An Interview with Textile Collector Andrea Aranow

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written by Shirley Hancock


There is a scene in The Devil Wears Prada where a hapless fashion editor’s assistant is scolded for being “blithely unaware” that clothes have histories and are not “just stuff”.

Those histories are the passion of textile collector and designer, Andrea Aranow, who has traveled the globe amassing more than 40,000 textiles. Her collections have shown in the British Museum, and inspired top fashion houses— Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren, among many. Even Jimi Hendrix rocked a snakeskin suit, custom made by Aranow herself.

Quietly housed in Portland, the Andrea Aranow Textile Design Collection just went digital, the result of a mother-son collaboration, called Textile Hive (textilehive.com).

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In 1968, you were creating leather and snakeskin designs out of your East Village shop, Dakota Transit Store. One day a limousine pulls up and in walks Jimi Hendrix. What was that like?

My shop was a little busy at the time. It was just a few blocks from the Fillmore East (a famous rock venue). But I was very much into making the clothes—leather with snakeskin appliqué— and was not so much a music groupie. Of course I knew who he was. He was very shy. He didn’t even talk to me directly. He talked to his girls, who then talked to me. He wanted an entire suit of snakeskin. Never one to turn away a challenge, I got right on it.

 

How did your self-described addiction to studying cultures and people through their textiles start?

I always liked fashion and textiles. Travel was my other passion, and collecting textiles all over the world allowed me to make a living, touch textiles and continue to travel. Beginning with a long residence in Peru, I spent fifteen years living abroad, collecting and analyzing the way textiles were made and used. I prepared collections and photo-documented these groups into collections for museums. At the final stop, when I was in Japan for three years, I sought out swatches of handmade kimono fabrics and the garments themselves. This material formed the basis for what grew into the collection, when I returned to America in 1987.

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What was your most astonishing find?

That’s like asking me, “Who is the cutest guy you’ve ever met?” My favorites are the ones I wear. Handling them and wrapping myself with the pieces affords a special intimacy.

 

People may be surprised that your collection is in Portland rather than the epicenters of high fashion in Paris or New York.

This seems right in step with the Oregon vibe of a culture open to singular visions. We outsiders [Aranow lives in New York City] look at Oregon, especially Portland, as a place where individuals and upstart ideas are nurtured. Caleb Sayan, my son, moved the archives from New York to Portland, where he lives. He developed this truly unique digital application, carefully photographing and identifying each piece, and creating a customized system for finding single items and creating groups of related pieces.

 

You wanted to digitize the physical collection to preserve the textiles, and open up new ways to inspire and educate. How so?

Commercial designers access all this variety and work to tailor new fabrics, but patterns can be accessed to create on demand walls or fabrics of self-expression, breathing new vitality into the mix. Clearly, digital access will permit many more people to work privately with the material—grouping, saving and perhaps eventually sharing their visions.

 

Caleb, this was an enormous project. What was the process?

Caleb: First, we digitized 44,000 textiles of varying sizes. We set up a methodical production process that allowed us to efficiently sort, prepare and capture each textile.

The second stage was more difficult. We first defined our terms and concepts, then created a hierarchical taxonomy with a flexible cataloging system, while trying to maintain as much consistency as possible. Our final taxonomy contains more than 2,300 terms. There are nineteen high classifications specifying either a visual characteristic such as pattern, style and layout, or an objective characteristic like technique, material, date and region of origin. This allows the user to be as broad or specific as she wants. An example: The user could search broadly for plaids from Japan or search for bandanas from the United States with paisley patterns.

The third phase involved building our own software to create a unique digital experience around the collection.

Who is using this digital platform?

Caleb: Our application was built for all types of users. The combination of our incredibly diverse collection, and extensive cataloging make it an ideal teaching tool for those studying textiles and textile design. For the past two years, I have been working with noted textile scholar and educator Annin Barrett who has helped us develop our taxonomy as well as using our application in her classes.

