). The rivets were used in high stress areas because it’s better than a seam, a sewn joint. It’s been adopted and owned by so many different subcategories, cowboy, hip hop, rock and roll, hippies. It’s amazing

M - Can you tell us where you source your denim from?

E - Because of the Souths long history with cotton, that is where a lot of these denim mills have been. Cone Mills in South Carolina operated for 125 years and just closed this past December. It had produced the most sought after salvaged denim made in the United States, from this particular plant called White Oak Plant. The business grew beyond that plant, so the brand Cone Mills still exists, but White Oak is what closed. There’s a resale distributor on the West Coast that actually bought tons and tons of their denim before they closed, so that is where I buy the yardage for MdCo. There’s a ton of apparel construction that happens down in North / South Carolina, some in New York and Jersey area that tends to be a little higher fashion, and then West Coast is where all the denim is. Any larger bran Denim that you see that is made in the USA comes out of 3-5 different places here

   M - Do you have a favorite pair of pants or clothing phase in your life that you could indulge us on?  J - Oh god, I don’t know if I have a favorite. But over the years I’ve definitely realized that I really do enjoy having a uniform. There’s enough decisions in my day that I have to think about, I want my wardrobe to be minimal and clean. I’m happy with black jeans and some shirt, also a sparkly green jump suit for fun. I’d be curious to see future Jess’s wardrobe, when I have more money and time to make my own clothes. I would feel more free! But as far as my past…I wore a lot of polyester vintage clothes in college which was fun weird and sweaty  E - I wish we would have known each other in college. But I don’t think you would have dug me, I would have been too much for you. But I also wore a lot of vintage polyester and these chunky brown Aldo shoes when Aldo was different. College was the first time where I got to wear whatever I wanted, having gone to an all boys catholic school 6-12th grade. Freshman year of college I worked at the Gap and had these amazing wide leg painters jeans made of this light weight denim. I ripped them on the edges getting onto my bike one day, but decided to still wear them. Because I was dancing, there was a long time where I would wear those pants with my tights under them and these engineer boots (Sketchers comes full circle). I was also super skinny and ripped … had this awesome corduroy coat that was like 8 sizes too big. I thought that coat was so cool  M - I’m just now getting rid of my oversized corduroy jacket. Time to move forward!   E - Moving forward! To $150,000 and on-site daycare :)

 

M - Do you have a favorite pair of pants or clothing phase in your life that you could indulge us on?

J - Oh god, I don’t know if I have a favorite. But over the years I’ve definitely realized that I really do enjoy having a uniform. There’s enough decisions in my day that I have to think about, I want my wardrobe to be minimal and clean. I’m happy with black jeans and some shirt, also a sparkly green jump suit for fun. I’d be curious to see future Jess’s wardrobe, when I have more money and time to make my own clothes. I would feel more free! But as far as my past…I wore a lot of polyester vintage clothes in college which was fun weird and sweaty

E - I wish we would have known each other in college. But I don’t think you would have dug me, I would have been too much for you. But I also wore a lot of vintage polyester and these chunky brown Aldo shoes when Aldo was different. College was the first time where I got to wear whatever I wanted, having gone to an all boys catholic school 6-12th grade. Freshman year of college I worked at the Gap and had these amazing wide leg painters jeans made of this light weight denim. I ripped them on the edges getting onto my bike one day, but decided to still wear them. Because I was dancing, there was a long time where I would wear those pants with my tights under them and these engineer boots (Sketchers comes full circle). I was also super skinny and ripped … had this awesome corduroy coat that was like 8 sizes too big. I thought that coat was so cool

M - I’m just now getting rid of my oversized corduroy jacket. Time to move forward! 

