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Generally, we think people who loot garbage are crazy. But as the people of the United States throw out 230 million tons of garbage each year, landfills across the country close due to limited space, and the economy proves that it isn't as resilient as Wall Street would like to believe, perhaps it's crazy not to look at our trash as inspiration for more sustainable living.
So far, their business partnership has proved more productive than their romantic minglings. Their label's anti-waste, pro-recycle views have swooned boutiques like Patricia Field, which stocks their designs and online stores like Etsy, which invited them to be the website's first artist-in-residency. RHLS' "anti-phashun shows" mock the wasteful, trend-heavy habits of the fashion industry and have garnered attention from press like Bust magazine, which just featured them in an editorial spread.
Sherman, the Ruffeo of RHLS, a 26-year-old with an asymmetrical haircut and oversized glasses, sees his company as a representation of what's happening in the Brooklyn underground art scene and as a way of being eco-conscious. "[Sarah and I] always say we're from 1000 years in the future," he says, and then, as if it's a secret, whispers, "but we're really only from 20 years in the future."
The secret's safe with me, although RHLS is anything but quiet. Their loud designs, with harsh day-glo colors rendered in big, geometric shapes, are for the life-of-the-party, not the scowling-wallflower-on-the-couch. Their designs aren't on trend, rather, they exist outside of the fashion sphere: if not 20 years in the future, then at least 20 light years away on another planet where the aliens wear delightfully irrelevant, angular, color clashing clothes.
The jump from broken hearts to a partnership in fashion seems unlikely, but it can all be blamed on the magic of unicorns. In 2005, recently broken-up Sherman MC'd a rap show under the stage name Nameless. He needed a unicorn costume for a choose-your-own-adventure type rap song about falling in love with a vacuum cleaner ("Not a reference to Sarah!" he exclaims) and begetting a shop vacuum as a son. So he put the sewing skills he learned making puppet clothes to use, and created the elusive creature.
"I sewed a really ugly, ridiculous, Elephantitis-of-the-head unicorn suit," he explains. "This got [Sarah and I] excited about sewing and we started altering shirts and silk screening. People responded really well."
At first, the two worked out of Sherman's apartment in Seattle, Washington, and sold their wares at the Olympia Clothing Project, a small artist run shop in nearby Olympia, Washington. In 2007, they met the marketing director of Etsy at Seattle's Bumbershoot Music Festival, who invited them to New York as an artist-in-residency, where they taught sewing classes.
Now, they design out of a studio in the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition building, an antebellum warehouse along the New York Harbor that hosts small companies like RHLS. They share their space with six other clothing labels, including Take Off Your Clothes, run by Sherman's roommates. In fact, the entire space has a homey feel, with a large dining table in the main area and a dimly lit kitchen off to one side. A long row of vinyl records sits along the wall and plants sprout from various pots placed throughout the space.
RHLS inhabits a nook to the left of the main area, behind a pink curtain. The windows face the harbor, where the sun currently melts into the horizon and the Statue of Liberty hides just out of view. Scraps of fabric are stuffed into cabinets along one of the room. On one wall, a picture shows a triceratops holding up a bra with the word, "Try Sarah's tops" written over it in crayons.
Sarah Jones' handmade tops (and bottoms and full-length spandex body suits) hang near the curtain entrance where all of RHLS' previous seasons are on display. Currently, the label works on its new Spagflation line, an under $100 line made out of sweatshirt fabric Sherman found on eBay. Sarah Jones, who looks like a female version of Sherman, lays a roll of black cloth on the large table in the center of the room and begins tracing patterns. It's all solid color sweatshirts with a triangle or square in contrasting color. Jones thinks they look like Mormon outfits.
The anti-trend attitude that runs through their designs also runs through their business practices. Sherman coined the termed "anti-phashun" to describe the label's rejection of the fashion industry. He and Jones protested the industry's exportation of labor to China and the amounts of wasted fabric from big designers, by producing rap shows that approached the subject.
Although a large amount of textile waste is produced in China, where the United States imports the majority of its apparel, a big waste problem lies in New York City, where almost 193,000 tons of textiles are discarded every year, according to the NYC Residential Waste Characterization Study.
During its first few years, RHLS stocked its supply cabinet entirely out of this waste, most of it coming from nearby dumpsters where other clothing labels discarded their excess fabric.
