Waste Reclamation for High Fashion and Fine Art: A Profile on Leilah Talukder.

Portrait of Leilah Talukder featuring her designs. Photographer: Rebecca Goldman 

This month Rogue had the pleasure of speaking with Leilah Talukder, an ambitious, gifted young fashion designer from the Bay Area of California. The purpose of our conversation was to highlight Talukder’s incredible creativity and showcase some of her most intriguing projects inspired by 2020’s groundbreaking events. 

Talukder graduated from The University of California Berkeley in the spring of 2020 with two degrees – one in Art History and the other in Art Practice. Her research focused mainly on textiles and clothing, how these tied into colonization and industrialization, and how their relationships manifest themselves in industries today. When I asked if Talukder’s designs were intended to be worn or displayed, she explained her work to exist at a “complicated nexus” between the two; “What of this is art and what of this is fashion? My work often scrapes against those boundaries,” she explains. Talukder believes that fashion should be considered fine art at times, and what she creates “is of both worlds.” “Fine art can sometimes be cold, and removed from the viewer,” Talukder ponders. “It can, of course, be very fruitful” she continues, but emphasizes “love[ing] the intimacy that clothing has to people” and seeks to explore how she can extend this dynamic to her art as well. 

During our conversation, Talukder elaborated on her background, citing her Bangladeshi heritage and contextualizing how the country was once “the textile jewel of the ancient world.” Having come from a long lineage of designers, creators, textile designers, quilters and sewers, Talukder finds fashion and design “deeply ingrained in [her] identity.” Talukder was exposed to the realities of labor practices in the garment industry at a very young age, and suggests that deeply troubled labor systems in this sector continuously motivate her to improve the industry. When visiting her family in Bangladesh at the age of 14 or 15, Talukder asked to visit the garment worker sweatshops where she received a visceral, “honest view of the fashion industry.” She recalled the main factory floor being so incredibly hot, busy, and overwhelming, that she actually passed out from heat stroke, after spending only a brief time there. Talukder went on to discuss her first hand experiences in Bangladesh, and her understanding that garment worker positions, while often injust, provide women with jobs, allow them to generate income and independence for themselves, send their children to school, and build up the female labor force, and how these factors can shift how a country perceives women in general. These dynamics remain deeply personal to her, her heritage, and her people. “Many people will never understand how colonialism swept through Bangladesh,” she explains, how colonists “came in and mined [Bangladesh] for [its] most beautiful materials and hand crafted objects that [colonists] then took to Europe,” never recognizing “all these institutions that have been stolen from people of color.” Her discussion elucidates the disparity between the compensation of high fashion designers, and garment workers, and scrutinizes the many “racialized, gendered issues in fashion stemming from colonialism.”

Specialized Protest Tool, 2017 by Leilah Talukder. Model: Leilah Talukder

Talukder now works as a student Artist in Residence with Recology, an employee owned company that has managed waste disposal for the city of San Francisco for over 100 years. Recology cooperates with many organizations, including with the San Francisco public school system, in order to better educate students about recycling, and the importance of minimizing and sorting waste. But how does this tie into fashion and art, one might wonder? Recology hosts a handful of competitive residencies throughout the year, where selected professional and student artists alike upcycle “trash” into fine art, while working out of shipping container studios. Essentially, the artists are free to scavenge through garbage left at Recology’s public drop off site, and bring it forward with them into their creative spaces. Talukder describes the waste drop off location as a “super dangerous space,” which is why the residents are required to wear extensive personal protective equipment, including masks, puncture resistant boots and gloves, utility jackets and overalls, goggles, and a hard hat. The art that the residents create from this waste is then showcased in Recology’s exhibitions, where students and San Fanciscans alike rethink what their “garbage” is, and what it can become. Even before her work at Recology, Talukder has cited sustainability as one of the most important areas the industry has to improve on, right next to just treatment of laborers; she has always strived to be more sustainable through her work, often using scraps, or even materials left over from other artists’ projects. 

Portrait of Leilah Talukder, featuring her designs using leftover plexiglass from another project. Photographer: Rebecca Goldman 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Talukder frequented the Recology waste dump in order to collect materials for her art. She described the experience of digging through the waste heaps as physically exhausting, but also noted an unexpected emotional toll that came with the job. Talukder explained that she had once “happened across the belongings of a woman’s entire existence,” all discarded at this public dump. From what she understood, these were the belongings of someone who had passed away – “an entire life had been discarded there,” Talukder said wistfully. The collection included everything from high quality vintage clothing to photos of family, and even the story of this woman’s immigration to the United States. “I got a deep sense of who she was,” Talukder stated thoughtfully, explaining that these “materials make you confront mortality in a weird way, they live beyond us – people around us become the stewards of our material existence” – referring to the relatives, or officials who might have discarded her belongings after this woman had passed. Talukder elaborated on why this was so pressing: By reworking these materials into new forms of art, she could form a new life for these materials, and continue this woman’s presence in the world. 

