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Designer Dialogues: Jess Øberlin

The creatives of Sectie-C, an Eindhoven based design hub, initiated BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE, a magazine that portrays different creative makers in their workplaces while interviewed by colleagues. What fascinates, inspires and drives them to do what they do? Especially for ddw.nl, BLANK SPACE MAGAZINE edited the interviews into interesting short stories. This week, Jessica Slipp sits down with Jess Øberlin, Eindhoven based designer and founder of PLASMA.
Jess Øberlin
© Anniek Mol
One of the things that is really interesting about what you do is the idea of visibility — giving visibility to everyone from various age ranges, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation, and so on. With that in mind, what's your elevator pitch?

I would say I'm an interdisciplinary fashion and experience designer, because that makes what I do sound super serious. But within that title, I have the freedom to experiment, explore, and not fit into any one discipline. That’s where I feel comfortable and always have. I’ve accepted that maybe there’s no box for me. There are a lot of people and creators around me who also don't fit into a box. I think it's great to be able to offer them an experience, a fashion brand, a platform for live or off-line events, or something that stands for being open and inclusive and experimenting with that. That’s important.

You started with fashion and now you do DJ workshops, live events, music events, and performances just like the one you did yesterday. Can you speak a little bit about that evolution from fashion to more of these live events that are occurring?

Yeah, so it started as a childhood dream of wanting to be involved in fashion, somehow. As kids we used to get an allowance and I would save it to buy Vogue magazine. I come from a really small town in the middle-of-nowhere, Canada, where there was definitely no fashion going on. I had a really interesting sense of it, I think, but got made fun of for shopping in my grandma's closet or destroying clothes to make new things out of them. Basically, for being who I was. At the same time, I really didn't enjoy the capitalist aspect of fashion — the commerciality where it's driven by money. That bothered me so I got into anarchy and punk and being a dirty, squatter, hippie chick. 

But eventually it kept itching at me; I really wanted to create something. I would go to parties and wanted to have a spandex suit on, something that fit really nice, but I couldn't find one that fit my body properly. So I started measuring my own body and talking with a few local seamstresses to try to make a pattern that would be better suited to different body types. I measured a bunch of girls around me, friends of mine. The first patterns I ever made are named after them. I based this kind of new sizing chart on their bodies, hoping it would offer an alternative to what's available in shops. We would go out in them and do photo shoots and events. I guess I realized that the part that excited me most about doing this was connecting with people, offering them a stage to show who they truly are, working together with people who are friends, fellow designers, or artists instead of having a  whole editorial team — it was really unprofessional DIY.

So as a self-taught designer, you’re inherently DIY. I'm curious about this idea of ‘learning by doing’ and wondering how that encourages inclusivity and diversity within DIY spaces?

The DIY aspect comes from a place of necessity. I'm in Eindhoven and it's a design city, and everybody asked me if I studied at Design Academy Eindhoven, but I didn’t. So being DIY also comes from a place of being a have-not, in a way. Like not having the knowledge, not having the money, not having a studio, not having this or that — it makes you get creative. I've always been like that. What's exciting about a DIY mentality and self-learning is that, if it’s something that's really encouraged and respected in stead of where you were educated or where you did your internship, it becomes something that is accessible to everybody. It automatically becomes a platform or a way of doing that is inherently inclusive and diverse because anybody can do anything. It's just a matter of putting in the time, asking to work with people, or looking around you for opportunities to learn and adding that to your experience.

We've spoken before about how you use intuition as a guide, making decisions based on what feels right for you in the moment. I'm curious to know in this moment, where there is not only a global pandemic, but a widespread fight against oppression, violenc

My intuition is telling me that what we're doing with Plasma — these super local events, connecting offline, and sharing these experiences — are important when we can't connect in large groups. I think the more that's going on in the world, the more activism you're going to have, more movement, more change within yourself, and within the world. That obviously leads people to fresh perspectives about their own identity, where they come from, or what they're working on. That motivates me to keep creating and to not be afraid to change things and to keep opening up these conversations offline. I think it's important that we keep sharing. Maybe even more so talking locally about things that are happening on a global scale. The connection is important. The intimacy is important.

You brought up the idea of activism, and you've previously described Plasma as a platform for positive activism. I'd like to know how you understand or perceive ‘activism’ and its function in the design world?

I am always curious about other people's views, the things they have to deal with and what they think is needed to talk about it or to be active in their community. It became really important to me — something constantly moving me, constantly keeping me on my toes, and excited to learn from other people.I am interested in how I can turn activism into something that is a positive experience for someone who may feel uncomfortable taking a stand, or opening his mouth to someone who is, for example, racist or homophobic. I hope that through having an experience at Plasma or through a fashion event, that you would see that there's a strength in numbers and power in taking a stand — that it can be something that is beautiful, inclusive, and important. The strength in creating this community, in this welcoming atmosphere, only has a positive effect on everybody.

The full interview with Jess Øberlin can be found in the third edition of Blank Space Magazine. You can follow Blank Space Magazine here.

Interview: Jessica Slipp / Photography: Anniek Mol