Meet Ophir El-Boher, Upcycled Fashion Designer, Artist & Scholar

Ophir el-boher
Designs by Ophir El-Boher. Photo: Mario Gallucci

Our summer series on upcycled fashion includes interviews, essays, and features that emphasize what it is, why people do it, how they use it to make a living and to implement fashion-centered politics, and how it’s only one part of making fashion more sustainable.

We’re kicking off this series by talking to Ophir El-Boher, an apparel designer, studio artist, social activist, and scholar originally from The Negev Desert, Israel. She currently lives in Oregon, where she earned her MFA in Collaborative Design at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Inspired by natural and cultural processes, Ophir conceptualizes ways to disrupt the fashion system through her design work, such as her book Patterning, which features upcycled items that can serve as models for fashion hackers. Her goal is to utilize methods like upcycling to create ethical and sustainable models for clothing production. She believes in the power of fashion design as a way to address contemporary issues such as natural resource degradation, hyper-consumerism, gender identity and social inequities. Through her studio practice, she is investigating the meaning of wearable objects, using a variety of crafts and value creation.  

We originally planned to feature Ophir ahead of the opening of her exhibition at FullerRosen gallery. Due to COVID the show is now running virtually until May 31. We caught up with her on these new developments between her favorite quarantine-related activities: gardening, cooking, and yoga. 

Ophir during her MFA thesis exhibition performance. Photo Mario Gallucci

Dismantle: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do around sustainable fashion.

Ophir: Though I am a designer, and I love defining my role this way, I am not producing like designers are trained to do. I don’t really want to take part in the global supply chain, as it is full of really problematic social and environmental faults that are both hard to change but also hard to spot. 

So instead of producing new clothes, I design so that people can make their own clothing out of used ones, and I present my work in fashion shows, fine-art galleries, workshops, etc. So I guess I am all at once an artist, a designer, an educator, and probably some more things. Much of my work is very conceptual, it is made under specific logics that I build according to my beliefs and the constraints they create. That means that for every project there’s a clear mission that aligns with my beliefs. For example, if I collaborate with an artist on a performance outfit, it will consider their body and movement to make sure they enjoy wearing it and feel absolutely comfortable, and it is always completely upcycled materials, my mission might be to illustrate to the public how creativity can be the key for sustainability, so I’ll sow something stunning made out of used plastics that were trashed.

D: In general, can you answer the question: why upcycling? What does the concept mean to you and why do you do it?

O: There are a few pillars in my overall belief system that appear no matter what I do, I can’t track exactly where they came from, but I know they are with me for many years, even before I could name them. One is sustainability, I was always concerned about trash somehow, and always very excited for making something out of ‘nothing’. I have traveled a lot in my life, I am one of those individuals that just has to move every once in a while, a wanderer, or a nomad. I think that seeing landscapes completely trashed, and others that seem pristine, made me think about waste a lot. 

That is tied to another pillar — social justice. Many of the trashed landscapes I’ve seen were in proximity to underserved populations, where people’s lives are very much affected by scarcity. I can’t explain where it started to build, but in every observation I make of how we’re lacking equity and how bad resources are split between humans, feelings of sadness and anger are always present. 

Another pillar is around optimism, and the urge for joy and fun. I don’t read the news as it makes me sad (plus it’s  just another form of consumerism), I work hard to stay as positive as I can, and I try my best to drag others into this bubble. This isn’t escapism, it is a focus on the layers of reality that can benefit me and others, rather on focusing on layers of reality that don’t serve us. So while I’m aware of all the shit, I try to focus on the bright side. 

So, how do these pillars translate into what I do? Well first no matter what it is that I make I make it out of already existing materials, trashed textiles in particular. And I try not to create more trash too. 

upcycled fashion by Ophir el-Boher.
Designs by Ophir El-Boher. Photo: Mario Gallucci

D: Why fashion? What does this system mean to you and your politics/activism?

O: I see fashion as a lens to look critically at the world, it is a joyful way to observe cultural phenomena, and a useful tool to reach people. My MFA research was about upcycling fashion. I wanted to find a way to produce my designs that will align with my ethics, and I ended up producing the blueprints for my designs, as I figured that people making their own clothes will be the most sustainable way to produce, and will be beneficial for those that participate, unlike most of the people in the production cycles of fashion.

