• SFI Blog Team

The Value of Craft: Interview with Arti Sandhu




Interviewer: Jennifer Murray

Interviewee: Arti Sandhu, Associate Professor, DAAP Fashion Program


J: To start, I’d like to know more about your educational background, your teaching background and how you came to DAAP.


A: I grew up in India and at some point, like many people in fashion, I realized I liked drawing and I liked making. I really liked drawing people as well as clothes. This was in the early 90’s and a fashion institute had been set up a few years before in India so it was something that had come into the conversation as an option for me. Prior to that, I think my mom always thought that I would go and study Fine Art. I studied fashion at NIFT (National Institute of FashionTechnology) in New Delhi. At the time, and I guess it still is, it was a very competitive institution to get into and I was really fortunate to be able to study there. I didn’t know at the time that it was very difficult to get in. In those days it was a three year degree so I completed what I guess would be the equivalent to a diploma in Fashion Design, but now it’s a BFA.


Then I started working for a company that I had interned with. It was a French buying house/production house. They were based in India, but they had a few stores in the South of France.


While I was there, I got a full-tuition scholarship to do a Master’s at Nottingham Trent in England. So, of course, I was not going to say no to that. And when I had finished that degree, I was all set to come back and work for the same company.


Throughout my Master’s, I didn't really know what I was doing, and so in hindsight, it could have been more intentional. But while I was just about to leave the UK, one of my seniors sent me a job description for a teaching position in New Zealand. They were looking for a mature student, and I had always thought of myself as a mature human being, so I applied for it and they interviewed me while I was in my pajamas over the phone. They really liked me. What I found out later was, it was really hard to find design faculty with skills.


So yes, I got that job. Teaching was not an intended career in any which way, but I realized quickly that it was a very unique and very honorable position. You are almost always in a constant design team leadership mode where you have the ability to work with a number of creative people in very idealized scenarios in a way that prepares them to have design skills of their own. I loved it and it somehow became a career.


Teaching was not an intended career in any which way, but I realized quickly that it was a very unique and very honorable position.


I was there for about five and half years and at some point I realized it was time to move on. So I applied for a job in Chicago and my husband and I moved to the US. I was there ten years, again teaching Fashion Design.


The reason why I was drawn to DAAP was that I had worked with a colleague from DAAP who spoke very highly of the program. I had been to Cincinnati before and I really liked the fact that it was hilly. The thing that attracted me to the mission was there seemed to be a real desire to preserve craft, whether it was hand skills, machine skills, digital technology, there just seemed to be a desire to maintain the aspect of making.


J: How does your gender identity and ethnic identity play a role in your career? What challenges and opportunities have been presented through that?


A: I think it’s interesting that women are an integral part of fashion, but not often a very leading part of the industry. When I started out [in the industry] I was too young to understand this, and that’s the problem really, when we come intothese fields we don’t have much self-awareness to understand our position and how we are impacted by what has come before us.


I think it’s interesting that women are an integral part of fashion, but not often a very leading part of the industry.


In terms of fashion, the idea of being a woman and the idea of gender is interesting. On one hand, I would say fashion is one of the most accepting and celebratory fields of gender, and beyond even just cisgender, but also other forms of gender identities that exist. On the other hand, it’s also extremely conservative and closed off in many ways. So fashion has these two sides and you can be drawn in because it celebrates diversity, but then suddenly realize that it

doesn't.


In terms of academia, I think gender plays an interesting role because it is very difficult to be a woman in academia, and it’s also difficult to be a woman of color in academia. I believe my being a person of color has presented an interesting opportunity, because I believe each of the three institutions I was hired into understood that they needed to hire with more diversity. What has been interesting is the conversation that happens after the appointment. You can’t just hire with diversity, you must continue to celebrate and fully utilize the diversity that you have invested in.


In terms of being a woman of color in a classroom, I have never felt that to be a challenge. I do think that is evidence of how accepting young people are. In every classroom, I have never felt aware of my color which I think is a really critical thing, that as a person of color you should celebrate your identity, but you should never feel at any point insecure because of your identity and I have never felt that way in the classroom. I also think that after having gone through some of these things, I feel it is really critical to make students aware of other people’s experiences.


