Sweet Athena Interviews Fashion Designer Lisa Silveira

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Here at Sweet Athena we are pretty excited about the change in our blog format to “themed” seasons. One of the great benefits of this transition is that Lindsey and I are hoping to really be able to explore one topic in many different ways. A particularly fun thing we set out to do this season was interview a fashion designer.

Lisa Silveira sat down with Lindsey and I and told us about her journey into the world of fashion, how living in Italy inspired her and what exactly a knitting machine is and why it is so cool.

Sweet Athena: Tell us about how you got into fashion design.
Lisa Silveira:It’s kind of a funny story. I originally wanted to study architecture, so after high school I went to the University of Oregon for a year to study architecture, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I decided to change directions, and I actually asked my friends, “What should I study?,” telling them that it needed to be something creative. A bunch of my friends said, “Well, you’ve always been into fashion, so why don’t you try that?” And that was that. And it kind of turned out to be a good thing.SA:Wow. So your friends really knew you.LS: Apparently. Yeah.

SA: So how did that journey go, then, after that inspiration hit?

LS: Right after that happened, I was at the tail end of the school year and so I just researched schools and found a couple on the East Coast and the Art Institute of Portland, up here. About a month later, I started summer term [at the Art Institute of Portland] and was in year-round school for the next four years. It was very exciting.

SA: So how, then, do you think your educational experiences influence the work you do now?

LS: I’m kind of figuring out now that things are working out the way they should have, but unintentionally. I feel like I got a really good education. Everything is coming into play, like my study abroad in Italy. That’s the first time I got to visit a knitwear design studio, and that totally inspired me. Now, five years later, I’m totally into knitwear and it’s great to make it myself. I wouldn’t have thought about that unless I had gone on that trip and visited that company.

SA: What other experiences did you take away from your time in Italy?

LS: Fashion-related, I really like the fact that many of the businesses are family-owned and run, which I love. I’m not really into the whole corporate thing. It doesn’t fit my lifestyle, so having a family-run business really appeals to me; I’d love to have one. So when I went back to Italy and did my internship there, I actually worked for one. The wife is the designer, the husband is the business manager and then they had a seamstress and a receptionist and a couple of interns every once in a while. They do everything for this fashion line. It’s not like a teeny-tiny line. It was stressful and hard work, but something we totally produced ourselves. No corporate sponsors and backers, just you do the hard work and then you get to reap the benefits.

And the pace of the lifestyle. It’s slower, which I like. Everyone makes fun of me for being late and taking my time, but that’s just how everything is over there. I think I was born with the Italian clock. Unless you go over there and experience it, not everyone understands.

SA: Do you think there is a difference between the way American women and Italian women view fashion?

LS: A little bit. That’s kind of where the term, “la bella figura” comes in. It’s an Italian way that’s been around for a long time. It’s kind of the art of dressing and good appearance and good behavior. It’s not just being fashionable, but about the way you appear all of the time. Like, I don’t think you’d ever see an Italian woman in sweatpants at a grocery store. It’s an art form, not just, “it’s in fashion and every one else has it!” You really love it. You’re inspired by it. It’s beautiful.

It’s a little hard these days to appreciate fashion in that way because clothing is so disposable. We buy it cheap, knowing it will wear out in a few months or a year and get new clothes. Which works with different trends going in and out all of the time, but I’m trying to turn things around a little bit; spending a little bit more money on carefully chosen, quality pieces that will last years and years. And that you love.

SA: What’s inspiring you creatively these days?

LS: Right now, I’m learning a whole new way to design clothing. The method is inspiring me itself in just figuring out how to do things. I’m learning how to knit on a machine. I think it’s what I’ve been looking for for years–the right medium–and I think I’ve finally found it.

Knitting on a machine, I made this [she points to her garment, pictured at top.] I made a sweater with a hood. That’s crazy! The first time, it worked out right. This is the kind of stuff I love to buy, but it’s usually hundreds of dollars because it has a fancy brand name attached to it or because it’s made of one-hundred percent Mongolian cashmere. I don’t really care. I just want a nice knitted piece. I can’t easily hand-knit this; I can knit a scarf and it takes hours and hours and hours.

SA: How long did it take you to machine-knit this?

LS: About six hours. Which, for the first time is pretty cool.

SA: Yeah, it’s impressive. It’s a detailed piece.

LS: So, that inspires me. And Italian culture. I would love to afford to subscribe to Italian fashion magazines. Not necessarily Vogue, but the ones I saw when I was there. They’re ahead of us. Like, when I look back at the magazines even from five years ago, I still like what I see. Italy is one of the capitals of knitwear. No matter what the styles are, they are always forward-thinking. I can look back and get re-inspired.

SA: You’re teaching a class for machine knitting at Portland Sewing.

LS: Yes. It hasn’t started yet, but it will be an introductory class. Most people haven’t seen a knitting machine or have any idea what it looks like, so the first class is is “Introduction to Machine Knitting for Apparel Design.” We’re going to get through a scarf and maybe a cowl. The next class will be more focused on more advanced techniques and heading towards garments.

