Sustainability, Slavery, and Jeans: Why This Artist Only Works With Blue Denim

Every artist has their preferred medium. For some, it’s oil on canvas, for others, it’s acrylic on wood. But for English artist Ian Berry, it’s denim on denim.

Ian’s passion for making denim collages reaches back over 15 years to when he was still in college. At that time he was making newspaper collages, and while staring at a pile of jeans, he realized that newspaper and denim were actually very similar in the way they’re both monochromatic: shades of one color.

Over the years, Ian produced an arsenal of impressive pieces. His photorealistic collages have explored several themes, as the material has variously been a symbol of rebellion, the working class, high fashion, slavery, freedom, capitalism, and community.

At a glance, it’s easy to mistake his collages for paintings, but that is part of the intent. Ian meticulously selects the right fade of denim to give the illusion of brushstrokes. 

We were fortunate enough to visit Ian at his London workshop to talk about what his philosophy, how he approaches his art, and the countless ways people don’t think about the most omnipresent trousers in the Western world.  

Ian Berry. Splendid Isolation

The artist uses intricate collages of denim, some over dozen layers deep, to explore themes of community and isolation.

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10/01/2023 09:02 pm GMT

Stridewise: You work in the medium of denim. Can you see a brief overview of your career?

Ian Berry: I make all my work out of only blue jeans and for want of a better word, it’s like collage laying out the different shades together, to make it so when you stand back it looks like a painting.

I fought for a long time to say my work’s not about denim, it’s just my medium. But it actually forced me to rethink a lot of the things that have been going on in the back of my mind, to think about the actual material. I started to change the direction of the work about the concepts a little bit and to think about more of the material.

As you’ll find out as you delve more into denim, you’ll find the word duality quite a lot. It’s a material we all love, but it’s become so big. Does that mean it’s become boring, or does it mean that it’s accessible to all of us? Is it democratic or does it stand for freedom on the opposite side of that? Or is it just an unremarkable part of capitalism now? 

But at the end of the day, it’s just a material that most people around the world love and don’t really think about. You put a pair on and you feel good. I find that there’s something in the material that welcomes people into my work.

ian berry laundromat

I know that in your earlier work, the theme of community was very strong. You would make pubs, laundromats, and a lot of communal areas out of denim. Because denim is this great unifier: if I’m on the bus or on the street, 95 percent of all people are wearing jeans. It doesn’t matter which socioeconomic strata they’re from, right? 

That’s the beauty of it. Of course, there are different price points between jeans and brands, but it is a very democratic material. Everyone can wear it.

I’m presenting work which looks at changing communities.It’s the changing fabric of an urban environment. So I’m documenting things which are disappearing right in front of us, like the laundrettes and pubs.

Everyone can wear it and feel good in it. In the past it was banned from certain places, whereas now you can wear jeans in most social occasions, and I like it a lot.

berlin wall denim jeans

You’re referring to the Soviet Union where it was either banned or extremely hard to come by during the Cold War, and it became a sort of symbol of Western democracy. 

I think it was banned. One of the most beautiful images of denim history, is when the Berlin Wall came down, everybody from the West side was there in jeans, while it was banned on the East side. It was very, very obvious this contrast. I don’t think it was planned, but with all these pictures of everybody on the wall wearing it. I think it was Levi’s.

ian berry african artist

You said earlier that you like the history of denim, that some is good and some is bad.  I was recently talking to a Han at a Blackhorse Lane and he told me that you spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between  denim, African Americans, and chattel slavery in the American South.

I mean, there’s so much to say on this. The history of America is intertwined with denim. It’s now a mass produced thing that’s early heritage was from slaves harvesting cotton and indigo.

Just putting aside for a second the horrors of that history, even today, there are some 40 million people living in modern day slavery. And then there are people working for such low wages that it’s not too far removed from unpaid labor. I tie this back to them because we get used to it. We get used to paying a certain amount for things, regardless of how they’re made. So I think there’s a little link to that.

But the horrors of American slavery in particular, one of my early exhibitions, for example, was in the South in New Orleans, and I’ve always been aware of the history of where cotton came from. I mean, it’s so hard to talk about, because nothing can make you even imagine what it was like to go through that. But one thing which I find fascinating is that in those days, the plantation worker was wearing all white, and only the workers would end up wearing jeans. After slavery was abolished many musicians, for example, would not wear denim on stage and even Elvis refused to wear jeans until he was forced to in Jailhouse Rock. Then a lot of people copied him, but most African Americans would not choose to wear denim because it was linked to this horrifying history of slavery.

