Ophir El-Boher is an apparel designer focused on the ecological, cultural and social aspects of fashion. Through her research, she is creating ethical and sustainable models for clothing production. Through her studio practice, she is investigating the meaning of wearable objects, using a variety of crafts and value creation. Inspired by natural and cultural systems, Ophir is using the platform of fashion design to address phenomena of contemporary issues such as natural resource degradation, hyper-consumerism, and gender equity.
She brings diverse cultural experiences and disciplines to her practice, focusing on questioning and retelling cultural narratives. By actively employing collaboration and communication, Ophir aims to lead a sea change — rethinking and recreating the ways in which clothing is consumed, used and disposed of. She believes that, if done correctly, fashion can inspire and lead to positive change. Through writing, public speaking and education, Ophir promotes cultural and behavioral shifts around fashion consumption, providing knowledge, tools, and methods for creative alternatives to satisfy materialistic needs and desires.
Ophir holds a B.Ed. in Interdisciplinary Design and Secondary Education from Kibbutzim College, Tel-Aviv, and an MFA in Collaborative Design from Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon. Her imaginative designs and her innovative lectures won several contests and shows including The Social Pitch, SH/FT fashion show, and the Textile Connections Symposium Pecha-Kucha. Ophir’s work was featured in exhibitions and shows in Tel Aviv, Illinois, and Oregon, and in publications locally and internationally, including The Oregonian, Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia, Inside Fashion Design and the prestigious Haaretz’s Designer Magazine.
Brittany Vega: Can you tell us what you’ve been working on recently?
Ophir El-Boher: I have been super busy with all sorts of very interesting and uncommon projects from organizing a symposium to writing an exhibition review, pitching my idea for a start-up, teaching a course, and rethinking my latest collection into a gallery exhibition. My work has become incredibly diverse since I graduated, and I couldn’t be happier for the variety of people and tasks that fill my days.
BV:When you are asked what you “do”, how do you usually describe your practice?
OE: It depends on who asks. If I know that the person in front of me is far from my field, or isn’t familiar with subjects such as sustainability or creative practices, I just say that I make new clothes out of old ones. That is a very flat manner to describe my practice, but it is a very communicative way to start a conversation. If I speak with someone that is involved with one or more of the overlapping landscapes that I work within, I use terminologies from their field to describe my work, so, I can be a sustainable fashion designer, or an artist using reclaimed textiles as my main medium, a researcher of textile upcycling technologies, or a systems disruptor of the fashion industry. All versions are true and honest. Being a multidisciplinary designer my practice touches many fields and I find that one of my roles is to help people understand what I do, and why I do it, through translations and using many different terminologies.
BV: How did you arrive at the decision to use only repurposed materials?
OE: It has been a journey. There was a financial aspect to it at first, and a passion for everything used too; I love the story that an object can tell about its life, the memories it is holding for us, forever.
Later I noticed that all the white canvases and new roles of fabric can sit in my studio for eternity, while the repurposed ones I am using more easily and more often. For me, material with no history rarely brings inspiration. I thrive out of limitations and constraints, and used materials bring all the constraints I can ask for. For example, coming up with a color palette for a collection on top of my head feels wrong, uncomfortable and meaningless to me. I am well aware that I am influenced by trends and fashions just like anyone else, so if I try to come up with a palette just in my head, it is likely that it isn’t authentic at all- I probably got some outer influences informing my decisions. In contrast to this situation, when I have a pile of clothes in the studio and I need to come up with a coherent color statement it comes very naturally by picking and choosing out of what’s in front of me, and the results are so extremely unique, no one on earth would have come up with such palettes!
The ethical-sustainable aspect of reclaiming, which is my main drive, became increasingly important as I started researching. I always had a deep connection to earth preservation and living in synergy with nature. However, only after digging into the horrifying truths about the fashion industry’s negative impact on the health of our planet, I started my commitment to solely use reclaimed materials, and I do my best to use them in a circular approach too.