E - Moving forward! To $150,000 and on-site daycare :)

 

 
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Post Grad Peep:

Basha Harris

(Duomo no.5 2017 )

 

 
M - Hi Bashi, what is your favorite shape right now?  B - Definitely a circle!!!  M - What comes to mind with a circle?  B - Obvious things such as the moon; but always womyn, [my] uterus -- energy orbs -- fruit! -- definitely thinking lots about my uterus today  M - How does it feel?  B - My uterus? It feels bloated. Periods release built-up tissue and blood, but I don’t menstruate because I have an IUD  M - So it’s just a feeling?  B - Yes. Definitely psychosomatic. “Built-up” grunge inside -- #angst -- #grunge #punk  M - A beautifully angsty uterus  B - It’s beautiful that they have their own environment, like the Amazon rainforest. Self-sufficient, often oscillating with the larger body  M - Is there another part of the body that is especially intriguing to you lately?  B - My stomach! Also its own world. Many researchers have referred to the stomach as the second brain. Our bodies physiologically encourage us to return/level-out to our naturally inherent states of being ~ like a plant reaching toward the sun ~ reaching toward our nutrients whether we want them or not. The body in itself is fascinating to me ...a large organism that fights itself   

M - Hi Bashi, what is your favorite shape right now?

B - Definitely a circle!!!

M - What comes to mind with a circle?

B - Obvious things such as the moon; but always womyn, [my] uterus -- energy orbs -- fruit! -- definitely thinking lots about my uterus today

M - How does it feel?

B - My uterus? It feels bloated. Periods release built-up tissue and blood, but I don’t menstruate because I have an IUD

M - So it’s just a feeling?

B - Yes. Definitely psychosomatic. “Built-up” grunge inside -- #angst -- #grunge #punk

M - A beautifully angsty uterus

B - It’s beautiful that they have their own environment, like the Amazon rainforest. Self-sufficient, often oscillating with the larger body

M - Is there another part of the body that is especially intriguing to you lately?

B - My stomach! Also its own world. Many researchers have referred to the stomach as the second brain. Our bodies physiologically encourage us to return/level-out to our naturally inherent states of being ~ like a plant reaching toward the sun ~ reaching toward our nutrients whether we want them or not. The body in itself is fascinating to me ...a large organism that fights itself

 

M -I see this disposition reflected in your jewelry. Is there a certain point with your relationship to your body that led you to nd your “voice” in creating your current body of work?  B - Absolutely. Most of my work reflects the versatility of the circle. I form them into more organic, bodily shapes. I have recently begun including more identifiable elements such as hands, faces, and textures. I am inspired by another’s interaction with the work, with shapes, and with art in general. I am inspired by the reaction that someone has to a shape/texture.. like the Rorschach test; What do you see? -- do you see yourself?  M - a noodle  B - Yes! And how do you relate to a noodle? When you see a noodle do you think about how it feels in your mouth? Do you think about dancing? Feeling free and youthful? Listening to Mmmbop by Hanson? Watching a Disney Channel Original movie?  M - !!! There are so many kinds of noodles. I’ve never really liked penne, it’s far too static. Do you nd the movement of your pieces to be an important aspect...or are you working towards / against this in any way?  B - Definitely. I am inspired by movement - social, physical. “Organic” in my mind really means flowing ~ ebbing, flowing; Frida Kahlo, elasticity, gooey aloe plants, the smell of decay on the bike path  M - What are some other mediums that in uence your jewelry practice? have you always made jewelry or did it grow out of something else ?  B - As much as I occasionally find myself downplaying the importance of painting in my life, I am very inspired by it. However, I’m most inspired by artists who have dabbled in everything! Artists such as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys. Performance art!!!! Marina Abramovic ~ In love. Obsessed. I literally think of her all day long. Anselm Kiefer was an artist whose work I was incredibly moved by as an 18-year-old living in Israel. I saw one of his solo shows at the Tel Aviv art museum, and went back three times - a 2-hour trek by train at the time   

M -I see this disposition reflected in your jewelry. Is there a certain point with your relationship to your body that led you to nd your “voice” in creating your current body of work?

