Studio Visit
Sruli Recht, fashion designer

Sruli Recht was born in Jerusalem, spent most of his life in Australia, and for the past few years has called Reykjavik, Iceland, his home. But even before he was a foreign-born talent rising to prominence in a city of fiercely local independence, he was already a bit of an outsider. “We traveled to different countries a lot as a kid,” says Recht. “I was always confused about what people wore and the language of clothing. I was very anxious about what to wear and how to fit in. That’s probably why I now just wear jeans and a T-shirt — like everybody else, I just wanted to blend in.” It’s an ironic thing coming from a designer who in January released his first full menswear line, a 55-piece collection of beautifully constructed garments — at once futuristic and cozy — that aren’t exactly for the faint of fashion heart. Or from a designer who calls his studio in the city’s Fishpacking District The Armoury. “The Icelanders don’t seem to get it. They really do think we sell weapons, and we have maybe three visitors to the store a day just looking for guns,” Recht has said.

The new collection, though, is a pure distillation of his adopted country, made as it is from 98 percent local materials. Recht worked with a tannery in the north of Iceland called Atlantic Leather to tame the raw skins of horse, reindeer, birds, fish, and lamb into treated and finished fabrics, and with a local knit producer to create pieces from Icelandic wool. “I like materials that are awkward and fascinating, that have a certain idiosyncracy to them — basically anything challenging,” Recht says. “And I like to make ugly things beautiful.”

It’s a philosophy he calls upon over and over again, both in what he calls his “non-products” — umbrellas, bulletproof scarves, tables, bags, belts, and boots that fall “somewhere between product design, weapons manufacturing, corroded tailoring, and shoe making” and his actual fashion pieces, which he began constructing way back in high school with a single pair of shorts. The new collection was so well received that Recht has already begun ramping up production. “At the moment we’re setting up to make things on a larger scale. We’re basically setting up a factory — more sewing machines, more full-time sewers. I’d rather have a vertical operation, but on other hand, the closer you are to the production, the more true the products come out.”

In Reykjavik for DesignMarch last week, Sight Unseen took some quick snaps of Recht’s studio and then chatted with the designer about his full-on fast-track to insider status (Karl Lagerfeld picked up one of Recht’s showpieces at the January presentation). Recht, however, was typically self-deprecating: “It’s sort of like one of those films where there’s a guy in the desert walking for 25 days without water in the blistering heat. You’re hoping he’s going to make it but you’re not sure because he’s not sure. That’s the design industry. There’s no easy shortcut.”

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A view of Recht’s studio. The garment hanging from the ceiling is a dress the designer made at university in Melbourne in 2001. Its shape is based on a blue-ringed octopus and its structure is derived from braided and nylon boning. Though Recht’s aesthetic has become much more refined in the intervening years, he’s still fascinated by many of the same math and physics ideas that went into the dress’s construction.

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Recht claims to hate talking about process — “you just find a way of doing things that works for you,” he says. Even so, he’s developed a system over the years for making clothing that’s elaborate by explanation but simple in execution. He starts by making half-scale mannequins on which to drape the fabric. “When I built one at university, I used chicken wire and slashed my hands. It was covered in papier-mâché, then again in fabric, and the process took days. This time, we took a 3-D computer model, quite anatomically correct, laser-cut it in cardboard layers, and glued it together.”

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“We’ve already begun working on the next collection, so we needed more mannequins immediately — an army of cardboard men. We’re not sure if we’ll put a fabric covering on them or just leave them. Covering in fabric would erase all of the detail — there are abdominal muscles, deltoids, a mastoid coming down from the back of the jaw. We actually may just turn it into a product, put a price on it and sell it in the web shop.”

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The studio has done away entirely with sketching. Pieces usually translate in full from an idea in Recht’s head to an initial drape of the half-scale mannequins. The pattern is then marked, copied to paper, scanned, and imported into Illustrator. Once the pattern has been vectorized, it’s exported to the laser cutter shown here, re-checked, and then doubled in size and cut again in fabric.

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A full-sized dress form for final manipulations.

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The final result: a look from Recht’s When Gravity Fails collection, presented this January in Paris. Photo (c) Marino Thorlacius

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Recht’s incredibly high-tech process stands in marked contrast to the number of vintage sewing machines the studio has accumulated throughout the years. The machines are a bit of an obsession for Recht; he has the image of one tattooed on his hip. “We have about seven or eight machines, each with a different purpose. Two for straight sewing, a 120-year-old button sewer, one to stitch leather, one we hacked and turned into a felting machine. This one is a lockstitch machine.”

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This machine is used for blind hemming or creating a loop stitch on the inside of trouser legs.

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A 19th-century buttonholer. Next to it are new casts of Recht’s concrete belt buckles. To make them, Recht takes rusted nails reclaimed from abandoned building sites, bends them into shape, grinds soft the sharp points, and coats them in clear acrylic varnish. The nails are then suspended in a mold as the concrete is poured around them.

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A finished buckle.

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Scissors are another obsession of Recht’s; a tattoo of two pairs intertwined decorates his ribs. These are necklaces given to him by his friend David Gensler of the Keystone Design Union in New York.

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A collection of scissors, which Recht has picked up from textile-industry supply shops, sits inside these glassed-in shelves on the edge of the studio. “Scissors are very particular,” he says. “You can have one that’s very good at one thing and completely useless at another. One pair won’t cut a kind of fabric and another will slice right through. They’re really dangerous, but quite fragile, like a tuning fork. If you drop them, you’re screwed.”

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Weights for holding down paper and fabric.

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“This is a photograph of my shelves of awesome stuff that I find or that people bring to me — rocks and bits of whale, sea urchins, that’s a bit of lava on the left.” Though it’s not necessarily an inspiration shelf, Recht says some of the things are materials he would like to incorporate in the future.

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“For these, I was making some fur garments and wanted to see what fur buttons would look like. They were actually quite creepy, so I didn’t use them. In the back are scale models for objects we’re working on.” Besides the new menswear collection, Recht has new projects in the works with Ghostly International, Nooka, and more.

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A wallet Recht released with Ghostly last year. It’s laser-cut from a single piece of the tanned skin of Nile perch, a fish found in the waters around Kenya and Tanzania.

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When Gravity Fails, Recht reveals, was in some ways an unintended result of the crises that have befallen Iceland over the past few years. Originally intended as a bag and accessories collection, “because of the crash and the volcano, we ended having more and more time, so we said, ‘Let’s just make some clothing,’” Recht says. “It’s something I’d always wanted to do but never had the time.”

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The collection was originally 85 pieces but the studio eventually pared it down to 55, including these two showpieces. On the left is a coat made from 27 stillborn lambs, three regular lambs, and military deadstock lining. On the right is “Icarus, Post-Crash,” a jacket made from the husks of 21 blackbirds — it’s the piece Karl Lagerfeld ended up purchasing at Recht’s January presentation. The rest of the collection is for sale at his Armoury shop. For images, click herePhoto (c) Marino Thorlacius