Abbir Malik: 40-120
THE MOJAVE DESERT, IT'S LITTLE KNOWN SECRETS, AND GARMENTS
TO SURVIVE IN DESERT ENVIRONMENTS.
editor: Terrence Zhou
date: Jun 25, 2019
JULY FEATURED INTERVIEW SERIES
Abbir Malik is an American fashion designer and recent Parsons graduate in Fashion BFA program. Born in Southern California, Abbir moved to New York in 2016. Her thesis collection “40-120” is a love letter to her native landscape, the desert. The collection is an innovative take on surviving in desert environments, and addresses the little known issues with the Mojave desert being used as an experimenting ground for the Department of Energy, resulting in nuclear waste and natives being affected by cancer and radioactivity.
model: @musaseviin, @codybaeby, @jallalvii
Can you tell us about your background?
My parents came to America in the late 80s. They came here as immigrants so I’m second generation. I was raised mostly with Mexican and Chinese people in southern California. That gave me a good understanding and confidence in interacting with different people, and in immersing myself into the melting pot that America is. Growing up I had a mostly positive experience, so I love where I come from. I always say “one day I’m gonna go back”.
How does your upbringing relate to your thesis?
In relation to my thesis, I chose California because it’s home to me, and I chose the desert of California specifically, because I grew up in a very arid environment. I grew up around my father, who is a construction inspector and has worked on a lot of desert projects. My father didn’t live with us, so we would have to go out into the desert to visit him. Basically he does surveys to make sure the building was built correctly. So it’s a very respectable job that he has. Everyday I’m in awe of how much science and math he uses all the time in his job. He always went through these huge architecture plans and when I was younger, I was frustrated with him doing that, because I was like “you don’t spend time with us,” but now I feel like it’s so cool seeing these projects and buildings being built.
So when it comes to creating things, I tend to look at it through the lens of building things, as my dad does.
THE TRIPS YOU TAKE FROM CALIFORNIA TO LAS VEGAS WITH THE NEVER-ENDING LANDSCAPE IS WHAT I CAN CONNECT WITH THE IDEA OF HOME.
The landscape of California has always been interesting to me. I was raised in the environment, I remember the heat and how vast the desert is. The trips you take from California to Las Vegas with the never-ending landscape is what I can connect with the idea of home. And when I moved to New York, I realized it was so good back there: you have the beach, the desert, and a chance to escape. But a lot of times, you live in an environment without realizing what is going on. I’m so happy that I was able to choose the Mojave desert as the topic. For me it’s a fun place to be: you feel the spirit of freedom there. And I have learnt so much about the history that we were never taught at school as Americans, and all the messed up stuff that’s happening over there that I would have never known about.
I have done a lot of research and worked with Sara Idacavage, a fashion historian and archivist who served as a Fashion Specialist at the New School. She helped me conduct my research on the Mojave desert. Through that, I found out about the native Americans who have once owned that land and how they were pushed off that land. There are so many nuclear testings that are still happening today. There are so many nuclear active remains and the native Americans still live in those areas and are so affected by it. A lot of them are sick, a lot of them have cancer, and a lot of them can’t even leave because that is their native land. The Department of Energy has built nuclear testing sites on their holy lands which are sacred to them. I got into that and I just wanted make it clear as part of my thesis that this is happening out there. There are a lot of people like me don’t know about it, and I’m from there! My parents weren’t aware of what has been going on, especially my father who had worked out there. I didn’t even know that in the1980s all the native Americans had to protest to stop one of the nuclear developments because it would have contaminated our LA water. As a designer, even until now, I’m still struggling to figure out a way to incorporate that into my thesis. Now you have that knowledge and you have that information. I always wonder, what can I do and how can I do it properly?
What are some main aspects from the history of the Mojave desert that you included?
I started off the research going out into the desert and photographing what I saw. Then I focused on the waste in the desert. There’s lots of metal waste which I find to be fairly interesting. I remember standing on one of the abandoned storage containers in the desert, realizing that’s actually a nuclear storage container in one of the books I read. I found that there are artists still addressing the issue about nuclear testing in southwestern desert and people who are seriously affected by it. Places like New Mexico are extremely affected by it. After knowing so much about the damage and trying to do the whole fashion thing, I ended up crying one night, and I asked myself what do I do with all this information? I just feel bad as a person knowing everything without doing anything about it. So designing a collection to make a statement about the issue is the least I could do as a fashion designer.
What was your next step after the researching phrase?
