Exclusive Interview: Artist MI Leggett on their Gender Free fashion label Official Rebrand (OR?!)

Non-binary artist MI Leggett’s Official Rebrand (OR?!) launched in 2017 setting out to “revive discarded clothing” and “breathe new life into what was once considered waste.” Leggett “rebrands” garments with alterations such as painting and drawing on them, while creating a sustainable alternative to the competitive consumption encouraged by social and industrial norms. OR?!’s transformative process also celebrates the fluidity of identity, dissociating garments from gendered categories and reintroducing them without arbitrary social constraints.

Official Rebrand has just shown at New York Fashion Week: Men’s and a certain style icon, Billy Porter, wore one of MI Leggett’s creations to Thursday’s ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood luncheon in Los Angeles.

On Saturday February 8th at New York’s Leslie Lohman Project Space (127-B Prince Street, New York, NY 10012 at the Corner of Wooster and Prince Streets) as part of a Gender Free Fashion Pop-UP Studio, MI Leggett will be doing custom paintings and drawings on garments from 12pm – 6pm.

Ahead of the event, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann caught up with MI Leggett in New York.

MI Leggett. Photo credit: Ellie Kitman

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: When did you first start designing clothes?

MI Leggett: “I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. When I was a really young child I would make dresses out of curtains and newspaper and stuff like that. Then later I started really doing it in Berlin. I was working with a designer there, Fábio M Silva, and they had me producing some of their works. Then I started to do it myself, because I had never really found clothes that I truly felt like myself in. Once I started to paint on my own clothes it felt really empowering. And then I felt like, finally there were clothes that I really wanted to wear and so I kept doing it and people would hit me up on Instagram and I realised that other people wanted it too, so I could actually turn it into a brand as oppose to just a personal hobby.”

Did you train formally as a designer or did you train more generally at art school?

“I went to a liberal arts school, but I was a studio arts major and so I ended up doing mostly fashion right at the end for my last year. I was also making visual art about fashion at the same time, so they were sort of in dialogue.”

You mentioned when you were a kid you started using curtains and newspaper to make clothing out of, and that spirit of repurposing is something that you continue to bring to your work today isn’t it?

“Yeah, recycling things has always been something that I’ve had a natural affinity towards. I don’t know why, but it’s always been a natural drive for me since childhood.”

MI Leggett. Photo credit: Jasper Soloff

How does that drive manifest itself now in your work?

“In high school I was really into farming and I worked in agriculture and so I was composting food all the time and turning that into fertile ground to make new food. So that also continued this interest in recycling and sustainability, I always have cared a lot about the environment. But for me, I started doing it because I had clothes that I didn’t really like and so I wanted to turn them into something I did like, so it’s a sort of natural progression and then the more I learned about the waste in the fashion industry the more I realised there were really important political and social and environmental reasons to keep doing what I’m doing and to actually expand upon what I’m doing.”

And you describe your clothes as gender free rather than gender neutral don’t you?

“Yes, I would describe them as gender free. I started using that word because I thought it was kind of fun and I thought a lot of my original work was just kind of poking fun at the industry a little bit and the consumer habits of making something ‘gluten free’ or ‘calorie free’, anything like that, so I thought why not ‘gender free’. You know, if you can’t tolerate gluten and I can’t tolerate gender, why not have it be gender free? Also, because I thought ‘free’ implied sort of a buoyancy and sort of pleasure as oppose to ‘neutral’, it doesn’t feel quite as fun to me! It’s not about being completely genderless necessarily, it was about expressing your gender in whatever way you want.”

Photo credit: Leila Jacue

What are some of the things that make your collections gender free? I imagine shape is one aspect?

“Yes, that is one thing that I look for when I’m picking pieces to work with, like silhouettes that are little bit more open. It really depends, because I think there’s a tendency with gender free clothing to make it really big and boxy, and that can be really great for some people, but it can also be really affirmative to show off your figure a little bit more. So I like to use styling as a way to create those shapes and have clothes that can be worn in very different ways so that the person who’s wearing them is exercising their own creativity a little bit more too, that’s definitely part of my goal. With a big piece sometimes I might have straps on it so you can make it a little bit smaller, or something you can wear a belt with or layer.”

And at Leslie Lohman Project Space in New York on Saturday February 8th people will be able to bring along their own garments for you to “rebrand” won’t they?

“Yeah, one of my favourite things to do is to take clothing that people love or don’t love so much anymore and give it a fresh lease on life. So they can pick a different image from my portfolio and I’ll paint it or draw it on to the garment that they bring in. That’s a really fun way to do it because we all have clothes that we love or are attached to for some reason and don’t what to get rid of, and so by sort of “rebranding” it, “upcycling” it, you can extend that life of the garment.”

A certain style icon, Mr Billy Porter wore one of your outfits on Thursday at the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood lunch. What did that mean to you? He’s really been shaking things up very visibly on red carpets and at events for a few years now hasn’t he?

“Yeah, he’s killing it right now! I started watching Pose when it first came out and I was really moved by the show, I really enjoyed it a lot. So it’s kind of a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to have people from that show wear my stuff and Billy Porter is just tearing it up as a style icon and it’s been crazy to see even the comments on some pictures of him. People are saying like ‘how can you be a man and wear a skirt? That’s a horrible thing.’ And being in my queer echo chamber that seems ridiculous and of course we have the freedom to express ourselves and then you go into that larger Instagram universe and you realise that actually not everyone is on the same bandwagon as you and realising that we can wear whatever we want. There’s still a lot of work to do to get everyone to be down with that.”

Billy Porter is helping with opening people’s minds though isn’t he, by putting some really positive images into very mainstream media throughout the world which is pretty exciting.

“Yeah, it’s super exciting, and I feel like if you are at that level as a queer person it’s really awesome to be using your power and your platform to be opening people’s eyes to new possibilities. I think it’s really important and helpful because for me as a younger kid if I could have seen that kind of thing, I mean wow, if I had known that you didn’t need to conform, that you could wear something of the opposite gender and that was even possible that would have blown my mind. I spent so long not realising that.”

When it comes to fashion weeks is it still pretty segregated in terms of this is the men’s collection, this is the women’s collection, and how does your work fit within that structure?

“It’s definitely very funny to be put the menswear category, New York Fashion Week: Men’s. It was fun to be put in there though because the people who are coming there are probably a little bit less used to seeing everything. Though of course there are a lot of femme models in the shows at other brands, but they are still more in the menswear department. So it’s really fun to go and just completely shake that up and have mostly gender nonconforming models and expand the idea of what menswear can be. I think that there’s so much work to do in the world of menswear and so that’s why I’m really happy to be showing in that category. There are so many boundaries that haven’t been crossed yet, whereas with womenswear you could say that everything’s happened already. I think that the real frontier is just gender free fashion in general, but I think that men get criticised a lot more for wearing things that are more femme, whereas people have got a lot more used to women dressing in masculine ways for a long time. That doesn’t mean that they won’t necessarily face harassment, and of course it’s very important to consider your safety at all times, but I think that stars like Billy Porter really stepping up and stepping out hopefully will have a top down reverberation.”

To find out more about MI Leggett’s Official Rebrand and to shop head to the website and follow @Official_Rebrand on Instagram. On Saturday February 8th at New York’s Leslie Lohman Project Space (127-B Prince Street, New York, NY 10012 at the Corner of Wooster and Prince Streets) as part of a Gender FRee Fashion Pop-UP Studio, MI Leggett will be doing custom paintings and drawings on garments from 12pm – 6pm.

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