The Sway: Turning Excess into Excellence

The Sway: Turning Excess into Excellence

The fashion industry creates incredible amounts of waste. Every day, tons and tons of fabric and leather scraps (off-cut) are discarded in factories around the world, much due to inefficiencies in pattern-making. We can look at this two ways: as horrible abuse of resources, or as an incredible opportunity. Belinda Pasqua left her native Australia to come work in the fashion industry in NYC three and a half years ago. She was quickly discouraged by the wastefulness and lack of sustainability thinking she saw all around her, and knew she wanted to do something exactly the opposite of that, putting all this discarded material to use somehow.

Belinda Pasqua, designer and founder of The Sway.

Belinda Pasqua, designer and founder of The Sway.

So what made you come to New York?
I came to New York three and a half years ago, with my two suitcases and a friend’s couch for a bed. After working as a designer in Australia for thirteen years, I decided it was time to come to New York and persue the career. I had traveled extensively and was already coming three times a year anyways, so I decided to make the move. It was a really exciting and trying time, as I went for interview after interview. I needed [visa] sponsorship, which most companies were not interested in. After a few months my luck changed and I was offered a Design Director position at a very established apparel firm. Many of my clients were high-end designers and the company designed and produced collections very close to season under their brand name with a fast turn around into store.

The Sway's Spring/Summer Collection previewed at The GreenShows during New York Fashion Week.

The Sway's Spring/Summer Collection previewed at The GreenShows during New York Fashion Week.

When did you first have the idea for The Sway?
I realized there was a big gap in the market for high quality sustainable designer pieces. I had been to a few ‘green’ trade shows at the time and seen that there wasn’t much on offer. Everything had a very arts and crafts feel and was not my style at all. So much has changed in the last two years, though, and I have seen some great sustainable labels launched since. I was also overwhelmed when I realized the amounts of excess textiles that are available around the world. I had a huge desire to create something beautiful from it. I also found a factory that is environmentally conscious. I really wanted to break the misconception that recycled or sustainable means B-grade quality. I feel my collection along with other great sustainable designers are breaking that mould very quickly.

The Sway: Sabine matchstick messenger bag.

The Sway: Sabine matchstick messenger bag.

Tell me about the factory you found.
I wanted to ‘close the loop’ when it came to manufacturing sustainably and embarked on a quest to find a ‘green’ manufacturer. Ideally, I wanted to produce in NY, but it was just impossible to due to high labor costs. My bags would have had to retail at $5,000, which wasn’t viable. Also, most of the excess textiles I use are located overseas. The factory I found is in Karachi, Pakistan and is certified as a sustainable manufacturer. They power the facility using natural gas, and more recently they have been using natural bi-products such as rice husks for fuel. It’s a family owned business, the current owner’s father started recycling cotton in the 50s and the company now sells recycled cotton products around the world. One of their products is a cotton fabric which I print and use as the linings in my bags. The other part to the business is a clothing and leather manufacturing facility, so it seemed a perfect fit for the vision of my brand. This all sounded almost too good to be true, so I decided to go and visit the factory to see it for myself. When I arrived, there were seven men from Japan visiting the premises — it seems this factory in Karachi was gaining international recognition for their advances in green alternatives. My time there turned into quite a family experience, as I spent the next ten days working closely with the staff in developing my concept. We sat down and ate lunch together each day. I’m in close contact with them and am always receiving updates on how all the workers are doing and often get messages that they look forward to seeing me again on my next trip. When the flood hit the country, so many of them lost family and friends in the region, it was heartbreaking to say the least, so I decided to donate 10% of all sales from The Sway back to the flood relief.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

That’s great. So, say The Sway becomes hugely popular and demand increases a thousandfold, are there enough off-cuts and scraps out there to sustain that growth?
When I started to develop the concept, I decided to write a detailed a business plan, just to get everything going on in my head onto paper. I took it to several investor contacts and they asked the exact same question. I really didn’t know how to answer it, so I decided to go back to the drawing board and investigate this question in depth. I wanted to be able to ensure I could meet customer demands. I discovered that the amounts of excess textiles are truly enormous. As much as this was great for the business, since it meant that I could meet demand, it was disheartening for the environment as a lot of textiles such as leather do not break down over time. It did make me even more determined that I was on the right track.

The Sway: Marlo min fringe large tote.

The Sway: Marlo min fringe large tote.

