Industry Interview: Lisa Lai
We knew we had to interview Lisa after seeing “Secondskin”, her inspiring human package project at the 2018 Why I Design event in Vancouver.
In this Industry Interview, we chat with Lisa about “Secondskin”, her human package project and her recent rhetoric, “Scarves My Mother Would Strongly Dislike”.
Can you walk us through your background and how you got into fashion?
I was born in China and moved to Canada when I was three. I grew up in Saskatchewan and moved to Vancouver for my university degree. I originally thought I would study Sciences but last minute, I enrolled in the Industrial Design program at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. It was a compromise to my parents, as they didn’t want me to study in too crazy of a field (industrial design is more commercial than fine arts). Ultimately, I graduated with a Bachelor of Industrial Design this last May.
During my time at university, I interned at tentree and it renewed my passion for clothing ethics and sustainability. I’ve always been an advocate for clothing sustainability and ethical labour, as my grandmother used to work in harsh conditions of a factory sewing buttons. I grew up hearing stories about how she didn’t have time to even go to the washroom because every button sewn was worth a little bit of money.
Now, I work full-time at tentree on their accessories design team, but I also make time for my passion projects. These projects allow me to stay creative, and help me advocate for fashion ethics, sustainability, and social justice.
That’s great! Can you walk us through your human package project?
I did Secondskin | Sustainable Human Packaging as a graduation project and worked on it over the course of eight months. I loved working on it because it encompassed everything I enjoy about design— communication and education. My goal was to cause a paradigm shift.
The problem I was trying to tackle was that consumers often don’t associate our clothing with waste. We are conscious of saving water, saving electricity, recycling, etc., but we aren’t that cognizant of our clothing. However, my idea was that if we looked at clothing like packaging, we might be more conscious and could justify a higher cost if it was made ethically, or more sustainably.
I also designed the pieces to be androgynous because if I was truly creating a package for humans, the gender shouldn’t matter. That being said, I wanted the clothing to be appealing and stylish as well. I aimed to challenge the notion that eco-friendly garments are “hippy” and “frayed”.
Finally, it was also important for me to consider both commercial design and critical design perspectives. Commercial design is centred around usability, and critical design is focused on re-thinking issues, rather than having something tangible you can use. Ultimately, I wanted it to be usable and critical.
I was able to make a variety of items during this project! One item was a kit with Human Package label stickers that people could stick to themselves and start to wear to spur packaging conversations.
I also designed two jackets made out of linen and hemp. I went with those materials because it’s fully compostable. And unlike cotton, both those fabrics don’t require much water or bleaching. Personally, I really liked the natural colour of linen and hemp and felt that these materials could create a thicker jacket with a cool feeling to it.
Lastly, I designed a fake catalogue for the jackets. I pretended this was an apparel line and the catalogue outlined how the brand would sell to consumers.
What was the hardest part of the project?
I wanted to implement zero waste into the design, meaning that every cut and piece would be extremely intentional so there would be no waste. The hardest part was the zero waste cut and making sure that all the pieces fit together so there wouldn’t be any leftover scraps This was all part of my eco-package design. I also wanted to incorporate iconography, meaning someone could recycle it after (which can be hard with clothing, especially with zippers), which is why I used buttons. Lastly, I wanted it to be easy to disassemble, meaning there would be no complicated trims.
That’s so amazing! Can you also walk us through your latest project Rhetoric, Scarves My Mother Would Strongly Dislike?
Yes! This project was inspired during my trip when I travelled to Vietnam, Thailand, and China. During my travels, I was so inspired by the landscape and architecture, but I found that with every new design project that popped into my head, I kept thinking: “but my mother would hate that”. And then I realized that I filtered my design work way too much based on what my mother thinks and way too much on what everyone else would think.
I have a minimal and clean design style, but I feel that over the years, I’ve lost a bit of myself by thinking about other people's opinions. After realizing this, I wanted to send a message and encourage others to be unapologetic, especially my fellow females!
I decided to incorporate my illustrations that were heavily influenced by my travels onto scarves, and showcase it as rhetoric. I collaborated with Dhia, a female photography based here in Vancouver who teamed up with local females that included a stylist, three makeup artists, three models, and another photographer.
To create the scarves, I digitized my hand drawn illustration, then printed it onto satin scarves.
I love that!! Can you share what sparks your creativity?
Travelling has had a huge influence on me. Like I previously mentioned, my Asia trip spurred Scarves My Mother Would Strongly Dislike. I also lived in Sweden for half a year in 2017 when I was studying abroad and the cultural nuances really inspired me. It was fun to look around, take public transit, people watch, etc.
I am also inspired by nature and biomimicry (design based off Mother Nature). For example, the guy that invented Velcro came up with it after seeing how burr attached to his clothes after hiking.
Lastly, I am also drawn to my Asian background. I enjoy hearing stories from my parents and I love sharing my culture.
As a designer in the fashion sustainability space, what do you find the most challenging?
I think the biggest challenge is cost. Eco-friendly materials are more expensive and that can make it harder for consumers to afford. However, I feel like I’m in a bubble because I work in the fashion sustainability space and it’s easy to forget that the average consumer doesn’t care, or isn’t aware of what’s going on. And it’s hard for me to ask a university student “How could you buy fast fashion!?!”, when I’ve been there and I understand that it’s difficult to invest in high-quality, eco-friendly pieces.
What message do you have for aspiring designers and new designers that are just graduating?
I believe that you need to greet luck with preparation, meaning you need to have a portfolio and website ready. I also think it’s important to make good connections with the people in your community. You should find mentors who can guide you. Lastly, believe in yourself and what you produce! Your work should speak for itself.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers?
Lead by example. I feel that’s more important than preaching. For me, that means wearing things that I can stand behind.