"We'd get phone calls from friends telling us there were unused piles of denim and we'd go secret agent style and grab as much as we could," recounts Sherman. Their best find was several boxes of belt material - from black pleather to some neon spandex substance - that hangs in their studio. The amount is so large they share it with other the other labels in the arts collective.
The scavenging was as much ethics as necessity, since RHLS couldn't afford large quantities of fabric. With more money, the label has moved away from physical scavenging and hunts the internet for people giving away yards of fabric, or selling boxes of deadstock apparel at low prices.
The setback to relying on excess fabric from other manufactures is the uncertainty of what will be available. RHLS accepts custom orders, but often Sherman has to contact the buyer and negotiate a different color design if supplies run low.
He pulls a purple and orange sweatshirt from the display rack and shows me the sloping seam near the neckline where the purple looks slightly lighter; he had messed up a cut and didn't have enough fabric to restart, so he used an old hoodie he had lying around.
Mismatched colors or not, RHLS tries to remain professional about their business. "In general, we follow fashion industry standards as long as we don't compromise ethical production practices," Sherman states.
Outside of their attention-seeking protests, it's not clear if the label's anti-waste stance has increased sales, but Sherman and Jones remain steadfast in their anti-phashun and eco-friendly ways. But it may pay off: after all, fashion is all about recycling trends - maybe recycling clothing will become the next big thing.
Lighting the Imagination: One Brooklyn Artist Turns Broken Appliances in Workable Contraptions
Somewhere in Brooklyn, an art project has gone horribly wrong. The remnants are splattered across the living room: hundreds of faces, torn from the pages of magazines, cover the walls and spy on unsuspecting guests. They are the faces of fashion models and celebrities, and under normal circumstance, in the context of a magazine, they would be pleasing to the eye. Here, they're just weird. The faces are ordered chromatically in a way that disorients the viewer with a full attack of the color pallet..
When the initial shock of the living room subsides, one's attention is stolen by strange lamps emitting eerie glows in the corners of the room. They look like the abandoned contraptions of a mad scientist, or the feverish dreams of an art history scholar. Next to the exposed wires and steam engines, Baroque and gothic and art nouveau adornments twist around each other in a mishmash of style. They are an exercise in synergy - the hodgepodgery of their parts forming together to create a cohesive whole.
The man behind the lamps is Noel DeGroff, an effervescent 28-year-old from Philadelphia who looks like an over-sized toddler with a stain of red Kool-Aid around his mouth. DeGroff began constructing the lamps 4 years ago as a way of maintaining his creative flow when not working at his art store, Art of the Mind, in Long Island.
"We have newspapers on our living room floors because people shit themselves when they see them," DeGroff says jokingly about the lamps. He leans back on a busted antique sofa found on the street. "I think we're gonna have to upgrade to wood shavings."
DeGroff says that each lamp has a theme based on how he can finish the phrase "wouldn't it be cool if this lamp couldâ€¦"
So he has a lamp powered by steam, a lamp based off of the Bride of Frankenstein, a lamp with a glass globe of Earth used as an on/off switch. And while bizarre lamps sprung from the mind of one very creative man is all well and good, it's not as interesting as the way DeGroff constructs his lamps - everything is scavenged from the trash.
DeGroff really means everything. From the lamps' decorative outers to the wires and screws of the innards, DeGroff salvages every part from the rubbish. It's an eco and wallet friendly project that has garnered attention and money. In October, an independent art film used the lamps for backdrop, hardly a rare occurrence when photographers pay DeGroff to use his lamp art in photo shoots. But despite offers from hotels and intrigued art collectors who have offered him up to $1500 per lamp, DeGroff steadfastly refuses to sell any of his creations.
"They satisfy the pirate in me," says DeGroff on his drive to create the lamps. "Or the little brat that likes to destroy things and take things apart."
Mechanical knickknacks are spread around a wooden coffee table. Lamps in various stages of completion line the perimeter of the room. There is an antique lampshade there, a broken printer here, but very little room for people.
"We had a cleaning lady come in one week," says Terezka DeGroff, Noel's wife who is curled up on the other end of the sofa, "and after that we never saw her again. I think she was overwhelmed; it can get overwhelming."
