Burke Residency 21: WRN FRSH•
Posted on September 22 2022
EMMA: Hello, Gene and Michael! To get started could you introduce yourselves (or, if you’re feeling playful, you could introduce each other) and tell us a little bit about WRN FRSH, the clothing line you co-own?
Gene: Hi, thanks much for having us! WRN FRSH is a small business pushing for big change. We design and make clothes from 100% discarded garments. No factory. Just the two of us. Everything we make is 1-of-1. We’re still figuring a lot out. It's a slow process. Slow Fashion, intentionally. We call it "Yarn to Table" シ We believe that humanity cannot sustain our current ways of thinking, operating, and consuming. We believe Intersectional Environmentalism is the way forward.
Michael: We both do very different things in WRN FRSH, but the things we do inform each other. As Head of Design, Gene designs and develops the collections, makes the fabric, and makes the garments.
G: Michael is the Creative Director, so he curates/runs our IG and website, handles all the photography (except when we collab with other photographers), and makes all our branding by combining his extensive background in multimedia art to create carefully crafted visuals, videos, and advertising while staying true to the WRN FRSH ethos and aesthetic.
M: I also source all the fabric we use to make our garments! In addition, we do contract work with various clients. Right now, we're working with ReScape, a non-profit that educates about + advocates for a regenerative, nature-based, whole systems approach to landscaping, addressing Climate Change and land use issues. We're helping ReScape with everything from ideation, branding, and website development to project management. We have a few other clients we help with styling, photoshoots, graphic design, and project strategy—but all that is a relatively new part of our business.
E: I read that WRN FRSH began as a vintage reseller and eventually evolved into the clothing line it is today. Could you trace that evolution for us and to talk a bit about how these vintage roots continue to inform your present approach to clothing production?
G: That's correct! We met in 2011 in Seedstore, a small clothing store (that's now closed) that I was managing. Three months into our relationship, we decided to create a business together, and a couple of years later, in 2013, WRN FRSH was born.
M: Side Note: I took Gene to the Goodwill Outlet aka The Bins on our second date… Gene wasn't used to that level of thrifting, and she was surprised when I pulled out latex gloves before we went in, lol! Suffice it to say, it all worked out.
G: When we started the business, we focused on buying/selling late 80s/early 90s vintage (intentionally steering away from name-brand stuff). We both grew up in the mid-80s/ early 90s and loved the bright colors, loud patterns, big shapes, and playful aesthetic that was pervasive.
M: I grew up in the skate scene here in San Francisco. After skating for a couple of years, I got more into the fashion/style of specific pro skaters. My friends and I would hunt for THE specific shoes our favorite pro skaters wore—this was pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-sneaker culture (as we know it), so you had to work to find stuff, lol! Later I started to geek out on the music in the skate videos I was watching, which led to me getting deeper into Funk, Soul, and Hip-Hop culture, and eventually, I started DJing. Soon, I was DJing more than skating, and I spent a lot of time in thrift stores digging for records. Ultimately, this led to me shopping at thrift stores a lot for clothing.
G: These things initially inspired and informed our aesthetic—think The Memphis Group (aka Memphis Milano) meets skateboard culture/Hip-Hop culture. When we started, we curated our vintage to be gender neutral, "men's" and "women's" clothes being interchangeable.
M: Later, when we launched BATCH No. 1 (our cut & sew) in 2018, We began with these concepts and continued to refine our vision—gender neutral, boxy, loose fit, layers, and structure built in through texture.
E: Has sustainability always been a primary concern for you? I’m interested to hear how your attentiveness to sustainability might have morphed and changed along the way—do you find that the nuances of this focus shift at all as you continue?
G: Yes, 100%. Sustainability has always been at the very core of our brand. Our machines are used and old, and our fabric is used and old. That's important to us—important for our planet. From the beginning, we were interested in creating a clothing brand decidedly different from large-scale mainstream fashion houses—we wanted to challenge ourselves to make something from other people's "garbage" from "discarded" materials.
M: In addition, we strived to create something that paid homage to the principles of Wabi-Sabi. The idea of honoring impermanence and imperfection. We believe things that are used are beautiful; they become more beautiful as they age, and they have uniqueness and individuality. Starting our design process with old/used fabric means those imperfections are baked into our creative process.
E: WRN FRSH pieces have a distinctive paneling that creates such a cool and cohesive aesthetic—can we talk about this magic? Did the paneling emerge primarily as a design choice or did this signature aesthetic grow out of a more practical resourcefulness?
