An Interview with José Hendo - Part 2.

By Marella Alves dos Reis

Following on from Wednesday's blog, CS Ambassador, Marella Alves dos Reis, continues her interview with the designer, José Hendo.

Marella: How did you first become aware of and interested in barkcloth?

José: When I was doing my research into eco-sustainability, I needed something that was rustic, organic and renewable - something that captured the mood that I was in at that moment. Wanting to break the rules but stay within a controlled space so that I could still present my work as fashion, but with a different kind of mindset. So, I tried many kinds of eco-textiles, like organic cotton and silk, but none of them told me what I wanted - they didn't make me feel 'Yes!'. So I went on holiday to see my parents, and I was buying souvenirs, and I found some made out of bark. I thought, 'hang on a minute - this is the cloth!', so I went home quite excited and told my mother what I had found and that I needed more of the barkcloth and asked her where I could get more from. However, she knew where to get it, so she went with my brother to get me some. My mother chooses the best bark ever. She's so good! When I told her I wanted soft, she knew what to choose. When I told her I wanted thick, she knew what to get. I asked her how she always knew which one to get - this is years after I started working with it, as I couldn't understand how she knew exactly what I needed and sent it to me - so when she told me that actually, her father made barkcloth, I couldn't believe it, I was in shock! So she grew up around her father who made bark, and so she's given me this first-hand information which is so exciting, such as telling me how important it was that every man had trees in their garden, and taught their sons how to make it.

M: So it seems now that your relationship with barkcloth is actually quite a personal one, as you have a family history with it?

J: As I'm still getting so much information, I'm actually working on a book at the moment. It's my story - barkcloth and obviously sustainability. Barkcloth has been the key factor in my progression in eco-sustainability. I needed to change the way that I stayed in the fashion industry, and barkcloth allowed me to do this.

M: Do you think that if you hadn't found barkcloth, that you might have stumbled across another sustainable material to work with, or that you might be working in a different field altogether?

J: This is something that I do ask myself quite a lot! I know that I would have found something else because I am so driven by sustainability. If I couldn't find a new way forward, I was going to leave the industry. So I had to find something really interesting, really quickly - something that ticked all the boxes that I had. Bark was just the perfect thing, and it's been quite exciting actually to see where it's taken me. One of the things that I find quite surprising is my reliance on it - I can't do any collection with it not being involved. It's become such a key factor in me telling this story about the change that needs to happen. To other people, it might be shocking, but for me, it was just instant, I knew it the moment I found it, and I was not looking back. Everyone tried to discourage me, saying it's boring and the colour was dull, so that's when I coloured it and tried to make it exciting. I also had it woven into cloths, as I wove it with organic cotton. I didn't want to change any chemical aspect of it, so it had to stay organic and had to be very natural, with no additions of anything. So just organic cotton and barkcloth, woven together. We're still refining it, but I'm making garments out of it regardless! It was very exciting getting to the point of realising that our efforts were successful and that we had actually produced a cloth.

M: Could you describe the process of harvesting barkcloth?

J: Yes - everything is manual; there are no chemicals involved whatsoever. The tree has to be nurtured for harvest - so you can't just go and find a wild tree and harvest from it, as it won't give you what you're looking for. The tree, from when it's grown, needs attention. You have to remove all the branches that grow randomly around the tree trunk and just prepare it to a good height of about three metres tall so that when they harvest, they have a clean surface to do it from. Near the top of the tree, below the leaves, they make a circular cut around the tree trunk, and at the bottom of the tree, they make another circular cut in the trunk. Then, someone with an expert hand - so someone who is very skilled and has been doing it for years and years - will use a knife to cut from the top of the tree all the way down to the bottom, whilst being very careful to not go beyond the first layer of bark. They scrape off the rough outer layer of bark and using the soft inner part of a young banana tree. They tease off the first inner layer of bark. It is important to be careful so that the inner layer comes off in one piece and that you do not disrupt the next layer of the tree.

M: How is the barkcloth then transformed into a usable material?

A: When the bark has successfully been harvested, they then start to prepare it by boiling it in hot water for about 15 minutes. They keep turning it in the hot water and use their own judgment to decide when it is ready. This step kills off any bacteria or anything that it might have picked up, as well as softening the bark and making it supple. Once that is done, they lay it on a wooden log and start pounding away for hours. This stretches the barkcloth immensely, and it can stretch to lengths such as 8m x 3m or 6m x 4m, depending on how tall and old the tree was - they can get more out of an older tree. It's amazing! I actually have some of the largest pieces of bark in my possession, possibly the largest, which is around 8m x 3m. It is so exciting to have that, and it was hung for the first time anywhere in the world in Berlin at an exhibition I did, with my installation 'Signs of The Now'.

M: Could you tell me a bit about 'Signs Of The Now' and what it represents?

J: It is ultimately a reaction to what is happening in the world today. Landfill space is running out, there's plastic in the oceans, deforestation, and second-hand clothing is devastating developing countries. Right from when I started my journey, all these things and more compelled me to re-think my whole strategy and how I presented my work. This is still a very key factor in my collection titles, research and delivery. So this was an installation for the runway, but also visual, in terms of very still moments. So it was just eight garments, but each of those pieces have a different story to tell, to engage us in thinking differently about what we're doing and how we're doing it. So it covers all the things that I am passionate about in a nutshell and just says that the time is now, let's act and let's change things!