B - Absolutely. Most of my work reflects the versatility of the circle. I form them into more organic, bodily shapes. I have recently begun including more identifiable elements such as hands, faces, and textures. I am inspired by another’s interaction with the work, with shapes, and with art in general. I am inspired by the reaction that someone has to a shape/texture.. like the Rorschach test; What do you see? -- do you see yourself?

M - a noodle

B - Yes! And how do you relate to a noodle? When you see a noodle do you think about how it feels in your mouth? Do you think about dancing? Feeling free and youthful? Listening to Mmmbop by Hanson? Watching a Disney Channel Original movie?

M - !!! There are so many kinds of noodles. I’ve never really liked penne, it’s far too static. Do you nd the movement of your pieces to be an important aspect...or are you working towards / against this in any way?

B - Definitely. I am inspired by movement - social, physical. “Organic” in my mind really means flowing ~ ebbing, flowing; Frida Kahlo, elasticity, gooey aloe plants, the smell of decay on the bike path

M - What are some other mediums that in uence your jewelry practice? have you always made jewelry or did it grow out of something else ?

B - As much as I occasionally find myself downplaying the importance
of painting in my life, I am very inspired by it. However, I’m most inspired by artists who have dabbled
in everything! Artists such as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Joseph Beuys. Performance art!!!! Marina Abramovic ~ In love. Obsessed. I literally think of her all day long. Anselm Kiefer was an artist whose
work I was incredibly moved by as an 18-year-old living in Israel. I saw
one of his solo shows at the Tel Aviv art museum, and went back three times - a 2-hour trek by train at the time

 

M - Yum. I find it limiting to just draw from one thing. At the same time, it can be difficult to find a way to facilitate multiple disciplines. Since graduation from UWM in spring of 2016, have you found it fairly easy or difficult to source the support you need as a maker/artist?  B - The summer directly following graduation I felt empty. I was floating -- I internalized feeling lost and confused and without space. I directed all my energy into controlling material things, and also abusing exercise and focusing on my body. When I realized this, and during a long transitional time, I moved to Madison. I searched the depths of the artist community in Madison, finding every individual and collective studio space I could. I then realized that I did not want to invest in the seemingly sparse Madison artist community (outside of the UW community), and went to the UW Union to check out their equivalent of UW-Milwaukee’s Craft Centre, called “Wheelhouse studios”. I befriended the staff at Wheelhouse and they let me use the space as much as I wanted, for free! I even DJ’d the space. After a summer of blah, I felt inspired just to have an accessible space and to be around people and MAKERS. I just wanted to make as much as possible, and became instantly fond of Bernie’s Rock Shop, a local stone dealer and lapidary in Madison. I lived nearby and stopped in almost every week to see their inventory -- #stoner lol --- but seriously infatuated by the gems that nature offers; from agate to diamonds - In love - small paintings! That you can carry with you and doze off into.  M - I feel like DJ should be a more frequent line used on ones resume. Did you feed off of the communal / open space of the studio? Do you ever wish that you had your own personal studio space?  B - Constantly. I also felt very limited in terms of hours. I worked full time and only had nights free, but almost each night was occupied by various classes the studio was offering. I have a difficult time pausing a process when I am in it ~ emotional, physical, artistic ~ so I often work in the studio all day, create a whole body of work, and call it. Then do the same thing the next day. Like a book of poetry, a long-winded performance, or a short sketch! But to complete something in its breadth, and breathe all at once, is my jam! I am definitely influenced by tarot readings in this way as well. I believe in three card readings; present moment, current obstacle, and outcome~ and that these things change in an instant! So why go on and on and create a whole body of work when you can go through it in one breath and get out what you’re trying to say? Because that is the process, and then you are able to make a new body with a stronger presence. Does that make sense? #moveon #thereisno”best” only better, only new. Better because you’re in the process and are growing every second.

M - Yum. I find it limiting to just draw from one thing. At the same time, it can be difficult to find a way to facilitate multiple disciplines. Since graduation from UWM in spring of 2016, have you found it fairly easy or difficult to source the support you need as a maker/artist?

