Designers take new path from rags to riches
By Susan Carpenter
Los Angeles Times
In a new twist on sustainable fashion, designers aren't just embracing new fabrics made from organic cotton, hemp or bamboo. They're pawing through piles of clothing waste and crafting high-fashion, hand-made items from old cashmere sweaters, T-shirts and other castoffs.
In the U.S., there's a lot to choose from. Almost 9 million tons of clothes and shoes end up in the municipal waste stream each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"Most sustainable fashion is focused on substituting materials, whether it's going from conventional cotton to organic, or from (synthetic) rayon to (wood-based) Tencel," said Lynda Grose, a fashion designer and associate professor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. "Designers are usually focused on the product, the materials, the hand feel — the look, attitude and colors. We're generally not very involved in the supply chain, and that's where all the environmental impacts are."
Clothing accounts for as much as 11 percent of a household's carbon footprint, according to a 2009 study from the European Society for Ecological Economics. That's to say nothing of the water that goes into making various fashions. It takes 2,866 gallons to make a pair of blue jeans and 569 gallons to make a cotton T-shirt, according to the Dutch environmental group Water Footprint.
Looking at the supply chain, Grose said, designers can find all kinds of opportunities for innovation.
That's how handbag designer Shannon South found her way toward converting old leather jackets into stylish new purses.
"I used to make bags from PVC and have them manufactured in China," said South, 37, who founded ReMade USA in San Francisco in 2008 after attending a lecture about the environment. "I started to feel really, really guilty for what I was doing, so I started searching for other materials."
That led her to a fake leather made from tree sap that would need to be imported from Brazil — an idea she discarded in favor of going to her local Salvation Army and Goodwill.
"I found a leather jacket and let the details guide my design. I loved the result and quickly became obsessed with studying old jacket details and seeing them on bags," said South, who now makes a collection ranging from $125 clutches to $400 computer bags, all from old leather jackets she either finds herself or that are sent in from customers.
South's handbags are sold online and at Barneys.
Deborah Lindquist's creations are snatched up by celebrities, among others. The cashmere sweaters she's refashioned into cardigans, shrugs, crew neck sweaters, dresses and bustiers have been worn by celebs including Rihanna, Hayden Panetierre and Sharon Stone, who literally bought the sweater off Lindquist's back — even Paris Hilton and her dogs, since Lindquist also makes dog sweaters.
Lindquist, 53, was inspired by a visit to the Rose Bowl flea market, where she saw a pile of cashmere sweaters and thought she could do something with them.
"People get rid of their sweaters because there's a stain or they don't like it. They get rid of it because there's a problem with it. So maybe there's a hole in there. No big deal. I can put an applique on it and create something new," said Lindquist, who retails her cardigans for $350 and bustiers for $685 at boutiques in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, as well as her own shop in North Hollywood.
Those prices may seem high, but "you can't have economies of scale," said Eveline Morel, owner of the L.A. boutique EM & Co. on 3rd Street, which sells a variety of "trashions." "You have to do it piece by piece. They're creations, and there's a certain amount of art in them. It's like couture in that they're one-of-a-kind pieces, and it ends up being rather expensive."
The time commitment and resulting expense of recycling old fashions into new is part of the reason Morel discontinued her own EM Reconstructed line in favor of carrying others', such as Bettina Hubby, who "rearranges" old dresses, and Micha Design, which takes vintage jewelry pieces and recombines them into new pieces.
Shoes and clothes have been making up an increasing percentage of the U.S. waste stream, accounting for 3.5 percent, according to the EPA. In the United Kingdom, the problem has been growing even more rapidly. One of the country's largest waste management companies said its textile waste had increased from 7 percent to 30 percent between 2003 and 2008, according to a 2008 House of Commons report.
"I wanted to show a different way of making and consuming fashion," said Karen Dennis, 40, a U.K. designer who, for the last three years, has been running the label Ketchup. Her top sellers are jackets made from discarded duvet covers and curtains, dresses crafted from old saris and harem pants from no-longer-fashionable track suits.
"For some people at the beginning, they'd say it was recycled and turn their noses up," said Dennis, who lives in North England. "Now, being recycled gives it added value."
Kathleen Tesnakis estimates she's recycled 7 tons of "post-consumer" materials into accessories and clothing in the 13 years she's run Eko logic, making dresses out of thrown-away T-shirts and pocket squares from men's dress shirts. Tesnakis, 45, says she's made as many as 3,000 pieces in a year using a handful of style templates she's designed.
No two are the same.
"I make them like small paintings," says Tesnakis, who charges $80 to $280 per item. "Otherwise I would not be able to survive.
"I like to make a quality product," she added. "I don't want you to walk out into the everyday world and feel like you're wearing something just patched together or obviously recycled," said Tesnakis, who started her business in Portland, Ore., and now lives in Troy, N.Y. "I need to make something that's so beautiful people want to wear it whether they're green or not."