But New York-based fashion designer Mimi Prober is something of a rarity. A creator of exquisite and ethereal handcrafted apparel and accessories, Prober uses recovered fragments of antique materials that date back as far as the 18th to early 20th centuries. Through utilizing recovered materials, natural and locally produced luxury fibers and botanical-based dye methods, Prober’s custom textiles enable a zero-waste, closed-loop system that embodies “sustainable luxury.” A Fashion Institute of Technology graduate — whose work is on display as part of the permanent collection at the Museum at FIT’s “Fashion Unraveled” exhibit — Prober’s aesthetic has caught the eye of celebrities such as Rihanna, Erykah Badu and Misty Copeland, who have all worn her creations. And, Prober was recently tapped to collaborate with Rocktopia on Broadway as the show’s fashion designer. Prober is represented by Kelly Cutrone and People’s Revolution.
Here, Prober talks to WWD about antique textiles, local sourcing and sustainable luxury.
WWD: How do you source antique materials? How do you guarantee textiles’ authenticity?
Mimi Prober: The process of sourcing the antique materials is continuous — always seeking that special textile to share within our collection. We are fortunate in that many of our textiles come directly from individuals who have inherited them. Our philosophy is always about sharing the story, capturing these rare handmade pieces that would otherwise have been forgotten, and preserving their history and artistry by bringing it forward for a new generation.
Each season we explore new elements of antique materials to introduce into the collection; I love the process of uncovering that rare gem, it is always where the inspiration starts. Over the past several seasons, in addition to our signature antique lace, embroidery and beadwork — circa 18th century to early 20th century. We have also introduced hand-embroidered crazy quilting — circa 1800s-early 1900s, a favorite as it incorporates everything about our own zero-waste philosophy; handwoven textiles — linen, hemp, cotton — originating from farms (circa 19th-early 20th century), and boro and sashiko stitching with Japanese indigo and sumi — circa 1800s. We spend time researching, documenting any stories that come with the piece, learning the unique history from the original owner’s family — or individuals that we have acquired the textile from — whenever possible. There are textiles that will have a handwritten lineage of their provenance and story included; many pieces, specifically our handwoven hemp/linens and hand-embroidered quilting, will have the signature of the original maker and/or the date of creation embroidered within.
We also have mentors who have guided our education and expanded our knowledge, having had the honor and privilege to personally assist museums with preserving and cataloguing various elements of their own textile collections.
WWD: What inspired the implementation of a “zero-waste philosophy,” and how is that employed in each collection?
M.P.: A zero-waste philosophy has always been at the core of our ethos; the passion for sharing heirloom textiles and the importance of using every fragment throughout the process, as each handcrafted material is too treasured to ever be discarded.
As a pioneer of sustainable luxury, our brand philosophy is based on meaningful creation and a closed-loop circular development process, which in turn includes zero-waste implementation. From incorporating even the smallest, yet still innately precious and cherished, handmade textiles in our custom textile development which also includes integrating local luxury fibers, we utilize, mend and preserve every piece. This not only includes a zero-waste philosophy within our textiles that result in garment creation, but also our packaging, as even the smallest material clipping or antique silk embroidery thread is saved and is then reincorporated into the creation of our custom crafted paper, which can be found as the source card on each collection piece.
WWD: What are the processes behind natural botanical floral transfer and hand dyeing? What aspects of those processes are healing or meditative?
M.P.: All added color throughout the collection is achieved through natural dye processes sustainably acquired from the earth. From harvesting locally grown Japanese indigo at an upstate New York farm that we have partnered with, to using flowers that would have otherwise been discarded from florists within our community, to foraging within our own backyard, the natural dye process allows us to be mindful of Mother Nature and the bounty she brings us.
Our signature painterly watercolor effect found within our textiles is achieved through natural botanical transfer; this is a unique and completely organic process, allowing you to personally connect with the florals through an artistic application, as if you are “painting with flowers.” In turn, the flowers that are used — we favor rose, hibiscus, etc. — have their own individual healing properties.
WWD: Why is handcrafting so integral to the Mimi Prober brand philosophy?
M.P.: Our entire approach to creation is about weaving the past into the present, the preservation of tradition, individual narratives and history through creating modern handcrafted heirlooms. Each piece is uniquely developed by upholding ancient techniques such as hand felting, weaving, hand embroidery, lost wax casting and reimagining handmade antique materials — all honor the hands that created the art. Many of our antique materials originate from various parts of the world, we strive to learn, inspire and preserve these very special techniques, so their history is never lost.
Whether this is taking a step back and paying tribute to the handmade antique materials and inspiring a new audience to treasure and appreciate these rare pieces and the story of the artisans who came before us, or the process of our custom textile creation, we believe in a slower approach to design by having a closeness and connection to each piece established by handcraft.
WWD: Your sustainable atelier, ready-to-wear and fine jewelry collections are all made in New York. Would you elaborate on your experience with manufacturing in New York and the importance of local manufacturing?
M.P.: Local creation offers valuable opportunities that not only support the local economy but also fosters collaboration and community engagement. This has always been integral to our process and ultimate vision. From farm, to textile, to manufacturing; we are closely involved throughout and can build toward sustainability from every standpoint.
What I am most passionate about is the opportunity to work with local farms and mills; this has allowed us not only to truly develop one-of-a-kind textiles that are uniquely our own signature, process and IP; but also to appreciate the work of the farmers who are passionate in sharing their knowledge on local fiber and sustainable textile creation, where we have been able to learn about the entire fiber process. We work closely with an upstate New York wind and solar-powered farm and mill, Buckwheat Bridge, where we create our hand-felted textiles. We are also a part of an FIT president’s sustainability grant, working with New York’s Maple Shade Farm in growing and harvesting flax, now in the process of being prepared to be spun into yarn by the New England Flax and Linen Study Group, which will then be handwoven into our custom textiles — and also implementing traditional lace-making — to develop into collection garments. We are also preparing Industrial Hemp for introduction into the supply chain that has been grown through SUNY Morrisville.
Another very special partnership is with the Vicuña Nube fiber; we are the first brand to bring this very rare ultra-luxurious fiber into the sustainable luxury fashion world both on the runway and in-store.
Vicuña Nube is an American bred luxury fiber, known as one of the softest fibers in the world and as valuable in its rarity as a precious metal or fine gem. Its ancestor includes the elusive vicuña and compares equally in fiber softness and micron count to the wild vicuña. Although their heritage goes back to South America’s Andes Mountains, this breed is exclusively developed in the U.S. Working directly with Victory Farm, which is a three-generation family run sustainable farm who are the passionate caretakers to these beautiful camelids, this superior fiber exceeds its ancestors in annual fiber growth and offers a wide spectrum of natural colors — ivory, golden to very dark brown.
We have exclusively developed the Vicuña Nube into our custom textile offering, including hand felting, hand weaving and handknit pieces.
WWD: Would you elaborate on the techniques and processes employed to create your own textiles?
M.P.: The foundation for creating our custom textiles is our own signature process which combines local luxury fibers with encapsulated antique fragments embedded within. In line with our closed-loop design process and zero-waste philosophy, we are able to highlight and preserve the smallest of materials, including fragments that individually would have been beyond restoration. Integrating this with specially selected luxury fiber, we have designed a completely new and innovative artisanal based luxury textile that is uniquely ours and cannot be replicated.
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