Not often does it happen that one’s passion aligns perfectly with one’s profession, in this case, art and fashion. Add a cult item - the humble denim jeans - and you got a winner. FashionUnited spoke to British artist Ian Berry (via email) in detail about his incredible artworks, the denim industry and his disenchantment with it, his inspiration, and sustainability. Each piece of this ‘art in denim’ is completely made out of discarded jeans and done so flawlessly that many take it for blue-toned photographs or indigo-coloured oil paintings.
According to sources, you took to denim because as the only material that you truly felt comfortable wearing, it was the only one you felt comfortable working with. If this is true, has your appreciation increased over the years?
Start me off on a good question, why don’t you! And as you may know, denim is filled with duality, and so is my answer. To start with, I’ll answer that yes, I still like wearing it and feel comfortable to do so. I have an appreciation for new sides of denim that I never knew of when I first started making my work over 15 years ago. I have always loved the history of denim and for me, when I first started using jeans, it was more to represent everyone as everyone can wear it. I’d say I’m portraying contemporary times and I don’t believe there is a better material to depict this period. Those dualities make it also perfect for it.
In the early days when I started, after the major brands, I doubt I could have named many others - of course many have popped up since too in the last couple of decades and the industry changed a lot. It wasn’t about being a denim head or being into fashion. I loved denim as we all could wear it, and need not be an expert. I really noticed in those first years it was a really good entry into people viewing my work. I really felt people were drawn to it, often using such a familiar material and combining it with a familiar, but often overlooked place made people see it in a new way.
You would have learned much about the denim industry since then?
Yes. I do feel, however, I have got to know too much about denim and have been pulled into the industry. It can be a little distracting as there is a much bigger world out there. Too many in denim only look at others in denim, talk to others in denim, have rotating panels and echo chambers, promote with others in denim in mind, more so sometimes than the consumer. I find it all pretty exhausting, to be honest, and I really probably shouldn’t know as much as I do, nor the people I do. I have feet, or toes, in many worlds but there is a part of the denim industry, mainly the trade side, I don’t have much time for. I have, however, managed, like many walks in life, to find many of the good ones; sadly, many don’t have the mentality of qualities and ethics I would choose to have in a person near me. But we are all products of our environments and backgrounds and appreciate the hustle to keep selling more and more yardage while being sustainable.
You must have worked with many brands?
For well over a decade many in denim have tried to work with me, name ten denim brands and probably be able to say nine have asked me to work with them. It sounds nice but it got quite stressful. I’m an artist and it would have to feel authentic, have a story. It was when the mills got involved it got pretty weird. I have to admit the latter more so has tainted the material I chose to make a career out of.
Many mills get others to work like me after I decline their amazing opportunity to show at a trade fair, half way near the back, near the toilet, so the violation can sometimes put me off the material. But in truth it pushed me to continue to be better. I use this example not to complain, it’s to be expected of a certain level of mind, but it’s representative of a big part of the industry and something many complain of. So it did help me realise who were the good and the bad, and I’ve met many amazing people in denim, and as each year goes on, I know more about the denim history and story. But like many things, the duality just polarises.
While over the years I have turned down working with brands and other commissions I have done one or two things, and mainly with things to keep my work as art and naturally fit. I've done collaborations with the likes of Ray Ban and Pepe Jeans London, (the latter who has come to my exhibitions and has collected my work) E.L.V Denim, Blackhorse Lane and Selfridges to magazine covers and charities, like Calm (for male mental health), Jeans for Genes, Smart Works, Shelter and recently Pin Your Thanks in support of the workers during the pandemic along with donating many of the jeans to homeless charities and missions. I have also received amazing technical support from the likes of Tonello who have been so amazing with lasering and washing the denim especially for the installations along with Cone Denim and Tencel. I'm not against collaborations but the work takes a long time and often people come in with a month or two notice! I'm normally booked up two or three years in advance so often it's been a pity not at this time which is a shame for many of them.
