orsola de castro fashion

Orsola de Castro’s new handbag is not what you might expect to see suspended on the shoulder of one the UK’s authorities on ‘green’ fashion. “I’ve been wanting her for three years,” she says, brandishing the beautiful orange leather of a Céline trotteur bag. “I only buy things if I’ve become obsessed with them, like I would be with a lover. If I really can’t stop thinking about something, then I’ll go buy it. It’s mood-altering buying in this way. It’s like taking drugs.”

Orsola de Castro is the founder of the upcycling label From Somewhere and the curator of Estethica, the British Fashion Council initiative. She is also the director of Fashion Revolution, the organisation responsible for the campaign that each year encourages social media users to turn their clothing inside out, display their labels and ask brands #whomademyclothes.

Contrary to her credentials, Orsola is not a sustainable fashion designer – in fact she avoids using the terms ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ fashion altogether. “I try to do designers a favour by describing their technique – working with organic cotton, for example – as opposed to an unspoken principle. The phrase ‘sustainable fashion’ is very corporate right now. It is meaningless and as a result, it’s exploitable.”

When it comes to describing her own technique, the Italian designer opts for the modest label of “professional rubbish collector”, referring to the process of upcycling, in which she takes leftover fabric from the floors of fashion houses and then turns it into clothing. On the day I meet her she greets me wearing a top that she found on the floor of a luxury manufacturing house; days before, she found a jacket that was so soft she stuffed it into a pillowcase and turned it into a cushion.

It’s not just about the quality of the product, it’s about the quality of life of the person who made that product

When Orsola began working in textiles in 1997, so-called ethical fashion was not design-led, and it perpetrated the stereotypes of itchy socks and alpaca hats that still resonate today. It was the creativity of design rather than the mission of sustainability that guided Orsola’s career choice: “I did not become a designer because I wanted to become an environmentally focused one, I became a designer because I was born one. It’s only the journey that made me understand how the industry was operating, and as a result I changed the focus of my thinking.”

Here Orsola speaks to SUITCASE about the future of fashion, and falling back in love with the clothes that we buy.

KATE HAMILTON: You’ve been working in responsible fashion since 1997. What changes have you witnessed?

ORSOLA DE CASTRO: When I started, the terms ethical and sustainable fashion didn’t exist. We then went through a period of reacting against fast-fashion and understanding that the industry was exploiting and polluting. I think that came with a strong stigma because ethical fashion, to start with, was not design-led. It was missionary-led. It was community-led. And it was probably quite convenient for the customer, then surely there will be a marriage of good intentions and marketing purposes. It’s not just about the quality of the product, it’s about the quality of life of the person who made that product. And it’s extremely important that people don’t feel like, “Oh my god I’ve inherited a massive problem,” they need to think: “I am an active part of the solution.”

KH: Where do you think the link broke between producer and consumer?

ODC: I think exploitation comes with humankind. Historically, there was a handshake between president Nixon and Mao Zedong, which opened the road to free trade. That meant we were able to produce in and sell to the developing world and it had a profound influence on the industry, because we removed the problem [of exploitation] from right under our doorstep. By moving [sweatshops] far away, they removed them from us, from the public, the journalists, the politicians – from all the people who could stop them and protest against their existence.

KH: What is your opinion on brands using the terminology of responsible fashion for marketing purposes?

ODC: For the next few years, everyone will claim to be ‘green’ or ‘ethical’ one way or another. This marks a shift – you can see it in a negative way, or you could see it in a positive way. I always choose to see it in a positive way, because if the big brands are demonstrating that they have to provide this product for their larger industry to maintain that stigma. I think now we are finally at the point where your generation is saying: “This is the fashion we want to buy, because if I continue buying the other kind, there may not be a planet for me to be buying fashion in at all!” This is the new creativity, the new solution-based movement.

KH: What would you say to people about the prohibitive cost of responsible fashion?

ODC: We are sold it as a choice but we are not being given a choice. We’re being force-fed like ducks to make foie gras! What we’ve forgotten is that there’s an emotional commitment in buying something, the concept of investment buying is incredibly important. Equally, the more you care for your clothes, you wash them well, you treat them well; they will last a long time. We need to change the ‘three-for-the-price-of-one’ mentality.

KH: What questions should consumers be asking themselves before buying?

ODC: I think the main thing we need to ask ourselves is first, does it actually suit me? Then second, how many have I got already? And third, do I love it? Can I really genuinely not live without it?

KH: You are an advocate of young designers. Why is this and who are you supporting now?

ODC: I am genuinely committed to seeing the fashion industry change and I want young designers to have an easier time than I had. To see them struggle so hard fills me with pain and shame. One of the designers I respect the most is Katie Jones, she creates these beautiful old couture knitwear pieces, she has the right amount of stockists and is taking her time to grow – slowly. The best designer might be round the corner from your house, and to support them is the future.

KH: What is the future of fashion?

ODC: As the first principle of anarchy says, fellow man shall not exploit fellow man. So I hope that we won’t be in the position of mistreating garment workers and that we will convey respect for what they do. There is a generation that thinks clothes grow on trees or that they are made by some bizarre machines. They’re not – there is a human operating that machine. I also predict, fashion being cyclical, that we will go back to mending and supporting the new designer around the corner – that we will embrace and follow the food revolution in some ways, then we will all be much more in charge of our own individual fashion.

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