Noel blames his creations on his wife, because if he made anything non-utilitarian, Terezka would trash it.
Of course, the lamps have already been trashed, but that was in their previous life as mundane household appliances. Collecting things off the street gives DeGroff an advantage that he couldn't find in an antique shop. Well, two. The first is obvious: everything is free.
In fact, the streets of New York are like hardware stores in a way. Broken TVs contain perfectly serviceable wires. Microwaves have bolts and screws and hinges.
"To spend money on that stuff would be a sin," DeGroff says in a tone of voice that would suggest he's been enlightened in some way. Maybe he has. Who views the skeletons of appliances as mini-toolboxes?
There is always the chance of getting electrocuted, DeGroff warns, or burned from faulty wires. There has been more than one occasion when something has gone up in flames.
The other advantage is that there is an endless stream of garbage being tossed out and nearly anything, according to DeGroff, can be found. For him, it's the art nouveau pieces, the flowery, organic shapes of that era, that garner the most attention. And while he claims to look to no particular artist for inspiration, the ideas behind modernism - creating something new out of untraditional materials - guide his selection process. Influence or not, DeGroff works in the shadows of artists like Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaist whose 1917 work Fountain, a broken urinal he picked up on the way to an art show, gave birth to the idea of readymades, or found pieces of art. Fountain was selected in 2000 as the most important work of art in the 20th century by a poll conducted by art historians and collectors.
"You'll notice all the lamps have a particular look," he says. "I want them to have that industrial texture to look like a lot of time was spent going over every detail."
The meticulous designs have worked. At DeGroff's art store, word got around about the lamps and offers to use them in photographs began appearing. So far, he's made a little over $1000 allowing people to set up in the living room and use the lamps for backdrop props. Nathaniel Katzman, a film director, recently contacted him to do a few scenes in the living room for his movie I Don't Want to Kill Myself. DeGroff made $600 on the offer.
"Everyone always asks, 'DO YOU SELL THEM?'" he says, emphasizing the question. The answer is No. Hotel Chelsea offered to buy one for their lobby, as have several art collectors, but DeGroff doesn't want to part with something so personal, something he spends many months constructing. At least not now.
Whether sold or not, the lamps will continue to be an anomaly: trashed, but not trashed, useful, but not in the way their original parts deemed. They turn expectations upside-down. Or in this case, on and off.
The Waste Land: How Activists in NYC Help Take a Chunk Out of the Big Apple's Big Waste
Kopali. Tazo. Odwalla. Kashi. New! Terramazon. Pangea Organics. Himalania. ShiKai Botanics. The exotic brand names, the prices that match the airfare to exotic places, the faces and faces and faces of people herded in line to pay for their phyllo dough or Kombucha. Such is Whole Foods or Dean & Deluca, where Cindy Rosin, 30, a part-time elementary school teacher from Queens, does her weekly supermarket shuffle. Well, not at those stores, but outside of them, on the street, in their garbage.
"Anything that you see in a grocery store will eventually be out on a curb," she says while out on a curb. It's night and it's cold and we are outside of the Whole Foods on 7th Ave. and 25th St. in Chelsea where we unwrap our Garbage Bag Surprise.
Rosin is the spokesperson and organizer for Freegan.info, an online community of anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist activists called freegans, who boycott the corporate world by spending as little money as possible, which often means scavenging food from the waste.
Almost half the total food in America gets placed in the trash, according to a study conducted by the University of Arizona. That includes food from restaurants, supermarkets, and households. Over 96 billion pounds of edible food will never fulfill its edible function. Every year, the US government will spend $1 billion dollars dumping useable food in landfills.
Freeganism, the supposed "antidote to consumption," has grown in popularity and media interest since 1999, when its manifesto was written by Warren Oakes, an activist and drummer for the punk band Against Me!. Freegan.info runs fortnightly trash tours, where around 30 people meet up to scour New York for popular garbage drop spots - large grocery stores like Whole Foods or D'Agostino.
Americans are sick of the colossal waste, Rosin thinks, and how, according to the United Way of New York City, 400,000 people are categorized as underfed in NYC when a buffet rots on the streets every night. Even if only five percent of disposed food landed on the forks of the hungry, it would provide four million people with three hardy meals.