What is the most satisfying part about your work for you?
It is easily the time when people see the work in real life. In the right contexts, museums or galleries, lit well, especially in the days after an opening (they can get too busy and distract from the art), as my work looks best in person; I’m not a fan of social media. Even compared to magazines, people don’t realise what they are actually like till seen in person. So to get the responses is great, but perhaps being a miserable northern Englishman, when they say ‘it looks so much better in real life’ makes me think ‘how bad did you think it was before!’, haha. So having that moment with someone or finding out from them, their feelings when they see it and especially when they feel they can walk into the work or see themselves in it, is the powerful part for me.
I also love working in the studio, that moment starting a piece or nearly finishing it in my own thoughts in the studio. I started my work long before I even had Facebook and to be honest, I miss those days. A clearer head. But I have been lucky and privileged to meet many special people, including all of my few idols and made many friends and traveled the world with my art.
Where do you find your inspiration for new pieces?
It’s an interesting question given the last couple of years. I’ve lived in many places but found myself flying somewhere else to do shoots to work from. Last year I was planning to go to L.A. from London as well as go to many people’s homes to do photoshoots with them inside them. They all got cancelled due to Covid. It forced me to look closer to home, so much so that I ended up making pieces based on my own home, living room, bedroom, etc. Even recreating it in like-for-like, as an installation, but all in denim, that now shows at Museum Rijswijk in the Netherlands. [Ed. “Splendid Isolation” is on until 15th August 2021.]
Normally when making a show, it falls under this criteria, what am I trying to say and portray. More often than not, it is about depicting the fading fabric of our urban environments. Whether it is the high street closing down or losing its spark, with record stores, laundrettes, newsstands (and print) or pubs closing but on top of that, I always try thinking how to push my technique, how to make out of denim something like a shiny floor, a polished bar surface and in the last years, how to depict water, just with jeans, no bleach, paint, dyes, etc. While the former was less of an influence, I had been over in L.A. and I just wanted to bring that Californian light into my London winter studio as well as bring a bit more happiness, so I changed a little, making the different hotel pools I had stayed in. I’d gone quite dark with the previous body of work so wanted to bring more light into the work for a while.
Does the material still inspire you?
I can often go around and while talking to someone, start constructing their face in denim, or, looking at things and thinking what pieces of the denim I would use to recreate them. When I first started using the material, I did let it inspire me but then it became just my medium. This last year again, however, I am letting the material inspire me once more. Wait and see!
You have worked and lived in very different cities and countries - from a provincial town in the north of England to Sydney, Australia; Skane, Sweden; Amsterdam and now East London. How have these different cities, countries and continents influenced your work?
Well, there’s some obvious ones, like I always say, an artist should portray what is around them. So in Australia in 2008, I did pieces on Bondi and Coogee, where I lived. In Sweden I lived in the Oresund area, that also took in the Danish side like Copenhagen and Helsingor, and Lund, Malmo, Helsingborg in Skane in Sweden and I made a body of work based on this area as well as many Swedish pastimes, from midsummer girls to snus pjoke (snus boys) made from the pockets that had the fades from the tins of snus [ed. smokeless tobacco, pronounced to rhyme with ‘goose’]. Now in East London, you see the changes. While born in Yorkshire, my grandad was from East London and he wouldn’t recognise the place now.
But it’s not just the physical places; travel, meeting lots of new people, ideals, views, I think really helps you grow as a person. See the world differently. I really don’t think I would be doing what I am doing had I stayed in my hometown, which itself has an incredibly proud history within the textile industry [ed. mill town Huddersfield, England]. And of course one of the commonalities between all of these places, they all wear denim. I even did it in Australia, the first place where I actually got my first pair of raw denim, and believed I shouldn’t wash them for six months. It was the Australian summer…
The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry on the planet and denim production is a big polluter within that. There is a great environmental aspect to your work using discarded materials and one that requires so many different steps and so much work. Could you elaborate a bit how that has influenced your work, either through reactions of others or your own approach over the years?
