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From Denim Artist to Documentarian: Ian Berry Previews His First Film

British artist Ian Berry, best known for his collaged “paintings” made entirely with scraps of old denim, is adding the title documentary filmmaker to his CV.

Berry recently debuted a three-minute trailer of his first film, “Fast Fashion’s Graveyard,” at Fashinnovation’s Worldwide Talks series live from Spring Studios. The still-in-production 60- to 90-minute film, which does not a have an official release date yet, looks at mountains of clothes waste dumped in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The 2019 Rivet 50 honoree was inspired to make the film after spending time in Chile’s capital, Santiago, where he was commissioned to execute denim portraits of three of the country’s top musicians, which were later presented at Lollapalooza. Cognizant of the clothes dump, he opted to take a side trip to the Atacama Desert outside Iquique in Alto Hospicio, known as the driest area on the planet, to see it with his own eyes.

The site immediately reminded him of the piles and piles of jeans he has in his East London studio that he uses to make his work. Although his artwork is made entirely from recycled jeans, Berry has always been hesitant to describe it as sustainable. “It was a side show of my work, but not the concept,” he said.

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Nor is he a fan of the term ‘sustainability’.

“‘Sustainability’ is an overused and abused marketing word which has as much worth as the word ‘nice.’ I felt a fraud to use it, besides, I’m not making a big difference, nor had it been the concept or point of my work. I have been doing my work for longer than it became such a buzzword. Perhaps I’m just jaded by knowing too many people abusing it,” he said.

“While I may not talk about sustainability much, leaving it to those who either know better, or can profit from it, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about the core issues. Few know that I nearly went back to university in 2006 to study climate change after watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ by Al Gore, but while I was recycling denim, I will be honest, I never even connected that I was doing anything linked at the time,” he said.

He returned to Chile twice to revisit the site and his documentation of the dump on video advanced from iPhone to professional cameras and drones, which captured the massive scale of the piles. According to Agence France-Presse, about 59,00 tons of clothing that wasn’t sold in Europe or the U.S. end up in the port of Iquique every year and at least 39,000 tons of those are moved to landfills in the desert instead of being recycled and resold.

The film explains how the old garments ended up in Chile and Berry interviews local insiders who are helping to rectify the problem by transforming the textile waste or who run companies specialized in recycling or resale. He also visits Zofri, an area where the clothes are brought in bundles and sold, under much secrecy. Some do end up in secondhand stores where they are affordable options for many Chileans.

Berry told Rivet that working on the project has opened his eyes. “I think [I have learned] chiefly to root out the truth in a time when people prefer a predetermined dialogue and to create headlines over nuance. It’s important to add it was never meant to be, may not be, an outright documentary. It was always meant to be something to accompany museum shows and my work and not stand alone, but it has grown… so we will see.”

He added that the name of the film may be a misnomer as most of the brands he found dumped in the desert did not fall in the fast-fashion bracket. “I think most people watching the first wave of publicity brought on the dump blamed fast fashion and big-name brands. I went around and found that all the items were unique, as in there wasn’t batches of the same clothes,” he said. “While many had labels on, they were often the likes of TJ Maxx and also Goodwill. Yes, we can talk of overproduction and also our throwaway society and trends, fair is fair, but it is not the brands who are directly responsible. That said, it is their name on the labels and our clothes dumped there—often after thinking we have done a good thing in donating to a charity shop.”

However, he said the “graveyard” part of the title has since become all the more accurate. “Soon after I left the third time, it set on fire and then it was buried, so it went from an open grave to being concealed,” Berry said.