Sarah Wiener (SF 16), our guest blogger, received an Ariel Internship from the St. John’s College Career Services Office. She spent her summer in Copenhagen, here are her thoughts.
Scandinavian summers are bright. If the eager sun does not wake you, the sound of children playing in the courtyard will. Though many of Copenhagen’s beautiful residents use summer as a time to lounge, drink Touborg in bathing suits, and dance until seven in the morning, my summer, though exciting and wonderful, allowed little time for these kinds of activities. Rest was scarce and very precious. In the spirit of Charles Eames who said, “take your pleasures seriously”, I cherished my mornings. My new roommates and I would drink coffee, eat bread and cheese, and talk before each of us went our separate ways: Signe to the library, Astrid to her art studio, and I to the workshop of Henrik Vibskov.
The best mornings of all were when I was asked to pick up hats from Stig, the hat maker, on my way to work. Stig comes from a long line of milliners who have been working in the same workshop on the corner of Nørrebrogade and Elmegade for years and years. The building is old and worn, with a wooden stairway that spirals up and up, past furniture and upholstery shops. It is a one of the last vestiges of a time when Nørrebro, the neighborhood where I lived, was inhabited by craftsman; when workmanship fueled Copenhagen’s economy. Stig and I would chat while I would look around at the rainbow stacks of raw Italian hat felt, at his obscure tools and machines. In true Danish form, we would talk about the weather and he would tell me that my accent made me sound like a Swede. In this place, I felt a deep longing to learn, to perfect a skill, to dive into a craft.
Henrik Vibskov’s workshop was always hectic and alive. When I first ducked my head under the big garage doors that form the entrance to the atelier, The Alessi Brother’s “Seabird” was blasting over the stereo, the industrial sewing machines were humming, and everyone was busy fixing long strips of handmade “fur”, made of brightly colored yarn, onto neoprene dresses. The young women glanced up, smiled, and handed me a needle and thread. They were preparing costumes for a dance performance in New York. We had just three days to finish all the costumes and also make an additional set of costumes for a team of interns from the studio that were going to perform a “happening” at the Henrik Vibskov store in Manhatten. On my first night, I worked until 10:30.
The shop was tentatively divided up into two teams of workers. There was the fashion team, who mainly worked on “showpieces” and production for the upcoming runway shows in Paris and Copenhagen, and the installation team, who made the art installation that would adorn the catwalk. Eager to get a position at this exciting firm, when I was applying I had told them that I would do anything. As a result, I was placed where the most help was needed–on the installation crew.
The theme of the season was “survival”. The show was an exploration of what that word means. As a St. John’s student, I was practiced in thinking through the expansive meanings of words. The installation needed to be a striking nod to a contemporary understanding of survival.
We were tasked with making tents that would eventually be assembled into a sort of landscape in the middle of the catwalk, a nod to the sadly all too common refugee camps. We had three weeks to develop the idea and bring it into the world. Though the tents were originally meant to be constructed in China, we quickly realized that making tents was far too complicated of a project to simply have a factory on the other side of the world take on. We needed to directly work with the material, solving problems as we went. We designed three simple, low to the ground structures that all fit together, almost as puzzle pieces. Though they looked fantastic on a computer program where the laws of physics don’t apply, in practice the construction of the tents took days of experimentation. Because I was the only person on the installation team who was adept at sewing, I spent hours cutting out test patterns, sewing them together, and then testing different ideas of how the ultimate construction would work. After spending a year with thinkers like Kant and Maxwell, profound frustration was familiar to me. I was able to push through, trying to come at the problem from many angles in order to find a solution. Ultimately, I designed a system of straps that would act as the base to the tents, holding tension in the poles and thus allowing the structures to stand on their own.
After working late into the night for a week straight to try and find a solution to the problems that presented themselves to us, and after finally getting all the fabric printed and the materials shipped to us, we began production on the tents. Having worked with clothing factories in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was able to implement some of the practices which I had picked up at the factory, in order to expedite our own production process.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we sewed almost two hundred tents. These tents would be used in the Paris Fashion Week show and then flown directly to South Korea, where they would be installed in a room at the Daelim Museum. The museum was showing a retrospective of Henrik’s life work. This meant that we would eventually have to make about one hundred and fifty more tents for Copenhagen Fashion Week. Needless to say, we rarely had a day off and were often at the workshop until midnight. Though at times trying, my peers were so full of life and laughter that we seemed to make every day a new and fun adventure.
The most poignant and inspiring aspect of working for Henrik Vibskov was being part of a team of creative individuals all working towards a final goal–the Paris and Copenhagen Fashion Weeks. My peers came from Finland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. We spoke both Danish and English. Through we were technically divided into teams, the design process, whether it came to clothing or installation work, was very collaborative. In many ways, it was a new rendition of the St. John’s conversational style– instead of working through philosophical ideas, we were creating objects. One of my fondest memories of this process was when we were developing hats for performers that would be dancing on the runway. We all stopped what we were doing and helped create what were essentially cloth sculptures, made of giant cloth knots and small pillows stacked one upon the next. The goal was to make something interesting and slightly provocative without making it overly silly.
As fashion week approached, the fashion team also needed help. This meant that I was cutting out patterns and sewing on buttons for the fashion line, and making food for our daily communal lunch.
Fashion week is an experience unlike any other. For a half of a year, a large team of creative people have been working towards this show. And in a matter of minutes, the show is over.
We flew from Copenhagen with boxes of disassembled tents, show clothing, shoes, and hats. After spending the evening on the top floor balcony of an old Parisian hotel in The Marais, drinking wine, laughing and winding down after weeks of hard work, we woke in the morning refreshed and ready to finally show our work. The fashion show was located in a manor that also housed the Parisian Mayor’s party hall. The space was beautifully muraled, with carved baroque detailing illuminating the ceiling and walls.
From 9 a.m., we were working in the harsh heat, putting up tents, making sure the hats and shoes were in perfect condition, and doing the hair and makeup of the young, charming models. We worked fast and even then, by 7 o’clock at night, when the show was scheduled to start, we were not quite ready. The press crowded the already-tight backstage. People rushed into the hall as we clipped loose threads off the tents and dressed the models, who were sweating profusely. Finally, the music turned on, the models lined up, and the show started.
Over the course of my internship, I worked on two fashion shows, sold clothing at the biggest music festival in Denmark, made very close bonds with wonderful people, learned more than I could have ever imagined about the way in which a fashion label runs, thought about the processes of creativity and craft, and ultimately realized what my next step after St. John’s will be.
What I am missing is a craft. I can offer a hand and I can help elucidate the intellectual aspects and role that design plays in our times, but in order to really dive into the most interesting parts of the design process, I need to hone my patternmaking, sewing, and tailoring skills. Having realized this, I found a school in Italy, The Solomeo School, that will perfectly unite my love for philosophy with my love for handwork. Though I will most likely not work for Henrik Vibskov in the future, as they are such a small company, I look forward to a continued conversation with them about creativity and design and my place in such a world.
This is a guest post by Sarah Wiener. Sarah is now a senior in St. John’s College Santa Fe.