We just have too much waste, our waste streams, globally, are overflowing. For me, beyond the ethical aspect of conserving resources, it is also my way to adjust to what I anticipate the future will be like. I believe that no one will have the privilege of using raw materials soon, and I am just preparing for that day.
BV: Meaning you foresee many raw materials disappearing from supply due to the fashion industry and global impact?
OE: Well, I believe that at some point we won’t be able to use petroleum as raw material for creating our textiles, as this material will only get more expensive and less accessible. This is one of these limited resources everybody talks about. I also believe that some of the renewing resources, like cotton, for example, will be harder to grow globally, as our soils get less fertile due to the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides. These are just two examples of how resources are degrading, getting more rare and expensive. In the meanwhile, waste we get only more and more of. So, there’s a direct correlation between the growth in solid waste quantities globally, to the growth in global consumption. And both of these are on the rise. So basically humanity consumes more clothes every year, and in correlation, more textile ends up in the waste stream. My conclusion is that at some point the piles of textiles we now call waste will become the most available resource for making clothes. Many have understood that already, I am not alone, so now we are focusing on preparing the structures, physical and conceptual, for this new era of production, and it is very different than what we know now. It requires different cultural paradigms that prioritize continuity rather than newness, and ecological sustainability rather than economic growth.
BV: What about your work brings the most joy?
OE: The people I work with are definitely a big part of my joy. I meet the most amazing creatives, scholars, entrepreneurs, and performing artists on a daily basis.
I also love the fact that while my work is so serious, dealing with environmental crisis and having to be well informed with all the details of how shitty everything is, it is also super silly and fun and funny, like the kind of styling I give my models, or the fact that I can spend a whole day just searching through the latest collections on Vogue.com, as part of my work!
My most joyful moments are when I find myself laughing out loud in my studio, watching my reflection in the mirror wearing a new piece I just came up with.
Having a deeply serious mission, and a precise conceptual background, I allow the formal aspects of my work to be highly humorous and joyful. Just for a good balance (:
BV: You’re very involved in workshops and teaching others. What is important for you in combining fashion and education?
OE: I started my research focusing on developing practices to produce garments with very high standards of social and environmental ethics. Following the best practitioners, and developing my own processes, I figured one thing that many anti-capitalists have discovered before me; the real problem that lies underneath all others is consumption. If we, as humans, keep consuming the way we do, even if every product would be made out of upcycled materials, and if we recycle everything we use, we will still be swimming in our own junk. There’s just no way around it- we already have too many objects to deal with. So, I decided that I’ll be a fashion designer that does not do production. Instead, I am teaching people how to become their own fashion producers. It’s not too complicated. Almost every human being used to design and produce their own clothing until quite recently. I still make clothes for other people, as art pieces, rather than designed objects. And I still design fashion items, but rather than designing for manufacturing, I design for makers, and makers-to-be, to make their own designer outfit.
BV: Who are your favorite artists and designers right now? How have they impacted your work and your own ideas?
OE: I can list a few fashion designers that impacted my work, such as Vivian Westwood who uses the fashion platform to address environmental issues. Rei Kawakubo, of Comme Des Garcons, who (among others) introduced the aesthetics of deconstruction into the fashion world and is still one of the most cutting edge designers to challenge what beauty is and our perception of it. Christopher Raeburn, who built his whole fashion brand on upcycling systems. These are all fashion superstars that will always be on my list, but of course, I also look at artists and designers that aren’t that famous. Mostly I really like to follow my friends' work. I am a very relational person, I believe that we all work together and we all inspire each other in our work, even when it is unconscious. Having access to my friends’ creative practices, being able to connect with their work through hearing them and seeing them in the process, that is probably more influential than any superstar runway show or museum exhibition. So, here are a few artists that being around them taught me much of what I know about being an artist. Firstly Tslil Tsemet, who’s my favorite artist of all times, for her boldness, unforgiving snaps of reality, and love for humankind. Then I have Stacy Lovejoy who is an undeniable force of possibilities and joy. Adam Cohn is one of the most thoughtful painters I know. His work ethic is very inspiring to me, he has an amazing ability to be continuous and flow like a river, while also being extremely experimental and surprising, while keeping it all calm and oh-so-chill every time I get to visit. Sloane White is a really inspiring fashion designer and entrepreneur who literally extended what fashion is in Portland. And Jaynee Watson is one of the artists that makes me cry when she speaks, and smile from my heart when I experience her art. The list is so much longer, I can never stop and probably will have a completely different answer at any given day because every person I ever had a conversation with has inspired me in some way, and those that I kept close still do, every time I think of them.
