Eilis Kemp is a Berlin-based textile designer and runs an independent design studio called IISLE. As a result of IISLE’s commitment to mindful design using only natural fibres, she has been developing ongoing research that questions not only how garments are constructed, but also how they are deconstructed, the traces they leave after they are no longer used, and how and if fibres will dissolve and blend with the earth.
What is your background and how did you get to where you are today?
I studied textile design in NCAD (in Dublin - my dad is Irish) and have been working in the fashion industry since I graduated. IISLE was a natural step for me after all these years as I wanted to create a space where I could be free to experiment and design with no restrictions.
When did you start the brand?
IISLE is in many ways a continuation of my previous project,Kemp Gadegård, but as it exists today its really new—I only launched it in April 2020. It was the weirdest timing. I had been working on it for a few months and then the pandemic hit, so the launch was very quiet. I also didn’t want to push the launch onto people because selling clothes felt superficial during this time, so I just opened the online shop and continued working on future projects.
Do you like working by yourself?
I love working by myself but there are always collaborations which I really enjoy and of course, constant communication with the production team in Spain, so it doesn't really feel like I am working alone.
So how did Covid-19 affect how you approached the project?
I knew I wanted to be as independent as possible when I started thinking about what shape IISLE should take, I think the pandemic just reinforced how important this is for me, to be small and have control of the complete operation. Through some of my other work I have seen how the industry has been impacted and the ripple effect its had on so many levels, there is such an excess of stock at the moment (more so than usual) and it just makes you really question the speed at which we are producing.
What is the main philosophy behind your designs?
I think ultimately to create something beautiful and long lasting. Quality is really important for me and I will re-work a garment as many times as I need for it to be up to standard, and this can be a lengthy process.
Creating a product that will sell is not my focus, I know that sounds contradictory and of course I want my designs to sell but it does not determine what I create. I also don't want to be conditioned by the pressure of making a certain amount of collections a year that are presented at specific times. This model is so rigid and completely kills creativity for me, thankfully the industry is changing and everything feels more fluid now.
How do you create your designs?
Intuitively, I am always collecting different things that catch my eye (or my ear!) from art exhibitions, what I am reading, music... so what I am making is usually linked to whatever I am into at the time. Of course the raw materials I am able to source always play an important part too.
Print wise, I always look south for references and inspiration. I grew up in a very small town near Malaga in Spain but I haven’t lived there since I was a teenager, so there is always this idea of longing for a place and for the sea. I take a lot of pictures while I am there and this usually ends up inspiring a pattern or a big print.
What is your production process and why have you decided to produce your garments in Spain?
My production team is actually just one person! Her name is Carmen and she lives outside Barcelona. She outsources different things, but it’s basically just her. We’ve worked together for four years, so she knows the shapes and patterns that I like to work with. The personal relationship I have with her is the most important thing. People probably don’t realize how small the operation actually is. We produce very little: capsule collections of 30-40 pieces each production run.
I wanted to produce in Spain because that’s where I am from. I knew I wanted to produce in Europe to have more control over the supply chain and so that production is happening closer to the wearer.
What is your process in regards to choosing raw materials?
I source everything myself. I have three, four suppliers that I trust and I usually work with the same people. There’s a place in Milan that buys and sells deadstock from other design houses, so I work with them a lot. There’s an amazing company in Berlin that offers a great range of organic fabrics...
Finding a material I like heavily influences what I make, when you are trying to produce within certain parameters, (natural fibres, small editions) the options can be quite limited.
What are you looking for in your materials?
I only work with natural fibres. If I’m using new cotton, it’s always organic, and if it’s not organic, it’s because it’s an offcut fabric.
I like to use silk a lot because of its durability.
I recently took part in an exhibition and presented video footage of an experiment where I tested the durability of the garment, in this case of a silk dress. I took it to the coast in the north of Germany and washed it in the sea and tried to break it against the rocks. I wanted to see how the garment and the fibres were affected, but the dress didn’t break down at all! The dye was affected but the shape but the dress was completely intact. It was a nice realisation that what I am making really is incredibly durable.
So is durability important for you?
Yes, I spend so much time creating these garments that it’s important to think about how long they’re going to be around for.
What are your feelings about the word “sustainability”?
It’s been thrown around so much in the past few years and it has become a selling tool. There are so many new sustainable brands but also established companies that are adopting the term, but no straightforward way to define what it means or should mean for a clothing line. If you are working with organic cotton and branding yourself as sustainable, but you are producing in a factory in Bangladesh with underpaid workers, that's fucked up and this happens all the time.
On the other hand, it is definitely a positive thing that established companies are feeling the pressure to start making changes.
I don't like to be labeled as a sustainable brand because nothing you produce can ever be 100% sustainable, but mindful production is important to me. My focus will always be on creating something beautiful, making it as sustainably as possible is something that should happen naturally, not a marketing tool.