Janelle Abbott, the creator of the brand JRAT, sat down with me to discuss her brand, her inspiration, her origins, and most importantly, her distaste for the fashion industry and the heavily exploitative nature of the modern world. Abbott said, "I want to live in a vastly different world, and that’s partially what drives me to create what I do, the way I do; deeply considered works of art from found/reclaimed materials, rescued from the scrap heap of fast fashion and Western capitalism, reconfigured through the zero-waste methodology." Keep reading to hear more about JRAT, its one-of-a-kind zero-waste design, and Abbott's hopes for the future of fashion.
KL: Tell me a bit about yourself. What do you do? Where are you from? Etc.
JA: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. My parents owned a clothing manufacturing company when I was a kid, and I was homeschooled through 9th grade, so I spent a lot of time at the warehouse befriending the employees and crafting with scrap materials. I think that’s where I developed a respect, and even reverence, for the labor behind the production of clothing. I attended Parsons School of Design in NYC and graduated with a BFA in fashion. I came back to Seattle where I was goofing off for a while as a tour guide, chair weaver, artists assistant, yoga instructor, and still an artist myself, but it was the lesser of my pursuits for some years. With the pandemic though, I lost all my gigs and was only left with my creative work, so for the past 2 years, I’ve been focusing on how to make my design career more sustainable. Outside of making clothes from found and reclaimed materials, I weave wearable furniture; like chairs with sweaters built into the frame, and rugs with pants into the weft, which are works of art, yes, but also extreme relaxation tools. I’m a cyclist and a runner, a yogi still, and a dancer. Right now, I’m also into early 2000s workout videos on YouTube, like Billy Blanks Tae Bo. I enjoy baking but never follow recipes to the letter, which means things turn out…weird, usually. I love hummingbirds; if I could be a bird, that would definitely be my bird of choice. I’m a shameless Frasier fan.
KL: What is JRAT? Tell me about its origins, the sustainability behind it, and how it is one-of-a-kind.
JA: JRAT is my “brand” name, which actually began as The J.R. Abbott Times, a fictitious newspaper I published via fax machine at 10 years old. I reprised it in my early 20s and wrote silly little fake news stories for about 10 years (but then fake news became more insidious and I decided to lay the project to rest.) Today JRAT is one-of-a-kind clothing and art handcrafted by me from found, reclaimed, and deadstock materials. My pieces are OOAK because I very rarely have enough material to make exact replicas, and even if I did do a run of any given piece, aspects of my work are often hand-painted or dyed, so there’s inevitable variation. Ultimately, I want to create clothing that is as unique as the people who wear my work, and that’s why I invest energy in hand painting, beading, embellishing, and imbuing my garments with precious and painstaking details. Since 2013 I’ve been making collections of OOAK garments once or twice a year, but until 2019/2020 it was more of a casual endeavor. Especially since the pandemic, I have been able to focus more of my time and energy on this business. In 2021, I made over 550 garments. Once a month maybe I have someone come in and sew with me, but otherwise I paint/dye, cut, sew, and finish everything by myself. That aspect of my work is not sustainable, but the fact that I use reclaimed materials, the zero waste methodology, and I go so far as to deconstruct and recraft my unsold work into new and better things; this is what makes my brand sustainable. I want to have as little impact on the planet as possible, so I avoid newly manufactured materials at all costs. Instead, I want my impact to be positive, by making use of what otherwise would’ve taken up space at a landfill, and recraft those materials into useful, beautiful, or at least just unusual works of art—whether wearable or otherwise.
KL: What does it mean to be a zero-waste brand?
JA: With traditional garment production, about 15% of all textiles end up in the trash by the end of the process because garments are constructed from individual pattern pieces that are laid out on the fabric and cut. Inevitably, those pattern pieces have negative shapes between them and that’s what gets trashed. Not only is it a monetary loss, but that wasted fabric also represents 15% of the land, water, labor, emissions, and all other components and expenditures it took to create that fabric in the first place. With the zero waste pattern drafting methodology, garments are constructed from pattern pieces that fit together like a giant puzzle, so that no scrap of fabric ends up in a landfill. For me, being a ‘zero-waste brand’ is about strictly adhering to this pattern drafting methodology, which not only eliminates textile waste, but I have also found it an innovative means of expanding my creative capacity. I also only work with certified deadstock textiles, and whenever I use second-hand or reclaimed garments, I also take a zero-waste approach by ensuring every part of the original garment ends up somewhere in the final collection, whether in a dozen pieces or a few chunks.
