Nicole Mackinlay Hahn Reaps and Sews


Nicole Mackinlay Hahn knows there’s an artistry and ethic behind how your clothes, shelter and food get to you, and she wants to show you.

While base operations are at her site Reap What You Sew, her recent video book at the Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World’s exhibit titled “Fashion Footprints: Sustainable Approaches,” is one of many collaborations she’s been active in when it comes to African artisans.

Her Mirror/Africa launch in Barney’s New York in 2008, as an interactive public art installation (see the Mirror/Africa video below), is an exhibit she hopes to grow in order to educate the public about African communities who are banding together to put products on many store shelves.

She’s also had high profile clients like sustainable label Edun, Clif Bar and several other organizations, including Product (RED), Earth Pledge, The Breast Cancer Fund and the ONE Campaign – through which she’s been able to channel her creative juices when it comes to inspiration, ethics and respect – not just for products, but for the people and the innate integrity imbued in everything we consume.

I finally caught up with Nicole and got her to answer some questions for EcoSalon.

She rocks as well as reaps and sews and is about to embark on another top secret project in Ghana. Stay tuned…

-Filmmaker Nicole Mackinlay Hahn

How much time do you spend in the country you’re filming putting together a project like Mirror/Africa? I imagine it takes quite a bit of time to do the interviews and get just the right footage?

Mirror/Africa is the first project I’ve created that needs a lot of time and travel. I’ve been to nine countries in Africa for the project, and three more for other client work, totaling 12. I’ve spent most of the time in Madagascar and Lesotho. My process is slow, and I follow my Reap What You Sew® Manifesto, which honors the ethics of documentary film making. I try not to travel with a crew and hire locals to help with logistics, translation, and teach some film making on the fly. One needs to have a lot of patience to do this work, and that has always been my strength. I know when there is trust between me and the subjects. Sometimes filming one person/location takes a whole day and three meals, and other times it takes a week and doing chores around their house. If I don’t get to connect with my subjects, I get super grumpy. Each location can take from two days to three weeks, or even more. I spent a whole month in Madagascar for very little footage, but it was the right footage. This process applies to my own projects. Client work doesn’t usually allow for so much time, and is more of a traveling circus. I bring a lot of Clif Bars on those trips.

How do you make “lyrical and poetic” the journey of how clothing gets to us?

Reap What You Sew is the poetry behind the purchase. In the Mirror/Africa project summary, “lyrical and poetic” means the video reflections are emotional, celebratory, ambiguous, rhythmic. They are not data driven. I like to call the videos “anecdotes” because they are all under one minute in length and there are about 200 videos in the piece. They are meant to build upon each other. If a consumer scans the same merchandise more than once, a different video appears each time, and these multiple anecdotes build verses. For example, if a silk hat is scanned, the video could be a Malagasy man teasing his friend with a silk worm on a stick, or one may see a woman climbing through her window to lock the front door after a long day of weaving. One video may feel abstract. When more than one item is scanned, a poem is starting to build.

What designers have you collaborated with for this project. Are the designers from Africa or a stateside designer?

I have not collaborated with any designers for Mirror/Africa yet. The Barneys New York staff and buyers were very helpful in researching the merchandise for spring 2008. We had very little time and found 18 items linked to the African supply chain, and I’m sure there were more. I had a head start with brands like Edun and I was happy they had merchandise in Barneys. Retailers are seasonal, so the merchandise sold in the spring will not be there in the fall. For this project, I’m not focused on where the designers/brands are from, it’s more important that the brand is sourcing from Africa. I had already filmed most of the footage before I decided to launch a public exhibit in Barneys, the next step was to curate the video anecdotes with the merchandise selected. So for the brand Lemlem, most of the videos are focused on African children reciting Earth Day poems, making art, riding bikes, and schoolwork. Most of the brands used in the exhibit probably don’t even know they were a part of Mirror/Africa. The piece is more a collaboration between the Africans and the consumers and their interactions. And documenting that is a key element to the project.

Were the RFID tags in the Barney’s exhibit in the clothing or on reels that one could put in front of the installation to see?

The RFID tags were meant to be on the merchandise. At the eleventh hour, we decided it was not a good idea for so many people to be handling expensive items, and we fabricated the bamboo tokens to scan. This was a self-funded art project, so I did not have the support to insure so much merchandise.There was a token to represent each item. Those tokens had the RFID tags embedded. RFID can be applied to or incorporated into a product, animal, or person for the purpose of identification and tracking using radio waves. There is also a log entering how many times the merchandise is scanned and exactly when, but this is not visible. So we know what item is scanned the most and when. In London, I tagged hangers, and the next site will have all merchandise and people tagged. I look forward to tapping into the social media network more, it was not as evolved when I launched, and I want to design a Reap What You Sew APP!

With the interactive exhibit at Barney’s, did you feel like their customers had a better understanding or new appreciation for the connection between themselves and their clothing?

Yes, I observed a lot of consumer participation. It’s artwork and it’s subjective, so everyone brings a mood and attention span to the piece. I got the sense that people really related to the everyday things in the video footage, because we have so many similarities. I have video documentation of one woman saying she didn’t know horses were in Africa! And another woman stating, “We could really learn a lot from them, you know with everything we’re going through.” Some got emotional, and others are simply enamored with the optics and sculptural component. It’s an ethical bubble, and one can see their reflection in the mirror. It’s important to see ourselves in the piece, because we have to love and care ourselves before we can really care about others. And if we truly want to be environmental, restorative, sustainable, we need to have a lot more tolerance and care for other cultures.

Why take this kind of project on? Do you think people want to know more and is video an effective medium for them to digest it all better?

I’ve been working with video since the first Pixelvision camera was on the market. It was a big deal to move up to VHS! Video is very effective and affordable. I think all the elements of moving picture, sound, light, animation, are quite emotive. I felt the need to start the Mirror/Africa project because in 2005 the branding trend was to put the story on the tag. I wanted to do something that took the stories way beyond the tag. At the same time, I was in Africa seeing how many lives are affected by clothing manufacturing, and all the cultural capital there. I would return and share everything with my friends about the supply chain and I could not believe how little we all knew. It’s sad how hard it is to find out where things come from. So I started designing the interactive sculptures to seduce the consumer. Retailers have been using video and projection for years, but mostly as wallpaper and architecturally. I wanted to make something that actually engaged and documented the consumer. So the Mirror/Africa tripods are protagonists within a larger feature documentary film project in development. Mirror/Africa also has dance and music tokens where one can connect their style based on the music genre they choose. Hip Hop, Karaoke, Folk, Club, Rock, etc”¦at the next exhibit one can learn the dance.

Image: Barney’s Mirror Africa Exhibit

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.