Designer & Activist T. Leacock

Fashion + Social Justice + Community = A Beautiful, Aesthetically Stimulating World. This is the formula fashion designer Tamara Leacock lives her life by. The Yale University graduate and Fashion Institute of Technology student incorporated her personal philosophy of promoting social change and eco-friendly practices into her avant-garde fashion line ReciclaGEM (pronounced he-si-klah-jen). All the clothing, accessories, and jewelry from ReciclaGEM are made from either recycled or organic materials, and all items are produced under fair trade standards.

Leacock recently presented her Spring/Summer line at the NYU Gallatin‘s MusiCouture fashion show, and she is preparing to debut her Fall/Winter collection this April at the BeauMonde Society‘s Fashion Envie. Before the Harlem resident unveils her next socially conscious creations she rapped with DZI: The Voice about what can be expected from her new “Syncretism” collection, which celebrities she would love to see in her designs, how she feels fashion can change the world, and more.

Yohance Kyles: When did you discover your voice as an artist?

Tamara Leacock: I first discovered my voice as an artist out of a need to be heard, to be seen, to have my story told, and to express my unique design perspective, sociopolitical stance, and cultural perspective. This was born at birth, coaxed at theater and visual art classes of my youth, stimulated by the need to create art exhibition outlets for my work, and sustained by the need to continue to create a more equitable, sustainable, and inspiring world in a form of activism that feeds and inspires me in return.

“Recicla” is my segway into sustainable design… honoring the seeds of the earth as the GEMs they are, is the ultimate aim of the project.

YK: How did you come up with the name ReciclaGEM?

TL: I came up with the name ReciclaGEM as an effort to continue the Brazil-inspired fashion design work that I began in high school, the moment when I discovered that my paternal grandfather was born in Pará, Brazil. With Brazil as my consistent inspiration, I wanted to find a name reflective of my environmental consciousness, initial design methodology, and cultural perspective.

Secondly, I wanted a name that would be symbolic, with the design philosophy, social pespective, and product coded within the name. Hence emerged “ReciclaGEM,” which means “Recycling” in Portuguese, a line of one of a kind and limited edition designer wear and GEM jewelry with a bi-continental American perspective in mind, using the regional and cultural diversity and eco-consciousness of Brazil as inspiration for this new vision of American fashion.

GEMs, the foundation of the project, are works of resin jewelry, embedded with fair trade and reclaimed seeds, nuts, and tea leaves, representative of the Mother Earth, which is at the foundation of sustainable design. “Recicla” is my segway into sustainable design, while “GEM,” global earth mantra, honoring the seeds of the earth as the GEMs they are, is the ultimate aim of the project.

Piece from the GEM collection

YK: You’ve stated that September 11th played a pivotal role in you starting your clothing line. How did 9-11 inspire ReciclaGEM?

TL: In an effort to create a project that promotes a bi-continental American identity, I had to come to terms with the fact that “America” in common speak is often used to exclusively refer to the United States. This reality, I felt, became even more evident after the attacks on the United States that took place on September 11th, 2001. In an effort to challenge, engage, and debate this confined usage of “America” as a cultural marker, I used 9-11 as the reference point.

Incorporating conversations with artists on their conception of America in context of the polemic cultural memory of September 11th alongside my own memories of the day as well as the Occupy Movement that emerged in the same location and time of these interviews, I created a fashion art installation and subsequent collection (Occupy54) to engage and challenge our notions of America and cultural inclusivity.

It is a challenge of combating stereotypes that I look forward to facing each collection at a time and slowly but surely showing others a new perspective.

YK: All of the apparel from ReciclaGEM is made from recycled and organic materials. From a strictly a design aspect, what have been the advantages and disadvantages to taking on this audacious approach?

TL: The advantages of this approach are the feeling that I am creating work that genuinely seeks to promote a more sustainable world, not simply using the earth’s resources to create work that doesn’t in turn seek to give back to the earth. Nonetheless, the challenges of this approach are that my artistic visions must often compromise with the limits of the materiality.

While my social inspirations and design sensibilities are far and wide reaching, ReciclaGEM challenges me to truly use what I have or invest in materials that because of their organic or recycled nature, come at a higher cost. Nonetheless, instead of serving as a disadvantage, I see the material language of my work as a constant challenge to combat the aesthetic, economic, and cultural stigma against “eco-fashion,” from the burlap sack stereotypes to its higher cost. It is a challenge of combating stereotypes that I look forward to facing each collection at a time and slowly but surely showing others a new perspective.

YK: How do you see fashion playing a role in social change?

TL: Fashion is such a galvanizing and polemic force. Fashion shows and magazines are a media form that translates across language and cultural barriers. Clothing and the cultural codes embedded within the self fashioned body can communicate messages faster than dialogue. Fashion is a powerful force that is constantly within our lives.

Fashion as an industry is a global mass industry that continues to leave a tremendous impact and footprint on the earth, from the environmental impact of fiber and fabric production, to the waste generated and energy used in the dyeing and construction of clothes. And when considering how the majority of humanity are consumers and employees of this system, whether a factory seamstress or a business executive reliant on clothing to communicate social power, fashion is a tremendous vehicle of influence, most often in maintaining the status quo.

With the state of our world, it is time that fashion’s influence challenge the status quo through challenging the systems that reinforce inequality and unsustainable living and reinforcing the systems that promote inspiration and positive social change. Whether microfinancing emerging fashion businesses owners in areas ripe with systemetic poverty or using design aesthetics to promote an inclusive vision of the female body, there are many fashion activists working towards the amelioeration of fashion’s influence. You can read about some of them on my blog.

YK: You recently showed your Spring/Summer 2013 collection at NYU Gallatin’s MusiCouture fashion show. How was that experience?

