Another Person’s Treasure
Photos By Hunter Francisco and Ícia Vazquez
MI Leggett is a pioneering designer in the worlds of waste-free and gender-free fashion. After launching their brand, Official Rebrand in 2017, they have become a critically acclaimed sensation of both the red carpet and the New York club scene. I took a tour of MI’s Ridgewood studio where we talked life, sustainability, art, and gender.
Stepping into MI Leggett’s studio feels like you are taking a leap into their subconscious. The walls are filled with their paintings, keepsakes, nostalgic notes, photos of loved ones, heirlooms, and naked portraits of them posing atop mountains of gummy candies. A collection of empty beer cans and tequila bottles rests neatly in their recycling area, whispering of last night’s party—as a work bench overflows with shipping orders, price tags, and labels, crying of the labor entailed in almost single-handedly running a successful small business.
We sat down in their sewing room—a peacefully chaotic creative respite, filled with racks of their finished stock, painting supplies, and projects poised to take form. They wore an oversized button down, splattered with paint, and their blond hair sexily jutted out in all directions like a rock star, mad scientist. They were in the middle of completing a collaboration with a major fashion brand that required rebranding 50 pieces in 8 days, and were never-the-less happy to add this interview onto their towering plate.
“How’d you first get into designing clothing,” I asked.
“I started designing clothing around 5-years-old. I would stay at my grandmother’s house in the summer, and she always had a bunch of stuff laying around; newspapers, her old clothes, curtains. She kind of let me do whatever I wanted with everything. I’d make dresses out of newspaper [with tape and safety pins] for myself and my sisters. I always had the inclination to turn things people didn’t want into clothing.”
While MI’s family is supportive of their creativity and politics, the larger preppy culture they were raised in at times felt constraining and uptight. “I went to a school with a uniform for the first several years of my life and I felt very confined by that,” they explained. “Any day where we could wear whatever we wanted I’d get so excited and would make some of my own clothes to wear. When I finally went to a school without uniforms, I went off the rails—like cut up all my clothes before going to school and my mom was always freaking out on me. [Styling myself] felt like a really important form of self-expression after not being able to…. It intrigued people, but also alienated people as well.”
“How’d you get interested in sustainability?” I asked.
“In high school I started working on a farm and got obsessed with [agricultural] circularity,” they said. “I was not really thinking about fashion—I’d design for my school’s fashion show, but I was much more dedicated to radical sustainable agriculture.”
“You didn’t immediately link this new interest with that underlying lifelong passion?”
“No, [it was] years later. I studied abroad in Berlin and fell into a totally different scene of people. I started working for an experimental designer, Fábio M Silva. I was painting pieces for them, working on fashion films. It was the first time I was in a [fully formed] queer community. We’d spend all week working on our outfits for the party on the weekend. [In Berlin], there’s a massive amount of free and cheap clothing. I had an awakening moment painting clothes for Fábio like, ‘This feels so good.’ Taking a sanctified consumer object and then putting my own mark on it. I was also realizing I was non-binary… and was finally wearing clothes I felt comfortable in.”
“What kinds of things were on your mind while making art and designing clothing in this community?” I asked.
“I was really obsessed with knock-offs and status symbols. The way the details are just a little bit different and a little bit off, I just found it fascinating and accessible. In our party scene there was this faux opulence. It was so decadent but also very trashy. I guess now that people knock-off my stuff I don’t like them as much anymore.”
“Do you think this anticapitalism creative play was another form of rebellion against your more traditional and aspirational upbringing?”
“Definitely,” they said. “But also, it was just about being in a creative queer community. Partying and making art and being silly.”
Brujas x Official Rebrand Collaboration
Thinking on their paintings and photographs lining their walls I asked, “But why fashion? You clearly have a background in fine visual art, why not pursue these concepts within 2-demensional mediums?”
