Thus far, the majority of bootleg work in the UNLICENSED series has been an act of subversion done without the knowledge or consent of the “bootleg-ee.” In fact, the very definition of the word (to make, sell, or distribute illicit goods illegally) mentions the nefarious nature of the process not once… but twice! However, bootlegs have radically evolved since the days of bathtub gin and white-label records, and the work of artist Elisa van Joolen is a prime example of this new form of “open bootlegging.” In van Joolen’s work, the companies involved are not only aware but included in the making of a garment. Conversations occur along each part of the production process, causing participants to reconsider ideas about value, ownership, and labor. I recently spoke with van Joolen about her projects 11×17 and One-to-One, along with the implications of bootlegging in the name of kindness.
Ben Schwartz (BS)
How do you understand bootlegging today—on a broad level as well as how it’s related to your practice?
Elisa Van Joolen (EVJ)
A bootleg is an alternate version, a take on the original, a spinoff. In my eyes, it is something that is often done without approval or in dialogue with the original maker. To be honest, I have never used the word bootleg in relation to my practice, because I feel it has a somewhat negative connotation. However, my work is very much concerned with the political gesture through appropriation and subversion. I would like to add to the definition of “bootlegging”: openness, kindness, politeness. Bootlegging to open up, to start a conversation. So nothing is done behind someone’s back, or in secret.
In my practice I involve people working for different clothing brands. We have a conversation and sometimes they donate samples, dead stock or archive pieces, which I use as raw material. The conversation is very much part of the “bootleg”. It’s important for me to emphasize that I like to work with, rather than against brands. We have seen a lot of anti-fashion design or art in the past years, but it doesn’t lead us anywhere… I believe that the way forward is to find new ways to work together.
Can you discuss a particular example of bootlegging in your practice? What did you bootleg? Why did you bootleg? What were the ideas behind the project? What was the process of putting it together? What were the implications? What did you hope to achieve?
One example of “bootlegging” in my practice would be the 11″x17″ sweaters: a series of sweaters that consist of multiple brands. When I started this project in 2012 it was already very much popular to collaborate in the fashion industry, for example, Comme des Garçons with H&M, Opening Ceremony with Levi’s. Yet it was always a one-on-one collaboration: a designer/label that works with a multinational to make a series of new products, often a cheaper version of the original, marketed towards the masses. It would never be a collaboration involving multiple partners. That was what I was looking for in 11″x17″: to combine the whole scope of fashion in one item of clothing. Just like how we dress in everyday life, and what our wardrobe looks like: designer items next to mass-produced items. The reality of fashion, if you like.
I started contacting employees working at different brands and explained to them briefly that I intended to reuse a selection of donated pieces and make them into one collection. I explained that the purpose of the project was to bring together different layers of production and value from the fashion industry. With the donated items, I created the following procedure: I cut an 11″ x 17″ inch piece out of different kinds of sweaters, and swapped these cut out pieces between the different items of clothing. I treated all garments equally (didn’t matter what brand it was, each received the same 11″x17″ cuts). The resulting sweaters were an assemblage, composed through a cut-out method from a variety of existing clothing items. Whenever I show the sweaters I always credit all the brand names that are a part of it.
The main difference between bootlegging in my work and bootlegging in music or video is that the cutting and pasting is more definite. “Cutting” in these latter cases is really a matter of “copying”; when we “appropriate” a certain beat, there is no less of that beat in the world, only more. However, the crew neck sweaters cut up in 11″x17″ are forever gone (or new, depending on how you want to view it). Another key component of my “bootlegging” practice is the importance of materiality. In fashion collaborations such as those mentioned above, the label states only the collaboration, so it remains on an immaterial level; it’s about added brand value for the parties involved. It never mentions the actual materials that are combined. I do mention this in 11″x17″.
What is the difference between bootlegging and appropriation? Bootlegging and copying?
