This designer is helping the environment and people feel good in clothing that fits better and lasts longer.
Local maker Vanessa Andrew is on a mission from Mother Earth. Under her brand Madam Chino, she strives for zero waste and sources all of her textiles from a recycling facility. See why this crafty and creative seamstress is proud to call Milwaukee home.
Name: Vanessa Andrew
Family: My family are both Swiss and Slovenians in Milwaukee. My grandmother was a fine arts painter trained at Layton School. My parents are both artistically inclined; my father is a philosophical type and my mother is a meticulous craftsperson applied to practical matters.
What do you make?
I make all kinds of sewn and fiber-related utilitarian art objects in the name of textile recycling and anti-child labor. I do custom work for people from any material they choose, but what I make as an artist is all reclaimed. My website is made-to-order knitwear by size and color from inverted recycled t-shirts. In person I create heritage and memory quilts from people’s old clothing or heirloom relatives clothing, or use vintage and donated one-off fabrics to make anything from housewares, like napkins and dishcloths, hot pads, chair pads, baby blankets and woven rugs, to dresses and shirts from t-shirts and unique vintage fabrics. The goal to be zero-waste has informed much of my work, inventing things based on the constraints of the size and shapes of the scrap.
Favorite type of material to work with and why?
In 2010 I took the name Madam Chino (a name that I’d been using since 2002, found ironed-on an old T-shirt I wore a lot while sewing) and re-branded myself using the idea of reconstructing garments specifically from recycled T-shirts. I like using T-shirts because it allows me an opportunity to offer consistent products while using recycled materials (most found fabrics are limited edition which causes a marketing headache) while disclaiming for slight variation in fiber content and color. The idea is like American Apparel in that it’s ready-to-wear knitwear by size and color, but the difference is that it’s all made-to-order and from recycled T-shirts that have been sustainably deodorized by soaking in baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice. This way I could merchandise easier by listing a single item online, and then only make it when there is a demand.
How did you learn/what type of schooling did you have?
I studied Painting, Drawing and Fibers in art school at UW-Milwaukee and became interested in sewing and screen printing as a way to apply my drawings to utilitarian objects and create affordable and accessible art. I stopped screen printing and moved to just making clothing because I enjoyed the sculptural aspect of clothing, and wanted to focus on that while keeping the products affordable. School taught me patience and determination, but the skills I use the most and get paid for, like sewing and graphic design, I’ve learned through friends, YouTube and personal research.
When did you start doing this?
In 2002 Christina Perez and I started a Co-op of Clothing Artists called Fasten. It was a marketing co-op for emerging clothing artists where we consigned work at a booth at the now-defunct East Side Open Market in the Beans and Barley parking lot, when the wave of handmade was just regaining momentum. That grew and grew, and exists today as Sparrow Collective.
Where is your merchandise currently sold?
In 2012, I created the website madamchino.com, where I sell my made-to-order reclaimed t-shirt clothing. In November of 2016, Madam Chino relocated to a studio/shop space in Brewer’s Hill (1737A N. Palmer St.) with regular hours Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. I’m showcasing my unique works from recycled textiles that are not listed online, selling choice vintage clothing, teaching workshops, and doing a lot of alterations and custom work; which is right in line with my mission of helping people feel good in clothing that fits better and lasts longer their closets.
What’s been the most difficult thing about being an independent maker?
Wearing all hats simultaneously. Research, design, production, photography, modeling, styling, graphic design, merchandising, marketing, customer service, accounting, the list goes on. While marketing is super creative, it is a full time job, and I end up doing things that sell themselves, like service work, that take time away from creating my own ideas. But I love service because it’s meaningful, it’s creative problem solving and it pays, and that’s the fun stuff. The unique issue with promoting being sustainable is trying to convince people to buy the work while at the same time telling people to buy less, or to create such a quality and durability that people don’t need to come back. In a consumer world it’s ironic, but in a sustainable world it just makes sense.
What’s been the most surprising thing?
In a fast-fashion, Walmart world, I am surprised to see there is such a demand for sewing services. This is maybe the first time I’ve told anyone publicly that I’m doing alterations. It’s all word of mouth. I think everyone could go through their closets and find a garbage-bag-sized pile of things that need a little help. Because fewer people are sewing, I get tons of free sewing supplies and fabric donated, and tons of business from people who have ideas but lack the sewing and fitting skills.
Where do you find inspirations for your original designs?
A lot of the time I say that my clothing designs itself because I am using found fabrics to inform what they will become based on their size, shape, weight and texture. One cue as a designer is to design things not because you can, but because you like them and because you would wear or use them. That way, if no one buys it, you still have something you love.
Favorite part about doing business in Milwaukee?
While the internet helps transcend geography, it is also saturated. I feel very lucky to be in a position where I have an affordable place to do business. While there is less disposable income, there is a great need for service, and that’s what I find most meaningful. Plus, we have many great grant- and community-based educational programming services for kids and I’ve been very fortunate to be engaged in community education programs for over 12 years in Milwaukee. A large part of the purpose of Madam Chino is to educate and empower youth through creative self-expression using sewing, patterning and fashion.