You grew up in a household with five siblings, where your parents grew all the food you eat. How did that inform your notion of sustainability?
It was pretty amazing to have this growing up —my dad has quite the ‘green’ thumb. He grew most of the veggies we ate and even made a brick oven for homemade bread and wood fire pizza. Then, my mother would take all of this delicious produce and create the most amazing dinners. We would all sit around the table at dinner, all eight of us, and mum would have a three-course meal waiting for us each night. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had this experience. Needless to say, it had a big influence on my understanding of sustainability. I would be out in the garden helping my dad grow the veggies, then eating them and then putting leftovers in our giant compost in the back of the yard. We also traveled to the countryside a lot when I was growing up. I was a huge nature and animal lover from a young age. All of this has really had an effect on what my vision for the brand is now. I am also a total fashion addict and my career has revolved around making people look great. I just wanted to combine the two sides, and found that sustainable fashion is 100% me.

The fact that these bags are made from fabric scraps is brilliantly concealed in the design.

The fact that these bags are made from fabric scraps is brilliantly concealed in the design.

Where do you find inspiration?
People inspire me. My friends are my biggest inspiration, I have such an eclectic mix and they all do such amazing things and live in all different parts of the world. Reading an email or an update of Facebook from them totally inspires me. The energy in New York is also a big inspiration, the people you meet and what you can see and do here is just like no other city, and I’ve lived in quite a few. I always need to inspired by the city I’m living and designing in, so that’s why I have my studio in Brooklyn.

The Sway: Carter mini fringe double zip pouch.

The Sway: Carter mini fringe double zip pouch.

To me, the details are very important, and I find the fabric linings of your bags as beautiful as the bags themselves.
Thank you, I love my lining print as well. It is actually inspired by Aboriginal art. Australia was born on Aboriginal culture so I have a lot of respect for it. The triangle symbol in the print means ‘water flow’. The entire Aboriginal philosophy is based on respect for the land and I really wanted to somehow incorporate this into the collection.

The organic cotton lining fabric, also seen on the tags, is inspired by Aboriginal art.

The organic cotton lining fabric, also seen on the tags, is inspired by Aboriginal art.

What is your vision for the future of The Sway?
I have a big vision. I want to be able to continue to design fashion forward collections that are sustainable. I have a denim and toddlers line already in progress. As we are all doing our part to help in this world I know consumers are being bombarded from all industries about the latest claims on green products. It’s turning consumers away from it. I’m really not trying to be that at all. I want people to buy my collection because it looks good and they can see the craftsmanship involved. The fact that it’s green is something they can feel good about, but its not something I want to promote heavily. There is just too much of that going on and most claims, I find, aren’t even true. The Sway is a fashion brand first and foremost, the fact that I make things sustainable is a very personal choice. I want people to purchase my collection because they fall in love with it and can see the quality and know it will last — that is how I want my collection to be perceived. Most people say they would never have known from seeing my bags that they are sustainable, which is really the approach I want to take.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

Where can people find your pieces?
We have just launched for Spring 2011 and I’m happy to say we are going to be sold through such fantastic retailers such Fred Segal, Free People, Searle and Kaight. The buyers of all these stores have all been so supportive. The Sway online store was also recently launched.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

The Sway: Bax mini fringe fold over pouch.

You worked in the high-stress fashion world in New York City, then took a break and moved away for a while. Did that experience have an effect on the decisions you made for your company?
After fifteen years of fashion, I was burnt out. I took eight months off and went to live on Shelter Island for a while, then spent four months in Tulum, Mexico. It was nice to get back to nature and find myself again. Working in fashion, especially in NY, is highly stressful. During this time I did research and wrote my business plan, so I was able to come back to the city with a very strong vision, ready to go.

The Sway: Augustine matchstick zip pouch.

The Sway: Augustine matchstick zip pouch.

What gives you hope for the future?
That’s a hard question when so much is going on in the world — destroying the environment. I just try and stay positive and do what I do even though I can become quite effected by it all. As much as I want to think people care about the environment, so many still don’t. This is what buyers are telling me, it’s really a mixed bag of opinions out there. A lot of people are still trying to get their heads around the whole sustainable movement. So, it’s my mission to make recycling fashionable — if I can make clothing and accessories that rival non-recycled products in design and quality, buyers will continue to purchase my brand, and we will have more consumers buying green and not even even realizing it. Its about integration, not segregation.

What does the good life mean to you?
Family and friends coming together for Sunday brunch, and hoping dad makes his wood oven pizza.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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