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|Subject: Sri Lankan upcycling factory makes waves in the fashion industry Mon Jan 17, 2011 5:26 am|| |
Sri Lankan upcycling factory makes waves in the fashion industry
Though many designers now create 'upcycled' fashion from waste
materials, Orsola de Castro is the first to do so on an industrial
When Speedo launched its LZR Racer swimsuit in February 2008, it was a
sensation. Designed in collaboration with Comme des Garçons and tested
in Nasa's wind tunnel facilities, the suit's high-tech fabric repelled
water and increased flexibility. Plaudits poured in. 'When I hit the
water I feel like a rocket,' said Michael Phelps, the US swimming
champion, before going on to win eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing
Olympics. 'It's really exciting for swimmers,' said Jason Rance, the
head of Speedo's Aqualab, the company's research and development
facility in Nottingham. 'They say they feel like Superman.' Ninety-four
per cent of all Beijing's swimming golds were won by athletes wearing
But then in July 2009 Fina, swimming's world governing body, banned the
LZR on the basis that it gave its wearers an unfair advantage. The LZR
would never be allowed again in a major swimming championship. The
decision left Speedo with a significant problem: 18,000 obsolete
swimsuits, most stuck in a warehouse in Blackburn.
The question of what to do with unsold or damaged stock is a vexing
issue for fashion companies. H&M made the headlines earlier this
year when it was accused of slashing and dumping unsold clothes in
rubbish bags outside one of its outlets in Manhattan.
'It was not a normal situation,' a spokesman stresses. 'It was [as a
result] of a thorough cleaning of the store. These garments were
damaged, did not meet our safety standards or had been used for
display.' The company has since ratcheted up an ongoing collaboration
with the British Red Cross, which sells the donations in its shops.
M&S operates a similar partnership: damaged or unsold clothes are
given to Oxfam or to the Newlife Foundation for Disabled Children.
But it can be more problematic for upmarket retailers. Derrick Campbell,
the managing director of the knitwear label Lyle & Scott, whose
fans include Cristiano Ronaldo, revealed at last year's Draper's Fashion
summit that he would rather burn the company's 10,000 unsold jumpers
(value: £1 million) than sell them off cheaply.
Destroying perfectly good stock may seem a little strange, but it is
about brand protection. At its core is the notion that a brand will be
diluted if anyone can buy it. Incineration preserves exclusivity;
cheapness is degrading.
'Derrick made that comment last year; things have moved on a lot,' a
spokesman for the company says. 'We now have an e-commerce site and sell
discounted stock there, in a controlled environment where we can have a
say over prices. We also donate clothes to the charity Handbags and
But Speedo took an entirely different route. It gave the swimsuits to
Orsola de Castro, 44, the founder of From Somewhere, an upmarket fashion
label specialising in off-cuts and 'waste'.
'Speedo is about encouraging people to swim and enjoy water, so that
puts the environment very much at the centre of what we do,' Sean
Hastings, the vice president of produce and marketing at Speedo, says.
'Working with Orsola seemed fitting rather than being stuck with a load
De Castro runs a shop and studio on Portobello Road, west London, with
her partner, Filippo Ricci, but her roots are in Italy, where she
sources lengths of fabric that manufacturers discard: beautiful silks
and jerseys, all off-cuts from the Italian fashion industry. Fans
include Miriam Clegg, the wife of the deputy prime minister, and Livia
Firth, the wife of Colin Firth.
With her dark eyes and thick, black hair, she is a strong presence; her
emphatic manner and extra-ordinary energy are now being marshalled on
behalf of ethical fashion: de Castro is the poster girl of a movement.
In 2006 she founded Esthetica, a showcase for cutting-edge
eco-designers, and since 2008 has produced three collections for Tesco
made from surplus fabric. When we first met in London, in November, she
had just been speaking at the International Herald Tribune Conference
alongside Karl Lagerfeld, Victoria Beckham and Patrizio di Marco, the
president and CEO of Gucci.