I made a lot of drawings. It was a reaction to everything I learned. I want to build a world where I can visualize. The first half is a lot of archive and first hand research. The second half went into a lot of material development research, where I started using plastics. There are a lot of plastics out in the desert too, and I took the idea of heat and melting. So I melted different processes together to create fabrics, which informed the silhouettes I ended up creating. Looking at the things that are out in the desert and what you would need in the desert. From there I started to build what I can see.
...AT THE END OF THE DAY I IDENTIFY MYSELF AS AN AMERICAN DESIGNER, REGARDLESS OF MY COLOR.
Can you elaborate on the silhouette?
I read this book called Physiology of Man in the Desert. It talks about clothing that people should wear in the desert. It is essential to wear larger silhouettes to protect themselves from the heat. Their skin needs to be fully covered. The clothes they wear need to be made out of synthetic materials not necessarily cotton because cotton would make the water in your body evaporate from your skin so you need synthetic materials instead, to keep the water inside, even If you are sweating. The sweat has to be kept inside and come back to you like a cloud cycle. Large silhouettes would help people breathe better and stay hydrated. A common myth for the desert is that it’s always hot, but in fact it’s not. It gets really cold at night. There’s high desert and low desert, which can change so quickly throughout the day. So larger and looser clothes that can be layered underneath to change easily. I’ve included in my research a lot about the fires in the desert so I incorporated the aspects of firemen uniform into my design, looking for larger protection for the body. I mostly did jackets, pants and jumpsuits. I created the materials for everything. The first jacket, for example, is half melted half sewn, and the other one is fully melted. I was looking for things that are easy to use. I was testing with random things and then, my friend, Hue, suggested to melt them. I also used tablecloths, which are also plastic, so I melted them and overlocked the edge to give it a clean finish.
When I designed these pieces, I intended to make them to be worn not only in the desert but also out of the context of desert. I envisioned them to be worn in a metropolitan city and people are able to thrive in it as well.
Why did you choose the title, "40 to 120"?
Because I was reading the Physiology of Man in the Desert, and it literally says the desert can go from 40 degrees at night to 120 degrees during the day and back at 40 degrees at night again.
How was your experience as a designer of color? can you talk about how you felt growing up with mostly people from other races?
I feel that a lot of identity issues had happened after I moved to New York. Growing up back home, I was super comfortable with who I was as a person and growing up in a multicultural environment. I didn't see a lot of fucked up things happening. When I came here to NYC, I started to realize that there are different tags for who people are based on race. For example, here, Chinese designers are viewed in a certain way, and black designers are viewed another way. Some professors even constantly reminded me of my identity as a brown muslim designer. For some reason, I had a disconnect with that. I didn’t really get it because at the end of the day I identify myself as an American designer, regardless of my color. But moving to New York, I started to realize that it’s actually an identifying factor. I feel like in New York, there is such a need to identify who you are. Maybe in the past, the way that people are raised and the way that they worked in the industry made it evident for them to see skin color as an identifying factor. But nowadays, we really should take the designer for who they are, even if they want to talk about cultures, backgrounds and identities. Take them for what they design, not about if they are Chinese designers or Turkish designers. There’s a lot of predisposition in the fashion schools and in the fashion industry.
NOT EVERYONE CAN MAKE THE AMERICAN DREAM COME TRUE, AND IT'S OKAY IF YOU CAN'T.
What are some moments you feel most American?
I feel it sometimes when I’m with groups of people who have different cultural background from me, like with my Chinese friends, or people who come from the countries where my parents are from. I’m like oh shit, I’m so American. I feel most American when I am abroad too, like when I lived in London. But it’s cool, I’m happy to be and American.
What does the American dream mean to you?
I hate the idea of American dream. I hate it so much, and I resent it because the idea of American dream puts people in a mindset where they don’t need to be. Not everyone can make the American dream come true, and it’s okay if you can’t. I had to grow up to realize that. You can live a life without it. ‘American dream’ itself is not a linear concept. Shit happens sometimes: you get sick, get divorced or lose your job. It’s not something that everyone can go up and get it. Unfortunately people don’t talk about that and the American dream is idealized. A lot of Americans don’t live the American dream. One thing that I would like to point out is that as a child of recession in 2007, a lot of kids were affected including me. We were fine and on our way to the American dream, but when the recession happened, everything fell apart in my family. I constantly worried because of what had happened, but I have such a different mindset now. Inequality, my identity and, all that stuff goes hand in hand when it comes to achieving the American dream. It has made achieving the American dream 10 times more confusing. That’s why in my head, I was like, there is no American dream. If I live my life trying to get this American dream, it would be a little crazy.