The history we’ve all been taught is oft skewed to make grim stories sound positive, like decisions made throughout centuries have all been wise and worthwhile—never morally bankrupt. However, closer examination of our biased textbooks unpacks a more upsetting reality, and one that’s been longtime disguised by the white man’s narration. Colonialism, for one, is a movement we were taught helped build the American foundation without us ever drawing justified comparisons to genocide.
Chicago-based designer Jack Alexander is examining this imbalance through fashion—an effort that feels especially relevant, right now, as a record number of Native Americans have been protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline with little mainstream media attention. The SAIC alumnus’ senior thesis focuses on altruism and modernization, using classic western military dress as the base for his exploration of man’s selfish acts throughout history.
Titled, The Road, Alexander’s range is a reference to the proverb, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” highlighting how man has certainly had “intentions,” but rarely “good” ones. The garments all loosely recall military standards, from updated cargo shorts to modified camouflage, finished with artisanal detailing and styled in a menacing, almost criminal manner. BULLETT recently caught up with the rising designer to learn more about his breakout collection.
What led you to fashion?
Since [my] childhood I’ve had a keen interest in the products people use every day. I’ve always thought the most thoughtful holiday gifts were those that aided day-to-day life, like a jacket or backpack. These things, superficial or not, are part of how we represent ourselves and who we are. As a young person, I found the sociological properties of clothing useful, at first as tools to blend in and deflect attention and later to stand out. Being from Colorado, a non-fashion oriented place, I learned to develop my own identity and envision being part of reality that was greater than my immediate surroundings.
How was your experience studying and designing in Chicago?
The relative isolation of Chicago allows people to forge their own identities without the constant pressure of what’s ‘hot’ right at the moment. It can be challenging to connect a broader audience and network being in Chicago, but that’s the trade-off. Living in Chicago was an education itself; it challenged and broke my fantasy of what ‘America’ is. For me as a white male, it was an introduction to the segregation, racism and corruption of American reality. In that way, Chicago as a city pushed my work to reflect human stories, feelings and paradoxes rather than more clever pseudo-modern values that run rampant in arts education.
What perspective do you think you bring to fashion?
I want to make things that are cool and intellectual. There’s a stigma that something ‘cool’ has to be cheap or shallow, but I don’t believe it. I’m here to make experiences, objects and images that are both evocative and analytical without ever being didactic.
Let’s talk about your senior collection, The Road. What was the process behind creating it?
The collection came about through my personal research into history and industry. I am constantly trying to learn and understand what has shaped the world into the present-day. This work is a reflection of me learning about and exploring the depths of the influence of colonialism in the past and present. School doesn’t teach you what a horrendous and incredibly important part of the world’s formation colonialism is.
What’s the collection’s greater concept?
This collection is based on subverting, destroying and collocating. It takes icons of western military dress and distorts them on the body, and collocates icons of decay and violence which are engrained into the textiles. The point was to portray the purveyors of the institution of colonialism as chemical villains and monsters and weaponize the white dress shirt and field jacket. It’s amazing to read a biography of Cecil Rhodes; it speaks to his work as an administrator and never acknowledges him as an institutor of genocide. The collection’s title is a reference to the aphorism that ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions;’ as divine altruism, moral obligation and ‘modernization’ have been abused as qualifications for the most terrible acts in human history.
Why face masks?
Covering the face allows the viewer to access the image in a more abstract way that’s conducive to personal interpretation. They were also a method of transforming the looks into complete otherness.
I’m interested in the production process behind some of these garments—it looks like you experimented with many different treatments on the fabrics.
I developed every single fabric in this collection. There are many non traditional methods of fabric treatment utilized so the textile is literally engrained with the processes of decay and destruction. One such technique is dying fabric with rusty railroad spikes and chains, so when the metal oxidizes it bonds to the fiber. Another technique is the ‘Scorch Camo’ melted Askari jacket, which I developed by painting fireproof fabric with a torch. Texture was really important to this collection, and my approach was to apply it directly instead of creating a facsimile.
How does this collection compare to your previous work?
Something that’s important to me is that people can connect with the pieces individually. The full look is my vision, but the individual garments can be incorporated into someone else’s narrative and wardrobe. A consistent conceptual thread is examining different manifestations of masculinity. The collection before this was all about bull riding, but as a tragic romance based on Peter Schaffer’s play, Equus. This collection is obviously much less soft, but carries the same narrative sensibility and character development.