Designs by Leby Le Morìa

Leby Le Morìa's Modular Clothing Is a Choose-Your-Own Fashion Adventure

Welcome to On the Up, our feature series where we talk with designers who are making sustainable strides in the fashion industry through upcycling. They'll explain their process, share a few tips, and hopefully inspire you to repurpose your own wares.

There’s a practical seriousness that is difficult to untangle from modular clothing. At first mention, my mind floods with images of tactical jackets with removable liners and hoods, add-on sleeves that convert vests into sweaters, and the zip-off cargo pants that dominated my suburban teenage life in the early aughts. These are pragmatic clothes, clothes with a job to do, clothes for preppers.

Leby Le Morìa, a 30-year-old designer from Quezon City, Philippines, imagines something more fluid. Her concept, titled Skin’s skin, Remember?, which I first encountered on Instagram via the Filipino vintage shop Glorious Dias, uses pieces of secondhand fabrics from her personal collection to build a capsule of necessary garments—a T-shirt, a collared shirt, a tank top, a pair of cropped pants, and a gown—all from completely interchangeable squares. Her approach creates a kind of loose patchwork that the wearer can deconstruct and reassemble over and over again. (The post's caption read: "Choose your own adventure but make it fashion.")

Le Morìa's is a unique proposition for modular clothing, one that is customizable at a remarkably fundamental level. To make it, she painstakingly hand-cut and sewed each piece, including the frog fasteners which function as ligatures along each unit's perimeter. Her labor is mirrored in the meticulous work the wearer must do to assemble the garment for themselves—a process which runs counter to previous formulations of modular clothing, which typically cater to the wearer's convenience, apologizing for the added effort to zip off a sleeve or leg by appearing useful above anything else and sacrificing the way a garment falls on the body. Le Morìa's designs, however, are both versatile and sensuous. Her gown, in particular, toes a delicate line between slinky and structured, holding shape when still but becoming liquid in motion.

Over email, she writes, "I had that idea because of the life and environment I'm in. I'm thinking of new ways while being resourceful." Le Morìa, who identifies as transgender, describes her day-to-day as "living in survival mode." The Philippines is currently experiencing the compounding brutality of parallel economic, food, climate, and political crises; trans Filipinos must endure all of the above in addition to an atmosphere which is hostile to their existence, facing barriers in legal recognition, access to education, employment, healthcare, and redress as victims of violence and discrimination. In the face of all this, Le Morìa holds firmly to hope in the form of her own creative self-determination. "I'm challenging the old way and suggesting new ways," she writes defiantly.

As we chat over email, a series of exchanges spanning the last few months, what Le Morìa seems to cherish most about her idea is the way it illuminates and blurs the lines between what is replaceable and irreplaceable. When one unit is too damaged or worn beyond repair, it can be exchanged without disrupting the essence of the garment, but these clothes can also be long-term homes for precious memories—of favorite outfits, of past experiences, of people—in the same manner as a heirloom quilt, only continuous, limitless, and right there, on your skin.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Design by Leby Le Morìa

Leby Le Morìa / Design by Tiana Crispino

Gaby Wilson: What were you like as a kid?

Leby Le Moría: I was very shy but friendly. I self-identified at age four and learned about creativity around the same time, so very early in my life, I was drawn to creativity. Creativity has been my safe space.

Did you experiment with clothing then?

Yes! At five years old, I used to play with our neighbors and their Barbie dolls. They had scrap fabrics, needles, and thread, and I remember I made this tube dress gown out of chiffon with black, white, and yellow print. Talking about it right now is nostalgic—it was the first time I used needle and thread to make a dress. I also did tons of drawing ball gowns and playing with paper dolls. But in terms of personal style, I don't think I really had any, I just wore whatever. As a kid, I wasn't self-conscious, even though I had gender dysphoria, but I would describe my personality then like mimosa pudica, the makahiya plant: If you touch it, it will fold its leaves. I lived a very normcore style as a kid because I felt like it would cause chaos in my life to step out of that.