“A lot of people don’t feel comfortable in an art gallery. It’s not accessible to most people. It’s a popularity contest…I have some issues with the art world. [It’s used by the ultrawealthy] as a place to hide their money and avoid taxes.”
“The world of fashion can definitely be a popularity contest, as well,” I said.
“Yes, but fashion has hope to be accessible,” they said. “Fashion affects all of us. It’s not something you can opt out of… unless you want to be a nudist.”
“Fashion affects all of us. It’s not something you can opt out of… unless you want to be a nudist.”
“That’s stilllll a statement,” I said, as we both started laughing. “But while the high art world does require considerable wealth to buy in, fashion is inherently more playful and mailable.”
“Exactly,” they said. “People with the best style aren’t the people with the most money. It’s so much more about how you put stuff together…. We live in a world where people feel like they have to buy their way into things and buying a piece of clothing is a [much more accessible] way to acquire a piece of something larger. Fashion is a much easier thing for people to engage with. People aren’t buying my paintings as much as they are buying my t-shirts.”
“People with the best style aren’t the people with the most money.”
“Within both the art and fashion worlds, you tend to have a lot of wealthy uptight people using their capital advantages to buy culture from the ‘unique’ or ‘marginalized,’” I said. “Looking back, do you feel like growing up in this more clean-cut WASPY world that you were ostracized or more a celebrated eccentric?”
“I feel more now like a celebrated eccentric when I go to a prep school reunion or whatever,” they said. “People want to talk to me now. But in the moment, no. Although, it might have been how I perceived it. I had pretty low confidence.”
“How did you decide to turn this creative exploration you were doing into an actual brand and business?” I asked.
“People started hitting me up on Instagram asking to buy my work and it just kind of grew from there. I wish I had taken some business classes. I didn’t know how to start a business, I just knew how to have an Instagram. For a little while that seems like enough, but after a bit you have to make the effort to learn the [grunt work]. [The first year] was the most intense of my life; working with magazines, launching an exhibit at Art Basel, finding stores to be in.”
“And was sustainability always at the forefront of your brand’s identity?” I asked.
“I don’t think there’s a point to launching any venture if you aren’t going to center sustainability. Working on the farm and learning about the global industrial food complex really ingrained a strong penchant for sustainability in me. Putting that lens towards fashion opened my mind up to the medium’s creative possibilities.”
“I don’t think there’s a point to launching any venture if you aren’t going to center sustainability.”
MI’s commitment to limiting waste of all sorts is intense and genuine. Last summer, refusing to throw away meat, they attempted to make soup stock from spoiled chicken bones. This lesson in not rebranding poultry, sent them into a weeklong food poisoning spiral and almost forced them to be hospitalized.
Much more adept at limiting textile waste, MI’s particular strategy for creating circularity within fashion is called upcycling. They acquire clothing that’s heading to a landfill, either through donations or by buying the deadstock of shuttering brands. Then, they take the garments and transform and alter them into new and exciting pieces, worn by the likes of Billy Porter and Sara Ramírez. Upcycling has always been here, but only recently has it become an integral aspect of specific fashion brands’ identities. The craze has taken hold, with prestigious brands like Coach attempting to hop on the train. There is even a Project Runway style reality show, entitled Upcycle Nation on the Fuse network… which, naturally, MI competed in and won.
MI explains why upcycling is a necessary tool in fighting the problem of global textile waste: “The garment donation system is broken. Things are getting shipped all over the place. It’s a huge municipal waste problem for countries like Ghana and Chile. Consumers are getting a bit wiser about greenwashing, but clothing is still extremely hard to recycle because there are so many blends. The best thing people can do is buy less clothing and wear what they’re already wearing, but upcycling is a part of the solution. We like having new [and renewed] things. Fashion is fun, and I don’t want to say, ‘No more fashion.’ But we need to do things much differently.”