In June 5,000 Speedo suits arrived at de Castro's home in south-east
London. 'I shifted all the boxes myself,' she recalls. 'I put them in my
living-room and got working.' De Castro likes to do the unexpected, and
so rather than make sportswear out of the costumes, she crafted
cocktail dresses. Speedo was baffled at first. But de Castro saw glamour
in the LZR fabric. 'It holds you, it sculpts you, it has a shine, it
gives you confidence: it's heaven.'
By September de Castro had created a 10-piece collection, and it is hard
not to marvel at the way in which bottoms have been turned into elegant
sleeves, and legs transformed into a pleated skirt. (De Castro had to
devise a new language for her pattern-cutters: 'de-bottoming';
'straight-leg-to-gusset cut'; 'v ertical tit split'; 'horizontal tit
After the collection launched at London Fashion Week things happened
quickly. First, Selfridges placed an order (for spring/summer 2011),
then luxe.com. Now Speedo has plans to put the dress on its website.
'What we thought would take a year and a half happened in three months,'
There have been some interesting results from this collaboration. The
first is that the costumes didn't end up in landfill. 'It's possible
that some would have gone to landfill,' Hastings says, 'but that would
absolutely be a last resort because with certain fabrics there is no way
of recycling them.' De Castro is more forthright. 'This fabric will not
biodegrade even if God asks it to,' she points out, 'and if you burn
it, it turns into a plastic ball.'
The second is that here is a collection that eschews the sacred rules of
brand protection: Speedo permitted de Castro to 'play' with its logo,
despite it being a potent symbol of the global giant. 'It was a little
counter-intuitive,' Hastings admits, 'but this collaboration is really
quite extraordinary and so we were prepared to be somewhat more lenient
because we felt it was a good way of making a positive out of a very
'For recyclers, logo protection is our biggest stumbling block,' de
Castro says, 'because what are you going to do with 1,000 defective Gap
T-shirts that say gap? You can't use the g or the p. You can't make ap
or ag because it's immediately recognisable.' De Castro turned the
Speedo logo upside down, made it into a butterfly and cut it to read:
'It's groundbreaking,' she observes. 'In terms of sustainability there
is nothing more advanced than this.' And de Castro should know. For the
past 10 years, she has been dedicated to ethical fashion, 'because what
we're trying to establish in this industry is zero waste'.
Hirdaramani garment factory, Agalawatta, Sri Lanka . We are a two-hour
drive south of Colombo, and visiting this garment factory because it is a
good illustration of the way that de Castro works. The factory, which
was built in 2008, also showcases Sri Lanka's new drive to become the
'world's number-one ethical apparel sourcing destination'.
When you walk in, you don't see cramped, stiflingly hot darkness, child
labour and a floor littered with rubbish - the stereotypical symbols of
sweatshops. You see skylights, airy space and views of mango and banana
trees. You still see rows of sewing machines, of course - a factory is a
factory, after all - and some 675 machinists produce about 16,000
pieces a day. There are T-shirts, polo shirts and sweatshirts for such
brands as Tesco, M&S, Decathlon, Tommy Hilfiger, Bhs. The machinists
are paid slightly more than the industrial average - 8,000 rupees a
month (£50); the minimum wage is 7,850 rupees a month.
This factory was awarded the Leed Gold Award in 2008 (Leader in Energy
and Environmental Development, a rating system developed by the US Green
Building Council). Four factories in Sri Lanka have the award. 'I don't
think any other apparel factories in the world have this
certification,' says Suzanne Loker, a Cornell professor of textiles and
apparel, and the author of a forthcoming paper, Evaluating social and
environmental responsibility practices in Sri Lanka .