Hah, that’s a tricky one. There is a lot of overlap between these concepts, because they all involve originals and copies or alternate versions of these originals. I like to blur the lines between these different concepts in my practice. For example, in the One-to-One project, the garments I made are both copies and originals. I inked donated items of clothing and used these as a tool for printing on other pieces. Each item is therefore both carrier and receiver; they serve as a stamp and are stamped on at the same time. So I literally printed one garment on top of the other. By doing this, certain aspects of the clothing are lost. The color, for example, is not transferred in this process, but other aspects are really brought to the forefront, such as the stitching and seams; the fabric structure as well as the size of the garment are all transferred very accurately (which is where the title comes from). The prints are like X-rays: a meticulous registration. This enables a view beyond the mostly one-dimensional image created by the fashion industry; a way to observe the garment’s actual material qualities in a very detailed manner. It brings up the material relationships between garments: How does the stitching of one piece differ from the same type of seam in another garment? Or are they completely identical? So it is almost like a process of “unbranding.” Usually a brand’s logo is printed on a garment, but now the structure of another garment, from another brand, is pressed onto the garment.
In the end, I think nowadays there is little difference between bootlegging, copying, and appropriation. The main difference for all three is not WHAT you do, but HOW you do this. And the HOW for me relates to how do you involve others (the originals), how open are you about the process of bootlegging, copying and/or appropriating and how do you communicate this.
This is one of the reasons I made a reader (One-to-One Reader; publisher: Onomatopee, graphic design: Our Polite Society, production: Warehouse 2018) to go with the garments. To me, it is as important as the garments themselves. The reader documents the process and outcomes of the One-to-One project and explores the implications and possibilities of this working method in the broader context of the fashion system through contributions by different authors.
This conversation we are having reminds of artist and educator Corita Kent. She gave her students a beautiful assignment once: “Look at two dandelions for five minutes. List how they are different from each other. Take two leaves from the same tree and do the same. Nothing is the same. No thing is the same. Everything is itself and one of a kind.” (Immaculate Heart College, Los Angeles, US, c. 1955). Through her eyes everything is unique. More radically: there is no such a thing as a copy; everything is one of a kind.
Can you talk about the relationship between bootlegging and politics? Bootlegging and irony? Bootlegging and fandom? Bootlegging and capitalism?
In the spring of 2017 I was contacted by an Off_White HR manager asking if I would be interested in collaborating, be a shoe designer consultant for their new collection. I wrote back that I was interested and sent my CV. We emailed back and forth for a while, but at a certain point I didn’t receive any emails from them anymore. I moved on and forgot about it until the fall of 2017, when I saw their new sneaker release. The “Ten” sneaker looked very similar to Invert Footwear (a series of sneakers I “unmade” in 2013). Off_White used the word “SAMPLE” on the exact same spot, and the sneaker had similar “unmade” aesthetics.
Despite the similarity in looks, the core of my work is very different. For Invert Footwear I turned the sneakers literally inside out and made new soles out of flip-flops, while using the soles of the sneakers to create new sandals. With this treatment I invited people to look at these shoes with fresh eyes, to see them independently from their original brands and accompanying marketing campaigns. The inversion process allowed the stitch lines that are normally hidden within the shoes to emerge. These are the marks of factory workers—working in Vietnam, in Taiwan—and their presence in the production process is made explicitly visible. The new incarnation emphasized the handwork that is part of these shoes as well de-emphasized their mass-produced elements. It raised the questions: what makes one piece of clothing or footwear “hand-made” as opposed to factory-made? And why is one more valuable than the other? The handwork of the workers was not only literally laid bare, the project also shed light on the hierarchical relationship between the brand and the contract workers and inverted it.
In the fall of 2017, I posted on Instagram that I understood why Off_White asked me if I would be interested to work for them. The post got a life of of its own, and people started to comment that my work was a copy of Nike SB’s, which I think is hilarious. I used actual SB sneakers. I obtained these sneakers from Sheilah, a Nike SB designer in Portland, Oregon. She sent me a box full of samples that were not fit for production.