It's true what Rosin says about the food, because as she and I open bag after bag of garbage -probably 20 or so bags - it becomes apparent how much sellable product grocery stores throw away. One bag contains golden delicious apples, salad mix, and other produce. Another contains boxes of powdered mashed potatoes and other non-perishable items. Rosin picks out a loaf of bread, mold free, and puts it in her carrier bag. Like every week, there are more leftovers that can be physically carried or stuffed into a backpack.
Supermarkets throw out food due to overstocking. They also throw out food for cosmetic reasons, because that can of green beans has a slight dent, or that misshapen potato or tomato doesn't look appetizing.
"For the first couple of years you play the 'why was this thrown away?' game," she explains. "But then you give up, because there's just no reason."
Part of Freegan.info's mission is to reduce waste by "making capitalism irrelevant" by not relying on jobs and corporation for support. Of course, if there were no grocery stores and no consumers, there would be no food to chuck to the curb. Rosin admits this, and also knows that one website quash capitalism. But she hopes her website is making people question how much they really need to consume.
"A few years ago, you could say capitalism was bad, but no one would hear you. But now it's ok. It's ok to say 'maybe there's another solution'," Rosin illuminates and contributes the change of thinking in part to groups like Freegan.info, and the ailing economy.
Freegan.info started a few years ago as an offshoot of the Wetlands Preserve, a now defunct activist group run out of the Tribeca nightclub of the same name. The organization tried to tie animal rights with environmental trouble with labor struggles, a connect-the-dots of society's ailments.
Now, the website wants to front a movement that raises awareness of waste and the problems of the current economic system. It also works to diminish the stigmas attached to freeganism and dumpster diving. Its followers are not all homeless or unemployed or rags-wearing hippies. Rosin wears rubber gloves as she sifts through trash, but it's the only indication that she's rummaging through rubbish. Otherwise, she looks like a stock New Yorker, with black coat, black pants, and stern expression.
She checks the bag of salad mix to make sure it's not frozen, which would ruin the lettuce. Most of the time, the food on the street matches the quality of the food in the store.
"Things that make people sick get into the public food system anyway," states Rosin and mentions the recent salmonella outbreak in spinach. Her mantra is to apply common sense and stop relying on the government for protection. "We have five senses; we should use them."
Really, the only unappetizing sights of the night are the quizzical and disgruntled faces of passers-by. It's the one thing that stops me from being completely gung-ho about this scavenging idea. Rosin suggests going out with group of friends, so that everyone feels less self-conscious. I chose not to take anything home, not out of concern for the food's cleanliness, but because I didn't bring anything to carry my findings.
New York City is unique because its garbage is out on display and not locked in a dumpster. There are no trespassing issues, which is often the number one concern of a dumpster diver.
Libba Letton, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, has no specific problem with people rummaging through trash as long as they aren't breaking into a dumpster. "For food safety reasons, I wouldn't suggest anyone do it, but unless a specific store has a policy on it, it's not illegal," she said.
Rosin warns that police harassment is typical because cops assume the person is impoverished if they look through trash. And people can be fined for litter if they make a mess. To avoid the public, she goes out late on weekdays, under the veil of night.
Switch to day, Sunday, a sunny day after three rainy days, where Cindy Rosin meets Zaac Chaves, a 27- year-old student from Greenwich, Connecticut, and 20 or so other freegans for the monthly foraging tour in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Chaves is a self-taught mycologist, meaning he knows mushrooms and can even give their Latin names, like Tremella mesenterica, or witch's butter, a fungus that looks like ginger on the side of a sushi platter, only yellow, and which he finds growing on a log.
He offers a taste. I refuse. One shouldn't go around trying wild mushrooms. But witch's butter apparently goes well in soup. I do pick up some ginkgo leaves to make tea. The NYC Department of Parks & Recreation considers foraging illegal without a permit, although fallen leaves don't pose a problem.
We walk along a stone path through the park. A dandelion got lost and grew from a crack in the pavement. "In a metaphysical way you can consume it," Chaves says about the flower, "because it shows how resilient things can be." His shoes are made of duct tape and his pants would beat a quilt in a patchwork contest, but he's right. The whole freegan philosophy settles on the idea that one doesn't have to rely on capitalism or corporate America for food; that sustenance is a trash day away or a walk in the park, that food is exotic based on the unusual places one can find it and not its exotic name.