B - The summer directly following graduation I felt empty. I was floating -- I internalized feeling lost and confused and without space. I directed all my energy into controlling material things, and also abusing exercise and focusing on my body. When I realized this, and during a long transitional time, I moved to Madison. I searched the depths of the artist community in Madison, finding every individual and collective studio space I could. I then realized that I did not want to invest in the seemingly sparse Madison artist community (outside of the UW community), and went to the UW Union to check out their equivalent of UW-Milwaukee’s Craft Centre, called “Wheelhouse studios”. I befriended the staff at Wheelhouse and they let me use the space as much as I wanted, for free! I even DJ’d the space. After a summer of blah, I felt inspired just to have an accessible space and to be around people and MAKERS. I just wanted to make as much as possible, and became instantly fond of Bernie’s Rock Shop, a local stone dealer and lapidary in Madison. I lived nearby and stopped in almost every week to see their inventory -- #stoner lol --- but seriously infatuated by the gems that nature offers; from agate to diamonds - In love - small paintings! That you can carry with you and doze off into.

M - I feel like DJ should be a more frequent line used on ones resume. Did you feed off of the communal / open space of the studio? Do you ever wish that you had your own personal studio space?

B - Constantly. I also felt very limited in terms of hours. I worked full time and only had nights free, but almost each night was occupied by various classes the studio was offering. I have a difficult time pausing a process when I am in it ~ emotional, physical, artistic ~ so I often work in the studio all day, create a whole body of work, and call it. Then do the same thing the next day. Like a book of poetry, a long-winded performance, or a short sketch! But to complete something in its breadth, and breathe all at once, is my jam! I am definitely influenced by tarot readings in this way as well. I believe in three card readings; present moment, current obstacle, and outcome~ and that these things change in an instant! So why go on and on and create a whole body of work when you can go through it in one breath and get out what you’re trying to say? Because that is the process, and then you are able to make a new body with a stronger presence. Does that make sense? #moveon #thereisno”best” only better, only new. Better because you’re in the process and are growing every second.

M - #healthysigh. #bashamovedon . Now you have a beautiful community space called Yours Truly in the Riverwest community of mke. -- what are you most looking forward to with this space?  B - I am looking forward to/celebrating daily:   - community  - intentional learning outside of the institution  - fun times!   - sharing space, individual and shared artistic processes and practices  - influence by mediums other than my own  - putting things into perspective.   I’m maybe most looking forward to celebrating [local] emerging artists by exhibiting their work! Experiencing them/encouraging their growth by providing a space for them to talk and teach about their practice/expertise through workshops (small and large) and discussions, forums, actions, screenings! I’m excited to be in Milwaukee to encourage folks to SEE the magic that exists here by engaging with one another and with ourselves (Including myself) :)  M - I have one last curiosity ~ was there a piece of jewelry that you were infatuated with as a child?   B - My mom made this ring for my grandmother. A cast silver ring with harsh corners and soft bends, with a beautifully set aquamarine. Probably a 2-carat stone. I don’t remember my grandmother ever wearing it, she passed when I was 5, but I was obsessed with her. I wanted to be with her every moment, I even thought she was my mom. My mom was an over-time OBGYN at the time and I never saw her. Anyway, when she passed my mom showed me this ring; she was mourning and I was too. We shared many moments of reflection together in pain and in celebration and I always wanted this ring. Last year my mom gave it to me! One of the only “material” things from her i’ve ever felt connected to.

M - #healthysigh. #bashamovedon . Now you have a beautiful community space called Yours Truly in the Riverwest community of mke. -- what are you most looking forward to with this space?

B - I am looking forward to/celebrating daily: 

- community

- intentional learning outside of the institution

- fun times! 

- sharing space, individual and shared artistic processes and practices

- influence by mediums other than my own

- putting things into perspective. 

