Orsola de Castro, an up-cycling pioneer and a mom of four, posesses an inexhaustible energy, especially when it comes to bringing awareness to green fashion. She began up-cycling as early as 1997, with her original label From Somewhere, back in the days when the terms ‘eco fashion’, or ‘fast fashion’ for that matter, were pretty uncommon. The idea was simple; she took on luxury waste and re-made it into new beautiful garments. Ever an optimist she of course did not stop there. In 2006 she and her partner, Filippo Ricci, launched Esthetica a ground-breaking initiative under the British Fashion Council with the goal of nurturing young designers to think and create sustainably.
In 2011 she proceeded to create Reclaim To Wear, ‘ a collaborative arm of her label’, which has already resulted in inspiring collaborations with the holy grail of British fashion schools, Central St Martin’s (also an Esthetica project), as well as retail giants like ASOS and Topshop.
As an effective mediator between designers, tastemakers and retailers, Orsola is a true believer that by turning ‘waste to fashion’, she can foster a healthy attitude in an industry that is often defined by an admiration of all things ‘new’. We visited her eclectic Battersea studio in London, where she chatted with A Boy Named Sue about how we can change the world of fashion.
How did you get started with the brand? Where did the idea come from?
My designs were born out of crochet. My wonderfully skilled grandmother taught me how to do it. I was going to some amazing party and I had this jumper that I needed to wear, but it was covered in holes and stains. So I took my very fine crochet needle, couple of yarns and I just started crocheting around all the holes. Maybe there were twenty people in that evening saying it’s brilliant, that they wanted one of those jumpers. Within three days... I had crocheted around almost everyone I knew!
A shop called The Cross, which was selling my printed textiles, spotted them. They sold out within a week. Literally, within six months we were in Lane Crawford, Henri Bendel, Browns and all the major boutiques in London. I was buying old jumpers and customizing them. I started buying a whole lot of prison coats, skirts and kilts - anything I could find that needed to be rehashed somehow or another. We began to realize how much waste there was and thought there must be more (sustainable) ways to create. It really started off, when we were approached by an English company called Jigsaw. They were buying our jumpers and asked us if we could do something with the ones coming with defects from the factories in Hong Kong, or with the garments that weren’t selling. That’s how we realized the model could work - by using stuff that was coming directly from the factories and not just second-hand. That was a big change.
At which point did you actually decide to take it a step further? Was it a natural progression?
It was a natural progression. The collaboration with Jigsaw happened between 1999-2001. The actual realization that our target was pre-consumer waste happened around the time Filippo (Ricci) joined the company, so in 2000-2001. But it was an organic story. The way that it actually physically happened - the way we started using little bits and pieces of scraps was when an Italian manufacturer, that produced knitwear for top designers, approached us. The lady who runs the business discovered Alaïa, and brought various designers to Italy - she’s a hooter! She called me saying that she had some garments that we could take. I went to see the factory. They were in full production and I started picking up stuff from the floor. And the lady was saying: “It’s rubbish.” I cried: “No, it’s not rubbish!” She had a total eureka moment like me. We’ve been using their stuff ever since.
We use waste from every possible stream. Upcycling, particularly in the UK, is huge as it rings strongly with young designers and students. It’s very available, very creative. We are one of the few that not only cooperate with garments from post-production (leftovers, ends of fabric rolls) but we also produce from a pre-consumer stage. Pre-consumer is when everything comes from the mills. These textiles have never seen production and never will because of the defects. And again, we use color charts and stuff that is discarded directly from the manufacturer prior to the clothes’ makers. It’s a full cycle.
Tell us about the work you do with Central St. Martin’s?
It started with a team project for 80 students in November 2011. I basically taught them how to produce a whole little mini-brand through up-cycling. It wasn’t just the collection itself, but also the story behind it and everything that goes with this (sustainable) method. The students just loved it. Partly because it was cheap! Normally they have to buy their own fabrics, but this time they had all readily available for them. But it was also because they got to be very creative. The press, including Suzy Menkes, wrote about it. Since it was so successful, we quickly found a way to make the formula slightly more accessible. Veolia Environmental Services now sponsors the project.
Collaborating with CSM is Estethica’s project. At Reclaim to Wear we work with one young graduate. In 2012 it was Liora Lassalle. She basically moved in to our studio until her collection was complete and a retail partner was found. What we’re doing with Estethica is nurturing young talents, giving them the knowledge, not just mainstream exposure and mentoring through British Fashion Council. The focus is on sustainable mentoring through us and other upcyclists, as well as experts working with eco-fabrics. So that young talents can launch their own label and work sustainably from scratch.
