Milwaukee native Vanessa Devaki Andrew is an artist, writer, seamstress extraordinaire and general Janet of All Trades. A founding member of Fasten Co-Op, she’s been creating original, environmentally conscious garments under her Madam Chino label for the past six years. On Dec. 5, she’ll be opening Madam Chino’s Look Nook, a one-of-a-kind gallery and boutique. TCD’s Erin Petersen caught up with this bon vivant to chat about the space, DIY culture and the battle between handmade vs. mass-produced items this holiday season.
1. How long have you been designing and making clothes?
Before I started making clothes, I was sort of at the pinnacle of “anti-fashion.” In high school, I figured that high fashion equated with vanity, and I wanted to make sure that my friends liked me for who I was and not for what I looked like. I started to combine as many styles as I could as a way to symbolically cross-reference any and every style simultaneously in hopes to negate any one of them. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was using fashion in an attempt to make a point and for self-expression.
At 19, I began tailoring my own garments. I realized that there was a reciprocal determinism between what you feel like and what you look like. Using clothing as a tool of communication can transform the wearer to new states of awareness and consciousness. This happens when the wearer’s confidence and sense of self are increased through this amazing process of expression. Enough philosophy though, I became Madam Chino in 2003. As Madam Chino, I create reconstructed garments, mostly dresses and T-shirts on which I screen print my drawings, as well as hooded sweatshirts and flannels. I also design patterns from scratch and use vintage fabrics in my creations.
2. What drew you to the DIY movement, and how has that informed your designs?
DIY encompasses my value system. It’s eco- friendly, accessible and utilitarian. Besides wanting to make people feel good about themselves, I also realized that reclaiming old clothing could stop them from being buried and could also circumvent new materials extraction and fabrication. This was socially responsible! I use my old clothes, hand-me-downs or thrifted items. The empowerment of DIY has also informed my work through teaching and helping others DIT (Do-It-Themselves). I have self-published in Milwaukee by Penny Spencer INK!, a line of handwritten and illustrated “You-Torials” for sewing and screen printing that I also use in my “No-Sweat Sewing” classes at the UWM Studio Arts and Crafts Center.
Eventually though, DIY is about rerouting living wages back into the hands of the the makers, not the just the distributors. We can recreate non-factory amenities and make them out of recycled goods, add a creative twist and sell them affordably — all while getting folks to buy locally!
3. Tell me about the Look Nook — why did you decide to open your own space, and what can people expect?
At the Look Nook, I can keep my overhead low and my inventory by my side — it makes more sense to avoid high consignments in other local venues. I can live the dream utilizing my skills and regain my sense of community. I am more of a humanist than a capitalist. The small shop is artistically curated to appear as an outdoor scene! The clothing and other wares are colorful, yet displayed as collections to provide a clean, natural feel. I’m also using the space to hostess a number of other fun events, like “Darn IT!” clothing repair club, clothing swaps and Craft Nights of various themes on a bi-monthly basis. Everything will be posted on my website and also published to Facebook .
4. Any new designs or featured items for the grand opening?
I am currently expanding my inventory to include smaller accessory items and housewares, such as coin purses, zip clutches, denim utility purses, light switches, barrettes, patches, stickers, headbands, belts, bracelet cuffs, gloves, hats, you name it. Each week, Madam Chino will release a new small collection that will be available online and in the Look Nook’s showcase.
In clothing forms, I am taking my most fluid designs and recreating them as collections. I am also speaking with various, local artist friends to create small lines with a very affordable consignment for display starting in January.
5. So, the Look Nook is opening during the busiest shopping season of the year. How would you say the space stacks up against, say, a day at the mall?
The Look Nook is tiny in comparison to a mall, but no less interesting! You can get your picture taken looking through the peep hole and see it posted on my flickr (just like sitting with Santa!). I’ve been working on broadening my range and branding my line. That, in addition to a variety of items, while using recycled and vintage fabrics, lends itself to an eclectic feel. Plus, items purchased at the Look Nook will always maintain a level of handmade authenticity that is not available at the mall.
Madam Chino’s Look Nook is located at 100 E. Pleasant St., on the third floor of The Fortress. Hours: Saturdays from Noon – 6 p.m. or by appointment.