I think it’s quite interesting that I am teaching a western fashion history class and I hope I don’t tip the balance too much on one side, but I am very keen for students to understand that there are certain histories that are not represented in the course. I won’t be able to get into them, but they should be aware that they exist. Then also there is the fact that women have always been belittled in fashion, but that doesn’t mean that we learn history to repeat it, we’re learning history to be able to critique it and understand that it’s not actually right.


J: You have experienced both the western world as well as the eastern world to the fullest. How have those experiences shaped you and influenced the way you design? Also how are your practices in sustainability and intentionality different?


A: I think the thing that I’m beginning to realize, having grown up in an environment where you know you are one of many, there’s a sort of need to survive because of the sheer intensity of population. Being in an environment where things are made, where there’s a long history of craft influenced me.


I also grew up in an environment where waste was frowned upon and you didn't have too much of anything. It's interesting, having a background in an environment where we have things like fast fashion, and this idea of what is a need vs. want.


One of the things I’ve noticed through my own education and how I’m seeing generations change, is the idea of sustainability in now in question and I think the further and further we get way from making things, the less and less we start to embody the true ideas of sustainability. I noticed in the last few years of teaching design that there are more and more students who are not keen to make and don’t see value in craft.


If you think about the time periods in history where people had to make their own clothes or had to purchase clothes that were incredibly crafted, that is when we really didn’t have a problem of waste. Some people would argue that is a non-democratic model of fashion and that fashion is now a right, and I do agree, I feel that everyone should be able to access good things. That said, I don’t agree in the Prada model where you make a pair of rubber flip flops and charge

$3000 for them, because that is privilege. I do believe that if we value craft in design schools and encourage people to think about making then we might head into a more sustainable future.


If you think about the time periods in history where people had to make their own clothes or had to purchase clothes that were incredibly crafted, that is when we really didn’t have a problem of waste. Some people would argue that is a non-democratic model of fashion and that fashion is now a right, and I do agree, I feel that everyone should be able to access good things. That said, I don’t agree in the Prada model where you make a pair of rubber flip flops and charge

$3000 for them, because that is privilege.


I think the idea of making has moved away from other schools as well, and it’s perfectly poised to set up an environment where you keep designing and then you know that the production happens so far away that you never have to think about waste. I feel like [I am] from a generation where making was just understood and where everything was cyclical (we composted our food and we mended the holes in our cardigans). Those kinds of values are really important to bring back as a new rule of fashion.


J: So you said you came to DAAP because they were fostering a need for craft. Do you see that fulfilled? Where is there room for opportunity?


A: When I first started at DAAP, I didn't know fully what I was going to do. Sometimes people see an opportunity in you, but you have to see an opportunity in yourself. For me to find my place, I realized quickly by moving from the midwest to the midwest, that there is a strong midwest conservativeness about how students dream or aspire to be things. I come from an environment where if you want to succeed you have to be foolishly aspirational, otherwise you

don’t get anywhere because there are so many people in the world. So I think there is room for students to remain naive and aspirational, because that is what brings people here in the first place.


I think there is incredible talent in the fashion students at DAAP, but I don’t necessarily know that students are always comfortable in exploring their talent. I also feel that over time they begin to doubt the value of being idealist or experimental because the world constantly reminds them that “this won’t sell” or “this idea doesn’t have merit because 50 people have it already.” So my mission and vision always is to put those questions on one side, because true

creativity comes from the need to explore and the need to finish and refine something so you can find out “Ok, what did this lead to?” I think there’s room for that.


I also feel, just looking at the curriculum, and I know the faculty is very collective on this, there is room for us to offer more nuanced or complex things. So you know, if you introduce students to a skill, how can we introduce them to another level or a more advanced level where you’re not just learning the basics, but you’re really learning how to create your own vocabulary? Of course, you can’t leave undergrad a Master’s student, but you can leave knowing “I am really

good at this.” That is something we are trying to put together as we move curriculum around.