“I know you rebrand a lot of luxury and designer clothing,” I said. “But it seems like you also have a lot of fun upcycling clothing somebody could find in the discount bin at Goodwill. Do you have a strong preference?”
“I love working with things I don’t consider precious, that way I’m free and don’t overthink things. I feel like taking something that isn’t precious and making it precious is really what I’m about. I don’t always want to be painting on perfect nice clothing.”
This love and respect for the discarded splendor in the world is an overarching worldview for MI. They tell me that when in high school, “I’d ride the train a lot on my way to my farm job and look out the window and see all the trash on the side of the tracks. I decided to start looking at the trash piles as if they were pieces of art. In doing this I made them pieces of art. There’s so much value in the world and beauty and if you just take the time to look at it and appreciate it you can see it. I still do it all the time. There’s so much cool trash in New York. The other day I saw this pile of wires wrapped in cording from an HVAC system and I was just like, ‘Oh my god!’ I stood and looked at it for a while, and these people, who’s trash I think it was, were just like, ‘What is this bitch doing? Why are they taking pictures of our garbage?’”
“What concepts and ideas are driving your current work?” I asked, laughing, and trying to keep our interview on track.
“It’s a mishmash of things. I think a lot about religion and Christianity, the indoctrination of certain gender roles. My own gender stuff has been a confusing and long process and designing clothes for other queer people has been a good way to think about gender presentation without having to confront my own head-on…. Empowerment and euphoria are major focuses of my work. Having things labeled gender free makes it a more comfortable gender experience for people. Are you going to call it ‘menswear’ or are you going to call it ‘gender neutral?’ Are you going to call it ‘womenswear,’ or are you going to say it’s for everyone?”
“You’ve been doing anti-waste and gender-free clothing for a while,” I said. “Now that so many brands are doing it as well are you happy about it or do you feel like they’re kinda coming for your gig?”
“Very happy,” they said. “Most brands that are launching now are gender-free. It was so important to me in the beginning to take pieces and rebrand them to be genderless. Now that seems like it’s becoming a given.”
“Most brands that are launching now are gender-free. It was so important to me in the beginning to take pieces and rebrand them to be genderless. Now that seems like it’s becoming a given.”
“Do you see yourself able to expand in the near future?” I asked. “You do so much work yourself.”
“I do so much of my production myself, and I’d like to be able to outsource more of it, so that it can be done more efficiently. The other day I had my assistant paint some beanies for me and was like, ‘Oh my god, resting power! Is it ok to let someone else do that for me?!”
“It’s really the only way to remain attainable,” I said. “As demand increases for your work, being an artist that deserves to get paid, if you can’t scale up production, you’ll have to raise prices—which I’m sure you’d rather not do.”
“With fast fashion, we’re so accustomed to paying $5 for a t-shirt, and people don’t understand the amount of time and work it takes to make a piece. I [don’t want to charge crazy sums of money]. I want to move in volume because there’s just so much [unwanted textile waste].”
“That’s definitely true!” I said. “There’s really no way for one person to hope to take a bite out of global textile waste. You’ll have to expand, and it’s kind of on all of us to try and help within our own lives, as well.”
“I want to encourage people to feel empowered to take their clothes into their own hands. If they have something that’s broken, learn how to mend it.
That night, after leaving MI’s studio, while transcribing our recording, I started to get antsy. Wanting to do anything but write, this last sentiment they had left me with echoed in my head. I went into my closet and pulled out an old favorite shirt of mine: a 70’s tomato red polo, with a large collar and small mother of pearl buttons. I hadn’t been able to wear it in years, as ugly dripping ink stains splattered the collar. There was a time that this shirt had been an almost weekly wear, and I had sorely missed it from my sartorial rolodex. Breaking out some acrylic paints, I set to work adorning these stains with white and yellow daisies, covering the stains that had made the shirt unwearable. After the piece finished drying, I put it on, and felt like I had re-met an old friend. Well, at least, an old friend who’d had a little work done.