Wearing an article of clothing from Hadley Clark is more profound than being stylish. The Kansas City fashion designer, lauded both for her exquisite creations and her sustainable approach, uses biographical events to inspire her designs. From a crumbled engagement to a cancer diagnosis, Clark has had a few bumps in the road. Now, she’s reflecting on her past through her art.
Clark’s garments are instantly recognizable: She recycles materials from silk kimonos, African indigo textiles and denim, fusing them together into immensely layered and frayed dresses, tops and jackets that have a touch of the mystical.
But Clark, who graduated with a painting degree from the University of Kansas, never intended to go into fashion, much less the very niche area of sustainable fashion. However, she admits, when she thinks about it, this path had always been laid out for her.
“I grew up in a house where my mother made our clothes and my grandmothers on both sides knitted our sweaters, so I grew up enveloped and raised in handmade clothing,” she says.
She graduated from Parsons Paris in 2010, and almost a decade later, she still references her thesis collection when talking about her aesthetic today: “It was called ‘Til Death Do Us Part,’ and it was a cross-cultural examination of death through attire,” she says.
It sounds heady, but Clark has her reasons. Before moving to Paris, she’d undergone treatment and recovery for Hodgkin’s lymphoma and, in between her chemotherapy sessions, dealt with the deterioration of her engagement. These traumas weighed heavily on Clark, and she expressed them in her thesis. Every collection since has been biographical in some way, she says.
When Clark returned to Kansas City in 2012, she took donations from local fine artist Debra Smith, who works with vintage textiles, and cast-offs from Asiatica, a Kansas City fashion boutique specializing in imported silk kimonos, and pieced them together.
“At first, it was a creative decision,” Clark says. “It was a concept and not about climate change or fast fashion. I was pretty much just taking other people’s trash, and I would create color stories out of what I had received.” The result was garments that almost looked like they were in a stage of decomposition with a tinge of melancholy — something that appealed to Clark’s aesthetic.
It wasn’t long before fans of Clark’s work began labeling her a sustainable designer. She still thinks of herself first and foremost as an artist, and she has cautiously embraced this label over the years. It was the experience of opening her Hadley Sewing School in April 2017 and educating others not only about garment construction but also about the global repercussions of fashion consumption when Clark’s vision crystalized.
For Clark, the labor of making a single garment can take days. Being the designer at a fashion house with no other employees means she is also the pattern maker and the producer, ironing each textile scrap and sewing each piece together. When her first sewing class completed their coursework, they had a deeper appreciation for clothing and Clark’s work.
“They looked at what I was doing and they valued it in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to understand,” Clark says. This experience has gotten Clark even closer to what is perhaps the core of her mission, beyond intellectual artistic themes and sustainable fashion statements.
“I think a lot about the energy of the room where clothing that is mass-produced is being made and how tired those workers must be and how poorly people are treated in rooms like that,” Clark says. At this point in our conversation, she is weeping. “Part of the reason my clothing feels different and special is because I love what I do, and everything is made in my studio, which is, to me, my most sacred space.”
When I ask Clark what she hopes people will feel when they put on one of her garments, she is quiet. “Putting on clothing is one of the first things you do every day, and it should feel good,” she says finally. “I want people to feel loved in my garments. I want them to feel beautiful — and not in a commercial or stereotypical way but in the way that they see themselves.”
Shop Hadley Clark at hadleyclark.com or by appointment at her studio, 2711 Troost Ave., Kansas City, Mo. You can also find her garments locally at Do Good Co., 1320 W. 39th St., Kansas City, Mo.