Pittsburgh City Paper columnist Tereneh Idia is temporarily going off the grid. Idia, whose award-winning column covers social justice and race issues, as well as fashion, will be absent this January to become an artist-in-resident for the first-ever Wildbiyoo zero-waste arts program in Goa, India. United by the theme of addressing the climate crisis, the gathering of Indian and international artists will culminate in a two-day long eco-festival at the beginning of February.
While there, Idia, whose resume includes residencies at the Pittsburgh International Airport and Brew House Association, as well as her fashion company Idia’Dega, hopes to study native textiles at the Khaama Kethna Holistic Wellbeing Retreat Centre and make pieces out of found natural materials.
Before her departure, she spoke with CP about her goals for the residency and making sustainable fashion.
How did you find out about this program?
I spent most of the end of summer through fall daily looking at residences. My goal for 2020 is to spend most of it not in the United States.
So the proposal I made was to make adornment out of jungle waste. Adornment is anything you put on your body — hairstyles, earrings, tattoos, piercings. And I don’t know what that looks like. In my mind, I’m thinking fallen leaves, and snakeskin that had been shed and left, and bones. … It’s very much what is naturally there and that would eventually biodegrade.
How is this different from the other residencies you’ve done?
This is my first international residency because everything else I’ve done for Idia’Dega. … Also I feel like I’m trying to balance out making fashion for this capitalist company with this artist-developed stuff as well. So there’s the design company, the design artist, and the design educator, and figuring out how to do all those different things.
What aspect of this are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about meeting people from the community and learning about the traditional textiles. … I don’t know enough about it to say, “This is what Goan fashion is.” … The relationships I make are going to be primarily the relationships that the organization has already made. So I’m not sure how much I can spread out and into the community, but I really want to try and do that.
If I’m not welcome, that’s fine too. I have lots of other materials and a lot of other things to do. … What I learned about traveling and design with other people is that you can go in with an idea, but you have to just see what happens.
Even with the designs that I do with Idia’Dega, I don’t go into [a Maasai community in Kenya] like, “Well, I have a master’s degree in fashion design and I taught here and I’ve done this,” because everyone I’m working with has experiences I don’t have and skills I don’t have. So how can we work together?
I know India has seen the impact of fast fashion and the amount of pollution it has brought. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve thought about or examined going into this.
Part of what I do is create clothes out of sustainable materials and making clothes using non-toxic dyes and things like that. So it’s difficult because I’m trying to figure out how to use fast fashion for good. Because people can choose not to buy these $10 dresses from these big [retailers], but some people have to.
I just think about sustainability and all of this as a continuum. There’s the whole, “I wear a different outfit every day, I drive a Hummer,” and then there’s sitting on a lotus leaf somewhere not even breathing. I’m flying to India. I’m not kayaking to India. … From there, I’ll be using a solar charger, I won’t be using very much water or electricity, but still, you have to fly to get there. So you’re on this pendulum.
But I think consumers are becoming more educated about the consequences of fast fashion.
I think we’re breaking through that old idea of, “Well, someone else wore those shoes,” and it’s like, “Yeah someone did, and it’s fine, and it’s cool, and it’s made well, and I’m going to wear it.” … Because I do talk about, even beyond fast fashion, just how much [clothing production] pollutes. It is one of the biggest polluters in the world. And people don’t know that. So it’s important for people to know, but doing it in a way that’s, “Here are all these other options and alternatives,” as opposed to shaming. Because I don’t know what it would be like to have kids and not a lot of money and go to Target and get everyone new outfits for $60.
What are you hoping to bring back from this, ultimately?
I really hope to have a map on how to be a designer and make things in this era that is valuable in every aspect. Valuable in terms of materials that are not harming the planet, valuable in a way that is a circular economy that supports lots of different communities, and valuable in that people actually want to wear it.