South African story-tailor Cleo Droomer’s design practice is engaged with the philosophical – and practical – enquiry into how the future should embody the past. In a fashion industry that is separated from the past, Cleo’s artfully constructed patchwork Droom Coats or his intricately articulate (Life) Jackets demonstrate slow hours of internal reflection and outward questioning.
Cleo is driven by clothing’s capacity to hold stories. “One of the main drivers that take us beyond survival, and into thriving, is the ability to tell stories. By understanding ourselves through connecting to one another and to making meaning, we story our worlds into being. Every time I make a garment, I am storying something into being.”
Every time I make a garment, I am storying something into being
After 14 years of wearing many corporate fashion hats, Cleo was left with questions that needed answers. In 2021, he stepped out of the corporate world to rethink his design practice. From there he stepped into a home-atelier in Makhanda: the abundantly green sanctuary from where he now dreams and works.
“Where I find myself right now as a designer and maker reflects the space I occupy as conscious citizen of this planet. As I’ve grown and expanded into new ways of living better with the earth, this evolution extended to my work naturally,” he says. Now, his focus is on finding ways to make this new space feel gentler on the planet and himself.
All Droomer garments are made from organic hemp, cotton, upcycled natural fibre fabrics, and one-of-a-kind heirloom fabrics. The symbolic link to his ancestors is a thread that runs deeply through all of Droomer’s pieces. “My connection to my heritage is a sacred one, as I believe that my existence right now is spurred on continuously by those who came before me. Droomer is a gratitude project honouring and being present with my past, present, and future.”
Droomer is a gratitude project honouring and being present with my past, present, and future
Cleo’s work is reminiscent of futurist and social systems strategist Ari Wallach’s concept of transgenerational empathy. In his recent book, Longpath, Ari writes that transgenerational empathy encourages us to be continually aware of our place place in a generational chain of being, how this relates to what we create, and to reflect on the experiences of our ancestors and future descendants. Cleo says, “I believe that fabric is imbued with memories, so when I create with heirloom fabrics it helps surface dialogues with the past in a tactile and aesthetic way.”
Cleo recently created a dress for Aaniyah Martin, founder of The Beach Co-op, which she wore to the One Blue Heart zero-waste gala dinner. In Droomer’s signature patchwork style, the dress artfully balances glamour with the tactile reminder to delve deeper. “The silhouette of this dress honours the many early cape colony members who had colonial ideals imposed upon them in the form of dress and culture, yet they re-imagined what that silhouette meant for them,” Cleo says.
The archival dress incorporates pieces of Aaniyah’s grandmother’s Abaya (prayer garb) and a dress that belonged to Cleo’s grandmother. “It felt important for Aaniyah and me to be armed with the tapestries of our heritage in spaces of conservation that have previously been championed by a colonial legacy, as we both work together in exploring emergent generative ways of living well on our planet.”
One of the biggest environmental issues facing the planet is waste, and the fashion industry is a serious culprit of creating waste. As a fashion designer, Cleo is no stranger to low-waste design practices. “When I started making the Droom Coats, I realised I had not thrown away a single scrap of fabric since I had started studying in 2007. I had black bags full of scraps. So, I decided to make a new textile,” he said during a 2022 Africa Textile Talk titled ‘Weaving and Stitching Memories’. Yet, the term “sustainability” is included in the expanse of Cleo’s questioning and re-storying.
I realised had never thrown away a single scrap of fabric since I had started studying in 2007
When I asked about his approach to sustainability in his design practice, he remarked “I am not sure if I want to just sustain things, but rather queer ‘abilities to sustain’.” In this intention of queering sustainability, Cleo is interested in cultivating practices that re-imagine how we live and make in the world. “For Droomer, it is a practice of not just choosing ecologically sound methods and sustainable materials in my approach to fashion, but exploring how the ways of making can encourage other ways of knowing, being, and doing in relation to the times we are living in.”
Last year, Cleo made a series of wearable soft-sculptures called (Life) Jackets which were flotation devices made with his family’s heirloom fabric. The (Life) Jackets speak to the many ways his family’s stories had drowned or sunk below the colonial narrative. It is the conversations that have arisen from this body of work, which explore hidden histories, that Cleo speaks of most fondly. “The (Life) Jackets offer us a warm way to have a conversation and re-story painful things in a manageable and restorative way. So, I have found storytelling, through my garments as a way of reframing colonial narratives in intimate and relatable ways.”
I have found storytelling, through my garments as a way of reframing colonial narratives in intimate and relatable ways
While the past is a central motif in his work, moving forward Cleo plans to find deeper ways to merge this with the future. After being awarded the Changemaker Award at the 2022 Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards, along with an R100 000 prize from Country Road, he hopes to create spaces for collaborative reimagining. “I imagine leading change labs for the industry, and hopefully getting the giants of fashion to work with Droomer to create mending stations and in-house studios that repurpose and recreate garments with the public.”
He says, “I hope to see my contribution to fashion being one that celebrates the glamour and magic that has always inspired me, but to see this re-imagined in a slow, tactile, ecologically sensitive way.”
If looking backward, inward, forward is the task ahead of us and we unravel fashion’s past and stitch it into a fair future, then engaging with Cleo Droomer’s work seems a poignant place for reorientation – and perhaps an invitation for us all to reflect on our responsibility in our own generational chains of being.