TL: The experience showcasing at MusiCouture was phenomenal. This was one of the most seemless and stress-free fashion shows I have ever participated in. The designers were all given the concept of exploring how fashion and music converge, and then given free range to explore. As an artist first, it was an incredible opportunity to have such an immense amount of institutional support and creative freedom, both at the same time.

Secondly, it was wonderful working with such talented models, hair and makeup teams, and event planning professionals who, even with the busy schedule of being full time students, managed to organize such a seamless production. The opportunity to focus exclusively on the concept of Amoeba Psychedelic as yet another vehicle for challenging conventional notions of ethical fashion, without the added distraction of worrying about the fashion system, it was a dream come true. Wonderful experience and looking forward to the next one.

YK: You will be debuting your Fall/Winter 2013 collection in April at the Beau Monde Society’s Fashion Envie showcase. What was the inspiration for the new collection and what type of silhouettes and construction can we expect to see?

TL: The Fall 2013 collection that will be presented at the Beau Monde Society’s Fashion Envie show is inspired by diasporic syncretic religiosity, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and will represent a hybrid of aesthetic forms. Silhouettes will be a vast range along this spectrum, ranging from structured, hour glass shapes created with the use of corsetry to soft natural curves created with fabrics highly textured with embroidery and applique techniques.  

The goal of this collection is to demonstrate the ability for ethical fashion to be performative and vibrant, even its subtleties. Unlike previous collections, which privileged high impact and visually arresting color combinations, this collection will show how performative high energy clothing can be achieved without the environmental waste of high contrast colors, introducing an aesthetic where dimensional earth tones can co-exist in a beautifully syncretic fashion aesthetic. The collection, “Syncretism”, bring forth a sartorially performative vision of the human body as an intimate partner to nature, instead of its antagonist.

YK: You’ve also provided custom design for the plays Eaten Voices and Finding Mother. How did you connect with the creator of those performances and do you have any interest in designing for theatre again in the future?

TL: I met the playwright of both productions, Lavinia Roberts, in an NYU “Theatre of the Oppressed” course. She casually asked me the first day of class, after some small talk and me mentioning ReciclaGEM, if I’d be interested in being considered as a costume designer for her upcoming performances. Looking for new opportunities to break into the avant-garde art scene at NYU, I emailed her my links and the rest is history.

Eaten Voices in particular was a very special experience. With essentially no funding and a bag full of the playwright, the director and the cast’s old clothes, I created these costumes with great creative freedom in conversation with the ideas and needs of the cast. The synergy of this production was so magnetic that Eaten Voices took home First Place prize in the Cabrini Theater Festival, with the costumes being mentioned by the judges. 🙂

I do not plan on costuming any more plays in the near future, as not every costume job grants you creative freedom (Eaten Voices was quite special) and the pressures of producing garments with limited budget, resource, time, and micro-managed creative freedom is quite the challenge in addition to the challenge of creating ethically. Nonetheless, it is always a wonderful experience to work with talented AND socially conscious fellow artists.

Costumes from 'Eaten Voices'

YK: You are a formally trained designer. What is your take on musicians-turned-designers like Gwen Stefani, Rihanna, and Kanye West debuting their own lines?

TL: These are people with tremendous influence who, if producing lines that were ethically minded and promoted world ameliorating concepts, could have a great impact on the tide of fashion. If they were about that life, I would totally support.

Otherwise, producing conventionally for the sake of wearing the “designer” title is not something I would support of anyone. At times it can be frustrating laboring away at the sewing machine while competing with designers who…are not, I am not interested in criticizing other designers but rather I am open and eager and interested in collaborating with all those interested in using fashion for social change. Kanye, Rihanna, Gwen, or anyone, if you want to work on developing an ethically minded fashion product and using your tremendous influence for supporting positive social change, I would love to work with you. 🙂

YK: Who are some of your favorite designers?

TL: I love Alexander McQueen for his ability to use the fashion show as a vehicle for powerful social critique, Martin Margiela for his incorporation of unconventional fashion aesthetics and materials (i.e. his human wig coat), and Betsey Johnson for her ability to promote such a fun and inspiring fashion climate, open to such a wide range of bodies and identities. And ethically, I am very much inspired by the work of fellow vegan Stella McCartney, who has managed to not only create such an influential ethical fashion presence but is deeply committed to using her influence as designer not only as creative but advocate for environmental and animal rights.

YK: Are there any celebrities that you think would be a good match to be styled in ReciclaGEM?

TL: Esperanza Spalding, Shingai Shoniwa, Solange Knowles, Santigold, M.I.A., Gwen Stefani :), Les Nubians, Erykah Badu, Lisa Raye, Briana Cartwright, and, when I start doing menswear, Lenny Kravitz, to name a few. And Grace Jones, just because. 🙂

YK: Where do you see the ReciclaGEM brand being five years from now?

TL: I see ReciclaGEM in 2018 as a moderately sized but internationally influential fashion brand selling in boutiques internationally, paving the way for the reception of ethical fashion in avant garde fashion editorials and more intimately engaging in meaningful partnerships with ethically minded non-profits, environmental and social activists groups, and other ethically minded fashion brands.

YK: What’s next for Tamara Leacock and ReciclaGEM?

TL: Working towards this vision. 🙂 Peace.

All photos courtesy of Tamara Leacock

For more info about ReciclaGEM click it

To connect with ReciclaGEM like the brand’s Facebook page 

Tamara will be debuting her new ReciclaGEM collection “Syncretism” April 20th at BeauMonde Society’s Fashion Envie. For more info click it

Check out recent footage of Tamara at RAW: Brooklyn “Radiate” and Fashion Envie’s Midsummer Jungle Photo Shoot:

Fashion photos by Katherine Soutar and Media Afritiq

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