De Castro first came here 18 months ago, but she has been recycling
factory waste for eight years. Born in Rome to an affluent family - her
mother is an artist; her late father was a businessman - she spent her
twenties as a designer in London. Independent and creative, she started
out making accessories, selling to boutiques such as the Cross in west
In 1997 she started From Somewhere by embellishing old jumpers with
crochet and beading. Buoyed by the trend for salvaged clothing in the
late 1990s, and driven by designers such as Russell Sage and Jessica
Ogden, de Castro found that the clothes caught on. 'I found it funny to
take something that was nearly dead and put it on sale in the world's
The turning point came in 2001. 'A distributor for a leading American
department store came up to me at London Fashion Week and said, "I love
your clothes, why don't we go and make them in China and stick something
recycled on it and call it recycled?" ' She pauses.
'That is when I stopped being a designer and became an environmentalist.
I also realised that I needed to make big numbers because otherwise
what is the point in recycling? If I am selling to cute little boutiques
and reaching a couple of celebrities I'm not making any difference
Until that point, de Castro had been making one-off designs and buying
bales of cashmere from traders. But now she aspired to create on an
industrial scale and so concluded that for her raw materials, 'I somehow
had to go to a factory.'
Early in 2002 she found Miles, a factory in Vincenza, Italy, which makes
clothes for, among others, Alaïa, Rykiel and Vionnet. 'I just started
looking at the floor and there were sleeves and backs and bits and, you
know, it was gold,' she recalls. 'Suddenly I had the most beautiful
superfine cashmere, it just happened to have a ladder. But if you place a
ladder in a certain way, it looks like it's been made to be there.' The
owner, Sylvia Stein, turned out to be wonderfully generous and has
passed on some of her surplus ever since.
Back in the factory in Sri Lanka de Castro is rummaging in bins. 'I love
these bits of fabric,' she says, pulling out a scrap of jersey and
holding it against her dress. 'You see, I could work it into a heart,'
she says, 'or an accessory, a hair clip maybe, it's just how you
This is the 'pre-consumer waste': the world of scraps, trimmings,
cuttings, damaged lines - an inevitable by-product, many argue, from
making clothes. Brands often order more fabric than they need just in
case a line proves popular. And if you are cutting out T-shirts, say,
there will always be some fabric left. 'It's the bit left after you've
used the cookie cutter,' one expert says, 'but in a factory, you can't
re-roll it and make more biscuits.'
There is more waste at the textile mills. Making fabric is 'more luck
than science', points out Simon Weston, who is from Bath, and is now the
director of Ocean Lanka, a mill near Malwana, Sri Lanka, which makes
fabric for such brands as Victoria's Secret, Tesco, Next and Nike. He
says it is impossible to predict how a fabric will behave (weave and
weight, for instance, are wild cards), which is why a lot is discarded
as trial and error. Ocean Lanka produces two to three million metres of
fabric a month; about eight per cent of that is waste.
In fact, both Hirdaramani and Ocean Lanka claim to have a zero waste
policy. The scraps from Hirdaramani are shipped to China, where they are
shredded and pulped to be spun and woven into new products; or sold for
car insulation or upholstery. Ocean Lanka sells large leftovers to
dealers from Russia or the Ukraine, where they feed a more unregulated
market. Smaller amounts are sold locally and made into mops or mats.
But de Castro's vision trumps this recycling. 'Rather than it becoming
pulp, it becomes a piece of fashion,' she says. It is 'upcycled' into a
superior product. It also saves on the energy needed to send the waste
to China (and on pulping); and also the mills aren't producing cloth for
her clothes because the cloth already exists.
De Castro doubts that all factories are so conscientious. 'The textile
industry has been reusing, but the level has slowed down since fast
fashion arrived,' she says. Between 2001 and 2005 consumption of
clothing for every man, woman and child in Britain rose by more than 30
per cent. Ultra-low-cost clothes have created a waste problem. 'It's
just one of the ways in which we're over-consuming,' Loker says. 'We're
over-producing fabric and unworn, partially finished or finished
products not ready to go to the retail store. And we're over-consuming
at the store.'
