Last Spring, actress/model/conservationist Isabella Rossellini created a scholarship fund with Parsons School of Design. Its first recipient, Katya Ekimian, a designer focused on biodiversity with wool, has begun her residency at Rossellini’s farm in Bellport, New York, named Mama Farm because the animals are all female. There, she is incubating her brand, Ovis Aries, which is created with wool from rare sheep that she sources from farms across the United States. FashionUnited spoke with the designer to find out more about the collaboration, and a concept she calls “Farm to fashion.”
How did your residency on Isabella Rossellini’s farm come about?
Isabella and I came together a little over a year ago at Parsons. Along with The Livestock Conservancy, they sponsored my thesis project and we set out to create a collection. Parsons offers a very exciting educational pathway in the School of Fashion called Systems and Society, where students are prompted to focus on every aspect of the value chain with a deep consideration for how it interacts with the people surrounding it. The aim of my project is to popularize and promote endangered species of sheep through their incredibly diverse fleeces. The reason for these breeds’ endangerment is the lack of desire for their wool and meat, which is caused by the monoculture created around the Merino sheep, a breed specific to Australia and New Zealand. Guided by the Livestock Conservancy, I created a network of farmers that raise these endangered sheep in the United States. I then traveled to these farms, sheared their sheep or bought their fleeces, then took the fleeces to micro mills to be spun into yarn. Each interaction I had along the way was an explosion of new knowledge, whether it was from an Amish farmer in central Pennsylvania, or the owner of a mill in Vermont. Towards the end of the school year, Isabella offered me a residency at her farm to incubate this project-turned-company.
How are you hoping to change the way we look at or experience wool?
The most common misconception about wool is that it involves animal cruelty. Sheep are domestic creatures. In the same way that we have selectively bred dogs to live in our household, we have bred sheep for our farms. This means sheep rely on being shorn. Without it, serious physical harm could be brought to the animal, the same way that if a dog’s coat was matted and full of fleas, it would be considered cruelty. Secondly, it’s a completely biodegradable product! When maintained well, wool can last generations; when buried in the ground, it can be gone in six months.
What does a typical day on the farm look like for you?
I’ve set up a small knitting studio here, and spend the majority of the day knitting and looking after the animals. Because they were brought here as young lambs, they’ve been socialized with us and they’re incredibly friendly and loving. Along with the sheep, there are two cuddly goats, about a dozen ducks, more than a hundred chickens, two turkeys, and four bee hives. A couple times a week I enjoy cooking dinners for Isabella’s family with produce from the farm and neighboring farms.
Is it correct that you brought your own sheep to her farm?
Yes! During the first few weeks of our transition to online classes, everyone quickly realized that our thesis projects would now have different outcomes. Not unlike most, I felt incredibly discouraged sitting alone in front of a computer screen. People coped with these feelings in many different ways; mine was driving through the Bronx with lambs in the back of my friend’s car. In the early stages of the project I had mentioned to Isabella that we could buy lambs, two of each of the breeds I worked with. We originally thought these plans would be postponed but because farming never stops and these lambs were still being born we realized it was the only thing we could do at the time. We safely transported nine lambs which now live in the haven that is Mama Farm.
What are you currently working on?
I have been working on a capsule collection made from the wool of sheep kept on the farm. The raw wool was sent upstate to Battenkill Fiber Mill to be spun to yarn and these pieces are being sold at The Store Front, a shop right in the middle of town. The entire production of this collection is contained to the state of New York and more specifically, the town of Bellport.
What are you hoping to achieve with your concept of “Farm to Fashion”?
Farm to Fashion is our oldest form of garment making and still the predominant way of making for many communities today. It’s a craft so ingrained in tradition and heritage, across all cultures, that pieces are no longer just clothing, but stories. Now, in the context of a 22-year-old fashion grad, I want to highlight creators and their stories. With my first-hand knowledge of wool farming, shearing, fiber mill spinning, and garment production, I hope to help as many people as possible engage with this fashion system. Many wool farmers in America don’t have an outlet for their raw wool, certain fiber mills require a minimum poundage of wool to be spun, and many designers don’t know how to begin to source wool in the United States. The goal is to use my set of skills to create a language that can connect and interchange these steps in the making process.
You have also created what you refer to as Farm to Performance; how did your various relationships with musicians, rappers, athletes come about?
Wool has incredible technical properties, including moisture wicking, breathability, and a natural elasticity, making it ideal for athletic and performance wear. Chunky knit sweaters often come to mind when thinking of wool but depending on how it’s processed and treated it can also feel like anything from silk to nylon. Being a former athlete myself, I started working with peers to create clothing that met their needs which then led me to do custom pieces outside the world of athletics. My most recent work was with KidSuper, a Brooklyn based brand. Through them, I was able to reach a new audience of consumers equally interested in wool.
Does Rossellini regularly engage with your work?
Yes, and vice versa! Even during quarantine Isabella did not let the lockdown affect her creativity and continued to produce short films and even put on live Zoom theatrical performances. Being able to bounce ideas around with an icon and assist her and watch her create in this way has been such a positive experience.
Photos Katya Ekimian
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry