Hadley Clark: Fashion Conscience

A Commitment to Community and Sustainability Drives Her Hadley Sewing School and Hand-Crafted Clothing from Salvaged Fabric

Hadley Clark wants you to think twice when you open your closet or dresser drawer in the morning.

“We all have a relationship with clothes,” she observes. “Every day we wake up and we make a choice.”

An artist, designer and teacher, Clark handcrafts clothing from salvaged fabric in her Beacon Hill studio. The space serves double duty as a classroom, where she guides small groups of students through the process of constructing garments. Hadley Sewing School classes instill practical skills — by the end of the Sewing Survey introductory course each novice sewer has made a shirt from scratch — but also raise awareness of mass-produced clothing’s journey from across the world to American wardrobes and, ultimately, into landfills.

“In this country the making of clothing is so separate from the wearing of clothing and the shopping of clothing,” Clark explains. “We are completely unempowered as consumers of what and how to buy. We just think because it’s there that it’s the best, that it’s what we want. Our clothing is so boring. It’s not actually interesting. It’s not well made. And people are abused to make it.”

By teaching her students to set a sleeve or sew a dart, Clark provides them with the choice to opt out of the fast fashion cycle, to make their own clothes or to alter the garments they purchase to better fit their own bodies.

This desire to empower through education extends to Clark’s practice as a visual artist and curator. Her fabric sculpture, “Medium” (2018), part of the exhibit “All Tomorrow’s Parties” at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina gallery last year, visually tells the story of its own making. For the fall 2018 exhibition, “HALVE: garments in their middle,” at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, Clark gathered the work of other hybrid artists/designers concerned with sustainability in the fashion world.

The Dark Side of Fashion

Clark’s introduction to hand-made clothing began early.

“When I was a kid it was cheaper for my mom to make my clothing,” she recalls.

As a teenager, Clark began experimenting with her mother’s sewing machine, altering clothing she sourced from secondhand stores. “I felt really in tune with the sewing machine. I wanted to change my clothes around because I didn’t like shopping at the Gap.”

Clark earned a painting degree from the University of Kansas, and in 2003, along with fellow artist and KU grad Cobi Newton, opened Spool, a boutique on 18th Street in the Crossroads Arts District. The shop specialized in T-shirts featuring designs by local artists, which Clark and Newton screen-printed in Clark’s basement.

Her first entrepreneurial experience led Clark to realize she wanted to study fashion design. She enrolled in Parsons Paris in 2007, graduating in 2010, and studied with professors who worked for brands such as Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen.

“That education was great because it was based on coming up with ideas and actually learning how to functionally problem-solve through fabric and then having a real result that would showcase on a runway,” Clark recalls.

Her training in Paris instilled her with an in-depth knowledge of fabric and advanced sewing skills. But it also exposed Clark to the dark side of fashion, an industry the artist says runs on free and underpaid labor and is led by decision makers with a willingness to forego environmentally sound practices in pursuit of higher profit margin. Clark learned that teams of unpaid interns fabricated clothing for the runway and that low-paid workers in Third World countries constructed clothes for Americans, often working in unsafe factory conditions.

“That industry is a failing industry,” Clark laments. “It’s got to change. And everybody knows it.”

Although she designs, sews and sells handmade garments under the label Hadley, Clark rejects the title of fashion designer, instead referring to herself as a maker. “I don’t really like to be termed a fashion designer because it’s not a belief system that’s real anymore,” she explains. “It’s an ugly industry, but full of beautiful people with interesting ideas. There’s always excitement, but as a whole, it’s not what it looks like in magazines.”

Hadley Sewing School

Clark returned to Kansas City in 2012 and opened a shop and studio in the space once occupied by Spool, selling garments made of yardage she constructed from swatches of discarded cotton, silk or denim. Maintaining financial solvency became challenging in early 2017 after Clark lost the full-time job that supported the retail space’s operation. Busy searching for new forms of income suited to her unique skill set, Clark paused when a customer suggested she teach sewing lessons. Clark floated the idea on social media and was met with a positive response, and Hadley Sewing School launched in April 2017.

Currently, the school offers four levels of group classes in addition to two-person and private lessons. Sewing Survey introduces entry-level garment construction skills, while the intermediate-level courses “Sewing Sophomore — Shirt” and “Sewing Sophomore — Skirt” build upon the introductory level survey to cover the construction of more complicated garments. In the advanced class, “Sewing Star — Pants,” students make a pair of cigarette pants, including front pockets and a zipper fly. Classes meet three hours a week for four weeks and are capped at four students, which allows Clark to pay individual attention to each participant. Clark offers a scholarship to one Sewing Survey student per session as a way to help promising sewers who are unable to register for the class due to financial hardship.

