It takes a certain type of person to see beauty in things that are broken. Most of us have been indoctrinated with the notion that damaged goods are somehow inferior, substandard or unworthy of our attention. By discouraging active human intervention when things stop working, we take away the impetus for us to pursue a more sustainable route. Fixing stuff instead of replacing it should be at the top of everyone’s agenda, but even in 2021, it’s still viewed as a slightly eccentric preference.
TOAST have always taken a different stance by encouraging restorative practice through workshops with customers, as well as their ever-popular repair service. This ongoing ethos is at the root of a brand-new exhibition scheduled to take place in September at their Shoreditch shop, which takes the idea of ‘mending’ to an entirely new level. Textile artist, long-time collaborator and friend of the brand, Tom Van Deijnen has totally transformed items of TOAST clothing that were deemed unsellable. They’d all been relegated to the deadstock box due to barely noticeable stains, or flaws in the fabric. With immense skill and boundless flair, Tom’s artisanal touch has elevated these garments to a place they could never have existed before. They haven’t been repaired; they’ve been reborn.
I travelled to Brighton on a sunny Saturday morning to meet Tom and take a look at the work in progress. He welcomed me into his workspace, and we sat with the French doors flung wide open, iced soft drinks and a coastal chorus of seagulls squawking overhead. Together, we carefully unpackaged the exhibits, laying them out flat so that I could examine (and marvel) at his craftsmanship. Bold coloured stitches embraced the collars of some, and patches of soft striped poplins had been magically incorporated into others. Attached to each shirt was a paper tag, looped with string. On each was a handwritten serial number that correlated to the one sewn into the garment, and beneath that, bullet points describing the whereabouts and severity of the original fault and a summary of how each one had been customised.
What is immediately obvious is how definite his intervention had been. When asked about his approach, he explained, “In Western tradition, mending is supposed to be invisible. But when the idea came about for me to do this exhibition, we agreed that it would be far more interesting if things were a little more exuberant. I didn’t see the point of trying to hide a teeny stain with a few embroidery stitches because to me, that wouldn’t have looked finished – it would have appeared unbalanced. By making more deliberate, definite marks, it brings the human element into sharp focus. It stops being a repair and becomes an embellishment. My input takes away the stain, the hole, or whatever made it ‘broken’ and brings an exhilarating feeling that makes it a one-off, something totally unique.”
A network of golden silk thread sits proudly across the chest of one cotton shirt like a sunrise. The deftness of every glowing line is breathtaking when you look at it close up. Each stitch is approximately the same length, the accurate repetition of parallel sweeping lines make it feel like it wouldn’t be out of place in an haute couture atelier. Tom shrugs off my comparisons modestly and reminds me that, “We live in a world where so many of the things we buy are manufactured in an industrial setting, but people forget that even mass-produced clothes are not made by robots – there are human hands feeding those seams through a sewing machine.”
There are buttonholes with stitchwork so tiny I strain to see them clearly – a lot of love has gone into the creation of each and every one of these microscopic masterpieces. He spent a day with a military finisher at one of Savile Row’s most prestigious tailors, watching as she finished bespoke items by hand. They’ve kept in touch. Tom laughed and said, “After our meeting, I started posting my buttonholes on Instagram. She followed my account and kept encouraging me to keep honing my technique. A year later I saw that she’d finally commented on one of the pictures and said, ‘Oh yes. Now they look good enough!’.”
The knowledge that each item will be categorised and exhibited as an artwork before being sold altered the mending strategy dramatically. Instead of taking the subtle route to repair, Tom decided to amplify things. Gesturing towards one shirt with a contrast fabric of polka dots hugging the hem, he said, “Everything here had the smallest imperfection or irregularity, something that didn’t look quite right. By pushing this further, with say, the repetition of mark-making or stitches, we can notice the beauty because every line suggests a movement, an energy. There’s an emotional connection when you can quickly see that these are different from the factory stitches. The true value of it comes to light when you realise the garment will live longer and will keep on going. I didn’t want to just fix the parts that were seen as ‘broken’. I wanted to think about the aesthetic of the garment as a whole and make memorable things. Sure, I could have covered that biro stain with one little flower, but far better to scatter flowers all over it, than have one determined, single intervention. One little flower would have been a lot quicker, but sometimes, to get perspective, you have to zoom out. Just like in life – it’s always better to look at the bigger picture.”
For our Autumn Winter 2021 collection, Tom has reimagined a series of deadstock TOAST shirts, breathing new life into each with intricate embroidery. View the Tom of Holland Embroidered Cotton Shirt.
A selection of these will be exhibited in our shop for Shoreditch Design Triangle, a cultural event that celebrates creativity in east London. Visit our Shoreditch shop to see Tom's installation, until 26 September.
Interview by Leanne Cloudsdale.
Photographs by Liz Seabrook.