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MA Womenswear graduate Olivia Rubens shares her expertise to help others during Covid-19

Model wearing positive blue knitwear covering face
Model wearing positive blue knitwear covering face
Olivia Rubens @oliv.iarubens
Written by
J Tilley
Published date
08 April 2020

In such unprecedented times, creativity is thriving more than ever among the LCF community. The majority of our everyday lives have been disrupted in some way or another and people are using this time to explore their creativity and knowledge to help provide relief to those who need it most. MA Womenswear graduate, Olivia Rubens, has created an online tutorial on how to draft a hospital gown pattern. The tutorial is available in both video and PDF form on her website for everyone to follow in the comfort of their own homes. We caught up with Olivia to hear how else she has been keeping busy during this time.

I flew back to Canada, but now I am stuck here as everything is on lockdown at the moment. Although I am so grateful to be home with my family, I feel lost without my equipment and materials, which is all in a storage unit in London. It’s been a strange time for everyone, learning how to adapt and work differently. Working creatively has been challenging and quite unnatural for my craft seeing as it's all digital! Luckily I’ve got an exciting design project I’ve been invited to assist on with a sustainability professor from LCF, but doing research has been an unnatural process; looking things up through keywords online, without the natural reactive process involving real, physical books and archives. It's made me question how my process and the industry relies so heavily on material things, and how this might make the system fragile, but how precious and special it also is to be able to usually have access to this flowing and exciting research process with a mixture of analog and digital. I miss it so much but I am doing my best to stay inspired!

In the meantime I’ve been crowd-sourcing from my neighborhood for machinery and materials to make hospital gowns and masks for local health workers such as my parents, and like my cousin, who is a midwife. I’m also making pattern making and sewing instructions open source on my website for anyone who can help internationally. I’m grateful for live talks to keep learning and stay inspired, such as the Sarabande Sessions. I’m also trying to learn 3D design programs as I’ve realized we’re too focused on physicality in development, and this has always been an interest of mine due to wastefulness in necessary design development, so why not now? This has been keeping me pretty busy!

This has allowed me to slow down as most designers, I think, live lifestyle centred around work with little to no room to breathe. For once, I’ve been able to stop and really appreciate peace and quiet without running through a to-do list in my head.

Tell us about the hospital gowns – what made you decide to do this?

My parents  are health workers, so I hear from them directly about the state of the hospitals and the needs of their colleagues. This is how it started, and more people and family have reached out from there. I see a lot of open source resources for masks and caps, but not for gowns, so I felt this would be useful, hopefully internationally, to give makers and designers what they need to help out.

How can people get involved if they don’t have a lot of equipment at home? Any other ideas on how to keep busy for others?

For makers, designers and students, I’ve found there are tons of online communities banding together to collect the resources we need to get these things done, at least here in Canada, but I would assume internationally as well. See if you can find Facebook groups or just put yourself out there on social media and you’re likely to get some responses, or reach out to your neighborhood/community to see if there is any way you can contribute.

I came home to Canada with only a suitcase, with the rest of my things and all my equipment in storage in London. I managed to get an old PFAFF machine from my neighbour, thread collected from my neighborhood, and fabric for the masks I’ll be making as well from the sewing community of this city helping out health workers. Everyone wants to help somehow and find things to do, so I’m sure by reaching out that you’ll find that your community will be more than supportive.

If you’re not able to make or sew, but you’re able to make patterns for others, you can do so and distribute these to those you can. Concerning all of the above though, sterilize/wash everything, wear gloves and a mask and give these out safely. It is best to have one person in charge of each area or city so as to avoid too much cross-contamination. Anything you receive, bleach/wash it and wash your hands properly.

The pandemic seemed to come right at the end of your MA. What would your advice be for those whose studies have been interrupted by this?

Here are a few pointers that I've been following:

  • Find a daily routine that eases your mind and keeps you on track. Remember though that it’s okay to feel sad and if you have a bad day (I’ll tell you, I’ve had a number of them), that’s okay too. It is healthy to let out the anxiety, sadness, and whatever else you're feeling!
  • I’ve found daily affirmations or questions can help: What am I grateful for today? What can I get excited about today? Who can I connect with? What are the big projects I can focus on?
  • Exercise. Get moving, even if just for a walk. There are lots of live streams and apps you can use to switch it up.
  • This is physical distancing, not social distancing! It’s always nice to rationalize and talk things through with a friend or classmate who is going through the same thing. Knowing you’re not alone and that it’s only temporary is a powerful thing.
  • Try to stay off your screen. I know a lot of us are bored and we tend to gravitate towards these now to pass the time, but for your mental health, it’s best to try to limit this and practice presence.
  • As I mentioned, I’ve been watching talks every day to learn something new and keep inspired. I’m listening to Wardrobe Crisis by Clare Press, watching the Sarabande Sessions every day, talks with Sara Maino of Vogue Talents, and talks by the Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards who are helping Canadian designers and businesses deal with this crisis with advice and support.
  • I’ve diverted my attention towards 3D design because, what better a time than now to learn a new thing? And this is where the world is heading. I’ve been directed towards Autodesk, a free platform for students, tutors and researchers to download programs.
  • Collaborate! We can get through this together.

Whatever you decide, you don’t have to be productive. It’s okay to feel down or to take a break if you can. It’s also OK to learn something new and find new ways to be productive. Whatever your path, I hope you can stay happy and healthy, and find what works best for you.

What are your career plans for after this?

In the long run, my ideal scenario would be to operate a transparent, inclusive and welcoming studio/showroom in London with a skilled team and to run my sustainable knitwear brand successfully without the intention of growing too large, creating 2 collections a year, while reusing earlier pieces within new collections and reusing scraps and toiles to create one-off pieces. While hopefully not only being sustainable, but actually making a positive impact on the planet and with people. I would like to work locally to support artisans and manufacturers, continue to grow my relationship with Manusa, to collaborate with people within and outside the fashion industry, and to learn more about bio design and innovative materials.

I have put a new, exciting collaboration on hold unfortunately as it is based in London, and it is a physical, scientific collaboration, which was due to culminate in the summer/in September. I’m happy I’ve got my other design collaboration going to keep me moving and to keep learning from others.

For the moment, upon my eventual return to London, I am hopeful I can freelance as a sustainability consultant and teach part-time to support the growth of my brand from my studio in Poplar Works in the East end of London, while in a few years pursuing my PhD in the area of sustainable design, but considering this pandemic, these plans might change.

Once this is over, who knows where the industry will go? It is so fragile and this is the most terrifying thing, but could also be a huge opportunity. I was planning on pushing my brand forward fully, but these are such uncertain times. No one knows what will happen, but I’ll keep working on several avenues and will have to see where my career takes me!

Olivia Rubens S/S 2020