Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Bluebird of Happiness

A passionate Philly artist takes flight into the fashion world with a keen eye for design and a strong sense of purpose. 

"Birds" backstage at Wonderland Fashion Show.

By guest blogger Tony Rossi.

In a former textile factory warehouse in the city once called “The Workshop of the World,” Philadelphia based company, SSEWARD LLC, seeks to revolutionize production approaches with its latest project, The Bluebird of Happiness.

Starting out with an idea for a t-shirt, project founder, Scott Bickmore, quickly realized there was something more to be made with this concept. “Thinking about the bluebird as a species and a mythology - this idea of optimism and being the bluebird - I started to see how empowering it was, maybe in ways I didn’t understand," said the artist in an interview for Designer In Exile. "People were criticizing me for being cryptic. Still, I kept it loose.”

Addie Delph models Yarn Fringed Top, Frankford Ave.

But when event promoter, Rhina Ju, called him out of the blue looking for designers for a Rittenhouse fashion show, the project finally took form. “I just said yes even though I had nothing," he said. "I had two days to design and make six pieces for three models.” With the goal of being resourceful and making a spectacle, Mr. Bickmore teamed up with artists Nate Gertner and Rebecca Kolodziejczak to turn out designs like the stitchless “Barbed Field Gown,” and the “Brooding Skirt,” made from a fleece blanket.

Barbed Field Gown display 
Not surprising, the project caught the eye of New York City Fashion Week superwoman, Melani Von Alexandria. Experimenting with a new egg-membrane derived fabric developed in Japan, Von Alexandria wanted to collaborate with “the bird guy” on a VIP gift bag for PIFA 2011 at the Kimmel Center.

This became an opportunity for the Bluebird of Happiness to test out its new business model: Incorporate therapeutic activities and programs into the production of a fashion line. After working with the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush making a "Green Monochrome" for 3rd Federal Bank as a part of the Monochromes Project, another SSEWARD endeavor that uses all second hand or recycled material to make a work of art of a designated color, Mr. Bickmore approached an autistic classroom at the school to help design and make “nests” and “eggs” for PIFA.

Healing Eggs More info.
What resulted was something extraordinary. Using foraged sticks, twigs, and Melani Von Alexandria fabric scraps, these autistic children started making bluebird nests with hardly any direction. “I was inspired by Temple Grandin," he said, referring to the acclaimed autistic author and subject of a recent HBO film starring Claire Danes. "She talks about autistics having a visual and kinesthetic intelligence. I thought this could work.”

When teacher’s aid, Rose Somers, pulled Mr. Bickmore aside and told him that a sixteen-year-old student just tied the first knot of his life, he knew it was working. Teacher, Candace Dare, agreed and now wants to team up with her colleague in New Jersey, along with other schools and programs in the city to set up more bluebird programs and activities.

“This is the antithesis of the sweat-shop,” said Mr. Bickmore, “This is the idea. Work doesn’t have to be brutal, tolerable, obligatory or any of those things. It can actually reward and exhilarate. You can whistle while you work.”

To learn more about “The Bluebird of Happiness” and to get involved, visit:
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  1. Nice post. Interested to know about the materials used in the line. Are they recycled or re-appropriated? Are these items available for retail?


  2. Hi Matt,

    BB uses both "foraged" and fabricated materials (i.e. the "Barbed Field Gown" was made with high quality silk bought at Mood in NYC, and also wire from a found hanger). Items are available for retail and guaranteed for life. Check out:

    Thanks for your interest!


  3. Good stuff. Philly seems to have a unique sensibility when it comes to these types of projects. I read the previous post about the "Soil Kitchen" installation and was impressed at the extent to which your artists are engaged with the community, businesses, and local government. Yet the work still seems fresh if not edgy.


  4. Thanks for commenting on the blog. Yes, there is sort of a buzz going on here, for various reasons - workspace is affordable, and there seems to be an influx of young people in communities like Fishtown.

    I think the connection to the community just goes with the territory. This is a city of neighborhoods, and it's hard not to be of that. Who would not want to be?

  5. A nice theory for the anti-sweatshop production environment, but how exactly does the artist intend to compete in the general marketplace already dominated by low wage, outsourced labor. Is this a workable business model?

    Susan P.

  6. That is a great question, Susan, and one that I believe we should be persistently asking. At this stage, I am interested in experimenting and inspiring new attitudes about how we make and wear clothes, and how we produce and use things in general. BB’s market right now is really Education and Consulting. Our products are vehicles for experimentation and engagement. We’re trying new things and seeing what works. Then we’re using what we learned to collaborate on more experimentation. This model would resemble team-building exercises or educational workshops. Ours uses the goal of incorporating therapeutic activities and inherent reward into the production of “The Bluebird of Happiness” fashion line. Our first experiment was with an austistic classroom. The production activity the students engaged in proved to be therapeutic in that, through this activity, students were accomplishing things they hadn’t accomplished before. Also, according to teachers, the students were laughing and talking more as a result of the activity, and this was helping their treatment and education. There were no wages involved. In this way, alone, we were competitive with low, sweatshop wages. After this experience, these educators want to involve more people and organizations to try this and other activities on a larger scale.

    While I am also experiencing the inherent reward of setting up these programs for “The Bluebird of Happiness” project, I also value the resources that a competitive and viable company can provide, and so it is my goal to be successful in that way as well. With this in mind, I am approaching mentors, investors and advisors on how to build and sustain this model, which has been surprisingly appealing to people in ways I wouldn’t have expected. The suggestion I keep hearing is to focus on using a consulting based model, for now, and operate as an educational and team building resource for companies, organizations and communities. The products at this stage, in the anti-sweatshop transition, would be vehicles for introducing this new attitude and demonstrating how it works. As we continue to test out and develop alternatives to cheap, demoralizing labor, and begin to empower other companies with this model, we will be competing and hopefully one day antiquate the sweatshop.

    Please feel free to contact me with any more questions, or even better, apply to “Be A Bird” and come fly with us!

    Scott Bickmore