I am a systems thinker and my mission is to tackle the problem of waste. Upcycling is just the most logical thing to do when you see the problem of both waste and resources — there’s a degradation in natural resources, which means we need to be creative and plan for new sources to get our materials flow. On the other side, we have a problem of waste — there’s too much trash circulating all over the earth, and we need to be creative again, thinking of what the hell are we going to do with all of these things as they are literally blocking the veins of the planet, and stuffing it with growing tumors all over (but mostly in the global south so we don’t see much of it here).

So, for me it is only logical to think in circular manners, taking one problem and making it the solution for the other, aka waste becomes a resource. Upcycling is the current, most available manifestation of circular design, but it is not the goal. Eventually, we need to integrate not just the birth and life of the upcycled object, but also it’s death and afterlife.

It happens to be that I enjoy making clothes and solving puzzles, and some might say I am good at it too (I definitely have seen better though). Upcycled fashion is where all of these things come together. Making clothes with no constraints is really boring for me, just like a white stretched canvas. I prefer to have a problem and a set of constraints to work with, and then band them and play with them, that’s where my creativity really shines.

D: Tell us about your current projects.

Upcycled fashion by Ophir El-Boher
Fringe Fashion PDX 2019. From the Pattern Recognition Collection (S/S 19) by Ophir El-Boher. Photo: Dan Webb

O: A big project I work on right now is my exhibition at FullerRosen gallery titled Patterning (April 18- May 31), where I am exposing the thought and process behind my latest collection, Pattern Recognition that I presented on the Fringe runway show last summer. 

This body of work is based on the idea to disrupt the information flow of fashion, in addition to the material flow, which is a very strong leverage point for effecting change. To do so, I design fashion items that can be made by anyone — experts sewers and novices alike — out of garments that are circulating around the earth in quantities that allow very high accessibility; men’s pants and button-up shirts. This is an extension of the work I have been focusing on through the last two years, which operates in the space where maker-culture and upcycling overlap. I use post-consumer textiles to stretch the concept of upcycling over the current materialistic frame. Instead of looking at these objects as mere textiles, I try to incorporate into the design the labor of the makers before me, the traces of the users, something of the spirit of the former object. 

These themes are central to my work for a while, and they lead almost every project that I come up with. In Pattern Recognition they translated to a runway fashion collection. In Patterning, I translate them to a fine-art gallery exhibition, which now will have an online viewing opportunity due to limitations caused by the coronavirus, and also to a book. I also have an early-stage start-up, Make Awear, where I converted these same concepts into a designed system that produces upcycled DIY fashion-items.

Designs by Ophir El-Boher. Photo: Steven Xue

D: What are other ways that you present your work to the public? Do you sell your products? In general, tell us how your creative life fits into the rest of your work life.

O: Wonderful question! At the moment I have a few channels for my creative and conceptual work to be delivered to others. Firstly, I produce my designs so that people can make them themselves, that’s both to avoid manufacturing, as it is very complex to produce under the set of rules that I defined for myself, but also I do that because I recognized a gap and want to offer something that I think people are looking for — the experience of making their own garments, the learning activity, and the craft while emphasizing sustainability as the main aspect. 

The latest collection of such designs are on display in my exhibition, so a creative person can literally do it themselves just by reading the visuals in the show. In addition, FullerRosen gallery and I are producing a book that will include fuller instructions for making the garments. The book will launch on May 30 alongside a video that acts as a guided tour and an artist talk.

Another way that I share my work with the public is through education- I teach workshops and courses, currently through the PNCA Community Education program (now running online!). Through my teaching, I expand my mission, and also share some of my designs. One wonderful benefit of this work, other than the amazing people that I meet, is that I get to test the designs IRL, see how users work with them, make them, and how they style them.

This year I am not planning on fashion shows or vending at fairs and shows, which I have done through the last two years, as I find that these platforms don’t directly lead me towards my goals and vision. Instead, this year I am hoping to expand my teaching and to invest time in raising funds to launch Make Awear so that I can continue designing and publishing my designs for and to makers

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