J: Can you describe your own personal design philosophy?


A: I don’t “design” much anymore, but you know that I’m a creative person and I’m always making stuff. A lot of my design teaching and design philosophy comes from the absence of both in my undergrad and my Masters. I feel both the programs that I went to, especially my undergrad, did not prepare me to understand what a design philosophy could be or should be.


A lot of my teaching tries to compensate for what I didn't get as a student.

Over time, through my Masters, through illustration work that I’ve done, through the way I shop, through the way I write, a lot of it is about knowing my identity and how that influences everything I do. I feel this whole journey of going from university to teaching at a university has been an understanding of how to navigate identity-based dilemmas and I try to do that in all of

my work.


What is home? What is beauty? What is fashion? What is good taste? Those are

things that I’m constantly asking because when you are displaced from one place to another, you sort of realize that home matters and who you are matters. So those things are really critical in my own work and I feel confident that those are my philosophies.


But I don’t feel confident in my work, because I don’t think anyone really should. Confidence is a very, sort of, fake thing. I think there is room to be humble and room to doubt because that keeps you hungry to succeed. I do know that my work is always about “Who am I?” and “Why?”


But I don’t feel confident in my work, because I don’t think anyone really should. Confidence is a very, sort of, fake thing. I think there is room to be humble and room to doubt because that keeps you hungry to succeed. I do know that my work is always about “Who am I?” and “Why?”


J: And how do you feel that is projected on your students and the way you teach?


A: Gosh, you would be a better judge of that. To me, I really believe in everyone finding themselves in what they do. I understand rules, and I try to follow them as much as possible, but I think work is only successful and authentic when you are fully represented in it. For me, it’s really critical, in a studio environment, to encourage people to think about what they’re really interested in and to know that their ideas are valuable in forming a concept. I really think it’s important to be immersed in what you’re doing, because otherwise you don’t really feel driven

by it.


Through doing a lot of meaningless exercises in my own university days, I’ve realized if you don’t have any skin in the game and you don’t feel for what you’re doing then it’s not really worth it. I try to encourage students to find those things in their work and it’s not always possible. If a student comes to me and says “Look, I don’t really like what I’m doing and I want to change it because I feel passionate about something else” there’s no way I would say no to

that. So those ideas have influenced my teaching philosophy.


Through doing a lot of meaningless exercises in my own university days, I’ve realized if you don’t have any skin in the game and you don’t feel for what you’re doing then it’s not really worth it.


J: You’ve explained that you want students to find themselves in their work. Could you give some examples of times, either here or at another institution, where this happened?


A: Well, the one person I always talk about and I know I’ve shown you her work, is Madeline Moore. She was one of those people who, without even me even trying, did it naturally. I feel like her comfort in who she was, which came from actually being severely outcast in many ways, was inspiring. I think it happens sometimes, every year, I’ve seen it happen at DAAP, I’ve seen it happen before DAAP.


There’s another thesis project that I’ve shown you guys of a student who draped half-scale, xeroxed, and then went full scale. She was one of those students that everyone was willing to write off because she just couldn't draw. I think the moment that she was able to prove us all entirely wrong was a wonderful moment.


There are many times when one doesn't really know the answer or the methodologies to succeed, and it’s very easy to judge. It’s very easy to be judgmental in the classroom because you have to grade something and what not. So I really appreciate those moments when I’ve been wrong and the projects have been extremely successful. I've learned from it. Those are two people who stand out.


J: Along the same lines, have you had any educational breakthrough moments in the classroom?


A: One of the things that I’m very scared about is not being open. I think that’s one thing I always hope I can embody. To be open to a student’s viewpoint, to be open to a student’s aesthetic, and I found the easiest way for me to remain open is to encourage a student to show me a lot of research. I feel that if you firmly believe in something and you are immersed in it, then you should be able to back it up with research.


Just knowing that it’s important to be open is critical. I hope I can continue to be, because I think it’s hard to stay open when we all sort of shut down in some area where you suddenly decide that “this is the best music” or “nobody can do anything better than the eighties.” We all have these moments where we stop and that’s it, we’re full and I just don’t ever want to get there.


