Immersed is a series of profiles on millennials and their vocations. No profile is quite the same.
Ep. 5: Eigenwijs, with Leonie Vlaar.
Leonie Vlaar is a slow-fashion designer based in Utrecht. Using recycled denim, she designs custom, made-to-order clothing, bags, aprons and other wearables.
She’s currently working towards launching her own label, as well as designing her own denim fabrics.
“When I was little my mom used to make clothes for me and my dolls. I found that to be so fascinating. I started to learn it myself a bit with my grandmother’s hand sewing machine. I think I was around ten years old when I first started making things for myself, just by experimenting and trying to build something step by step. Then at a certain point I also made my own dress out of yarn.”
This fascination continued throughout her childhood years and she went on to apply at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI) after her high school graduation.
“I got rejected at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. Twice, two years in a row. And that was such a disappointment at the time that I completely dropped it.”
It was only years later that she tried making something again when, out of necessity, she had to design a pair of work coats for a graduation project for her studies in Product Design.
She’s been designing ever since.
But even now, years later, the pain and uncertainty from those rejections still linger on.
“This uncertainty is still there, I’m still trying to get rid of it. But with each new design I get more confidence. That might seem odd, but it was such a huge setback at the time, like all your confidence in your own abilities just got wiped away in one instant.
But looking back at it now, I also didn’t really have a vision back then, so I totally understand that I got rejected. But at that age what I showed was the best I could do. I remember them asking me about my favorite designer. But I didn’t have a favorite designer, not even today. I actually hardly ever look at other designers. Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because I want to develop myself from within. And now I can articulate this, but I couldn’t back then.
Now I’m only thankful that it happened. I could’ve never been as strong-minded, have such a strong vision and work in such experimental ways as I am now if I would’ve done the AMFI.
Because I went on studying Product Design I started looking at clothing very differently. I now think about how I should construct and deconstruct a product. And I don’t have the faintest idea of how you should officially make fashion, because I’ve just taught it all myself.”
“And I really did teach myself everything. Step by step. I would make something, look at it, figure out what was wrong with it, like, 'ah, this is not right, I should’ve stitched it like this instead,' and then the next time I’d do things differently and in that way I gradually refined my skills.
You can actually see the gradual improvement of my skills throughout my designs over the years really well. In a year or so I’ll probably laugh about how I’m doing things right now, but that’s also what I like about it.
The biggest advantage of learning things in your own way is that you’re forced to come up with solutions yourself. Instead of relying on people or books telling you how obstacles should be manoeuvred around, you’re forced to think more deeply if you have to come up with the solution yourself.
As a result, you become much more free in the way you think and how you approach problems. I think a lot of the innovation comes from this approach."
There’s a Dutch word encompassing this concept of following your own way: eigenwijs.
It’s literal English translation is ‘stubborn’, but that doesn’t really cover what eigenwijs means. Eigenwijs - eigen meaning ‘own’ and wijs meaning ‘wise’ - is more about following your own way, sometimes in a detrimental, stubborn manner but it can also mean doing something your way because it feels right to you, even if it doesn’t feel right to others. As if you’re carrying your own wisdom with you and you focus to rely on that instead of conventional wisdom.
Every novel idea is, as Maria Popova states, based on “the combinatorial, LEGO-like nature of creativity, wherein we assemble building blocks of existing knowledge into new formations of understanding that we consider our original ideas.”
For most people those ‘building blocks’ come from a (formal) education centered around, or inside, the industry they aspire to work in. But often the original thinkers have a slightly different set of building blocks.
Leonie’s ‘LEGO-set’ consists primarily of product design, a love of architecture and autodidactic experimentation. Due to her product design background she thinks about how a product should be made and how it should be discarded after its use. Much like how Japanese architects build skyscrapers that can be ‘debuild’ instead of demolished, her designs - already made from local, recycled denim - can be completely debuild without hardly adding any waste.
“I think it’s very important vision for a designer to also think about what happens with a product after it’s been discarded. Because if you don’t know what happens with a product after it’s been used, how can you even decide what it should look like in the first place?
The only thing I use in my designs besides denim is metal, and I use metal because it gets removed from the product during the textile recycling process. And the cotton, of course, is a natural product so that can be recycled and used again. The Netherlands actually has one of the largest overstock of denim in the world and because denim, being cotton-based, can be recycled many times over, the material is readily available.”
“Fashion designers aren’t being taught to think about what happens with their product after it’s been discarded. They’re being taught what it should look like, how it’s being put together and how it can be scaled to mass production.
But I want to know what the product looks like after it’s been used for a while, that’s where it gets interesting to me. So if something I’ve made has a tear or anything I want my clients to come back to me. And I’ll repair it with all the love in the world so that they can use it for a while longer, but I also do that so I can see what caused the issue, so I can improve my designs for the future in that way.”
If there’s a common thread among all the artisans I’ve interviewed, it’s their childlike enthusiasm when engaging in their craft. Very similar to Marta, Leonie had a look of joyous, focused intensity when working on her clothes, almost like a mother lovingly nursing a newborn. They both worked, as Henry Miller once wrote, “calmly, joyously, recklessly on the task at hand.”
Leonie told me she can find herself pleasantly lost in her work, working for up to fourteen hours per day once she got started.
I think great works are the result of great intensity, of prolonged stretches of deep work that leads the creator into previously untapped depths of creativity and skill. Surrendering themselves to the process, everything takes a temporary backseat as all their energy goes into the work.
They’re immersed, and deeply so.
"It doesn’t feel like work at all. Ever since I quit my part-time job as a stylist I’ve been having this non-stop vacation feeling.
I’m experiencing so much freedom and I’m putting so much time in my own development and my own vision, my designs and my own story, I’m enjoying that feeling every single day.”
Besides her current made-to-order work, Leonie is busy launching her own label.
She's also working on designing her own fabrics in cooperation Enschede Textielstad. Designing her own fabrics gives her more options, like using wax to create winter-proof clothing or using stronger, canvas-like denims for her bags.
Find her on Instagram.