The London-based architecture collective Assemble has converted a former car repair shop in New Orleans into a fashion manufacturing hub that offers free education and training for local youth. Dubbed Material Lab, the school is part of an experimental art school founded by the Tasmania-based Museum of New and Old Art (MONA), which also includes a music recording studio and a cooperative garden located nearby.

In New Orleans, Assemble, a multidisciplinary studio known for its civic-minded interventions on abandoned structures and in disenfranchised areas, created a space that nods to the ruin. The first floor of the industrial garage was adapted into two large work and production spaces that are finished simply with coats of white paint and exposed concrete floors. One of the most visually striking elements of the building are the doorways and windows that appear to be punched through the walls, complete with jagged brick outlines. Some of these openings frame small plots of vegetation growing inside the building envelope, which are held behind large panes of clear glass. Bright coats of orange and mint green paint highlight structural beams and ceilings, with the orange hue reappearing in the chairs and rolling racks for clothes and textiles. Much of the furniture was designed and put together onsite by Assemble.

Photo of a large mirror in a rough workspace

Window and doorway openings at Material Lab (Kelly Colley)

Material Lab melds the rich culture of costuming, craft, and fashion in New Orleans with the progressive pedagogy of schools like Black Mountain College, a radically run arts college in North Carolina. The lab offers space, professional guidance, and manufacturing equipment for the production of clothing and textile design to youth ages 14 to 30, with the goal of offering a venue for both creative expression and fostering economic independence. With a focus on hands-on learning, the pilot curriculum included textile printing, embellishment, pattern cutting, draping, and clothing design, and the new building is well-equipped with industrial sewing machines, a large dye sublimation printer, a weaving loom, a heat press, other dye equipment, computers, dress forms, and the like. The first pilot session of the school culminated in a December show. Judging by images from the event, the raw and unfinished aesthetic of the space serves the energy of the emerging and experimental designers well.

Photo of large prints piled on a table with fog rising from them

Display during pilot fashion show at Material Lab, designed by Assemble (Kewon Hunter)

Assemble began working with the school in 2016 at the invitation of MONA and ran the 2018 pilot, which continued through the summer of 2019. It worked with local legends like master beader Big Chief Demond Melancon of the Young Seminole Hunters as well as international fashion stars like Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear, along with other fashion designers and textile artists. After the pilot, the school is now gearing up to run on a permanent basis.

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