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From Fashion Addiction To Art

Isabel Varela installation
Image from installation

Isabel Varela “Clothes: Minded and Repurposed” hosted by Chashama

I have something to admit: when it comes to ethical fashion, I am not perfect. I strive to make more educated and responsible choices surrounding the clothing I consume, but as a 20 something woman living in New York City on a budget, there are times that yes, I occasionally consume irresponsibly. I am embarrassed to admit this— especially on this platform— but after visiting Isabel Varela’s exhibition “Clothes: Minded and Repurposed”, hosted by Chashama on the Upper East Side, I feel compelled to share honestly. 

A multidisciplinary artist, fashion advocate, and consultant, Varela’s exhibition provided a lively and prismatic look into the world of ethical fashion. But more than an educational tool, the exhibition intimately revealed the artist’s own struggle and journey with fashion.

Isabel also began with an admission: she once was an extreme fashion addict. Maybe the word extreme isn’t strong enough. Isabel was obsessed with buying designer clothing in her twenties. She racked up $100,000 in debt (owning over 300 pairs of shoes!) chasing after the perfect outfits and looks, all in an attempt to conceal her inner insecurities. Eventually, Isabel hit rock bottom and knew her addiction had to end. 

Jump to 2022, Isabel has not only paid off her debt, but transformed her relationship with fashion, using her own personal experience to educate and inspire others through art. Varela explains, “On a deeper level [the exhibition] demonstrates my own healing and transformation through being a shopaholic with $100,000 in debt, showcasing how I turned that trauma, pain, shame and guilt into something more positive, and to show others that they too can overcome adversities.” Today, Isabel is a force for good as a speaker, life coach, and sustainability consultant of major fashion brands.

Up close, the textures of Valera’s refashioned garments are reminiscent of oil paintings

Isabel’s work meets viewers wherever they are at in their own fashion journeys, incorporating educational tools to empower people to examine and transform their own fashion behaviors. She highlights tangible steps like seeking out ‘mend and repair’ community groups, finding out where clothing comes from before purchasing, and using alteration specialists or tailors to make clothes last longer. These solution oriented activations go beyond recognition of the problems of the fashion industry, making Varela’s exhibition a powerful tool in shifting the onus from artist to the community at large. 

“People can come in here and it’s not just for viewing, you actually become part of the work as well.”

Isabel’s goal of engaging viewers as active participants is successful: Varela describes repeat visitors that have visited and revisited the gallery, absorbing the ways in which they might take accountability for their own fashion habits. Visitors share about starting their own journeys in committing to sustainability, inspired by the educational tools. An installation piece, Landfill, uses upcycled clothing donated by the NYC Fair Trade Coalition to evoke the pain our planet feels from being buried by pollution and waste. Varela recounts a visitor struck by this work, pausing in front of it and remarking “this looks like my closet.” This particular woman returned to the gallery four times, each time sharing the ways she was healing from her own fashion addiction and taking steps towards sustainable habits. 

fashion addict clothes made from other old clothes

Three works in particular struck me. The larger-than-life mannequins, towering 10 feet tall and dressed in scraps of upcycled clothing. Varela created two of the bodices from her own clothes, utilizing 60 garments worth over $30,000. The third, made up of white button downs of all varieties, salvaged from waste at a high end fashion headquarters seeks to deconstruct “gender and class barriers fashion has worked hard to enforce and then demolish.” The scale of all three works speak to the magnitude of the problem, echoing the feeling that although a solution might appear insurmountable, individuals can embark on their own sustainability journeys in order to become a part of the solution. 

While the exhibition is now closed, Isabel has much to look forward to in the works from e-books, to a digital course all housed under her online and live community; Repurpose Your Life. You can watch her award winning short documentary; Fashion Addict, here

–Abby Shuster

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