Offering visual entry points like color, map, and timeline explorations open the collection to use by many professional without deep textile knowledge. Finally, our existing base of fashion, home furnishing, and surface designers can be expanded as the collection can now be accessed from anywhere in the world by distributed teams.

The digital application is intended to augment and not replace physical interaction, so that when people visit our space often times they will start by searching the application and then examine the physical objects.

What in your educational and career background helped you with this project?

Caleb: My degree is in international and comparative politics, but I started working as graphic designer directly after I graduated from college. I had a few other design related jobs before joining my mother and helping to run the archive in New York City. I enjoyed building the business and expanding our clientele, but after several years and some financial success I felt a bit frustrated and inhibited by the work. When I started the project that became Textile Hive I was very motivated and excited by the intellectual challenges posed, as well as determined to find new audiences for the collection.

What was your childhood like?

Caleb: I was born in New York City and moved to Peru at 1, England at 3, China at 6, and Japan at 7. In addition to moving, we traveled a lot, and before settling back to the U.S. at age 10, I had probably been to about thirty countries. I got used to adapting to different cultures. I have an older brother, Shadrach Todd. It is pretty amazing that my mother traveled to all of these countries with two young boys.

Was there a time you thought, “Why in the world is my mom collecting all of these fabrics?”

Caleb: No, I think it was more like “why in the world are we going to all of these places?” We spent a year in China in the early 1980s, just after it had opened up to foreigners. The parts of China where we traveled were often so remote that they hadn’t seen foreigners and rarely had running water or western bathrooms. My mother wanted to visit regions of China that were strictly off limits and where there were ethnic minorities that still dressed traditionally, which of course was where we ended up.

Andrea, you seem to have a special place in your heart for Asia, notably, Japan.

Andrea: You know that expression, “something classic with a twist”? Well, the Japanese excel in that. They are constantly reworking, trying new processes, and playing with old stuff.

When there, I’m astonished at the textiles, and say, “Damn that’s good.” But I’m sure I wouldn’t put those colors together myself. The balance of their colors is very fresh and very appealing. That’s why I go back every year for a month, visit new areas and collect new stuff. Last trip was to the far north, not far from Fukushima. They do a lot of interesting work with indigo and straw. The snows are deep and long up there, and the householders used the winters indoor to make boots and raincoats with straw.

Back in New York, you’re busy revising some of your ethnography collections, the result of your immersion trips to other countries.

Andrea: While living abroad, I looked beyond the textile products themselves to consider the wider material culture: who made the pieces and how the change in designs or colors came to pass; the significance of motifs; and the economic changes.

I’m seeing the remaining material in a whole different light. For instance one collection is from Hainan Island in the South China Sea. I returned there five times because the quality of the weaving is very amazing. When I was visiting, there was no electricity by the afternoon. But from 1983 to now, it is unrecognizable. It was made into a special economic zone with five-star hotels. The collection of textiles now takes on a whole new significance.

 

You appreciate beauty and design; what is your New York City home like?

Andrea: Aha! Very textile as well. A loft I’ve had for twenty years, near the Empire State Building. Not an amazing house by any means, but one with very nice light. I seem to make friends with photographers, so I’m pretty blessed with nice photography. Furniture is secondary, I must say. At one point, my kids said, “OK, enough textiles, we need furniture.”

What’s the end goal with your collections?

Andrea: I’m now completing documentation on the ethnic collections and exemplary individual pieces hoping that they will show in public and be available to scholars in a manner parallel to what Caleb offers with Textile Hive. The ages of valuable pieces disappearing into a fancy tomb has passed. I want my treasures to emerge into the public light. Even though they’re all my babies, all mothers with babies want them to go out into the world.

 

How has your mother inspired you Caleb?

Caleb: My mother’s constant curiosity, energy and drive to learn has been an inspiration for me. Walking down any given street my mother is constantly noticing and staring wide eyed at various things that most people wouldn’t notice. She seeks stimulation and in turn is stimulated constantly by her surroundings. Now with my nearly four-year-old son, I recognize the same look in his eyes. It’s amazing that my mother has never lost her sense of curiosity and exploration.

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