T-shirts that travelled the globe

Here’s what happened when artist Alexine Chanel sent 27 of them all around the world

Alexine Chanel has a theory about why consumers aren’t concerned about where their pocket-friendly fast fashion comes from. “I call it the ‘geographical triangle of oblivion’ — a company in Sweden commissions a factory in Bangladesh to make clothes, then ships it all over the world. Since there is a lack of proximity to the workers and their conditions, it’s human nature to be unconscious to it,” she explains.

This awareness — which came with the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, where over 1,100 workers died — led the French artist to embark on a project that highlighted the terrible conditions that factory workers are subject to. ‘The Lucky Index’ is the story of one seamstress, which was shared with the audience at Alliance Francaise of Madras earlier this week. “I felt the best way to go about it was to pick one person and focus on their life. When you say there are 80 million workers in this industry, the number is so large that it becomes abstract; there will be no impact on people,” she says.

In a sense, it was luck- fate-destiny, call it what you will, that brought the artist and subject, Sharmili Akther Lucky, together in Dhaka in 2016. Hearing of the foreigner who wanted to meet a garment worker, she walked up to Alexine on the street and introduced herself in English, “My name is Lucky, but I am not lucky.” In preparation for the project, Alexine had purchased 27 plain white T-shirts from an H&M outlet in Berlin, all with a ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag. In a performance at Alliance Francaise in Dhaka, the seamstress signed the clothes, which then travelled back to Berlin.

T-shirts that travelled the globe

One by one

For a couple of years, Alexine toyed with the idea of what to do with them. Last February, she began distributing the T-shirts to friends across the world. “Each shirt was assigned a letter of the alphabet, and given to a person whose name starts with that letter. A went to Amelie, B went to Bullet, C to Céleste, D to David… They were given the freedom to do what they wanted with it; my job, as secretary, was to document the journey of these T-shirts,” she says.

Of course, there were some hiccups along the way. “I didn’t know anyone with a name starting with Q. So I decided to look for a Quentin: I posted ads in the Berlin newspapers (where I live) and online, asking for someone of that name to get in touch for an art project.” Not surprisingly, most of the responses were people looking for love. “I even had an Indian man offering me $50,000 to be his wife,” she says with a laugh. Thankfully, one of her friends on Facebook put her in touch with a quantum physicist called Quentin — “He gave the T-shirt to a Bangladeshi friend who wanted to get married, in the hope that it would change his fate, or Lucky’s.”

T-shirts that travelled the globe

Others have taken the T shirts to various places: Alexine’s mother Francine, a fervent Catholic, took it to Lourdes and got it blessed with holy water, while teenager Céleste wore it on a date and took many selfies with it. “Bullet made a collage, a film, wore it to a wedding, played football; Eliza wants to auction it, Gunther took it to three shops and asked them to put it on mannequins in the window display,” she reels off her favourites. One person in Greece has made a photo project of different women wearing the T-shirt, putting themselves in Lucky’s place.

Epic proportions

Each T-shirt has travelled, on average, a distance of 27,244 km and in total, 7,35,600 km. “Google tells me that if this distance had been walked at a brisk pace, it would have taken 2,043 days and 17 hours to complete all these trajectories,” says Alexine. The numbers are not surprising, considering that the clothes were sent as far afield as Estonia, France, Iceland, Israel, Holland, Canary Islands and Brazil.

She is now taking the talk to Berlin and later in the year to Korea. “I have plans to get all the T-shirts together for a retrospective in 2021. It will be in Berlin for six months, and apart from the journey that they have taken, we will have other events centred around the fast fashion industry, which is but a cog in the machinery that is capitalism,” she concludes.

See Alexine Chanel’s work on alexinechanel.space

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