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NSCAD fashions a couture vert 

NSCAD’s fashion program is growing in leaps and bounds, and considering the environment along the way.

In late April, as the wind blew cold rain in swirls and angular patterns across Granville Mall, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design professor Gary Markle playfully stalked the runway at NSCAD's Wearable Art Show. He wore nothing but boxers, mukluks and a mask (complete with bunny ears) made out of old shoes, an ensemble one of his student designers created.

In mid-August, the heat hotly pursues. Humidity sticks close and lingers, stuck in a clingy phase. Grey-haired and blue-eyed, Markle appears at ease, wearing a light grey v-neck t-shirt and pants of a darker earth tone. He cuts a cool, slim and handsome figure.

Recently, NSCAD administration, under president David Smith, entrusted Markle with the vision to expand fashion design education. They hired him as an assistant professor (he was a sessional instructor) on an initial three-year term.

NSCAD's previous and expansionary president, Paul Greenhalgh, had mandated the school to grow its academic programs in various areas, including film and fashion design. Classes in fashion design began seven years ago, during Greenhalgh's tenure. The original courses were the introductory and intermediate FFF (fibre, fabric, fashion) classes. Then came pattern drafting, construction and developmental drawing to advanced fashion studies and a fashion workshop, which, Markle explains, focuses on a specific topic, such as tailoring.

Though a minor right now, with courses housed in NSCAD's textile program, the long-term goal is to grant a major degree in fashion design. NSCAD already offers students 30 of the 42 studio credits needed for a major. Markle hopes to add more new courses next year.

But these things happen slowly. Post-secondary institutions must have prospective courses and programs evaluated and approved by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission. Markle is well-versed in that process.

"Fashion's always been a bit of a bastard child in the art world," he says. But he sees a connection to other visual arts. "It's performative, three-dimensional---fashion ties in to performance and sculpture."And, he adds, outsider status has an upside: "Fashion doesn't ever really settle or become stagnant."

Fashion practitioners naturally experiment and innovate. Not surprisingly then, Markle has started to combine ecologically sustainable principles with the other major tenets (a strong conceptual basis, sound technical skills and a solid business sense) of an education in fashion design at NSCAD.

Green is a basic, a colour for every season, every concept. And you can do it subtly, without sacrificing the conceptual design, says Markle. "We can conceptually fold in the idea of sustainability."

For example, Markle asks, "What are we going to do with the waste?" That question becomes an assignment for students, Markle says. "Here's two metres of fabric, now use every bit of it, and it has to be an evening dress."

Markle confronts these questions with several colleagues, including Ann Pickard, an artist, curator, instructor and designer (including costume design for film), who works as the studio technician. Frances Dorsey, a textile artist and printmaker, has long taught in NSCAD's textile program. She's already been working with non-toxic inks and methods, Markle says.

Another question the fashion design staff have pondered and will put to students: "What would happen if you couldn't import fibre?" Markle wants his students to imagine if fibres could only be found locally.

Down the line (he often talks in years, even decades), Markle plans to experiment with growing fibres locally for fabric made in Halifax. He's started researching how to grow and harvest stinging nettles; some varieties have a suitably long staple, he explains. Of course, wool is already produced in the region. Much of his inspiration comes from the slow and local food movements and from reading books such as Eco Chic: The Fashion Paradox. Written by Sandy Black, the 2008 book examines local growing practices.

"There are most likely many ancient yet discovered fibers that will (re)surface," Black emails.

For now, cotton is still king of fibres used in clothing fabric. Knowing that, Markle and his co-workers quickly decided a departmental policy. "The single most beneficial thing we can do right away is to just quit, say no to cheap, factory cotton, at least in the department," he says.

Needing a trustworthy partner to get sustainable material, the staff enlisted Halifax-based fashion designer and "fabric distributor" Laura Chenoweth. "Cotton is an agricultural crop similar to food," she says. "It needs to be grown and picked."

During growing, pesticides may not be used and an organic label applied to a product. But, Chenoweth warns, that claim doesn't cover the latter steps of clothing production, particularly finishing and dyeing.

"Clothing is so much more complicated than food," she says. Planting, growing, picking, shipping (as bales), spinning, colouring and cutting: it's a long process.

Even bamboo, recently celebrated as fibre of the future, is problematic. While easy to grow, the material requires chemical intervention to finish into fabric. "We should stick with a fibre we've known for centuries," says Chenoweth.

She supplies certified organic cotton (an emphasis both she and Markle are careful to make) for her own clothing line, for other fashion clients, such as Mahone Bay-based designer Anna Gilkerson and her deux fm label, and for use by NSCAD's fashion design students.

Certified organic cotton means "no chemical is involved" anywhere in its transformation into clothing fabric, be it corduroy, denim or muslin. Chenoweth recently walked down a 50-metre supply of muslin, with the aid of an intern, to NSCAD's Granville campus. She imports cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard, from India. She's been visiting the country since 1995.

Chenoweth works with a main contact, a fourth-generation block-printer whom she first met in 1998.With his help, she gets her GOTS-certified cotton. Through him, she's also been able to meet the people who work at the various stages of the production process and to verify that environmental and labour standards are being met.

Chenoweth believes the use of sustainable materials will resonate with aspiring designers at NSCAD. "For the students involved, conscious consumption choices are appropriate," she says.

Gary Markle describes fashion design students as an open-minded group. He's seeing evidence of this mindset, which would not only accept but expect sustainable practices to be part of the program, in their designs and in the fashion world.

"I'm seeing much more individuality, much more courage," he says. "We're seeing that happening, with boutique sort of designers---people who design in small collectives. They embrace the craft aspect of making."

This fall's new fashion design students will be another generation of adaptable animals, Markle says. "They move quickly and carry a light load."

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