KL: Tell me a bit about wardrobe therapy.
JA: Wardrobe Therapy is a project I conduct with private clients who have a pile of clothes they love but don’t wear, and yet can’t get rid of. We have a long talk about their history with fashion, how it has changed over the years, where they want their style to go in the future, and then we design an intervention of how to transform the garments they don’t wear into pieces they will wear and love all the more. I take their clothes back to my studio, deconstruct and reconfigure the pieces based on our plan, then mid-way through the process there’s a fitting with the client to ensure we’re on the right track, et voila! What could have been destined for the thrift store or the landfill is now a new-and-improved member of their wardrobe. Wardrobe Therapy is ultimately about affirmation and not prescription. I want people to dissect the things they know about their style yet have never given words to. I hope they walk away from the process feeling more grounded and confident in the fact that they know what they want to wear and why.
KL: What drives you? What pushes you to create the art that you do?
JA: I’m extremely dissatisfied with the state of the world- ramped overproduction, hyper-consumerism, the exploitation of our finite planet, 40 million people in situations of modern-day slavery worldwide, an American obsession with fame, wealth, virality, upward mobility: at all costs. We’re obliged to actively invest in our mutual destruction. I want to live in a vastly different world, and that’s partially what drives me to create what I do, the way I do; deeply considered works of art from found/reclaimed materials, rescued from the scrap heap of fast fashion and Western capitalism, reconfigured through the zero-waste methodology. It’s not about virality, disposability, fleeting expressions, and fads. I want to imbue honor, value, a sense of the sacred into the material world—a reminder of reverence for the labor and resources required in manifesting everything we’re really blessed to be able to see and use. I can be consumed by anxiety and stress about both existential and personal things, so exploring my feelings and emotions through the creative process also compels me to create.
KL: What does it mean to have JRAT featured in Art to Ware?
JA: Being a part of A2W is really an honor. I’m inspired by the work you’re doing with Nuuly, proactively solving these massive issues that the industry continues to create. I think making OOAK, hand-made clothing more accessible and available to the general public is incredibly important; people need to know they have options. We are not obliged to support slavery or untoward production practices; we are not obliged to continue to fuel the destruction and wealth hoarding caused by fast fashion. I love that A2W opens another path for people to become more intentional, more connected and committed to how they shop, where they shop, why they shop, what they buy, and who they support. It’s so important to have options. And of course, not everyone can afford handmade clothing. Many laborers in America are being exploited, undervalued, and underpaid, which is part of the reason we're in this vicious cycle of the poor exploiting the poor for the benefit, and by the design of, the wealthy. That’s a totally different conversation though. I think A2W is doing the good work of making ethical fashion affordable through the Nuuly collab and I’m happy to be a contributor, thank you.
KL: What is your vision for the future of fashion?
JA: I think the entire fashion industry needs to fundamentally change. Ready-to-wear fast fashion garments are a scourge on our planet, they’re a suck of our resources, they’re the enslavement of millions of workers overseas, and they’re only doing good to the CEOs and shareholders who are raking in profits. The future of fashion, for me, is a devolvement to the cottage industry period, when designers and laborers were more closely connected, where clothing was made to order and made to fit real, specific human bodies, not illogical fit models who represent an exceedingly narrow margin of the population. I love that people are more and more interested in buying one-of-a-kind, hand-made garments. I hear people talk about wanting to learn to sew and make their own clothes, recraft and repair the clothes they have. I think the fashion industry needs to be held accountable for the damage it's done to our planet, its workforce, and all of our psychological well-being. I’m done with manipulative ad campaigns preying on peoples' vulnerabilities in order to sell products. I think the fashion industry should be a source of affirmation, not condemnation. The future of fashion looks nothing like the present, a little bit like the ancient past, and something more honest, holistic, responsible, sustainable, and transparent.
Photos courtesy of Janelle Abbott.