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Connection, Reflection, and Fashion Activism: An Interview With Designer Margaret Burton

Margaret-Burton

 

Designer and ethical fashion advocate Margaret Burton’s connection to art has always
been strong. After high school she spent time at the Cleveland Institute of Art studying visual
communication and conceptual art. However, Margaret grew tired of phony art school kids and
searched for genuine connection in an unlikely place: fashion. In 2012, she transferred to the
Pratt Institute for Fashion Design and began creating art through clothing construction. It wasn’t
long before the fashion industry revealed it’s ugly side to her. Margaret knew she had to play a
part in the solution to the waste building up around the world and rampant labor exploitation.
Each garment Margaret creates showcases how the past informs the present. Margaret’s
clothing reminds her audience that each scar is part of a larger story and can be beautiful,
instead of something to feel ashamed of. Through her garments, teaching, and public platform,
she hopes to aide others on the journey towards fairer fashion. I spoke to Margaret over email
about her journey from fashion student to fashion activist.

You went to the Pratt Institute for Fashion Design. When did you go from a fashion lover
to a fashion activist?

It was my junior year, I was interning for a brand in NYC and I don’t know how to put it
politely but they had a huge room of samples and other products they weren’t going to sell
because they had “changed their minds”. One of my jobs was to clean this room up, which
meant cutting everything in half even if it was in perfectly good condition. This was a higher end
brand and this killed me as a fashion student because I knew what a bitch bias bindings, welt
pockets, and zipper flies were to sew. I couldn’t stop picturing the Chinese woman or man on
the other side of the world hunched over their machine making these things with knots in their
backs just to have me literally cut it in half. I started researching, I started reading, watching
documentaries, all while realizing no one was talking about any of the waste problems or
garment workers at that time. This was 2014 and I cant believe how much has changed since.

“I want to use what I have been given to help others.”

You’ve visited India and Cambodia over the years. How has your love for travel
influenced your work?

I actually have a love hate relationship with travel. I hate flying. I probably shave off two
years of my life from how freaked out I get every time I fly. I really try to have open hands with
my life, and only go on these trips when they call out to me. I do not seek them out. I met
someone at a party that went to NYU whose family lived in a specific part of India where the
Shoddy industry takes place. They immediately offered for me to go stay with their parents and
get me a translator for my research. It was definitely frightening to trust this person and go to
India alone, but what were the odds! I had to do it. Then last year I got contacted by NOMI
network in Cambodia to teach pattern-making and draping. Again, I couldn’t say no. I want to
use what I have been given to help others.

Designer Margaret Burton

How did you become involved with the program Project 658 in North Carolina? How has
that impacted your work?

This kind of goes back to the open hands policy I mentioned before. I was contacted by
an old high school friend who saw my work online. He asked me to come to NC to teach him
and his kids for a month. The organization he worked for, Project 658, is a non profit that helps
refugees and at risk communities obtain skills so they can get jobs and learn to speak english.
My friend Zac was a part of their after school program for high schoolers. He saw what negative
affects fashion was having on the kids; they felt the need to get involved with gangs and sell
drugs in order to afford Louis Vuitton or Supreme. I came for a month and taught them how to
sew and they lit up! The boys got so into making their own shorts. It was a really great
experience seeing sewing used in such a positive way for self-expression and to experience a
sense of accomplishment. I went back to LA where I was interning for Jeremy Scott. A couple
months later Zac asked me to come back and take an after school sewing instructor position. So
I went.

“Depending on what kind of clothes I have coming in,
they kind of inform the work.”

Where do you source most of your materials from? What is it about using pre-loved
pieces that changes the way you design?

Honestly I get all my materials from friends, family, and recently people who follow me
on instagram. I love working this way. Depending on what kind of clothes I have coming in, they
kind of inform the work. I will see I have a lot of jeans or a lot of t-shirts and I will decide what to
make with them. I let the material, and the donations at the time, tell me what they should be.

MargaretBurtonImg3.jpg

What are your hopes for the future of your label?
Gosh, it’s hard for me to say. On one hand, I would love to have a boutique and be of
service to my community, like a mom n’ pop tailoring store. People could bring in clothes they
want me to turn it into a custom jacket or pants for them. This dream feels like it would have
survived in the 1950’s but not in our digital age. On the other hand, I would love to scale and be
able to employ refugees or other individuals from at risk communities. To be a large scale
solution to the waste problem would be a real dream, but that honestly feels blurry and hard to
grasp at the moment. Quite literally a dream.

-Audrey Stanton

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