NZ designer embarks on international artists residency

Lela Jacobs
For three months, New Zealand fashion designer Lela Jacobs is undertaking a Varda Artists Residency on board the SS Vallejo – a houseboat docked at the waterfront community of Sausalito, north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Here she’ll conceptualise and design pieces for her AW16 collection in the company of a small group of artists, creators and thinkers from New Zealand, the UK, Argentina and Japan. The creatives live and work alongside each other and occasionally collaborate, as well as pursue their own projects. Jacobs shares her work in progress in the legendary creative space which was once frequented by artistic greats such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Maya Angelou.

“I wake up at 8 or 9am and climb down from the loft bed that’s in our studio at the back of the ship. If it’s cold, which it can be at this time of year in Sausalito, I light the fire. I boil water in a very old kettle on a very old gas stove and grind local coffee beans for the Presso. Things are slow and I have time to look out the window at the boats and weather, and if the ducks are around I try to find something to give them. Here my day starts.”

The SS Vallejo

The SS Vallejo, which is docked at Sausalito, offers residency to artists from across the world

“Most mornings and afternoons are spent in my studio working on a project that has evolved rather quickly, due to what I’m convinced are maker ghosts. There are no issues channelling creativity here. This part of Sausalito is like a pirate’s retirement village in a really good way; everyone lives on a houseboat and it’s quiet and industrial. Ship builders, Heath Ceramics and plenty of open art studios make up some of the surrounding neighbourhood. I’ve purchased a bike called Coffee that I’m incredibly attached to. There are fantastic bike lanes everywhere, no helmet rules and respect from drivers, making biking really enjoyable.

The residency is giving me the opportunity to develop a more conceptual body of work and at the moment I’m working with rice paper, clay, linen and ship rust. These are used to show three or four different zero-waste patterns and the pieces will sit alongside the AW16 collection that we’re also developing between New Zealand and San Fran. Soon I’ll be traveling to Mexico in the hopes of finding some special fabrics and craftspeople to work with on this project.”

SS Vallejo

The houseboat’s dining area

The people I’ve met here are incredibly motivated and gifted independents with a hell of a lot of material and technical knowledge. This buzz is overwhelming, so right now I’m rebelling by enjoying the simplicities of clay and paper – slow processes – but I will probably be 3D printing all this by the time I leave. My partner John-Troy is also doing the residency and we’ll work on something together. He’s working on a commission for a small tea house to be built on the boat’s massive landing area. He’s also working on a chair design and helping me realise my ideas. The ship is perfect for collective projects and if you can dream it up, the chances are it can be done here.”

Lela Jacobs’ latest collection is available now at The Shelter, 78 Mackelvie Street, Ponsonby