Do you think that shops are willing to take sustainable fashion on board? Is it becoming mainstream?
I’m an eternal optimist. You would probably get a different answer from other people. I think yes. We’ve seen designers such as Christopher Raeburn, who was the first designer we sponsored inside Estethica. He’s one of the most successful and best-selling UK brands at the moment. Looking at someone like him - yes. Even if not in terms of selling, they’re getting an enormous amount of press. One of our UK designers, Lu Flux, had a page in Vogue Italy. We are exposing them to a bigger market. London Fashion Week itself is more about the press than it is about sales. Very important Italian buyers have approached all our designers.
I think there is a bite from the buyer. It’s impossible to talk about eco-fashion and put it all in one sphere. The Italian buyer will buy a high-end product. But you’ll also find smaller shops buying slightly cheaper brands. So it’s like a little microcosm. Everybody’s reacting according to their taste and their beliefs. I think that it’s definitely increasing. The younger generation is exploring eco-designs with a totally fresh view.
Is fashion about perfection or imperfection?
My grandmother was impeccably dressed - I still have most of her clothes, bless her! Yet, with all the beautifully made clothes she always said that it was considered to be a rarity and very poetic to find a drop of blood on the fabric. Coming from Venice, Burano, where the most beautiful lace in the world is made, she did embroidery, crochet and knitwear. Secretly, she always wished that she could prick her little finger and leave her own mark.
If you think about it, although I’m about to say something completely cooky and insane, it’s not so dissimilar from the Internet. When you have your drop of blood on a piece of clothing, you are chemically communicating with the person wearing it. Something makes you think about the past. What happened to that person? It’s not just a perfect piece of lace. The imperfection makes you curious about the story. Where was she when she pricked her finger? What was she looking at? What was she thinking? Was she being distracted? Did somebody come and kiss her from behind? Did she trip over? There is that element of storytelling that happens with that imperfection. In the glossary of fashion it’s completely lost.
Equally, it’s what we are looking for as humans. I don’t know if it makes any sense. We’re still looking to communicate with people. We’re still curious about their stories. With Instagram, you want to look at the world from somebody else’s point-of-view. You want to be behind someone’s eyes. That’s what you’re curious about. To me, it’s the same with a drop of blood. That sense of communication. In terms of fashion, it’s exactly what we’ve lost. Clothes are made far away by people who you’ll never know.
And yet I think that we’re looking for the drop of blood. We’re looking to re-establish an emotional connection with clothes. There is an emotional longing for clothes. Who makes them? Why? Where are they going after you’ve worn them? This I believe is the future of fashion. Looking back at the past, making it innovative and taking it forward. In order to validate mass-production, mainstream fashion had to make the word ‘artisan’, and the word ‘local’ dirty. It’s marketing. ‘Ethnic’ sounds so much like ‘ethic’, which is bizarre. Why is it so uncool to save the world?
How do you envision future in terms of sustainable fashion?
The collection we did with Topshop was more expensive than the rest of their clothing. It sold out very quickly because of novelty and there was a desire to buy this kind of a product. I’m not the one who believes that things are going to happen overnight, but I’m beginning to see more and more people who are not prepared to buy something that is cheap just because it’s cheap. They’re beginning to question that and that is a step in the right direction. If you’re a young kid with 10 dollars in your pocket - it doesn’t necessarily translate that you have to buy a pair of trousers with that. You might want to save the money and put another 10 dollars on top. And buy something of value. That changes the way we perceive fashion production in the future. I think it’s going to be a healthy mix. I think that we’ll see the return of local crafts in Africa. I’m particularly fascinated by what will happen in China. Some of the oldest embroidery traditions are coming from Asia.
So, I think we’ll find young local designers who want to incorporate their culture more and more in their collections. I don’t think that the future is about mimicking Prada. The future will be young designers exploring their local culture and introducing it. That immediately changes the geography and the type of production. You inevitably need to skill people and re-introduce local crafts. ‘Taking longer’ will be relevant. We need to take time to teach, learn and make a piece of clothing. That will be relevant.
Everything is scalable if it’s desirable. There are plenty of people in the world and if we start demanding, Wal-Mart is going to find out how to use natural dyes, let me tell you! If people turn around and say: “Excuse me, with every piece of clothing I want to see the factory and the woman who made it.” If it’s going to make them money, they’re going to find a way. It takes time, but if there’s a demand, they’ll find the way. Bring on the vegetable dyes!