Australian fashion designer Pia Interlandi’s career took on a somewhat ghoulish quality, when she began designing burial garments for the recently deceased.
Before 21 pigs gave up their lives to test the way different fabrics decompose, Melbourne fashion designer Pia Interlandi became a funeral celebrant.
“We couldn’t use humans because the Anatomy Act doesn’t allow it, so it had to be pigs,” Interlandi explains. “I thought, I’m not going to cope very well with these animals dying on my behalf. So, in order to give them a good send-off and to prepare myself emotionally, I decided to become a funeral celebrant.”
The experiment culminated in a couture collection literally to die for. Interlandi’s Garments for the Grave label is a capsule collection of mix-and-match burial garments designed to return to the earth along with the wearer.
It’s the genesis of an idea that formed as she dressed her paternal grandfather for his funeral.
“Doing up his leather shoes, I thought, ‘why does he need these? It’s not as if he’s going anywhere’.”
Interlandi, 27, was studying fashion when she first began experimenting with dissolvable garments as a means of exploring life’s transience, ultimately creating a fabric so fragile that if you accidentally sneezed on it holes would appear. This became the basis of the Kew (Melbourne) designer’s PhD project examining eco-fashion for the end of life and beyond.
The pig experiment – created by Interlandi and forensic entomologist Professor Ian Dadour, who has used the development of insects on corpses to determine the time of death in more than 200 homicide cases – allowed each to investigate clothing decay from their own unique perspective, by burying and disinterring animals at 50-day intervals.
“We used cellulosic, which is a plant-based material, then a protein and a synthetic,” Interlandi reveals. “The plant-based material breaks down quite quickly first, then the protein. The synthetics remained after the year – you could just give them a quick rinse off and they’d be good to go.”
Accordingly, Garments for the Grave are made mainly of hemp, with silk for edging, binding and details within the garment.
“I’d originally wanted everything to decompose, but some people have been quite interested in the idea that you incorporate an element of the design that remains with the skeleton,” she says.
“So I offer embroidery with synthetics. So you can embroider a name, a poem or a family tree – anything you like that will essentially remain and tell a story about this person should they ever be recovered.”
Interlandi, who was first identified as one to watch by Monument magazine, which designated the RMIT student as one of the top 40 design graduates of 2007, is now beginning to attract international attention.
She is now working as resident dresser for Clandon Wood Natural Burial Ground in the UK. The Surrey centre is one of 260 natural burial sites in Britain, where green funerals and woodland burials are becoming increasingly common.
She agrees her career trajectory is somewhat unusual for a fashion designer.
“I had no idea I would be doing this five years ago. I was making arty-farty fashion that no one could really wear,” Interlandi says, laughing.
“People often ask, ‘when did you go weird?’, so I have done a bit of thinking about it. I think maybe it was always there. We went through a whole lot of family videos recently and there’s me as a three-year-old sitting on a friend’s grandma’s lap and I am just staring at her face, patting her face totally intrigued, and asking, ‘why have you got cracks in your face?’.
“I think one of the reasons I can do what I am doing is that I am at ease with the idea of dying.
“It has been only recently we have become so uptight about death and fearful of it. There is nothing to be scared about with a dead body and there are actually a whole lot of things you can involve the family in that will make the process more cathartic and wholesome, that will help a lot with the grieving. That’s what I try to facilitate.”
Interlandi’s dream as a new-age death practitioner is to return from Britain and open a “deathing centre”. “I see it as a place where people can come to die in a very safe and tailor-made environment where we facilitate the family to do everything for themselves.
“In birthing centres you have beautiful big beds so the partner can be there. It is the same thing in opposition. It’s like what midwives do leading someone into birth, but leading someone out of life.”
As to where they go, Interlandi is content to wait until she gets her own answer.
“The whole idea that the body goes back into the ground, is reabsorbed and becomes other life forms, I think there is absolute romance in that.
“But as far as the soul, I’m happy not to know. I consider myself agnostic. I really don’t know about walking on lotus leaves, but I’m open to whatever happens.”
Story written by Sarah Harris
Photographs by Devika Bilimoria