G: Thank you for the kind words! The fabric design is informed by the materials we have access to and procure. This creates natural "design constraints" and a sense of procedure and order for me while working. There are numerous places my imagination can go during our paneling process, so having a more standardized production method is helpful.
M: Our paneling (or patchwork) started as practical resourcefulness and became a signature aesthetic. I often feel it's "Mondrian-like," compositionally speaking. We're not the first to do patchwork (obviously). Cultures all over the world have used it as a tool for a long time. The oldest I've read about was that the ancient Egyptians used patchwork for their clothes, wall decorations, and furniture as far back as 3,400 BCE (over 5,500 years ago). At the same time, I think we bring our own unique perspective to it.
E: It’s been so exciting to see a more focused attentiveness emerging around the conversation between clothing and gender; socially, we’ve moved through a lot of language in our attempts at a more inclusive approach to clothing design from opting for “feminine / masculine” over “women’s / men’s,” to unisex, to genderless, etc. Could you talk about non-binary and what it is about this term and concept that resonates with you and your clothing design?
G: On a personal note, I've always searched (mostly unsuccessfully) for comfort in women's clothing. As a Cis woman, I've found it constantly uncomfortable physically wearing women's clothing. Fit, size, function, and male gaze were all things I grappled with. When I started wearing thrifted clothing, my consciousness opened up to new ways of thinking about sizing and gender in fashion. It helped focus the way I look at shape, color, and my body.
M: We believe non-binary clothing is essential—more so now than ever. It's about inclusivity and changing the mainstream narrative. As Cis white folks, we feel it's vital to push back against Heteronormativity, Cisnormativity, and the male-gaze perspective that dominates culture and has informed so much of mainstream fashion and culture. We are here to push back and challenge old and outdated ideas about gender roles.
G: Ensuring our clothes are accessible to a wide range of folks is crucial. We sell a style and creative ethos. Beyond that, it's up to individuals to decide how they want to identify.
E: For those of us who aren’t as well versed in clothing design and construction, could you talk about what designing a non-binary clothing line looks like at the pragmatic level? What are the challenges and correctives you face?
G: Well, it took me about ten years to develop the designs in the first collection (BATCH No. 1) with Michael, so it was a journey. I think most of that time was me unconsciously processing what I'd learned in school and figuring out what to unlearn or how to jiu-jitsu my skillset to fit our ethos around sustainability and inclusivity.
In some ways, it wasn't easy to transition from womenswear to what we do now. And on the other hand, once we decided what it would be conceptually, it only took three months to launch BATCH No. 1 from design to execution, so it felt easy.
I had to decide what worked for me. I thought about my experience of being uncomfortable/comfortable in clothing and what I enjoyed about design. I cut up and destroyed a lot of things and assembled and fixed a lot of things in the time leading up to the creation of BATCH No. 1.
M: When things fall apart, make art.
G: Ha, right? Our batches are the ultimate combination/amalgamation of everything we've been doing together in our business for the last eight years—style, vibe, craft, function, love, messaging, and beliefs.
E: By way of conclusion, I’d love to hear more about what’s on the horizon for WRN FRSH and if you’d like to share any wisdom you’ve picked up along the way.
G: We're excited about a few events and collaborations in the works. We're taking part in West Coast Craft Winter '22 (going on in San Francisco - Nov. 19 & 20, 2022).
M: Yes! That'll be our 5th WCC, one of our favorite shows—I highly recommend it if you're in the Bay Area.
G: We're in the developmental stages of some exciting things with our dear friend, artist, designer, and maker Yvonne Mouser, a fantastic furniture designer.
M: We've made a lovely connection with Tomra Palmer and Holly Samuelsen of Gravel & Gold, and we're working with them on a project using their clothing scraps/raw materials. We've also linked up with some local firefighters—they're switching from wool uniforms to uniforms made from a more fire-resistant material. We've been gathering all of their old wool uniforms and will be making a collection based on those materials at some point soon.
G: Regarding things we've picked up along the way, I'd say find your community and find your voice. These things take time. Lift-up other people and keep it bright. Do your part to save the planet. The author, Julia Alvarez, once said, "We all go down together... if we don't come together." (Much love to all people and organizations fighting for equity and climate justice).
M: Gas up your friends. It's free. Also, please support your local artists, makers, musicians, frontline workers, educators, restaurants, bookstores, clothing stores, and movements for change.
G: Thanks again for having us—We're thrilled to participate in the Burke Mercantile Design Residency!