SA: How popular is knitting with a machine?

LS: It’s not terribly popular now. It used to be popular when they first came out in the 1970’s, targeted at home knitters. It was kind of a fad that went around. I’ve talked to a lot of ladies who remember when it came out. But it’s a nice medium for people like me who want to make their own clothes. It’s also just a great opportunity for students to learn one more medium.

SA: You set out to create one hundred things in one year and are documenting your progress on Facebook. We really like that concept! How is that going so far?

LS: Pretty good. I think I’m at forty-three right now. It’s been difficult because I’ve had some paid jobs where I’ve made things, but I don’t feel right posting those because I got paid. It doesn’t really count.

SA: What do you think you’ve learned through this project?

LS: How much time everything takes. It’s not very consistent; smaller projects don’t take much time but the quilt I made did. It kind of evens out. I’m mixing easy projects with the hard projects. Did I tell you the reason why I started that?

SA: No, why did you?

LS: I was researching on the Internet and I found a couple of blogs. One is by a woman in the South who has no formal education in sewing and she read somewhere in a book that, to be an expert in any subject, you need something like ten thousand hours of experience. Her blog is called Ten Thousand Hours of Sewing. And she is dedicating that to teach herself how to sew. She makes all commercial patterns and it’s great. There’s another one by a mother of a couple of young kids who is a teacher and she has also taught herself how to sew. I believe she made ninety-five garments last year.

I thought, well, they have no formal education in this and I do. I need to be making stuff. I have all of these skills and I don’t use them. I’m very goal-oriented, and having it in writing and having people look at what I’m doing keeps me on top of it. Maybe another year, I’ll do clothing, but this year, anything goes.

SA: Did you plan out what you were going to make ahead of time?

LS: Yes. When I started the idea, I made a big list of one hundred things. I’ve maybe crossed off five of those so far because projects keep coming up, like baby stuff for a friend.

SA: How would you describe your personal style?

LS: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily want to say that I’m trendy, but I honestly don’t know if I know what is in style at the moment because I don’t pay attention to fashion magazines anymore.

My opinion on personal style for everyone is, first, dress for your body type. Not everyone should be wearing jeggings with a tank top. No matter what your body type is, there are clothes that will fit you.

Second, you should dress for your personality. It just looks wrong if you are wearing something totally out of character. Like, if I was wearing a rugby striped polo shirt it wouldn’t work for me.

I’m all about comfort. I like things that I can wash and wear and throw on. I’m a big fan of dresses because you just have to pick out shoes. I’d like to wear a lot more knitwear, but I need to build that wardrobe first.

Just like anyone, I go through the phases where I have high confidence and not-so-high confidence, where you wear the comfortable clothes that you’re totally safe in. But every once-in-a-while, I like to wear something weird just to see what people’s reactions are and to see if they comment. It’s quite entertaining.

SA: What’s an example of that?

LS: Strange color combinations, or a boots with an outfit I don’t normally put together, or a funky sweater. It’s usually stuff I like to wear, not completely wacky. I go through fun-colored tights phases.

SA: When you look back to high school, are there any fashion choices that you’re now like, “What was I thinking?” Or any trend you fell into that you recognize now?

LS: Well, I definitely fell into the GAP trend. Also, this isn’t exactly a “What were you thinking?” moment, but I had a pair of burgundy corduroy pants that I just wore for years.

SA’s Lindsey: I had some of those, too!

LS: Until they were no longer wearable! They were my favorite pants in the whole world and I thought they went with everything.

Also, I’m not embarrassed about this, but I’m surprised that I did it. My sophomore year, I went to Prom and I used to be really into celebrity fashion. I saw an orange dress and decided I wanted an orange prom dress. Orange wasn’t really in fashion, so of course I couldn’t find one. So I had my mom’s cousin’s wife sew me a dress. It was construction worker-orange. It had a little skirt with a strapless top and bows in the back and I wore little orange shoes to match it. I don’t think anyone else was wearing orange, but I really wanted to do it.

SA: If anyone else was curious about getting into fashion design, what would you recommend to them?

LS: Well, if they are in the Portland area, I highly recommend Portland Sewing. It’s perfect if your not interested in a formal education and degree. I have that, and so far it’s not doing me any good because I don’t want to work for a big company and competition for those jobs is crazy at the moment, anyway.

If you just want to learn skills, Portland Sewing is great for that. We have all kinds of classes for sewing, pattern making, illustration, and starting in January, we’re starting a textiles series. So, things like batik, dying, silk-screening, and shibori. It’s a good way to see if you even like it. And there are business classes, such as “How to Start Your Own Apparel Business.”

Lisa Silveira is a Portland-based designer. When not working on her One Hundred Things in One Year project, she loves to experiment with her knitting machine. She teaches classes at Portland Sewing (2111 NE 43rd, Portland OR, 503-927-5457.)


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