Leby Le Morìa

Leby Le Morìa / Design by Tiana Crispino

What is one of your earliest memories of how powerful clothing can be?

When my mama was preparing for my eldest brother's elementary graduation, she bought fabrics and had a custom long-sleeve shirt and pants made by a nearby seamstress. I just thought the way she transformed herself was so cool because she didn't really dress up much. She was usually very simple. She really prepared for my brother's graduation. She bought different fabrics in Divisoria, if I'm not mistaken. I still keep the green printed chiffon she never got to use.

Did you have a favorite outfit as a kid or teen?

All I remember is that I was really into white tees. My favorite was my Teletubbies T-shirt!

I'm such a fan of your Skin’s skin, Remember? collection. Your proposition for modular clothing is so smart and unique and impressively executed. What were you thinking about when you started exploring the concept?

It was the last quarter of 2019, and I was supposed to join a design competition. Since I didn't have funds to buy fabrics, I tried looking at fabrics that I already owned and realized I had an idea for how to create clothing that would be completely customizable, something that I think is needed in the current fashion system. I wanted to involve the consumer in the creative process, because to me, as a creative person, the creative process forms a bond between me and my idea, which, I think, leads me to really value the end product. I think that the problem of overconsumption happens when that sense of value is lost, when things are so available and easy to find that they're viewed as replaceable.

Designs by Leby Le Morìa

Leby Le Morìa / Design by Tiana Crispino

Can you walk me through your design process?

Human inventions are usually made with the help of grid lines (like blueprints), and I kind of imagine the world with grid lines, including clothing. When I was still conceptualizing it, I had to sketch to see if it was possible, visually, then I proceeded to the design process. The connectors are also made of reused clothing—they're hand-sewn which takes a lot of time and attention, as they need to be very tight and sewn securely. I sew a lot of connectors, cut fabric pieces, sew them together, and then, I will think of styles of clothing. I started with making the T-shirt because it's the most-worn garment style today, but the dress, I sort of freestyled—I already had the "sando" as the foundation and just continued to lengthen it to make it into a dress.

What are some memories you have of the garments that you ended up using?

There are pieces of my mama's clothes which I took as a memento of her after she passed. I decided to use them in the collection as a way to relive her memory. There's also a floral T-shirt that I bought in a thrift market in Pampanga when I stayed there for a month. A lot of excess fabrics from class projects in design school, which remind me of the happiness of learning something you're passionate about, and of being free, and the people I met in design school. Other fabrics remind me of the beautiful chaos of fabric stores in Divisoria.

Was sustainability something you were thinking about when you were designing this collection?

Definitely. I watched a lot of documentaries about how used clothes are shipped to developing countries and how the clothes that aren't sold are thrown in dumpsites. It's alarming to see our collective behavior toward clothing. It's what we use to identify ourselves, to express ourselves, yet we put so little value in it. It feels like such a paradox.

Designs by Leby Le Morìa

Leby Le Morìa / Design by Tiana Crispino

The word "upcycling" is a relatively new term, but this practice of reuse, of reimagining what discarded things can be, is really long-standing in the Philippines. One example is basahan, which is basically the reuse of old T-shirts to make colorful woven mats and cleaning rags, but it's not just textiles—the Jeepney is basically an upcycling icon.

Even with food, we try not to waste any part of the chicken or pig! Reusing and upcycling are beautiful parts of Filipino culture that I think should be practiced in different parts of the world. I really value the stories that come from my relationship to objects. I have slippers that I've had since 2012, and I've already made five different straps for them so I can continue to use them. I always admire the beauty of woven basahan. Sometimes I take photos of it—it's like an abstract painting done in a repeating pattern.

What challenge are you excited to take on next in terms of your design or sustainability practice?

I want to learn more about the science and technology of creating textiles, like how to reuse the materials of old clothes, and to also explore organic materials like Piña fabric.

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