The threads of cultural identity seem to find us no matter how far away from home we may wander, and though it may not be particularly fashionable to wear your place of origin on your sleeve, this might be finally changing with an upsurge in recycled textile and ethnic embroidery in eco fashion collections. A new wave of resourceful designers are re-invigorating native textiles by fashioning them into wearable and culturally chic garments. Whether folkloric tablecloths, patchwork denim, or cast-off prayer mats, the message seems clear that sustainable style is very much about honoring the handicraft at the core of our existence.
The diverse textiles of global cultures are seemingly exotic at first glance, but complex stitch-work, embroidery, and narrative embellishments often create a visual vocabulary that we can all relate to. Now that I divide my time between the U.S. and Eastern Europe, I have become rather obsessed with identifying connections between urban life in NYC and my days under Mount Vitosha’s shadow in Sofia, Bulgaria. Fiber and textiles are very much a part of the fabric of both of these worlds, though at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of slow and fast design.
My recent trip to Switzerland for EcoChic Geneva was key in helping me to understand the role of place and biodiversity in our fashion conscience and, in turn, our partnership with the natural world. Luxury is no longer simply about cost and brand but about deep-rooted value. Economists, policy makers, designers, retailers, and even the next generation of students are waking up to the idea that fashion not only has to redefine itself, but we, as consumers, need to keep digging deep to better define what personal style constitutes.
I came away from the United Nations in Geneva hugely impressed by several eco fashion labels that are working and designing in challenging regions (certainly not fashion capitals), and are not only creating fair trade jobs, but are coming up with some of the chicest, trend defying clothes on the fashion-frontier. I know that I tend to romanticize such things, but what’s not to love about original, sustainable designs crafted in Afghanistan, Estonia, Malawi, South Africa, and my new turf, Bulgaria.
A phenomenon that I think has real staying power it the re-fashioning of traditional textiles from what one might call a “fringe” source. Adamah-Stein of France and Senegal crafts amazing dresses and coats from recycled waste materials, specifically rags and old prayer rugs. This fair-trade design label operates between Paris and from the city of Saint Louis in Senegal. Adamaha-Stein makes good use of what they call, “found embroidery” – old pieces unearthed at car boot sales and flea markets, or heirloom pieces which are no longer fashionable but still very beautiful. “We give these materials new life as they represent the hard work of generations of anonymous women whose voices have been silent.”
Embroidery and stitch work are typically “women’s work” in most cultures, so it is refreshing to see contemporary eco fashion designers finding clever ways of re-interpreting “domestic” or costume textiles as runway-ready designs. Berlin-based designer, Isabell de Hillerin, who recently exhibited at The Key/ Berlin, uses traditional Romanian fabrics and embroidery swatches to create softy draped dress and separates that give new life to what she refers to as the “melancholy of forgotten, weak, and other times.”
Similiarly, Estonian-made label Reet Aus sources all of their recycled textiles at home, and in turn have created a devoted following that has literally brought the fashion world to them. Each Reet Aus collection also strives to incorporate traditional designs and handicraft as means to keep these arts alive for future generations to enjoy.
My Bulgarian fashion designer friend, Evgeni Petkov, has recently began experimenting with recycled traditional textiles as well, and his hand-knit couture gown at EcoChic Geneva garnered lots of attention in its craft as a link to place and perhaps biodiversity, during the event’s runway show. It is not often that a designer dress stimulates debate about the farming of organic ‘pamuk’ (cotton) and the loss of lace making skills at a U.N. gathering.
What formerly might have been viewed as unfashionable or waste materials to some, is thankfully finding new life and beauty in the opportunity to be given another chance. It seems simple, really, that good design might demonstrate this and then some. That fact that we have to “find” something, though, when it was not even apparent that it has been lost is the scariest factor in this equation. Like the 1.5 billion hectares worldwide that are in danger of losing their original biodiversity levels by 2050, the price seems too high to not don new attitudes about what is fashionable or views on place and how we define the riches within.