But through the generations, black musicians started wearing it and taking ownership of it. Then in the early 2000s, you’ve got a lot of rappers with their own denim brands! I thought it was so cool because it was taking ownership of it. Which I think reinforces the idea that today, denim is for everybody.

obama ian berry

You’ve often criticized the denim industry for its tendencies toward fast fashion and greenwashing.

It’s not on trend to talk about sustainability like this, and I don’t want to dump on the whole industry because there’s people doing amazing things. They have made so many innovations, but my point is, I don’t think it’s getting to the end consumer. There are too many people in the industry trying to impress each other. It’s like when I used to work in advertising, we used to often make advertisements just to impress other people in advertising. Like there is this mindset to do something clever, but it might not reach the end consumer. There are so many panels where people talk to one another, but it’s not getting to the consumers. There’s so much innovation, but if you walk into a denim store and see the latest pair of jeans and you wonder why isn’t this one or that one using the new innovations.

It’s very, very hard for an industry to compete when the end consumer is not demanding it. People will say they care about it but when it comes to their own wallets, they don’t. I did a lecture in America and I asked the question to people, does it bother you that you can’t get American made denim anymore? I was expecting a big uproar. It was in 2018. And they said,  ‘no, as long as I can get it cheap from Primark, I don’t care.’

Ian Berry. Splendid Isolation

The artist uses intricate collages of denim, some over dozen layers deep, to explore themes of community and isolation.

Buy Now
We earn a commission if you make a purchase, at no additional cost to you.
10/01/2023 09:02 pm GMT

So now there are brands coming out with what they call the most sustainable jean ever, but it costs 13 pounds on High Street. Well, someone’s getting screwed along the line there.

And of course, it’s more complicated than that. In Cambodia, 85% of the GDP is in the garment industry, and many of them are what you’d call a sweatshop if you saw them. But when they get shut down, then there are all these people who are out of work and in a worse position than before. Yes, people can do better and they should do better, but it’s a very, very fine line because there’s people going in, actually earning above minimum wage for their country and helping their families. To our eyes, it’s terrible, but to them, they’ve actually gained independence. I’m not saying it’s perfect. What I’m saying is that we jump on headlines without looking at the consequences. Another country will just pop up and make it cheaper, and that’s the problem. Too many people have just bought it on the street without thinking where it’s coming from.

art by Ian Berry
House Beautiful by Ian Berry

It’s such a massive topic to properly address, even for us, let alone for the average person. How much time can you really expect the average shopper to weigh the endless pros and cons of every purchase?

Just the mental energy to devote to how I can get the best version, for me, at my price point, of everything. From like my beer and then my furniture and then my jeans. Like, I just wanna go home and like watch my TV with my wife. 

With clothes, I see it as an art form. If I can find a craft jean maker or somebody who is making something themselves, then I see (the purchase) as an investment. I know if I have that jacket, I know it will last me ten or twenty years. You might pay a bit more for it because those people are getting good wages. But it’s somebody’s own livelihood you’re helping and not just a big brand. 

Raw denim is actually a very, very good example of what could be sustainable. The beauty of it is you wear it in and you earn the break in and the fades over years and years.  

ian berry denim artist denimu

When you meet people that are experiencing your art for the first time, is there anything that surprises them when they see it in person?

There’s two strands of that, because obviously some people see my work having no knowledge of my work and they don’t realize it’s made of straight denim. They think it’s blue photography, or a painting, and when they get close they’re amazed it’s made of jeans.

But then what I found really fascinating is journalists, some of whom have written about me for maybe ten years, I’ve been in their magazine several times. And then you go and show them the work in real life, and they say, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was like this.’ And I was like, ‘You’ve been writing about me for years!’ And it’s because the work is very layered.

I counted how many layers and one of the launderettes I made, and it was 15 layers of jeans. So it’s very 3 dimensional. And if you see it on Instagram or the Internet, it’s shrunk down. You don’t really get the depths, the textures, the feeling of the denim.


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Wrapping Up

Ian Berry is an artist in the truest sense. His collages don’t just stem from an interest in aesthetics, but also a drive to explore different themes and philosophies through his work. Picking up his book Splendid Isolation has been a most delightful surprise that I’d encourage anybody reading this to do. 

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Humphrey Tsui

Humphrey is a native Brooklynite who loves to talk about personal styling! He is an expert on leather, shoe construction, and the history of American pop culture. Message him on Instagram. here!

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