Alexandra Sipa: Through the Wire
Encountering a spring-loaded tangle of wires, the most productive performance I can achieve is shoving the curly mass back into a cavity with hopes it stays out of sight. Where most see snakes on a plane, Alexandra Sipa envisions purpose and possibility. What she makes is repurposed, beautiful, a blend of old and new. All the good stuff.
Gwynned Vitello: Central Saint Martins in London is such a highly regarded school. What were your expectations when you were accepted? Is your current work a departure from what you first had in mind?
Alexandra Sipa: I wanted to go to CSM since I was 12 but, at the time, was attending an arts-focused high school in Bucharest, Romania. Going abroad to study was a big financial commitment and risk, especially with the job insecurity in creative fields. However, when I learned about CSM, I knew it offered the best education and environment possible to achieve my dreams. I wanted to go desperately.
So much has happened over the last four years at Saint Martins that I could not have imagined. What makes this school so special is the unique mix of people, personalities and backgrounds. The most important thing we learn at CSM is that to succeed in this industry and in life you need to value yourself—where you come from, who you are, and what you do.
Attitude, social structure, ambience—how was the adjustment moving to London?
I used to be very shy, so my first year was tough. I already knew English, but it’s one thing to be textbook fluent and another to effortlessly express your personality in a second language. It’s almost like I had to get to know myself again in a different language. Things got easier after the first few months. I was lucky to meet some amazing people who made me feel at home. It also helped when I finally was able to understand British accents!
When you hatched the idea for lace wiring, were your family and teachers surprised or skeptical, or was something so novel kind of expected of you?
It’s funny you ask because my tutors were in complete disagreement. When I first started making the waste wire lace, one of them really loved the idea and encouraged it wholeheartedly, while the other was skeptical and not convinced. That was my second year before interning in the industry. When I returned in 12 months for the final year, my unconvinced tutor slowly warmed to the idea, as I had improved and refined it. That’s the great thing about having two opposing perspectives: one to push and challenge me to make my ideas better and someone supportive no matter what. I’m incredibly grateful to have been taught by Anna-Nicole Ziesche and Heather Sproat, the two BA Womenswear tutors at CSM.
Once you latched on to the idea, what was most challenging about actually producing a garment? What properties of the material are difficult and which are inherently advantageous?
The time-intensive nature of the lacing process was initially most challenging; however, I soon became more efficient, and making the lace became second nature. The process feels meditative now. After mastering the fundamental lace stitch and technique, finishing the wire garments to a luxury standard is the difficult part, and it varies from piece to piece. For example, for the A-line lace dress from my graduate collection, I adapted the Romanian technique of point lace to finish the entire bottom, hiding any loose wiring and creating decorative oval petals. The challenge is to find aesthetic solutions to practical issues so it is wearable, comfortable, and beautiful. The lace dress has taken the longest of the pieces so far, about 1000 hours across a few months.
Unless deliberately undone stitch-by-stitch or cut with scissors, the wire lace textile is essentially indestructible, and including the dress and ruffle coat, can be folded, bent, or reshaped, yet easily molded back to its original shape.
What did the first design look like, and was it easy to proceed to the next shape or type of garment?
The first time I tried making a garment out of wires, three years ago, was not what I imagined at all. It didn’t look polished or close enough to a lace fabric, but I really loved doing it and saw potential.
When I decided to revisit the wire lace idea during my final year, it took a lot of additional research and practice to get the wires to mimic the softness of traditional lace. The techniques I use are part YouTube, books, and happy accidents, but my lacemaking dexterity improved in a few months. As with sewing a garment made out of fabric, I began to create a “sewing plan” for each wire lace garment made, starting with the lace dress at the beginning of my final year. I consider everything: the direction of the lace, where it starts and ends, how to make it comfortable and easy to wear, whether finishings will be hidden or part of the design. It all impacts how the garment will look and feel in the end. I tend to be pretty impatient, so this collection really forced me to rein it in and be organized.
If I see a mass of wire or tangled chains, I shudder and go into a panic. What is your process, starting with collecting the components and then making something? Do you have a piece or shape in mind, and can you complete a garment on your own?
Ha ha, my boyfriend, Lucas Baker, has the same reaction. When we buy or collect discarded wires, we try to get as much as we can carry, especially during the pandemic with the sporadic lockdowns. So we almost always have a substantial amount of wire in our flat ready for new projects. Since I began experimenting with my wire lace technique three years ago, I've sourced the majority of my wires from an electronic waste recycling center in East London and also from my uncle's construction sites in London and around my mom's home in Bucharest.
I know exactly what I’m making before I begin a piece, usually sketching it and deciding the colors first. As I can’t cut it up or unravel it when it’s finished, I must be very precise when I start. I make patterns for each piece, just as for fabric garments, and I stick to them very closely. Each has different challenges, so it’s a process of constant design problem-solving when I try something new.
I’ve completed all of the wire lace garments so far without professional help. Lucas, who is also my business and creative partner, and my mother both assisted in making the wire lace in Spring 2020; however, I make the majority of the lace by hand without any machines.
I wonder what it feels like against the skin.
As long as all wire ends start and finish purposefully to avoid direct contact with the skin, the garments are very smooth and comfortable, which is very important. For example, the wire lace bras are very pleasant to wear, even on bare skin, despite maybe appearing uncomfortable. The lace feels plasticky against the skin and almost like soft armor.
How does color play into your creations? Does it dictate what you make?
I’m very inspired by my grandma’s home in Bacau, Romania. It is such a creative, colorful place. Every time I visit, there’s something changed around the house, something moved or repainted. Her faded, painted fence with endless colors revealed through the cracks inspires the painterly way I combine colors in my wire lace pieces.
