To designer Teresa Mendler, expressing diversity through fashion isn't just a creative pursuit; it's who she is. She was born in São Paulo, raised in Germany, lived in London, and went to school in the Netherlands. "In traveling to foreign countries, my own cultural identity becomes a construction based on those experiences," Mendler says. For her graduate project from the Design Academy Eindhoven—garments that remix traditional textiles as a three-dimensional handwoven fabrics—Mendler sought to embody how identity is communicated through what we wear.
"Growing up in my time, free from any traditional rules, I feel part of a generation where culture is approached from a different angle," she says. "Fashion becomes a tool for self-expression, where new interpretations of traditional shapes and techniques are needed in order to form the heritage of tomorrow."
In 2014, Mendler became acquainted with Vlisco, a Dutch manufacturer of wax-print fabrics that are popular in West Africa, through a school project. She fell in love with the vibrant patterns and how many of them were named after traditional proverbs.
"The way color and shapes are used in traditional prints can tell something about the origin or use of a fabric," Mendler says. "In that way, every fabric can be decoded so that single aspects become more visible."
To lend a contemporary interpretation of those traditional fabrics, Mendler developed a process in which she created an entirely new textile based on the motifs from traditional prints. First she designed a weaving pattern using a 3D-modeling program, then she layered different textile patterns into the model to see how they might interweave. From that model, she printed a 2D rendering onto a swathe of fabric and cut it into "threads" that she then wove through a molded-silicone body. The abstract, geometric pattern bears little resemblance to the source material. It's about a layering effect that speaks to the blending and merging of cultures.
While the fabrics are beautiful, they also carry a political message.
"The wish to express individuality is extremely valuable and important for today’s society," Mendler says. "We are facing problems where individuals are categorized and being stigmatized."
To Mendler, technological innovations in the fashion industry (like the digital design tools she used) will give people more opportunities to express their identity, which she perceives as an agent against racism. Considering the rise of nationalistic thinking globally—Brexit, President-Elect Trump, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines—communicating the cultural diversity that defines many of us takes on a renewed immediacy.