J: Of course you’re helping with this change in curriculum, and I’m curious to know how you hope to catalyze change through the curriculum in the years to come.


A: Well, I firmly believe that if we can create students who design very thoughtfully then we can create students who are not only relevant, but also leaders in the industry. If you look back, I feel like there are very few things that are honest in the history of the world, but a well crafted object seems to be the most honest object. If we can continue to create students who are reflective, who are immersive, who are passionate, I feel like we will always be a successful program.


If we can continue to create students who are reflective, who are immersive, who are passionate, I feel like we will always be a successful program.


One of the things that I also feel would be valuable is if we could move from less of a Westerncentric model of content. So, in future there will be a course on global fashion issues, which we do intend to write into the curriculum. Students who are more aware of the realities in the rest of the world and more willing to know about them, that would be a really good outcome.


Of course, students who are more intentional in terms of how they attack sustainability and ethics is important, but I feel if you focus solely on the sustainability and ethics sometimes you lose a lot in between. If instead you focus on things that lead to those ideas, then you tend to catch everything. So if we can create a generation who see value in clothing and can convey that value, that is a great outcome for sustainability as well as program curriculum.


If we can create a generation who see value in clothing and can convey that value, that is a great outcome for sustainability as well as program curriculum.


J: So you've already talked a bit about this, but just to sum it up into a statement, what type of person do you hope will graduate from DAAP in the future?


A: Someone who is deeply ambitious, because I think that’s critical. Someone who is not afraid to take risks. And someone who values really good design.


J: What projects are you currently working on or starting to explore? Of course this can include your upcoming trip as well.


A: Yeah, so I’m doing maybe too many things. I write for a magazine in India, so I’m constantly writing things about fashion, always related to India. The magazine is called Arts Illustrated.


There are a couple of things I’m writing about. I’m writing about the idea that the sari is a storytelling device and how clothes can be storytelling devices, but looking at it from the lens of the sari on social media. I’m also writing about drag queens and their clothing in India.


I’m beginning to work on a project that features a few designers in India and talks about fashion and wellbeing as opposed to sustainability, because I think wellbeing is a more holistic way of looking at it. It also talks about how the idea of wellbeing should be passed on to everyone who touches the product, from the person who designs it, to makes it, to wears it. It creates an interesting connection to labor and also to the object that you own and it might be a solution for circularity.


Of course I’m very keen that I have people coming with me to India for spring break. I’m nervous to take people through something that I feel deeply passionate about. I also travel in a very specific way so I really hope that gels with the students. Those are some of the main things.


I’m very interested in the decolonizing design studies initiative and in April I’ll be presenting a paper at the Costume Society of America and it will be about design and wellbeing, which I think is an age old belief system. What I like about writing for the magazine is that it allows me to unpack things that are a little more academically written, but for a more accessible audience.


I’m really excited because I just finished writing a book review for a book that was published in 1976. I love writing and they’re a really cool magazine because they’re not concerned with trends or what is fashionable. They have a theme every issue and they just do something with it.


J: As an end all statement, could you tell me what your hope is for the future of

fashion?


A: I just think there’s value for things to be beautiful, to be thoughtfully made, to be more accessible to people in terms of shape, size, demographic, etc, but I also think there’s value for us to reconsider how we price things. We idealize things that are too expensive or too cheap and maybe there’s room for a better middle ground. I like the idea of things being customizable.


It would be great if we didn't know that we could buy things cheaply because then we could probably be more open to buying fewer things that are really well made. As long as you can buy things cheaply, you can't buy things that are expensive if you're stuck in the middle realm. So I would like to see changes made in the way we offer things exclusively for one or the other.


There’s value for things to be beautiful, to be thoughtfully made, to be more accessible to people in terms of shape, size, demographic, etc, but I also think there’s value for us to reconsider how we price things. We idealize things that are too expensive or too cheap and maybe there’s room for a better middle ground.



For further reading, check out the article by Arti featured in Arts Illustrated below:






















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