Photos by Amanda Coen

Located in New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard, Eko-Lab is equal parts ethical apparel company and experimental art house. Combining the talents of Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, and Jennifer Wen Ma, the label transforms organic fabrics and vegetable-based dyes into wearable conversation pieces. Eko-Lab was once a cornerstone of Ekovaruhuset, a fashion collective that included Johanna Hofring, Mika Machida, and Meiling Chen. Since the group disbanded, however, the trio have found a home among the dozen startups supported by the Pratt Design Incubator for Sustainable Innovation, an initiative founded in 2002 to launch and grow social and environmental enterprises. Ecouterre hopped on the L train to Eko-Lab’s studio to learn more about its unique brand of alchemy.

Eko-Lab, Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, Pratt Design Incubator, Jennifer Wen Ma, Brooklyn Navy Yards, New York City, New York, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

A PERFECT FIT

How did Eko-Lab get its start?

Kirgan: We first met when we were taking classes at [the Fashion Institute of Technology], but we also had mutual friends. Ekovaruhuset really inspired us to get involved in the sustainable clothing industry and we learned a lot.Working with Ekovaruhuset, we really got to meet the customer, understand what they were looking for, and understand shapes and sizes. Everybody is different—even us—and we still like to wear the same thing. So it provided a great understanding of fit and what people wanted.

As Eko-Lab, we strive to create designs that adapt well to many sizes.

Chung-Hilyard: As Eko-Lab, our theme builds on what we learned as we strive to create designs that adapt well to many sizes.

Kirgan: Our mission has definitely evolved from wanting to be more of an easy fit, so we can both wear something.

What roles do you each of you play?

Chung-Hilyard: We have very different angles due to our backgrounds and personalities. Initially, we overlapped a lot as we were just learning what we are good at, what each of our strengths are. Eventually, we wove those together.

We have very different angles due to our backgrounds and personalities.

Now, I do a lot of [two-dimensional] work because that’s how I think and see. Melissa is very [three-dimensional]. I’ve learned a lot from her. She’ll also tell me, “I never thought of clothing in that way.” Working together brings a lot of surprises and excitement into growth and learning, and we enjoy the collaboration very much.

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Eko-Lab, Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, Pratt Design Incubator, Jennifer Wen Ma, Brooklyn Navy Yards, New York City, New York, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

MATERIAL MATTERS

What materials do you work with and how do you source them?

Kirgan: It always changes depending on what we can get. Organic cotton is something that we have always used. We usually buy it in bulk from various sources. Some of it’s from the United States, some of it’s from Turkey. Some of it’s from China but it’s all certified-organic. 

We end up using a lot of the same textiles but different print techniques so it’s a little bit more sustainable for us in terms of minimums of what we can order.

Do you do all of the sewing in-house?

Kirgan: I do a lot of our sculpturing work to translate Xing-Zhen’s 2D sketches to forms that fit the body. I enjoy sewing our first samples and I like draping. I don’t want to give that away but as we get really busy, we have had to hire out for contractual work.

We do a lot of our own handwork but also contract local artists that we have befriended over the years

Chung-Hilyard: Each design involves research and development and a lot of handwork. We do a lot of our own handwork but also contract local artists that we have befriended over the years.

Kirgan: Xing-Zhen actually taught a lot of the artists we work with to crochet. We hosted a lot of crochet parties and small events in the back of Ekovaruhuset, so we met a lot of people through that. It’s great that we’ve maintained the relationships because we can now bring them back and hire them. We like to keep things as local as possible and provide jobs.

Although the economy isn’t very strong, we like to keep things as local as possible and provide jobs.

Although the economy isn’t very strong, we are hanging on and trying to be really smart about finding new opportunities.  For instance, our recent collaboration with artist Jennifer Wen Ma that was exhibited at The Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing was a great opportunity. It made sense as we really see fashion as a canvas that women step into. By targeting more of an art-scale audience, we are able to simultaneously sell art and fashion in a beautiful way.

Eko-Lab, Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, Pratt Design Incubator, Jennifer Wen Ma, Brooklyn Navy Yards, New York City, New York, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

ART MATTERS

What year did your collaboration with Ma start?

Kirgan: About three years ago we started playing with the idea. Jennifer and Xing-Zhen have been friends for about 20 years but we were really inspired by the brainstorming she did for a dual animation series with live ink.

Organic textiles can be boring, so we brought Ma on to start painting on them.

The scene involved a man and a horse which she inked as one panel of animation. In fact, she was live painting in water, so there was always ink dripping and it became a landscape. It was very beautiful. We talked to her about what would be possible on fabric because organic textiles are very boring. We needed to make them interesting so we asked Jen if she could start painting on textiles. Ever since, that interaction continues to evolve. It’s become much neater and less messy. Now we have graduated to using laser cutting and using a lot of screen-printing to keep things a little bit more continuous.

You seem to value the organic properties of your textiles. What roles do nature and serendipity play in your design process?

Kirgan: We really appreciate that anything organic and in nature is never exactly the same. We like to translate this idea to clothing. Because a lot of our prints are handmade, they are never exactly the same. We love the humanity in the clothing. I don’t know how are going to apply that to laser-cutting yet because it’s new, but we definitely love that when we screen-print, we always put a wash of another color on top.

We really appreciate that anything organic and in nature is never exactly the same.

Chung-Hilyard: The prints are never flattened down. There is always some sort of natural watercolor form to it. It’s very organic.

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Eko-Lab, Melissa Kirgan, Xing-Zhen Chung-Hilyard, Pratt Design Incubator, Jennifer Wen Ma, Brooklyn Navy Yards, New York City, New York, eco-fashion, sustainable fashion, green fashion, ethical fashion, sustainable style

ALWAYS ONWARD

Tell us more about your new jewelry line.

Kirgan: We’re adding a line that features silver, copper-smithing, and reclaimed materials. We have a penny project that involves a lot of found objects and glass that is being crocheted. Xing-Zhen had the idea to design a scarf that can be mounted on the wall and also used as wearable art. When you come home, you can put it up on a magnetic strip and then when going out you can wear it out as a scarf.

Do you consider Eko-Lab a sustainable-fashion brand?

Kirgan: I don’t see it any differently, as sustainable or anything. To me, it just means being respectful. It’s just the right thing to do.

Chung-Hilyard: There is no turning back. It’s hard to go back.

[Sustainable fashion] just means being respectful. It’s just the right thing to do.

Kirgan: I think it’ harder to work with organic fabrics. They have come a long way since the beginning which initially inspired us to do prints. They have a different hand-quality. If they’re stiff, we have to wash them and it becomes more of a process but I feel better working with them.

I wouldn’t want anybody to have to work with dangerous chemicals so to me, it just makes sense. We also work a lot with reclaimed materials and textiles.

Looking back on your designs and years of work, is there a piece from a collection that stands out to you?

Kirgan: We always go back to the Naomi dress that we both wear a lot. It’s comfortable—we like that you can eat a piece of cake at a party and be okay. You should be comfortable and happy and look fantastic in your clothing. You shouldn’t have to have any problems about things being too tight. I think that makes women more confident so it’s more beautiful.

+ Eko-Lab