Elisa Palomino is a researcher and Senior Lecturer on BA Fashion Print at Central Saint Martins, UAL. Her short film Preservation of Hezhen fish skin tradition through fashion higher education has won the Best Green Fashion Film award at the Fashion Film Festival Milano.
The film was made as part of Elisa’s PhD research with London College of Fashion, UAL and adds to her comprehensive and ongoing body of research into the use of fish skin as a sustainable raw material for fashion and making.
The Hezhen fish skin craft
The film follows the practices of the Hezhen people - one of China’s smallest ethnic minorities living in north eastern China by the Amur river basin, with a traditional economy based on hunting and fishing.
In 2006, the Hezhen method of making clothes with fish skin was listed as intangible cultural heritage.
Featuring interviews with Hezhen craftspeople, scenes of their fish skin processing and shot with Elisa and students, the film identifies the importance of fish skin as an innovative sustainable material. It represents a story and study in sustainability from the resourcefulness and resilience of the Hezhen indigenous peoples, their lifestyles and fish skin practices.
Applying this craft to fashion was tested through a participatory workshop with fashion students from Central Saint Martins, UAL taught by Hezhen craftspeople, to investigate how this material and the transmission of fish skin skills can contribute to sustainability practices in fashion.
In the film we can see work by 2019 BA Fashion Knit graduate Foning Bao inspired by what she saw and learned from the Hezhen craftspeople and working with them to source fish skin raw material.
To create her final year collection she restricted herself to the use of fish skin and ‘fully fashion’ knit skills to build her entire final collection. As a sustainable designer, zero fabric, zero cut and zero waste were the key points of her work. She used the fish skins in combination with crochet on her garments and accessories, bringing this humble material into vibrant and contemporary design. She has been selected as: L’Oreal Professional Prize, Green Trail Maison/0 Prize and The Mills Sustainability Prize. In 2020, she collaborated with the Innocent brand and launched a series of hats using knitting and fish skin. She collaborated with a yarn company using leftover yarns in order to prevent the yarns from being burnt or wasted.
Horizon 2020 research
Elisa leads UAL’s participation in the Horizon 2020-funded FISHskin research project, working demonstrate that material made from fish waste is viable to take forward for commercial use in the fashion industry.
Read how the project aims to enable thirty-two million tons of annual fish waste to go into production for use in the luxury goods and fashion industries.
Q&A with Elisa Palomino
How useful has it been to learn from the traditional practice of the Hezhen community and how does the relationship support them in return?
Hezhen indigenous peoples of China originally used fishskin to make paintings with deities - currently Han flower and animal motifs are used instead. Through Fishskinlab, I have created a fishskin clutch collection with Yulin Sun, a Hezhen fishskin artist and Intangible Culture Inheritor.
Products made of fish skin in the Heilongjiang province have not changed over the years. Design methodologies can be used to rescue fish skin endangered cultural heritage and make this most distinctive traditional culture displayed again. Since the original workshop I have been working on a collaboration with Yulin Sun for the creation of a capsule clutch collection. These new designs will hopefully give a new perspective of the traditional fish skin craft, lead to new markets and a new source of income for Yulin Sun.
Traditional fish skin craft might be seen as far removed from fashion design and manufacturing here in the UK. To what extent can these traditional methods enrich how we teach or learn about fashion design and making?
We are working on creating a series of fish skin tanning and painting workshops in Chinese fashion universities to bring the intangible cultural heritage: Hezhen fish skin to the institutions and students. The workshops are designed to bring together students from diverse Chinese fashion schools and give them direct experience of fish skin traditional craft - to broaden their understanding of the sustainability of the material and to connect them with traditional Hezhen Indigenous craft communities.
The workshops will provide sustainability, historical, anthropological, social, cultural, economic and environmental knowledge of the Hezhen peoples. They will explore the potential for fish skin to become a competitive sustainable material for fashion, and the possibilities that fish skin may reduce demand for exotic materials which have a higher environmental impact.
The approach will be experiential learning process, based on sustainability values, where the students could create fish skin material samples as a practical educational model of sustainability in action. The workshop seeks to develop a teaching and learning experience most suited to Fashion Design higher education. The passing on of the fish skin knowledge and skills is of great relevance as well as the immersive experience of working with remote Hezhen ethnic minority.
How have students felt about working with fish skin, and its application as a material for use in collections?
As well as Foning Bao who is featured above and in the film, Zhongjin Zhang is on his work placement year of the BA Performance Design and Practice at Central Saint Martins and helped to co-direct the film. He learnt fish skin tanning with Wenfeng You and fish skin painting with Yulin Sun and co-directed the film selected by the Milano Fashion Film Festival. He has held 6 fish skin tanning workshops in the UK at UAL and in China at Beijing Institute of Fashion and Technology. Students researched the Hezhen culture, history of fish skin and their own inspiration, and developed and made a piece of their own work.
All the fish used during the workshops was food by waste and the leftover flesh after peeling the fish skins, was donated to a stray cat protection organisation. When doing fish skin tanning in London, all the skins used by Zhongjin were recycled from local fishmongers. None of them were endangered species.
Elisa's research and publications
CSM students: Zhongjin Zhang: BA Performance Design and Practice, Foning Bao: BA Fashion Knit and Joseph Boon: BA Womenswear, the the CSM tutors supporting them on each of their pathways
The International Association for Impact Assessment team: Mai Cui and Yuhan Chen
Hezhen craftspeople Wenfeng You and Sun Yulin
Art Directors: Elisa Palomino, Zhongjin Zhang and Joseph Boon
Edited by: Lei Yang and Qingchuan Fu
Translated by: Qingchuan Fu and Chengyao Liu
Proofread by: Chengyao Liu and Joseph Boon
Coordinated by: Zhongjin Zhang
Featuring work by CSM BA Fashion Knit 2019 graduate Foning Bao