So if you talk about the relationship between bootlegging and irony, and in a larger sense bootlegging and capitalism, the sneakers I used for Invert Footwear were real, actual samples, not the ironic take on “samples” Virgil Abloh and his team used. Mind the quotation marks, which are a key design element for the Off_White label. In an interview with the Berlin-based magazine 032c, Thom Bettridge writes about this tactic: “Quotation marks are one of the many tools that Abloh uses to operate in a mode of ironic detachment. He describes Marcel Duchamp as his ‘lawyer,’ the art-historical grounds onto which he can absorb preexisting intellectual property into his reference system. Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favor of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants. His new order is protected by a fortress of irony.”¹
I find it interesting that on online platforms like Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr, images are available, easy to copy paste, yet the context, the framework of why and how something is made, is not visible. The image is copied but the realness, content, materiality is not. My work is not meant as an ironic take on fashion, but the contrary, I am looking for inclusive, transparent ways to work in fashion. I am more interested to challenge existing value systems in fashion and propose new ways of working. And yes: love to do this together!
Bootlegging is as well a means of getting a luxury product at a cheaper price (luxury handbags, watches, etc.). What does it mean when a bootleg sweatshirt is selling at upwards of $500?
Value is constantly shifting; it is very much dependent on context. Everyone has a different idea of what makes something valuable. Also, 500 dollars is only the monetary value, but what about the emotional value of a garment? I think it is interesting when a bootleg sweatshirt is selling for a lot of money. Especially with the knowledge that some garments from different brands are made in the exact same factory, bootleg or non-bootleg.
In 2017 I (un)made a series garments for the project One-to-One (R. Mariz) that were all produced in the same factory. The specific idea for One-to-One (R. Mariz) was born during a conversation I had with the founders of Bonne Suits. They told me that their suits are produced in the same factory as the collections of other brands like Patta, By Parra, and Ontour. The factory is located in Portugal.² So the garments are, so to speak, “brought to life” in the same Portuguese factory, with the same producer: R. Mariz. What I thought was really interesting and beautiful is that these garments are a family in the material sense, so I loved this idea of clothing as siblings, as they are all connected to each other. So I approached the brands that were producing their clothes in this factory: Patta, By Parra, and Ontour. I explained what I wanted to do, and they were up for it. I wanted to investigate the similarities between these garments through the printing process. As I explained before, through printing items of clothing on other items, details such as the stitching, the seams and fabric structure are brought to the surface. I wanted to see if there were differences or similarities in the ways the garments were stitched. I find it peculiar that the factory itself is never mentioned, or hardly mentioned, in fashion while it is such an essential part of the production of clothing.
How does bootlegging relate to the ideas of ownership? I’m thinking about this particularly in the age of the internet, where it seems that no one person truly owns an idea.
Who owns an idea, product or brand is a very intriguing topic nowadays. For the 11″x17″ project many brands did not want to donate clothing, and I think that in itself is really interesting. Are there different rules when it comes to working with donated items, as opposed to going to a shop and buying the pieces I want to work with there? Do I only own something when I exchanged money for it? I had really interesting conversations with brand representatives about these kinds of things. Some reacted with, “No, you are destroying our whole legacy.” Well, how does that work? When is it yours? When is it “mine”? Are the clothes mine? Do I own them? Who decides?
What is the future of bootlegs?
I see the future of bootlegging in fashion going two directions. The first one is even more ironic, faster, and de-materialized than it is now. The other direction would be the opposite: inclusive, demystifying, contextualizing, and collaborating, really working together, collectively caring for each other and the process of creating.
Currently, together with Hanka van der Voet and Femke de Vries, we are in the midst of setting up Warehouse. This is an Amsterdam-based platform aiming to provide a place for critical fashion practitioners through organizing exhibitions, workshops, performances, and book presentations among other things, in order to create an engaging environment that facilitates dialogue and the creation of an alternative fashion discourse that goes beyond seeing fashion as solely a commodity.
Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.