Initially, Talukder had set out to design a line of clothing that functioned both as garments and musical instruments, thereby encouraging the wearer of the clothing to dance or move to create music. However, Leilah’s in-person residency, and the development of this project, was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She has now pivoted her work to reflect a full line of protest wear. “So much has changed now since that [first] proposal, and the sense of urgency has changed,” Talukder explains. The design of this line draws off of the inspiration for military garments. Talukder claims she has become “obsessed” with understanding facial recognition, as two of her close friends research the nexus between technology and human rights. Her idea, Talukder expands, is to take garments and techniques that were developed and researched for the military, and share these with the people, with the intent to rework our “oppressive system to serve the needs the citizens have” during the COVID era, and the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the most relevant designs she has been working on is an anti facial recognition mask, but has also explored cocoon coats, bomber jackets, and dazzle camouflage – intense graphic prints once used on US navy battleships in World War II in order to confuse missile guidance systems. Her overall goal is to find a way to identify defining features tracked by facial recognition software, and discern how to “overburden the visual field” through her clothing. The masks are intended to help protect from covid [and] protect identities – to help protect against the surveillance state,” both “bodily” and in terms of identity for protesting citizens. Talukder notes that there are many different ways to go about this, and admits that she is not the first artist to contemplate this issue, making sure to “[pay] homage to [the artists before her] and the work they have put in the world,” as she builds off of their foundational works.

In terms of what the designs look like, some are full coverage masks, while others are combination garments, “like gloves attached to masks.” As many of us have heard throughout the BLM protests, protesters are often encouraged to wear all black to help them blend in and remain unidentified, but Talukder takes a different approach: “Sometimes you want something that can’t be captured in certain ways by a photo,” exploring the question: “What is camouflage to a camera versus to a person, to technology? What is going to make me something a camera is not going to focus on – what will confuse its system? This is becoming so urgent.” Talukder intends to publish the patterns for her designs, so that everyone can download them, and make them for themselves. She wants her work to enter the world whether it’s her making it or not. Talukder explains her excitement for fashion here, and how it can be “more democratic than other creative forms,” admonishing the current inaccessibility of both fine art and high fashion for certain demographics. “Fashion has an elitist quality,” she explains “but has the potential systems to start combatting that.” 

When I asked her about the potential negative implications of designing garments with the ability to disguise their wearer, Talukder answered: “The truth is, if you put your art into the world, part of the art is what’s done with it,” describing it as both “exciting and terrifying.” “Every person has a right to privacy, absolutely” Talukder elaborates, explaining that people can now be racially profiled by facial recognition software, and emphasized that the consequences of releasing her designs will be worth it in order to prevent the negative implications of certain technological advancements. “It might not all be positive, but even so, I am not my work, and what happens when it leaves me is ultimately part of art itself. This makes it both exciting and challenging.” Her role, she explains, is simply to iterate her original intentions of the work.

Nomadic Nostalgia, 2018 by Leilah Talukder. Photographer: Robert Borsdorf. Models: (Left) Jade Cohen (Right) Elysia Arci

Impressed by how passionate and informed Talukder was, and how seriously she takes her creative work, I asked what advice she has for young people who might be traditionally underrepresented in the industry, or who are looking to begin their career in fashion. “I’m not going to pretend that I have an intimate and deep understanding, or a roadmap that I don’t have” Talukder responds humbly, while acknowledging the privileges she has had in this life. “It depends on who you are trying to be in the industry,” Talukder continues, encouraging young people to first figure out what they want to focus on, such as fashion or photography, for example. Her advice was at first practical, to “never stop making” – to learn to be consistent in one’s work, and to create new things every day. “You always have to make it a part of your life,” Talukder says. Talukder expands on her words of encouragement, stating: “Don’t water yourself down. If you know what you want your identity as a designer or brand maker to be, stick to it, don’t make compromises that you don’t want to make.” 

In the future, Talukder would like to either pursue her masters in fashion design or a masters in art, and someday looks forward to starting her own business. “I am still learning things every day – the journey is never over, and there is always room for improvement,” Talukder concludes. 

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