When we stumbled upon the work of sustainable artist and designer Sarah Nsisak, it quickly became our dream to collaborate. Sarah is the designer behind La Réunion, a Brooklyn-based studio where she creates hand stitched and quilted pieces made exclusively from recycled material. This month, we had the honor of teaming up with Sarah on a very special, small batch of one-of-a-kind patchwork dresses made from recycled Seek fabrics and other found textiles. Read on to learn about what’s been inspiring Sarah’s work, her background in creative therapy, how she incorporates sustainability into her life, and more.
1. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you initially fall in love with quilting and textile art?
My grandmother was a seamstress in her Nigerian village and she was a very skilled sewist. My parents immigrated to Oklahoma City in the 80s for university, and a few years after starting a family, my grandmother came to America to live with us. I used to watch her work with Ankara, which is a traditional Nigeria printed textile, and feel like what she was doing with her machine was magic. She saw my interest and taught me to sew when I was 9 or 10. We used paper, needle and thread to start, and I eventually worked up to using her machine. I remember foraging my own closet for old garments to transform into new ones, and doing so very badly. I was obsessed with the empowering feeling I got from making my own clothing, even if I was mostly too embarrassed to let them see daylight. I have always made little textile art pieces without really sharing them, but I actualized the project La Réunion (named after the island) at the end of 2019. The goal has always been to share Africa-inspired artwork and to do so sustainability.
2. You studied creative therapy and then worked in the fashion industry before you began to focus more on your own art, establishing La Réunion. What prompted your decision to make the pivot and start your own brand?
Right when Covid-19 hit, I needed some kind of good news. Big or small, something to feel good about or to feel good wearing again. Even if just at home. That’s when I made the first patchwork dress. It was like medicine for me, and it seemed to have the same effect on many others, to see something special made of old scraps. I like to think that same feeling is a continuous thread through all the things I make.
3. Your blossoming dress series confluence of art and fashion. Can you tell us a bit about the specific inspiration behind the dresses?
I first read about the Herero tribe a few years ago, around the time I moved to NYC. I was doing personal research because I felt this persistent nagging frustration that African art was never a point of focus in my studies. Meanwhile, so many artists and designers are inspired by Africa many weren't paying tribute in any way. I looked up textile art by African people, and after some time gasping at the work by the women of Gee's Bend, I stumbled upon images of the Herero women. I couldn't stop searching for more images of them. I was enamoured and also offended that their story was so new to me. I read about how the Germans tried to wipe out their tribe in the 19th century, and how they now wear the reimagined styles of their oppressors. It is a sign of resiliency and it's what black people around the world have been doing since the beginning of time. To make emphatically beautiful something what was initially a symbol of pain and suffering is an act of rebellion and it's a sign of immense strength. Their stories are some of the most powerful and important that I've ever heard in my life. They were transformational for me as an African American woman still searching for a deeper sense of identity.
4. We love the commitment to sustainability that marks your work. How did you arrive at the decision to produce using only remnants and recycled fabric?
I moved to NYC to work for a designer that claimed to be sustainable and ethically made in Africa, but it was smoke and mirrors. I witnessed greenwashing and abuse in the fashion industry first hand and became disillusioned. I was gaslighted into believing that the abuse was something imperative to go through and that not being paid was also important. From then on it was so important for me to take everyone off pedestals and reimagine things from a new perspective because this one was not it. I began to think about where I fit into this landscape as an artist that cares about ethics, sustainability, equity for black people, and celebrating Africa. I spent a couple of years working for different designers - some that I really admire now and stay connected to. I was eager to learn and see what I could do differently. I'm thankful for every single experience now and feel it led me to unwavering values and an altruistic message that helps to preserve our planet.
5. Does your background in creative therapy ever inform, inspire, or come into play in your own art?
Yes, definitely! I feel a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and gratification when I make textile art. It’s something that can pull me out of a mood and take me out of my head at times. I love Jungian theory and feel art truly does open up the subconscious in a deeply refining way. Having an art practice has taught me so much more about what it means to use art as a way of knowing self. People say your partner in life is your mirror - I feel the same can be said about your art practice. Everything shows in new ways. It’s so vulnerable, but it’s important to learn how to be vulnerable in a world that can make you (especially as a black woman making textile art) feel very alone. A very special community is forming around these themes, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
6.You have collaborated with other artists, and we’re psyched beyond words for our collaboration together! What are your thoughts on how creatives can provide a sense of support and collectiveness for each other?
I feel like this is what it’s all about. Art is meant to be shared, and so much beauty comes out of making it together! I look forward to the day when more artists and designers are less proprietary about their work and more interested in sharing the stage.
7. What do you do when you’re seeking inspiration? And are there any sources of inspiration for your work that people might be surprised by?
I love film and frequent Criterion’s collection for inspiration. It inspires my personal style as well as my work. I think people might be surprised to know that I don’t really look at other designer’s work for inspiration or at fashion in general. There are some toxic messages about the euro standard of beauty that I’ve struggled to unlearn for a long time. I’m trying to create some change in it while drawing inspiration from other creative realms.
8. Who’s your all-time favorite artist or designer, and why?
Wow, that’s extremely difficult to choose - right now I think its Frida for her extremely prolific communist view points and her experimentation with gender fluidity. She was also a master of color, and that’s something I can never get over when looking at her work.
9. What do you wear to feel the most free and confident?
I love a good easy dress, not too precious or fussy, and loafers with socks. Honestly my Seek dress is definitely a go to!!
10. How do you incorporate sustainability into your life?
It’s in all aspects of what I do. I used to take my own coffee cup and utensils around when that was allowed. In all the ways that I can, I avoid using plastic. When I do, I try to make sure it’s something that can be reused by someone else or it's absolutely imperative.
11. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved by?
Thomas Sankara Speaks! I’m reading it now. He’s the most important social justice activist to me for so many reasons. Highly recommend reading his work.
12. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
I recently watched a little webinar by Shopify for black business owners, and one of the business owners said “we are not here to dim our light, we are here to kiss our dreams in the mouth.”
13. What are you seeking more of this year?
Healing, clarity, hope, and acceptance of all the unknowns/uncontrolled things that will continue to confront my day to day life.