Risks are contradictory. Usually people avoid taking risks because they create unwanted dangers, but even when a designer wants to take big creative risks there are challenges set in his way by today’s fast fashion industry. Risk is not always about turning away, but facing those limits demands patience, courage, and intensive knowledge. Jef Montes is an artist and inventor working beyond fashion design. In this wide-ranging interview, he uses stories of his start in the industry to tell us about his inspiration and drive to create new material futures. Jef Montes helps us discover a world beyond today’s fashion and the work of creating textiles that might never exist without taking risks and encountering the challenges they set up before us.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and who you are?
Jef Montes: I was born and raised in Arnhem and graduated at ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem. I graduated in 2012 with honors with a degree in Fashion Design. My graduation project Dolores was an ode to my great grandmother. I am half Spanish and half Dutch. My Spanish grandmother Dolores was a seamstress. When I was a child, I admired her patience and the love she puts into her craftsmanship. I have always had a passion for Spain and its history. During my final year at the academy, I found my signature by combining personal heritage with my fascination for material development.
How did you first become interested in material manipulation?
Jef Montes: When I was young, I fantasized about wearing anything I liked. My family and I used to visit relatives in the south of Spain during each summer break. This was always a very exciting journey for me as I could explore as much as I wanted. I love the sea, mountains and architecture. I looked for hours
at water or things that had a specific shimmer and imagined wearing the non-wearable contexts, like a cathedral or waves of the sea. During the study, I took this nostalgic feeling as an inspiration and started experimenting. This process started with materials that couldn’t be found at local stores. I had put too much time in material research. I had to find a material that both have a specific shimmer and a way of shaping that represented a piece of my youth. For my graduation collection, I researched fibers that are used in other fields than fashion. I came up with fiberglass and started to do research. I designed a reflective material that has a unique shape identity. During this process, I realized that this type of material has a restriction. This was a big challenge, which made me want to create more and more. I felt like it opened the door to do more extensive research.
You recently presented your first international debut collection “Tormenta” during the Paris Fashion Week 2017. How do you feel about it?
Jef Montes: Tormenta is my first international debut. It took me five years of preparation
to take my work over the borders. My debut in Paris was a quite complex presentation. I wanted to present a big material installation, a collection and a steam installation. All these components had their own designing process. The material installation was created during the Tormenta preview at Amsterdam Fashion Week July 2016. During that presentation, I created the first stage of my material installation. For my debut in Paris I wanted to present a centerpiece that would reflect the concept of Tormenta: “Storm around the body”. It took over 18 months to finish the material installation, because of the fact that 200,000 Swarovski crystals had to be embroidered in it by hand. I created the collection from squared shapes of the materials. I draped them like a storm around the body. It was a very stressful journey but, in the end, it all turned out very well.
How does the public usually react to your work?
Jef Montes: Mostly, people react surprised during my presentations. Sometimes they can connect to my work personally or they feel touched by the message. Because my work is quite abstract, I see people wondering and asking a lot of questions. This is very inspiring to me. It makes me happy as a designer to see that people get triggered and inspired by my work. My work is not about showing a new trick with every presentation. Sometimes people misunderstand that. I rather explain it in a positive way and make people understand to step more into my world and become a part of it. If I feel satisfied about my work, I am open minded towards new experiments. Sometimes I integrate old work with new inventions.
What was the biggest risk you have taken about your work?
Jef Montes: I think the biggest risk I took is that I have put trust and faith in the wrong people. This resulted in terrible collaborations. As a young designer, you are very vulnerable and dependent on the people that you work with. I have been very lucky with the team I have been working with for years now. It took a lot of mistakes to finally create this team. It happened to me a few times now that my ideas were stolen and used in other productions. Somebody not keeping a promise is nothing new to me, I’ve been used for wrong reasons. This was quite traumatic for me as a designer. Ever since, I’m very careful with who I’m sharing my ideas and future blue prints of presentations. However, you need to stay positive and keep faith in humanity. It has not been holding me back in working and trusting new people. Mistakes make you stronger and more experienced. The good part is that you learn how to grow more respect and love for the people who have been genuinely supporting you and working together with you towards success.
You made a statement “Fashion dying on the stage and models crashing like fashion” about your project “RESOLVER” during the MBFW Amsterdam in 2016. Can you tell us what are your thoughts about today’s fashion industry?
Jef Montes: With Resolver, I have expressed myself in a way I never could before. I wanted to highlight the essence of slow fashion, in which designers take a step back and reflect on their work. In this way work would gain more quality and more focus on luxury. For me personally, new luxury is about slowing down and put more love and effort into the design process and more transparency in the development process. I want to research, experiment and develop in my own tempo, instead of being overwhelmed by the pressure of belonging to the “elite”. I choose to present my work whenever I feel satisfied about it. This new way of thinking comes with a lot of backfire; that most people don’t see or feel. It is very hard to be an outsider and get accepted if you don’t follow traditional rules in the industry. With Resolver, I brought Illuminosa and Velero projects together to integrate the ink and melting process. A lot of people thought ink was running through the Resolver material, but in fact this was a chemical reaction of black cotton and polyvinyl alcohol. With Resolver, I literally destroyed my collection, as fast as fashion is changing. 2500 liters of water were used to destroy the collection. Nowadays this amount of water is used to create just one t-shirt; shocking in my opinion. My collection ”died” on stage and models were ”crashing” because of the waste on the floor. This was my answer to the today’s fashion industry.
The Netherlands is one of the best places with its resources and education system if one wants to go beyond of existing materials in design. What kind of impact does the country have on your work?
Jef Montes: My country has been an inspiring place for me to develop my brand. I was able to experiment in my signature, collaborations, sponsorships, funding, education, events, exhibitions and presentations. I began working on my own in 2012, ever since, my team has been growing bigger and bigger.
I started to accept several interns to develop my brand. We focused on creating materials from our own studio, working on a higher level in collaboration with Philips Lighting, Unlimited FX, Jurlights, TextileLab Tilburg and Shapeways. The TextileMuseum Tilburg has offered me great working and development space to create everything that I had in my mind. I couldn’t grow professionally if my team didn’t grow with me. The Netherlands will always be a great country for me to collaborate and develop, but at this point in my career, I crave for international recognition.
Do you have any upcoming project that you can share with us?
Jef Montes: At this moment, I am working on Moreneta, a presentation that will be shown in Paris. Moreneta will be a collection of 30 creations and a material installation. I will develop new materials the coming year and at this point I am looking into collaborations to create new materials. Next to the material development Moreneta has a strong message about emancipation. Also, I am working on creating an exhibition with Abolish 153. Their campaign aims to Abolish article 153 from Kuwait’s penal code, which effectively gives men regulatory, judicial and executive power over their female kin in blatant disregard of the constitution, international agreements on human and women’s rights and even the Islamic Sharia. Their goal is to create a safe environment where mothers, daughters, sisters and wives are protected from all forms of violence. Abolish 153 wants to use the material installation I created for Tormenta, as an abstract statue of liberty.