If you love your clothes, you will mend them, not throw them.” That’s the simple philosophy of Orsola de Castro, a global voice on sustainability in fashion and co-founder of Fashion Revolution, a non-profit that advocates industry reform. She believes the only way to slow down the fashion industry is by building a generation of “clothes keepers”.
In her book Loved Clothes Last: How The Joy Of Rewearing And Repairing Your Clothes Can Be a Revolutionary Act, which will be out in the UK on 11 February, the designer tracks the dying tradition of repairing clothes at home or in shops. Though she offers enough techniques to upcycle old, unused clothes, she insists the book is a why-to, not how-to.
We spoke to her over Zoom to understand how the presence of mending facilities at fashion labels and high-street brands can help deal with the problem of growing fashion waste. Edited excerpts:
How is mending a revolutionary act?
By mending clothes, you can mend the systems. The concept of small repair shops is disappearing from our lives, creating all sorts of ripple effects. The combination of fast fashion, cheap clothes, mass-produced luxury and no more artisans on our high street is the perfect recipe for waste. We all don’t have the time to mend, and that’s why we have to rely on society to make those resources available for us. In countries like India, these practices are still thriving but now there’s an increased focus on dumping clothes as soon as a small hole is visible. People really need to understand what mending means. They need to ask themselves, what can I do to look after my clothes and longevity as a way to hold climate crisis? They also need to be respectful of the people who make these clothes by loving them.
Do you mend at home?
Not often. I am not the best mender in the world. I was a designer, and I have been surrounded by the best makers in the world. So, the result is that I am not such a hot sewer. And that’s why I think it’s important that brands start offering repair stations in every store. People think that if they buy cheap clothes, they can be easily disposed of in case a hole appears or seams open. That’s the wrong attitude. Cheap clothes are easier to mend than those from super-expensive luxury brands. What we need is that brands should start offering mending, repair stations in every store. The habit of mending needs to be activated again. If brands can make returns easy, why not mending?
We have been force-fed clothes like foie gras. When brands say that by mass-producing, they are responding to consumer demand, there was never demand for this much. This constant show of new clothes, this mass overproduction, this consumerism has become our crack cocaine.
Yes. I feel we are being duped both by the high-street and the high-end labels, in the sense that the high street is way too cheap despite the clothes being made in factories far away from the headquarters of the brands, and high-end, which is often made very close by, is way too expensive. We have been turned into a global community of junkies by the brands we trust. They should work for us, not the other way around. And we need to rebel about the rhythm because it is ultimately damaging both people and planet.
There’s a lot of conversation about upcycling now. But you started doing it as early as the 1990s. What prompted you?
It has to do with my childhood. We followed the practice of hand-me-downs at home. We weren’t poor, but at that time passing on of clothes was much more to do with the story and the love we had for clothes. Also, changing the appearance of my clothing by adding something to them came naturally to me. I would sit at school and sew poppers on my clothing. I would put two-three bumpers on my flowy skirts to alter the shape. I always did it for fun.
When I started my brand From Somewhere in 1997, we only did upcycling because it was so creative. It wasn’t like, oh, let’s upcycle. I did it because I found it humorous that I was taking things that were unwanted, and with my own brain and hands, I was making them more beautiful. We sold in all the top boutiques; we created collections for Tesco, Topshop, all using upcycled products. I never used anything new ever. And at that time neither the word upcycling nor the word sustainable fashion existed. It was just considered creative. Also, eccentric.
Of course, now things have changed. After covid-19, more people are demanding better from the fashion industry.
Do you believe covid-19 has triggered a revolution of sorts?
It has. Covid-19 has exposed so much injustice and inequality within the fashion industry. The penny has dropped. Like decades ago, when people started making the connection between food, body health and the planet, they are now making the connection between fashion and Earth’s health. I think people are also beginning to get bored of hyper consumerism and access to stuff. Covid showed us we have got too much. The work of activists such as myself has become easier after covid and I think that people will no longer have to be activists in order to activate. They will do so more instinctively. Because of what we have all just witnessed.
When it comes to pivoting to more sustainable practices and producing less, many people cite loss of employment opportunities as a serious side effect. How can this be addressed?
That’s the biggest misunderstanding. If you moved to more sustainable practices, the daily wagers, those people in the factories, would live in dignity. A garment worker, almost everywhere, is paid by the piece, not by the hour; they are paid inadequately. This means a worker, say, in Bangladesh, will spend their entire career not really developing their skills, because they are just doing fast sewing. If we were to pay supply-chain workers by the hour and a dignified wage, a wage that guarantees their family is supported, and we ensure that all supply-chain workers are unionised, we would get fewer products but better-made ones.
What do we really need for that shift?
Brands need to produce less. But they also need to ensure that clothes are “Made in dignity”, not “Made in China”. We, consumers, need to demand better, we need to question brands that are selling us crap. It should be fashion and unsustainable fashion. People often say they can’t buy the perfect pink when looking for sustainable clothes (because of the limitation of organic dyes). Do you want a bright pink or a healthy environment? Consumers need to realise they need to take out time to buy clothes that don’t just fit their size, but also principles. The onus is on the consumer to take out time to be able to “see” what they are buying really is green. We often look for ingredients when we buy food, why can’t we do that with clothes?
We are in an emergency, our kids are terrified. These kids will one day become the heads of Gucci, Prada, and they won’t like the mess we have created. We were supposed to clean up the mess for them, but now we will have to do it with them.