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Inside Atelier Jolie, New York City Designer Mimi Plange Brings Elegance To The Art Of Upcycling

When actress, humanitarian and activist Angelina Jolie wrapped up 2023 with the grand opening of Atelier Jolie, she breathed new life into an industry in need of brick-and-mortar innovation. “I am building a place for creative people to collaborate with a skilled and diverse family of expert tailors, pattern makers and artisans from around the world. A place to have fun. To create your own designs with freedom. To discover yourself,” Jolie wrote in an announcement.

“When we heard about the mission and the goal of bringing communities together, we were all in!” Plange says in an interview. “For years, we have been building a slow fashion brand made in New York City dedicated to creating impact and collaborating with others, and Atelier Jolie is the perfect platform to keep pushing slower fashion that is traceable, focused on design, and invested in the future.”

The first physical manifestation of Jolie’s concept is located at Jean-Michel Basquiat’s former studio at 57 Great Jones in New York City. Atelier Jolie is a hub and home for creativity, community, and creation. It is a space where artists and individuals from all backgrounds can come together to find inspiration, collaboration, and mentorship. But what exactly does this mean for designers and visitors? When you first step inside, you’ll find an atelier for custom pieces, which is available by appointment only. It provides a place for anyone to collaborate with a skilled and diverse family of expert tailors, pattern makers and designers to create personalized or one-of-a-kind garments using existing materials.

Visitors to the atelier can also bring their own clothing for repair or re-imagining—breathing new life into what would otherwise have been thrown away, and creating quality heirloom garments with personal meaning. There’s also a café by Eat Offbeat, a women-founded organization dedicated to hiring women refugees and celebrating global cuisine.

Yes, there’s a lot going on here, but Ghanaian-born designer Plange says the concept and offerings are pretty straightforward. Plange is one of many voices Jolie is leaning on to ensure the space is attracting fashionphiles and fashion newbies alike. This week, Plange hosted her first workshop on felting with fabrics beyond wool, but denim and cottons as well, to prove that upcycling can be elegant, and not just “shabby chic,” according to Plange.

In addition to offering tailor-made and customizable garments, the house offers globally-sourced, ready-to-wear garments from ethical and recycled clothing brands, including Mimi Plange’s namesake label.

Plange always wanted to be a fashion designer. “Being born in Ghana and growing up with the beauty of family, friends and storytelling, I never saw the real beauty of Africa being reflected when I was growing up,” she says. When she would see collections inspired by Africa, she found them simply inauthentic. “It always focused on a few tribes, grouped everything together and made everything about prints and bright colors…I wanted to explore what had been ignored and judged as not beautiful or civilized.” Throughout the 90s and aughts, as she flipped through fashion magazines, she dreamt of exploring, as well as exposing, why the standards of beauty exist as they do.

So after fashion school in San Francisco, she moved to New York and began strategizing how to launch. “I worked my way up in the fashion industry from an assistant designer to a VP of Design, and when I felt that I had been able to save enough to launch and survive, I took the leap,” she recalls. She has since partnered with Manolo Blahnik, furniture brand Roche Bobois, Instagram, and most notably, her LeBron Games x Nike collaboration.

But she says her partnership with Atelier Jolie is unlike any other. Here, she explains why.

How is this different from any other collaboration you’ve done?

This is a really unique experience where we are not only collaborating with Atelier Jolie and other artists within the collective, but with real customers as well, and that is very, very special.

We are working as a collective to give the opportunity to our customers to participate in the design process. This helps create meaningful garments that they may choose to keep longer, maybe even forever, and allows them to become the creators of their own identities.

What do you hope to bring to the atelier?

With our clothing, we hope to bring a new perspective on garments and accessories that are driven by design, and just happen to be sustainably made. We champion handmade artisanal craftsmanship that is explored through our many techniques such as trapunto embroidery, felting, and embellishing focused around the ideas of African adornment. We fuse a bit of African history into every garment in a modern and abstract way. We have a very unique storytelling perspective with our garments that we hope brings contrasting communities together through great design. Ultimately, we hope to bring different cultures together with our work.

Tell us about your RTW pieces that are available at Atelier Jolie.

Our Ready-to-Wear pieces at the Atelier are a mix of suiting separates, multimedia dresses, and unisex workwear jackets. Our suiting is made from deadstock fabrics and excess finished fabrics from Mills sold by Jobbers and sourced in New York. The unisex workwear jacket is made of Dupont Tyvek, and is recyclable. All of our garments are made in New York, and are small batch. We are available to customize any of our garments for customers.

Tell us about your upcoming workshops at the atelier.

I will be doing a hand felting workshop at the Atelier. We use a lot of hand work in our garments, and we are so excited to share a technique that anyone can do to update their wardrobe or even make a few patches. Traditionally, wool has been the medium for felting, but we will explore felting denim, cotton canvas, and other natural fibers. Hopefully everyone will go home with a little inspiration to update their existing wardrobes.

What intrigued you about the new space and Jolie’s vision for the atelier? How is it in line with your mission?

It just made complete sense and aligned with our ideas around slower fashion and community building. What we are working towards is making a global impact through design. It’s not necessarily just about making beautiful clothes, but it’s what the ability to make beautiful clothes leads you to—creating a powerful brand that has meaning and touches a wide range of people all over the world. It’s about empowering local artisans and providing sustainable jobs for the people, especially those in need.

What’s the top myth keeping upcycling from going mainstream?

The top myth is that people don’t want to actually do it, or that the clothes may look a bit unrefined, but that’s where your creativity comes in. Upcycling doesn’t mean that an elegant garment cannot be made. We seem to think that upcycling has to be very ‘shabby chic,’ but not necessarily. It is a choice to how you finish your pieces.

You also don’t have to be alone in the process of upcycling. Atelier Jolie has created a space to explore different methods of renewing your garments.The key is to buy what you love, something you know someone else would love even if it was worn, so the garment lives on, and as it ages, find methods like patching, stitching, painting, or whatever it may be that compliments the item and takes it to another level. The process of upcycling also helps you define your personal style, and gives you a uniqueness that compliments your sense of self.

So many brands use sustainability for marketing leverage. What’s your filter or criteria for weeding out the brands that are not authentic or fully committed to sustainability? What should consumers of fashion know?

We cannot rely on the story of sustainability more than the design. It’s about process and approach. I think as long as you are taking the steps towards more circular practices, I am ok with it, because ultimately many new fabrics like seaweed, mushroom leathers, fruit leathers etc. are not that easy to obtain and can be pricey, so then it effects who has access to sustainable garments. We never lead with ‘We are a sustainable brand,’ because the client has to love what they are purchasing, so design is first and key. Once they love the item, sustainability is a bonus and over time, it will become what the customer expects from all of their purchases.

As a consumer, I would look for brands who value design and sustainability equally, that don’t produce more than four collections a year, two are even better, and one is solid. Look to brands that specialize or have smaller collections. Look for quality, look at where and who made your garment, and most importantly, look for those who are seeking innovation in sustainability so you can see how invested they are in continuing to grow and not just jumping on the bandwagon to get attention or sales.

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