For my graduate collection, my color choices were motivated equally by aesthetics and the pursuit of wasting as little as possible. I first made the A-line lace dress, my dream dress, bright and colorful, a nod to its feminine, playful silhouette. As all colors are twisted together evenly in the electric cables, brown and white wires remained unused after the dress was finished. I made the lace ruffle coat next, using almost exclusively brown and white wires for a subdued colorway reflective of the powerful, almost intimidating silhouette of the coat. Nevertheless, the colors of wires I have do not dictate what I make.
Has working with wire inspired you to craft with other unexpected materials?
Yes! I definitely plan to upcycle more alternative materials. I like the idea of creating luxury out of trash and completely altering a material’s purpose. I think it’s more interesting to create beautiful clothes out of the unordinary. It forces consumers and those uninterested in fashion to reconsider repurposing in their careers and everyday lives. I hope to inspire people to explore ways to address other types of waste through design.
I’ll keep experimenting with how far I can take the electrical wires lace textile, looking into producing it with a machine and further expanding its application beyond garments. I really want to explore more techniques and dive into the craft fully.
How often do you go back home to Romania, and does its history and culture influence your designs?
I usually go home a few times a year, but with the pandemic, I only went during the summer when cases were low in Europe. I really wanted to spend a few weeks during Christmas, but flights were cancelled when cases skyrocketed because of the new variant. I plan to split my time between Romania and the UK, producing collections and pieces in Romania
In my work, I look at contemporary Romanian culture, trying to show a very specific perspective and humor, rather than something traditional. I really wanted to show the subtleties that people who grew up in Romania recognize instantly. I am really inspired by the contrast between heightened austerity and extreme femininity in Romania. The aesthetic of Bucharest is a mix of French architecture, grey Brutalist apartments, and mega Communist structures, like the Palace of Parliament. The women are usually very careful about appearance, getting all dressed up for a supermarket trip and loving an ultra glamorous, feminine look.
The materials in my graduate collection connect to things that I love or bring joy. The wire garments, featuring Romanian lace techniques and motifs inspired by my grandma’s doilies and tablecloths, look like her faded fence with endless colors revealed through the cracks. Beach towels, typically found for sale on sides of the road and seen on truck drivers’ seats, remind me of Romanian humor and kitschy Eurotrash songs that make me laugh; and the fabrics from Bacau are reminiscent of the love I always find there. Most of the fabrics I use have a Romanian attitude—nonchalant, humorous, adaptable.
Since you embrace kitsch as a favorite expression of art, it’s fair to say that you like fashion to be fanciful and playful, right?
Yes, I absolutely love fashion for its whimsy, although I also like it to be sexy sometimes, eerie other times. I’m young and still learning what I like, but I think great designers are capable of doing all of the above, which is what I aspire to.
Your accessories are a lot of fun. What accent piece did you make first, and what else are you planning?
The first accessory I made was a four-finger massive wire lace ring. It was beautiful but not the most practical! I think almost anything can be made out of the wire lace textile, so I have lots of small pieces in mind, including bags, necklaces, and earrings.
On the flip side, sustainability is not a frivolous topic, and you’ve addressed issues of waste, but also about the sustainability of workers. Explain how your process takes ethical matters into consideration?
By using discarded wires, my practice inherently offers opportunities to consider and improve multiple aspects of sustainability, namely economic and social factors. Because the material is upcycled, its cost is very low, the bulk of spending can shift to the production workers, in my case, the lacemaker. Therefore, workers can receive most of the profits from the sales. Fashion needs to become more sustainable from the inside out, not only in the materials but also in ethical treatment and compensation for workers in the production and design chain. Now, it’s just Lucas and me, but hopefully, we’ll be able to hire full-time lacemakers and expand our artisanal team soon.
Waste should be seen as an opportunity to discover new techniques. As my practice is rooted in creating luxury products out of local waste sources, my collection tackled one of the fastest growing sources in electronic waste, which amounted to 50 million tons in 2020. We hope to inspire and drive change through creativity and ingenuity
Sustainability is simply about having compassion for yourself and others, within and outside of one’s community, and for future generations. There are less wasteful and harmful alternatives to so many of life’s pleasures that people continue to ignore or delay. Beautiful art and fashion does not need to be created as we always have; change is possible and necessary.
Between E-commerce and covid, the fashion industry is operating in a new landscape. What other changes and challenges do you see overall, and any particular to what you want to do?
On increasingly larger scales, sustainability will continue to grow at a rapid pace. The industry is aware of the urgency for change due to the climate emergency and the increasing demand from consumers for more sustainable options and transparency. Companies are beginning to recognize the business opportunity in a circular fashion industry. Three out of five clothing items, or over one hundred billion US dollars of fashion textile material, goes to landfills every year. This is a major opportunity.
Nevertheless, sustainable consumption is the most significant factor when it comes to creating a more sustainable industry, which, in many ways, is evolving far more quickly than sustainable production innovations. The secondhand clothing market and rental services are growing rapidly. As I did in my graduate collection, Lucas and I will continue to source secondhand and vintage clothing to upcycle it into new, innovative garments for upcoming collections.
Since your work is inherently sculptural, do you ever think of making purely conceptual pieces? You’re so young, there are a lot of life strands ahead of you.
Definitely! I am currently working on a few projects that are just that. The beauty of this waste wire lace technique is that it allows us to explore other areas beyond fashion, like product and interior design.
alexandrasipa.com // This article was originally published in our Spring 2021 Quarterly edition