I’ve been doing this work long before all the terms became as useful as the word ‘nice’. Sustainability means little to me now. I try not to use it around my work, I’m hardly making a difference in the grand scheme of things. Yes, I’m recycling or upcycling old jeans into art. But it’s not the point of the work or message. Yes, it’s fine for people to talk about it, but I don’t often, certainly not as a promotion tool as it feels cheap and not authentic. It means nothing now as it seems everything is sustainable, even if it is not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it is part of the conversation, and there are many striving to be better and doing great work and progress. Indeed, when I started with working with denim, I was inspired by the film “Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore and nearly went back to uni (geography had been a strong subject of mine) but when I was working with denim, I won’t lie and pretend it was for eco reasons. That is not to say I don’t care for the planet.
What are the issues that move you?
I feel if I were to hit the issues head on, it’s different, but I’m not portraying environmental issues (yet!); I’m a lot more interested in social issues to be honest, which is interlinked. Sometimes I fear workers’ rights are forgotten when everyone is trying to prove their sustainability credentials. When you see some brands bring out sustainable jeans for 13 euros, you know someone is getting screwed. And it takes me back to when I first started working with denim. I knew that 40 pairs of hands had touched them on average in their production and I’d often think of those people. Thinking of them as I un-picked their work, saw them as my co-artists. When I decided to go full-time as an artist, I had been backpacking, and in the countries where people made jeans - they are always in my thoughts. So yeh, it winds me up when having a beer with someone in denim and they tell me some of the lies (even of their own brands) or I get some of the latest sustainable jeans - all wrapped up individually in plastic.
That is not to say I don’t applaud a lot of the good things going on, like the ability to use less, or near zero water, better traceability of cotton, the use of different fibres, for example. In fact, my own piece that did reflect some of these issues was my “Secret Garden” installation, first shown in a Museum in New York. I used lasers and washing techniques with Tonello and on damaged material given to me by the lovely people at Cone Denim; it was in fact from their historic White Oak mill. One of the points of the piece was to encourage families to seek out community gardens in New York but it also taught the - especially young - visitors where denim and jeans came from, showing them a cotton plant and portraying the material. I had taken something that starts out as a plant, and turned it back into plants, starting a discussion about the material.
Is there some disillusionment with the denim industry?
I’m feeling guilty at this point for slamming some, as there are some doing really amazing things with technologies and ideas and I guess my frustration is that people like me can come in and talk about knowing the lies, but what annoys me about that is that it overshadows and taints the ones that are spending the time, money, research to really find and make better ways. I just hope the consumer really picks it up soon - and some will argue that they have - but its’ not for mass production. It’s all very well if a brand or a mill brings out a sustainable jean to their collection when the others in the collection aren’t and its still niche (yes, I know it’s better than nothing) but in their defence, it costs, and if the consumer isn’t demanding it and the competition is undercutting costs, then a good person with good ethics is no good with no money.
Last but not least, it is said that the Inuit people can distinguish between so many shades of white because that is such a big part of their world. Would you say the same is true for you when it comes to shades of denim? And have you developed your own special vocabulary for the different shades?
After all these years, it’s nice to get someone who asks very good, original questions - and I also learned something new there. Thank you. Working with only one colour is all about light and shade (I did make some colour works as well as black and white pre-2012) and you do have to have an eye for shades. On top of that, for me it’s about the gradients, from washes, cat’s whiskers, etc., as I aim to make what many think is a matt material, shine. One of the biggest issues is, it’s not only the shade of the denim, from light to dark (and I often start with several pairs of jeans to make the base palette) - but the cast of the denim. I prefer a whiter cast, but as you’ll know there’s many and really, all the pieces should match up. I aim to put them all together so that when you walk back, you cannot see it’s denim. I actually think I love the indigo in denim, more than I love jeans. But I’ll end there, I don’t want to give too much away!
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