On a temperate night last July, a group of designers gathered for a party in a prototyping lab in the heart of Queens. The occasion was the acquisition of a brand-new laser-cutting machine by the fabrication lab at the CUNY-run studio space NYDESIGNS, and the brief was to cut or etch something as unconventional as possible. Klaus Rosberg of Sonic Designs sliced handcuff bangles from cardboard, while design couple Alissia Melka-Teichroew and Jan Habraken made sandwiches from dark bread and ham, trimmed into the shape of tiny pigs. Though we assume the sandwiches failed to move on to bigger and better things, one design did: A scarf by Pratt grad and industrial designer Kevin McElroy, which inspired a collaboration with the socially responsible fashion label JF & Son called CUTS///. The fabrics were provided by Jesse Finkelstein and Katie King, the designers who have run JF & Son since 2007, and the eponymous cuts came courtesy of McElroy, a design consultant who has worked with clients from Hasbro to CVS. Launched this week at the brand’s New York flagship store, the resulting 17-piece collection is unlike anything either party had ever done before — leather skirts with delicate scalloped cutaways in repeat, cinched shifts with tiny dots and rectangles, shorts with triangles whose edges still bear evidence of the laser’s burn. We recently spoke with McElroy to find out how the project came together.
“Last summer, I was invited to be part of an event at NYDESIGNS — basically a laser party. They had an open call for designers to submit a concept and bring a material to the party that they could manipulate on their new laser cutter. I started thinking about the machine: What could this machine do that no other machine can? It can cut anything, from plastic to paper to wood, but really? Anything can cut plastic. Anything can cut paper. In my head, I was trying to get to the purest expression of this machine. I ended up bringing in a t-shirt fabric, and I came up with this abstract geometric pattern literally based on lasers. I was thinking about old bank robbery movies where the vault would be protected by, like, beams of light, or ’80s videogames. I actually tried to write code that would simulate lasers bouncing around, but I’ve never programmed anything in my life, so I faked it with Illustrator. I cut the design out with the laser cutter, and when all the voids fall away, you’re left with this pattern of a beam bouncing around in space. It evokes this feeling of movement when held up, and when it’s folded or draped, there’s just myriad of shadows and textures. The finished collection with JF & Son is great, but it was a particular triumph that the initial piece actually worked.”
“After the event, I went through some friends of friends who knew Jesse Finkelstein from JF & Son. Jesse is like this 4th-generation clothing-maker in New York, and JF & Son takes that provenance and infuses it with this really design-forward thinking. All of its stuff is really avant-garde and captures the zeitgeist of edgy fashion. Of course I had no idea about any of that. I had no idea that their passion and expertise is materials and process, or that they source and develop their own materials. I was just like, ‘Hey, do you want to sell this as a scarf in your store for 50 bucks?’ And Jesse was like, ‘No, let’s do so much more.’ So we went back to NYDESIGNS, talked to the assistant director, and I proposed this idea that we create a whole line. And they were really hip to it, so we ironed out the details and got started.”
“It was essentially like an artist’s residency. JF & Son started giving me materials: thick leathers, silk, cotton voile, canvases. We were really interested to see what the machine could do — what patterns were too big or too small, or which fabrics would burn. It became this interesting back and forth between JF & Son and myself. What do perforations, which you normally see in leather, do to silk? It really took me out of my realm of thinking. We ended up cutting a lot of different stuff that inspired actual pieces in the line. They came up with the actual silhouettes and had the patterns made, and then they came back to me and we figured out the placement of the perforations on the actual pieces, cut them with the laser, and then they went back and constructed the line that’s now at the store.”
“It was an interesting experiment. The thicker organic materials, like leather, burned. In the beginning we were trying to not do that, but in the end you can see in some of the pieces that we really showcased the burn. We found out things like the finer the knit, the better it is for smaller shapes, scallop cuts, and small triangles. And vice versa — the coarser the material, the larger the shapes we would use. If there were synthetic fibers in a fabric, it would cauterize the edge of the cut, whereas canvas would just fray a bit to nice effect. Wool smells really bad when it burns — like human hair times five. But then you can hand wash it and it also frays in this really beautiful way and starts to look like a knit product.”
“As for the product’s future, I’m working on creating a materials and process library that will be a resource for JF & Son and their fashion clients, for NYDESIGNS’s facility, and of course for my studio. We’re definitely seeing where we can take these fabrics as building blocks in other areas of fashion. JF & Son actually started as a textile design company and fashion was secondary, so they’ll also offer the fabrics as a swatch library to their clients. And some pieces that didn’t make sense for this line may make more sense in a winter or fall collection.
“This project was a bit of a departure for me, but it’s in my nature to go into areas that I haven’t been in before. I’ve found that in launching my own projects, it’s a lot about project management, which is basically about seeing connections and putting the right people together.”