ORSOLA DE CASTRO
DESIGNER & CO-FOUNDER | FASHION REVOLUTION
IMAGE: FASHION REVOLUTION
Orsola de Castro is a pioneering fashion designer and Co-founder of FASHION REVOLUTION
"I don’t think you can look at the future and imagine a career without knowledge of sustainability, ethics, responsible design, responsible manufacturing and responsible consumption."
Orsola de Castro is the co-founder and Creative Director of Fashion Revolution. As a fashion designer and campaigner, Orsola founded the luxury upcycling label, From Somewhere in 1997 and has since created upcycled collections for brands including Speedo, Tesco and Topshop. In 2013, along with Carry Somers, she co-founded Fashion Revolution, the global coalition of academics, designers, organisations and key opinion formers who are demanding increased transparency in the fashion value chain.
"We believe in a fashion industry that values people, the environment, creativity and profit in equal measure."
Fashion Revolution has exploded to become a far reaching global campaign, growing 100% each year since. In 2017, more than 2.5 million people took part, and in 2018 there are over 1000 events planned around the globe.
You are very much a pioneer in sustainable fashion and design. Can you tell me about your journey; where you started and the path to where you are now?
I started with my brand From Somewhere in 1997; we were always using things like vintage, second hand. We started with cashmere jumpers with holes, and we crocheted around the holes and changed them. It was transformational really. And we were lucky. Very soon we got interest from a lot of core celebrities at the time, and some very good stores in the US and London. It was a time that ethical fashion didn't exist at all, it wasn't part of the lexicon. So what we were doing was recycling and it was really creative. Using vintage was something that was quite channelled at the end of the 90’s. There were a few designers working with vintage, Preen, Russell Sage, Jessica Odgen. We were successful, so we had to upscale and find more and more sources of 2nd hand and vintage. This is how we discovered luxury pre-consumer textile waste; we used surplus and left overs from factories in Veneto in Italy. We also started doing collaborations such as with Jigsaw in the UK. We were upcycling some of their unsold products and that lasted many years. Then Esthetica came along with the British Fashion Council - which I co-founded and ran from 2006 - 2014. So Fashion Revolution really was the culmination of a long journey. Both as a brand and as a curator, and subsequently also a mentor and an enabler for other brands.
Was it a challenge to be upcycling at that time, and difficult to find a market?
Nobody was doing it, at the time it was so pioneering. It’s good to be a couple of years in advance but not 25! We really were doing things then that is so much more common now, so many other designers are working this way. It really was a creative endeavour and it was different. And for me it was both environmental and social. We produced quite a few of our collections from 2006 in a local cooperative in the Veneto region in Italy and we worked with disadvantaged individuals, whom we trained. We always had an eye on the environment and an eye on social issues. We were very unique at the time, so it was harder for us to beat the competition with the prospects and ethos of the label.
With Esthetica, it was pioneering at the time to bring brands that are sustainable and ethical into London Fashion week, I imagine a challenging concept to get to the mainstream agenda. Can you tell me how that worked?
In 2006 the British Fashion Council was small, in the developing phase, and Esthetica was able to coexist. I’m very proud of this. It worked really well, we had a very strong team. It really was a place where so much happened and so many initiatives can be directly linked to those days and those corridors with people meeting twice a year. For a long time It wasn't challenging. It became challenging when somehow sustainability was either on the top celebrities or it meant nothing. We always know it means a little bit when its on the celebrities, but at the end of the day it's the hard graft of the people that matters. And this is why for me I moved into Fashion Revolution because it’s completely about the people; the supply chain, and the people that work with in this industry. Which I find important and gratifying to be working on.
"This is why for me, I moved into Fashion Revolution, because it's completely about the people; the supply chain and the people that work in the industry"
ORSOLA DE CASTRO AND CARRY SOMERS
I want to come back to your work with designers shortly, but lets talk a little about Fashion Revolution. From my perspective there's a dual approach where on the one hand you are pushing for more transparency from brands, and then with citizens, you’ve found a way to bring people together and arm them with tools to be individual activists. What's your vision for Fashion Revolution going forward?
What I love about Fashion Revolution is that it is spontaneous, because ultimately it is run by people who are not campaigners. Its our 5th year, and we are very clear about what we have achieved and what we haven't yet achieved. We will continue working in the direction that we feel is the best for us. The nature of Fashion Revolution is that it is ‘of the moment’ - and as well as this we have some amazing projects that we are working on that are more long term.
For 2018 what is the big message that you want us to get behind?
It is "Who made my clothes". This really defines the whole ethos of Fashion Revolution.
We are releasing a manifesto and we want everyone to sign it.
We are also continuing with our Open Studio and this is really growing this year. We have some brilliant brands taking part from Christopher Raeburn and Burberry to Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood.
In terms of the last 5 years can you speak to any changes in the industry that you have seen come about that are aligned with this growth?
We don't like to take any credit. There has been a natural push and a natural developing of the conversation since Rana Plaza. If there's any credit we can take it's having the right finger on the pulse, and joining the conversation and push for further change. It's true that when we published our first Fashion Transparency Index 3 years ago there were but a handful of brands that were publishing their first and second tier suppliers. Now we have over 150. Whether that is directly related to us we can’t say - there are so many other players that are working on transparency and demanding it. It’s been an overall big push and we have certainly added to the urgency to look at transparency. What we’ve done differently, is that we have rendered certain projects that potentially other campaigns couldn't, by giving our campaign a human face. We have a great audience who are very engaged and our social media reach is strong. We have a direct channel of communication because we are good at communicating. It's not about us taking credit for any change, its that change had to happen.
Would you be able to speak about the work that you do with Redress and your role mentoring emerging designers?
That’s a huge role for me. With Redress in particular I have been working with Christina (Dean) since she started the Redress Design Award and I have been the head judge from Day 1. I am the ‘prize’ for the runner up, so they get a mentorship from me. I have mentored many from the award and have built close relationships with them. It's been running for 6 years and Christina is very collaborative and inclusive, I absolutely love this relationship and being involved in the award.
Mentoring is something I do with huge pleasure. I also work closely with Central St Martins where I am a visiting fellow for the BA and MA - basically I am the go to person for sustainability, there to advise and to create. At the moment I am curating a series of talks for the MA and I am regularly involved in the curriculum. More recently one of my mentees from Central St Martins has launched his own upcycled collection in Paris and I have been able to foster a relationship between him and a supplier for upcycled materials. I love this aspect of my role.
Do you have any advice for young designers in terms of sustainability to help direct them on the right path as a career?
In terms of a career, it’s an essential. I don’t think you can look at the future and imagine a career without knowledge of sustainability, ethics, responsible design, responsible manufacturing and responsible consumption. This is demanded from the industry at large. If you have a sense of wanting to be employed in the future then excel at this and the higher your chances are of getting good employment. Inform yourself. Read about garment workers, read about wages, about waste, about water. Start reading on those 4 and at some point something will hit you in your stomach and you'll know that's the area. You will know you want to have some effect there. Develop your curiosity. It's easy to find your thread and easy to find out more about it.
Do you have a pieces of advice for consumers who don't know where to start?
The truth is that your own wardrobe is in the fashion supply chain. Every morning when you go to put your clothes on your are a part of that supply chain and whatever choice you make has an effect. This is around ¾ of the way from when the seed of the cotton is sown to when things are either landfilled or recycled. If you are respectful of the clothes you've got and you don't overbuy and you mend and you are careful then you are being part of the solution.