M: Is there any particular era of fashion that you are especially interested in?

J: I love period clothing! I love the simplicity of how clothes were put together - that's why I love The Costume Society. I'm always intrigued at what I'm going to see next, so I'm following you everywhere! It's always quite exciting to see what you're sharing and going deep into your social media and seeing different stories. I have books that take me back to those times, as I love seeing how people used to dress - it's very basic! Going back to basics is not so bad if you do it right, as in using the great innovations from the past and bringing them into the present so that they can then be pushed towards the future. So that's actually my next collection - Past, Present and Future, which links all these things. This collection comes out of the 'Signs Of The Now' collection - one of the garments in there is called 'Antonerick PPF' - past, present and future, and it's recently gone into the National Museum of Scotland. They commissioned it! It's a combination of tweed and bark and totally upcycled. With this garment, I see the past, represented by the wool and the long history behind it, and combining it with the bark makes the present - this is the idea that I want to push into the future.

M: Could you tell me a bit about 'Signs Of The Now' and what it represents?

J: It is ultimately a reaction to what is happening in the world today. Landfill space is running out, there's plastic in the oceans, deforestation, and second-hand clothing is devastating developing countries. Right from when I started my journey, all these things and more compelled me to re-think my whole strategy and how I presented my work. This is still a very key factor in my collection titles, research and delivery. So this was an installation for the runway, but also visual, in terms of very still moments. So it was just eight garments, but each of those pieces have a different story to tell, to engage us in thinking differently about what we're doing and how we're doing it. So it covers all the things that I am passionate about in a nutshell and just says that the time is now, let's act and let's change things!

M: Is there any particular era of fashion that you are especially interested in?

J: I love period clothing! I love the simplicity of how clothes were put together - that's why I love The Costume Society. I'm always intrigued at what I'm going to see next, so I'm following you everywhere! It's always quite exciting to see what you're sharing and going deep into your social media and seeing different stories. I have books that take me back to those times, as I love seeing how people used to dress - it's very basic! Going back to basics is not so bad if you do it right, as in using the great innovations from the past and bringing them into the present so that they can then be pushed towards the future. So that's actually my next collection - Past, Present and Future, which links all these things. This collection comes out of the 'Signs Of The Now' collection - one of the garments in there is called 'Antonerick PPF' - past, present and future, and it's recently gone into the National Museum of Scotland. They commissioned it! It's a combination of tweed and bark and totally upcycled. With this garment, I see the past, represented by the wool and the long history behind it, and combining it with the bark makes the present - this is the idea that I want to push into the future.

M: So, are you working on that collection at the moment?

J: Yes - every collection leads into the next one. So 'Signs Of The Now' has elements of reduce, re-use and recycle, and zero-waste, and I used my past research and ideas and expanded them, improving them, even more, to make them more refined and work. So I went back to 'Resonance', which was my first ever barkcloth collection, and took elements from that research and concept and used them here. So it applies to everything! When you're thinking sustainable, that's what you have to do. You have to research everything - you don't have to spend time creating a whole new concept or idea. It's already there. So every collection feeds into the next one. This particular one is going to be very interesting - there are seven key pieces in it, and one of the - 'Blowing in the Wind' - is totally biodegradable. Another garment is upcycled, a dress made from two pairs of mens' jeans, using all aspects of the jeans. It's saying just take it as it is and showing how everything can be used from the jeans. If you're done with it and throw it away, then it shows that the lives that were affected in the making of the jeans don't matter to you; to elongate the life of a garment is the best way to add value to those processes and those people's lives. The making of denim is one of the most destructive processes in the fashion industry. We have enough denim now in the world and enough clothing in the world for the next six generations. We don't need any more.

M: And finally, if you had to choose, which collection of yours would be your favourite?

J: I think all of them are very special, but I would have to say that 'Resonance' is my favourite. If Resonance didn't work, then I would not be here today. It was thinking outside the box, breaking the rules and not apologising for it. I was using non-conventional clothing details, so no buttons, no zips, no fusing. There's nothing in there that you would usually use to make a garment, apart from thread. It's in the way that I cut the pattern, the way that I put the garments together. They come apart and come back together; they sing. For me, that was so important - to make it exciting and yet very very simple. I coloured the bark - you'd never know it was barkcloth. Most people thought it was leather, suede or velvet. It was me just pulling all the stops out, and it was my biggest challenge ever. It marked a turning point in my career; if that had not worked, I would not have had the conviction and the strength to carry on. My research was into nature and how everything is interconnected; that's why it was called 'Resonance' - we all feed off each other in nature and depend on the earth for our sustenance.

Figure 3:A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo

Figure 3:A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo

Figure 4:A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo

Figure 4:A José Hendo design from her ‘Resonance’ collection. Image courtesy of José Hendo

Sign up to receive occasional updates

Please indicate your consent to our use of cookies

Some cookies are required for our site to function. Optional cookies are used for functionality (remembering recently visited pages) and performance (Google Analytics). Visit our privacy and cookies page to find out more, and manage your consent at any time.