I’m maybe most looking forward to celebrating [local] emerging artists by exhibiting their work! Experiencing them/encouraging their growth by providing a space for them to talk and teach about their practice/expertise through workshops (small and large) and discussions, forums, actions, screenings! I’m excited to be in Milwaukee to encourage folks to SEE the magic that exists here by engaging with one another and with ourselves (Including myself) :)

M - I have one last curiosity ~ was there a piece of jewelry that you were infatuated with as a child? 

B - My mom made this ring for my grandmother. A cast silver ring with harsh corners and soft bends, with a beautifully set aquamarine. Probably a 2-carat stone. I don’t remember my grandmother ever wearing it, she passed when I was 5, but I was obsessed with her. I wanted to be with her every moment, I even thought she was my mom. My mom was an over-time OBGYN at the time and I never saw her. Anyway, when she passed my mom showed me this ring; she was mourning and I was too. We shared many moments of reflection together in pain and in celebration and I always wanted this ring. Last year my mom gave it to me! One of the only “material” things from her i’ve ever felt connected to.

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Lania Sproles

(duomo no.4 2016)

 
M - What is your favorite process of making? Print and illustration seem to be the major body of your work, what about it do you love?  L - What I love about printmaking is the fact that it is so process based. For many people, going through a series of steps before reaching an end result feels strenuous but personally it’s oddly satisfying. The repetitiveness in a way fuels my obsessive nature. I love this idea of not knowing what my imagery could turn out to be. The spontaneous nature of printmaking inspires me to keep my options open and really just keeps the process of art making exciting. I also like to use collage techniques which allows for me to use various types of printmaking at once  M - What are other mediums that interest you? Do you feel that the themes you address would translate well?  L - As of right now, I’ve been marrying my love of drawing and printmaking together. I think drawing in way forces me to commit to the imagery I want to convey. Printmaking on the other hand, the process isn’t so forgiving at times. I think combining the two doesn’t interfere with what themes and ideas. I Want to project. If anything the two processes combined enhances the themes and challenge me to be even more creative.  M - Is there an artist that you have been inspired by continuously or does this always change? Why?  L - I’ve always looked at other artists’ work, it helps me sort out my own ideas. Just to name a few, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Kerry James MarshallareartistsIamconstantlylookingtofor inspiration. I am always looking for new artists and new work. As of right now I am into Junya Watanabe. He is a world renowned fashion designer, very different from anything I have seen.  M - Your work seems to center around issues of race relations, the body, identity and systemic constructs. We see repetition in the use of hair and home, infused with elements of both the natural and imagined worlds. Could you say more about this?  L - The characters I create are essentially my confidants. They are the people I can relate to the most and I see them as embodiments of the disconnections I feel; whether it be disconnections I feel to my own blackness, the disconnections I feel with the people around me or the inner conflictions that brew within me. These figures are fantastical and whimsically placed in nothingness. There is no environment or home that provide them the luxury of security. These figures are bound by their blackness and flaunt their otherness and in way they all represent me.   

M - What is your favorite process of making? Print and illustration seem to be the major body of your work, what about it do you love?

L - What I love about printmaking is the fact that it is so process based. For many people, going through a series of steps before reaching an end result feels strenuous but personally it’s oddly satisfying. The repetitiveness in a way fuels my obsessive nature. I love this idea of not knowing what my imagery could turn out to be. The spontaneous nature of printmaking inspires me to keep my options open and really just keeps the process of art making exciting. I also like to use collage techniques which allows for me to use various types of printmaking at once

M - What are other mediums that interest you? Do you feel that the themes you address would translate well?

L - As of right now, I’ve been marrying my love of drawing and printmaking together. I think drawing in way forces me to commit to the imagery I want to convey. Printmaking on the other hand, the process isn’t so forgiving at times. I think combining the two doesn’t interfere with what themes and ideas. I Want to project. If anything the two processes combined enhances the themes and challenge me to be even more creative.

M - Is there an artist that you have been inspired by continuously or does this always change? Why?