'We call it the "too much stuff" issue,' says Patrick Laine, the
director of corporate partnerships at the World Wildlife Fund. 'It's not
just the raw material - cotton with its pesticides, synthetic
fertilisers, water issues - it's also the consumption side. The fashion
industry, which has four seasons a year, creates an almost planned
There are other hurdles for recyclers such as de Castro. Some companies
stipulate that their fabric can't be 'repurposed' until six months after
the end of the season. Others are more extreme. 'Many of the brands
have written into their contracts that the suppliers are supposed to
keep the fabric for six months and then destroy it, and that means
incinerate,' Loker says.
But other companies have started to embrace de Castro's methods,
specifically Tesco, the second-biggest clothing distributor in the
'We met Orsola at Esthetic in 2008,' recalls Abi Rushdon, the lead
ethical and sustainable sourcing manager for Tesco clothing. 'This was a
time when Tesco had recently signed up to Defra's sustainable clothing
action plan, so I took Terry Green [then the CEO of Tesco, now a
consultant to the company's clothing] to show him what smaller ethical
brands were doing, and the first person he met when he walked through
the door was Orsola.' And his response to her designs? 'I want it all!'
It was a milestone for de Castro. 'It was the first time we saw a giant
coming to an ant and saying, can you help me?' The collaboration also
pushed de Castro to create using a more industrial model - no longer
hundreds of the same design, but thousands. It was a real step forward
for the eco fashion movement. 'Thousands of the same dress!' de Castro
says. 'It's beginning to make an environmental impact, which is what I'm
The From Somewhere for F&F collections, which include the Viper
dress, a two-tone figure-hugging sheath dress and the Carina, a dress
with a puffy short-sleeve layered over a long sleeve, were made at
Hirdaramani using surplus jersey from nearby mills. The first collection
sold 1,500 pieces.
The way it works is that de Castro comes up with a design - there are
six in the most recent autumn/winter collection - but is flexible about
colour and fabric. 'They'll send me an email saying, no red is
available, and I say, OK, let's do pink.'
Working with leftovers certainly challenged Tesco. 'Our technical
manager thought we'd gone crazy because we explained that each garment
might be a slightly different shape or have a panel of a slightly
different shade, and that was OK,' Rushton says. 'For our normal ranges
everything is consistent quality.'
Now de Castro is about to go one step further with 'feeder' cloth.
Fabric designs belong to the company that commissions them, that is
clear. But feeder cloth is effectively scrap fabric that is fed through
the printing machine to ensure all the printing heads are running
properly. Once the design is being printed correctly - normally after 30
metres or so - the feeder cloth is cut off, and the good fabric gets
printed. The feeder cloth then gets reused, often as much as four times,
on both sides. The result is an overlay of patterns: Mickey Mouse on
top of Victoria's Secret hearts, on top of Tesco checks, and it is
unreleasable to designers because of all the logos. But, to de Castro,
it is like 'a piece of contemporary art. It looks like pure Andy Warhol.
It's got mistakes, human mistakes, machine mistakes, experimentation,
the wrong colour, it's unpredictable and it's completely reversible,'
she says. 'It's absolutely, hugely exciting for me because it has a real
aesthetic value, as well as telling the story of an industry.'
Eighteen months ago she approached Ocean Lanka for some feeder cloth.
The mill recently agreed to release some, but only that which isn't
printed with a logo. 'That is someone else's property,' Weston points
out. For de Castro, it is progress. But her aim is for companies to make
a distinction between reusing that is degrading and derivative and
reusing that is transformative (such as Speedo). Yes, she wants the
logo, but not to copy - it serves a larger purpose: 'to create something
beautiful and good for the envionment'.
Some critics argue that de Castro is just adding one more process. Her
clothes, too, will, eventually end up in landfill. And, if you look at
it, what real difference can a small company make? 'The amount of
clothing that is recycled is very, very small,' Laine concedes, 'but it
is an emerging industry - thank goodness it's coming and I hope it takes
off. It takes only a few people to change the world if we can figure a
way to get their voices heard.'