The dress named after Queen Berthe au Grand Pied (720-783 AD) is a patchwork of different-sized pieces of cloth cut from thirty-five pairs of recycled blue jeans. The result, however, is magnificent. We are invited to think of what can stem from the creative use of imperfection. Berthe “Bigfoot” was named for her imperfection, apparently she was clubfooted. In European and Asian mythology, however, the clubfoot was believed to mark a person with special powers to link the realms of the living and the spirits. Certainly, Queen Berthe had extraordinary capacities, among them diplomatic skill and subtlety that helped her son, Charlemagne, to greatness. Diplomacy, the combining of relationships, can be likened to stitching together disparate elements.
Berthe’s denim costume deliberately incorporates contemporary references, however. Lamyne M. is also pointing to one of his main concerns: fast fashion, the multi-billion-dollar business that fuels and feeds off of our insatiable hunger for ever trendier clothes. Countless jobs – and, thus, livelihoods – have been sacrificed on the altar of fast fashion’s greed, as factories have been moved to countries where labor is cheaper. There, relying on and hiding behind sub-contractors, major brands impose on non-unionized workers appalling wages and conditions. In such settings, work-related injuries abound, cancers and respiratory illnesses thrive, and rates of miscarriage soar. This is so because, to produce ever faster and cheaper, companies resort to the use of toxic chemicals. Heavy metals and endocrine disruptors cause havoc in anatomies and environments alike. Bodies, rivers, seas, and soil are contaminated. Landfills are awash in discarded clothes: with the average consumer throwing away 80 lbs. of clothing a year, in 2014, the United States alone generated over 15 million tons of used textile waste. Recycling accounts for a paltry 10 to 15% of this staggering amount. Re-use, however, is hardly a panacea. As second-hand clothes flood markets across Africa and Central and South America, local cloth production is decimated. Against this state of affairs, some countries have sought to fight back, to disastrous effect; a case in point is Rwanda, which, as a result, faces a trade war with the US. Meanwhile, the textile industry flourishes. The pollution it causes is second only to that produced by the oil industry. One in six people worldwide is employed in the fashion sector. The majority earn between one and three dollars a day.
Once a textile industry hub, Seine Saint Denis – the region in which the city of Saint-Denis is located – is now plagued with staggering unemployment rates. Demographically one of France’s youngest and most populated départements, it is also Europe’s first consumer of blue jeans. Fast fashion has caused havoc here. Hence the dress crafted by Lamyne M in honor of Queen Berthe is also a pointed social comment, and an example of how we may act against fast fashion through creative upcycling. Long before they were all the rage they have now become, Lamyne M was running workshops teaching young people in Saint Denis how to individualize, and in the process to upcycle, second-hand clothes. In a related move, he has set afoot a system that allows job seekers heading to interviews to borrow customized suits and ties, coats and dresses. As for his Grandes, they are co-productions: works that involve multiple actors, many of them women, working in concert and sharing knowledge.
Still, Queen Berthe’s blue-jean dress is an indictment of more than fast fashion alone. A staunch critique of neoliberalism undergirds much of Lamyne M’s practice. Of particular interest to him are collaborative approaches to production. By way of these, he seeks to foster creative spaces in which hierarchy gives way to horizontal engagement and goods are made available that question capitalism’s hold on our tastes, our habits and choices.