L - I’ve always looked at other artists’ work, it helps me sort out my own ideas. Just to name a few, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Kerry James MarshallareartistsIamconstantlylookingtofor inspiration. I am always looking for new artists and new work. As of right now I am into Junya Watanabe. He is a world renowned fashion designer, very different from anything I have seen.

M - Your work seems to center around issues of race relations, the body, identity and systemic constructs. We see repetition in the use of hair and home, infused with elements of both the natural and imagined worlds. Could you say more about this?

L - The characters I create are essentially my confidants. They are the people I can relate to the most and I see them as embodiments of the disconnections I feel; whether it be disconnections I feel to my own blackness, the disconnections I feel with the people around me or the inner conflictions that brew within me. These figures are fantastical and whimsically placed in nothingness. There is no environment or home that provide them the luxury of security. These figures are bound by their blackness and flaunt their otherness and in way they all represent me.

 

L1 copy.jpg
M - How do you feel attending MIAD in uences your process and the way you think about art? What are the main challenges of attending private art school?  L - I see no challenges in attending private school but I do see the value in attending a less populated art school. The only challenges I could see as conflicting would simply be not doing your work or not being productive. Which is mainly not a fault of an institution but more so a personal issue. School is what you make it, doesn’t matter if you’re school is known as prestigious or not. Smaller schools allow for more intimate discussions on one’s body of work and allow for better relationships with instructors. Which I believe allows for artistic growth and something I’ve found to be a positive quality of MIAD.  M - Where do you nd the most satisfaction in your creative work ? ( personal conceptualizing, internet viewing vs. gallery exhibition . . .)  L - Delving into what inspires the work I do and viewing art at a gallery prove to be the most satisfying. I am always surprising myself at what new things that will stand out to me at a gallery or what will come up through self guided research. As creatives I feel as though it’s significant to go out to galleries and see what kinds of things are being used to represent current culture and what not.  M - What has been on your mind lately that you can’t escape? (recent discoveries, inspirations, the political climate etc ) What are you looking forward to?  L - Lately, the complexities of racial climate and racial representation have been on my mind. I really want to dig deep in how these things relate to how we end up presenting ourselves. I’ve been interested in also the feelings that come with being casted out as “other” and how to translate that through more of a fanciful arrangement. I’m becoming less afraid to create witty moments that simultaneously address results of “otherness”, feelings of apathy, and loneliness and such. At this point, I want to continue to push scale and activating spaces more as I further develop my visual language.   

M - How do you feel attending MIAD in uences your process and the way you think about art? What are the main challenges of attending private art school?

L - I see no challenges in attending private school but I do see the value in attending a less populated art school. The only challenges I could see as conflicting would simply be not doing your work or not being productive. Which is mainly not a fault of an institution but more so a personal issue. School is what you make it, doesn’t matter if you’re school is known as prestigious or not. Smaller schools allow for more intimate discussions on one’s body of work and allow for better relationships with instructors. Which I believe allows for artistic growth and something I’ve found to be a positive quality of MIAD.

M - Where do you nd the most satisfaction in your creative work ? ( personal conceptualizing, internet viewing vs. gallery exhibition . . .)

L - Delving into what inspires the work I do and viewing art at a gallery prove to be the most satisfying. I am always surprising myself at what new things that will stand out to me at a gallery or what will come up through self guided research. As creatives I feel as though it’s significant to go out to galleries and see what kinds of things are being used to represent current culture and what not.

M - What has been on your mind lately that you can’t escape? (recent discoveries, inspirations, the political climate etc ) What are you looking forward to?

L - Lately, the complexities of racial climate and racial representation have been on my mind. I really want to dig deep in how these things relate to how we end up presenting ourselves. I’ve been interested in also the feelings that come with being casted out as “other” and how to translate that through more of a fanciful arrangement. I’m becoming less afraid to create witty moments that simultaneously address results of “otherness”, feelings of apathy, and loneliness and such. At this point, I want to continue to push scale and activating spaces more as I further develop my visual language.

 

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