Before students even touch a sewing machine, Clark makes sure they have a thorough understanding of the qualities of different types of material.

“I want to empower people by teaching them about the anatomy of textiles, different kinds of weaves, and walking through patterns,” she explains. “Pattern language can feel so overwhelming and so intimidating, but we really break that down.”

Through her sewing school, Clark conducts community workshops, including one titled “The Future is Ours,” where students learn to piece woven swatches together to create a throw pillow cover. “This workshop is a way for me to share how I am working to make from what already exists and to prize older items in a newer way,” she explains. During her Open Sew sessions, Clark opens up her studio and equipment to people interested in sewing and mending and offers assistance in a casual setting.

The classes are open to people of all ages and skill levels, and students attend for a variety of reasons.

“A lot of people want to make their own clothes. It’s a lot about body,” Clark explains. “They don’t like how clothing fits. Clothing is mass-produced and made out of stretchy, bad material so they can make a small, a medium and a large. People want to have more control over how they look in their clothes.”

David Wayne Reed signed up for Sewing Survey in August 2018 to learn how to use the sewing machine he inherited from his grandmother.

“The class is small enough that it allows you one-on-one attention. Hadley is very patient and understanding — able to quickly assess where you are in the learning process and able to help, guide and direct you,” Reed remarks. “She’s very inspiring while also being transparent about her own process, which I think makes the class even more effective.”

In September 2017 Clark closed her retail space on 18th Street and moved to a newly renovated building at 2711 Troost Avenue at the invitation of her friend Laura Frank. Frank partnered with an outside investor to renovate the building as a home for Inner Space, her yoga studio.

Frank notices a crossover between Inner Space and Hadley Sewing School students. “Her patrons seem to be mindful, with an appreciation for the depth and meditation that the garments are created with. Hearing the podcasts and sewing machines whirring up in Hadley’s studio gives a special kind of energy to the space.”

Frank’s building attracted other like-minded entrepreneurs. Businesses include Blue Dragon Zen Academy, Harmony Chiropractic, costumer and fashion designer Shabaka King, Peaches Vintage, aesthetician Sarah Airedale, We Are Sincerely Yours and Lumine KC Gyrotonic.

Before moving into the renovated building, Frank walked around the neighborhood, introducing herself to nearby residents and business owners. She expresses concern about the ways in which the neighborhood is beginning to change. “We have been welcomed very warmly by our surrounding neighbors and are always seeking more ways to be an asset here in the community, especially in this time when suddenly development is fast and contentious on Troost.”

Showing and Selling

Clark sells ready-to-wear garments through her website, hadleyclark.com, and from the racks in her studio. Last year, Kansas Citians had the opportunity to see her sculptural work in the Epsten Gallery’s “HALVE: garments in their middle,” co-organized by Clark and curator Heather Lustfeldt. In addition to exhibiting her own work, Clark selected four artists whose practices also straddle the art and fashion worlds: FEMAIL, Alexa Stark, Lilah Horwitz and Susan Cianciolo.

“I titled the show ‘Halve’ firstly because it means to cut in two,” Clark explains. “The process I have developed in my clothing construction the last three years has been about taking existing garments/textiles and dividing them up into smaller portions and creating new garments from these deconstructed pieces.”

Clark’s interest in sustainability led Jonah Criswell and Kelly Clark (her husband) to choose her work for “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” at La Esquina. “Medium (2018),” a muslin motorcycle-style jacket, culminates in a long train, pierced through with irregular shapes. Clark cut each of the pieces of fabric used for the jacket’s construction from the train, which lies flat on the floor.

Criswell observes that Clark’s fashion education prepared her to always seek out the next big thing. “One of the largest looming ‘next things’ she is concerned with is global climate change, a major contributor to which is the fashion industry. Her work, then, is an object lesson in the aesthetic and environmental validity of reusing old materials in the face of a very messy future.”

Clark will continue piecing together brand-new clothing from cast-offs as long as unwanted garments are discarded. She’s working on a new line of dresses for Do Good Co. constructed from unsold merchandise; she began the most recent Open Sew sessions in February and is preparing to offer the next The Future is Ours workshop in June. Clark works diligently to spread the message of sustainable fashion, doing her part to ensure that the future is indeed ours.

About The Author: Theresa Bembnister

Theresa Bembnister

Formerly based in Kansas City, where she contributed art reviews and articles to “The Kansas City Star,” “The Pitch” and other publications, Theresa Bembnister is associate curator at the Akron Art Museum. Her current projects include the exhibition “Open World: Video Games & Contemporary Art,” which debuts in Akron this October.

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