BV: Can you give advice on how to maintain focus on your goals? What tools do you use to organize and advance your art practice?
OE: Great question, and hard too. So, for once, I will say that I think I can improve a lot. There are so many things I want to do and I never get to, and it is always very very hard to prioritize. I was very lucky to learn some strategy practices during my MFA studies at the Collaborative Design program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. In my opinion, thinking strategically is essential in making things happen. I don’t believe in just going with the flow- that can only work for those that have the privilege to flow with the current currents. If you try to challenge the existing reality, I find that it is on me to create the river in which I flow, so I can choose where to go and how. And when I am in that flow, I try to keep as adjustable as I can, and luckily I am pretty resilient to changes.
I think that the most important thing for me was to set my purpose and define my constraints- I aim to lead a change in fashion production, consumption, use, and disposal towards safe and healthy environments and communities. That means that I will not use any new materials, because that is against my purpose, and I will always ensure that everyone working with or for me will benefit from it. Never do harm, not for a freaking piece of clothing! From these definitions, I can more easily decide what projects to take on or not. If it doesn’t lead me to my goals then I should not take it.
Also, it is important for me to develop a sustainable independent income, so many of my decisions, while still true to my mission, are taken according to this goal. If I weren’t to mention that that would be irresponsible.
I try my best to apply to any competition, job offer, or other opportunities that are aligned with my goals. Normally I’ll choose them according to the location, or similar limitations. I will calculate the potential of each opportunity to fulfill my goals- the more the better, and I will think of the time and efforts that it might take me to apply to this opportunity.
I put everything on my calendar and I use project-management tools (such as Trello) to make sure I won’t oversee something important.
By far, the most effective thing for me to get something done on time is the people I am accountable to. I try to have some sort of a collaborator on anything that I do because working with others makes me more accountable to deadlines. It is something that I strive to change- I want to be able to work just as well on projects that don’t involve others. I wish I had the same drive to produce the highest quality of work, on time, even when there’s no one else involved. Like having my portfolio all updated and good-looking and published already- this task has been waiting on me for at least 6 months now. I think it is natural, and some of us are just more relational than others, but I always try to grow and imagine the new skills that will make my practice smoother, while keeping myself healthy and happy.
BV:What is next for you?
OE: The very next thing is my upcoming exhibition at FullerRosen Gallery, titled Patterning. It is based on my last summer collection, Pattern Recognition that I showed on the Fringe runway. After the ecstatic 3 minutes of the runway, which marked the end of the project for me, I decided to try and present the work on a different kind of stage, one that will allow me to expose the conceptual work behind the garments. This body of work is designed for an amateur fashion-maker to make their own designer clothes. In the exhibit, I am basically showing the process of making the garments, so that anyone can hack their own designer outfit. This show is the main project I am working on right now, aside from the classes I teach through the PNCA community education program. These allow me to expand my mission and practically provide anyone who wishes to learn with the skill-set needed to become a fashion hacker.
In terms of the future, I have my startup Make Awear that I am slowly building to be the system from which I will continue pushing my mission forward. This system design includes upcycling as the main production system, education as a tool for a cultural paradigm shift, and fashion as the attraction and joy that holds everything together. Basically it is everything that I am doing now but structured to involve more people and have a bigger impact.