When I first started talking with Mechi, I found it hard to focus on any singular point of 12-na (pronounced the Chilean way: “doe-se-na”) other than that I wanted to know everything. After a while it became clear that the organic and web-like nature of the business and the style of products and projects that 12-na produce go hand in hand. That’s what makes it all so special, but it’s also how they can work in so many directions simultaneously whilst maintaining an overall concept and central feeling running through everything.
Our conversation began in the converted wood mill - high in the hills of Valparaiso - where the business of 12-na takes place: cutting, sewing and storage on the ground floor; desk work, interviews, eating melons and playing with children on the first floor. The whole place feels like a home you would always feel welcomed into.
Mechi and partner Mariano run 12-na, which at its centre is a fashion brand that designs and makes beautiful, one of a kind, high end, sculptural recycled clothing. They started out in Argentina, then moved to Santiago where they quickly learnt where to find the best street sellers and second hand stores to source specific types of fabric to work with. They wanted to take recycling out of the realms of small home production, and bring it to a higher level through great design, and fine sewing work – making the creativity and quality of each garment the primary focus, and the recycling aspect the means.
You can see their process directly in the way the clothes are put together, and also in their lookbooks, where each garment is labelled with a description of the original garments that were used in the production, and how long it took to make. These facts really bring the concept of the fashion industry back down to real people making real things, and the time involved when you make every piece as a unique product. They have also found ways to bring history and specific cultural references into their clothing. One range was inspired by traditional Pollera skirts worn by the Bolivian Cholitas and used flour sacks as linings, Bolivian hats as collars, and each piece was sewn by artisans who have sewn this particular style their whole lives.
But the scope if integration doesn’t stop there. The creativity, material challenges and play that is key to their designs has spilled over into a number of different social actions, videos, installations, workshops and public interventions over the years. For example, their Yomonstro workshop takes children through the process of making masks and capes using recycled Tetrapak cartons and fabrics, all the time discussing and addressing the reasons why we wear masks in life, learning to embrace both the light and dark sides of the self, and overcoming fears. When in 2010, the hills of Valparaiso fell to some of the worst fires the country has ever seen, 12-na went to work and designed a simple bum-bag made with recycled fabrics and taught people from the most affected areas how to sew in order to provide them with a means to make money in the early days of the region’s recovery.
Who are you?
I’m Mechi Martinez from Ropa 12-na.
What are you up to here and what made you start?
We decided to make clothing through recycling in 2004 because we found an opportunity through that. We were in Argentina at that moment and I had been working with clothing since I finished school, so I was already in the practice of making things. We had also both been working for brands and suddenly when we found this great market in the north of Argentina full of cheap, good quality clothing, we decided to bring them to Buenos Aires and began to make things from that. We also started making interventions like printing and communicating the clothing, and we did this for a while and were quite successful from the beginning because there wasn’t anyone else making something like that. We made one collection that was like a tribute collection to 12 dead rock stars. We were really playing with the clothes in this time: what happens if I put it like this, or like this? And this was a big learning experience for us over five years. We had the communication clothing that we were selling, and then the more deconstructed clothing that was more raw in that time, but then we started to get more professional and making the designs more usable and practical.
Has your work on 12-na changed any of the choices you make in your personal life?
If you are somehow educating or manufacturing or saying you recycle, you have to recycle, so we have to be in line with what we say. That makes us more conscious in our lives, you know? That’s on the one hand. On the other hand how we go into the concepts we work on, at the beginning we ask a question as a very intuitive way of getting to a theme, but that also makes us work ourselves on that question, and we get to understand it and get deeper inside the question and it changes us. Also the experience of working on these projects and working with a lot of artists and artisans and opening our work out to other people changes us all the time, and in the collaborative experiences we learn and we get mixed up and we get frustrated, but we are in the practice of always sharing in the process, and this works you in your life and mind and everything.
How do you imagine the ideal world?
Well, I imagine the ideal world where people aren’t afraid of doing or showing or being. I imagine us all getting more involved with the environment and being more conscious. I imagine nature being how it should be – generous; and people getting what they need from it, not like it’s happening now where the difference between rich and poor isn’t how it’s supposed to be. That’s how I imagine, how I hope it can be.
Any last words?
People are more afraid of their lightness than their darkness.
The house of 12-na is also place for collaboration, and Mechi sees this as a key part of the business. They have worked with artists, designers and artisans, and have also taken young designers on in transitional phases before they start their own productions to share the practice of recycled fashion and hopefully create more of a platform for it; but the long term plan is to find designers who want to bring their own concepts and creativity into the studio and become part of 12-na. There is so much more that Mechi and Mariano are working towards. The next evolution of their garment production will also include hand dying methods from India, and if they can find time between everything else, setting up an online shop for their global fans.
To understand more of the magical world of 12-na go to their website.
To see a photograph of every single garment 12-na have ever made, visit their flikr
And if you still didn’t get enough, you can watch videos of their extra curricular projects here
Text and pictures by Ruth Bartlett