Interesting article from the NYT:
August 13, 2010
Fashion Tries on Zero Waste Design
By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
YOU wear organic T-shirts. You hang your clothes to dry. You recycle your unloved suits and dresses.
But frankly, that’s just the tip of the green iceberg.
Today’s truly fashion-forward have a more radical ambition: zero waste.
That may sound more like an indie band than an environmental aspiration, but it’s a new focus of top fashion schools.
Zero-waste design strives to create clothing patterns that leave not so much as a scrap of fabric on the cutting room floor. This is not some wacky avant-garde exercise; it’s a way to eliminate millions of tons of garbage a year. Apparel industry professionals say that about 15 to 20 percent of the fabric used to produce clothing winds up in the nation’s landfills because it’s cheaper to dump the scraps than to recycle them.
A small but impassioned coterie of designers has spent the last few years quietly experimenting with innovative design techniques, and some of their ideas are starting to penetrate the mainstream.
Next month, Parsons the New School for Design — which inspired a generation of would-be designers through the television series “Project Runway” — will offer one of the world’s first fashion courses in zero waste. The book “Shaping Sustainable Fashion: Changing the Way We Make and Use Clothes,” by Alison Gwilt and Timo Rissanen, zero-waste pioneers, will be published in February by Earthscan. And an exhibition of zero-waste fashions, curated by Mr. Rissanen and another zero-waste designer, Holly McQuillan, will be held in New Zealand next spring and in New York the following fall. Also in March, an exhibition, “No Waste/Zero Waste” will open at the Averill and Bernard Leviton A + D Gallery in Chicago, part of Columbia College Chicago.
“Clearly this is an idea whose time has come,” said Sandra Ericson, founder and director of the Center for Pattern Design, which studies and educates about historical and current trends in pattern making, in St. Helena, Calif.
But it has taken a while to reach the United States. Nearly every leading zero-waste or less-waste designer hails from another country, including Mark Liu, Julian Roberts and Zandra Rhodes in England; Susan Dimasi and Chantal Kirby in Australia; Ms. McQuillan in New Zealand; and Yeohlee Teng, who is working in New York but was born in Malaysia.
Among those instrumental in pushing for change is Mr. Rissanen, a ruddy-faced Finnish designer who is Parsons’ first-ever assistant professor of fashion design and sustainability. He is teaching the new zero-waste course with Scott Mackinlay Hahn, a founder of the organic fashion label Loomstate, who, along with a colleague, will provide insights into actual business practices.
The goal? To create jeans that are as close to zero waste as possible but that are also good looking — no easy task. Mr. Rissanen, who is completing a doctorate at the University of Technology Sydney (his dissertation is titled, “Fashion Creation Without Fabric Waste Creation”), knows this first hand. Previously, he owned a men’s-wear label called Usvsu.
“I basically had to learn to design again,” Mr. Rissanen said of his initial forays into zero waste. “The first year and a half was a lot of trial and error.”
“A lot of error,” he underscored, looking bashfully at the floor of a workroom at Parsons and chuckling. “But that’s how you learn.”
One way to eliminate waste is to create a garment pattern — with gussets, pockets, collars and trims — that fits together like a puzzle. Such designers favor certain cutting techniques with names like the “jigsaw cut” (from Mr. Liu) and “subtraction cutting” (from Mr. Roberts). Mr. Rissanen put his on a blog, zerofabricwastefashion.blogspot.com. Another method is to simply not cut the fabric at all, but drape it directly onto a mannequin, then tuck, layer and sew.
But these techniques have not made much headway with large manufacturers. “They’re all sort of dipping a toe,” said Simon Collins, dean of the school of fashion at Parsons, “but they find it hard to commit.”
That’s partly because of the costs and existing infrastructure. For example, the standard fabric width for commercial denim production is 60 inches wide. Using a different width might change how much waste is generated, but it would also require re-engineering a supply line. And while sustainable design does not necessarily cost more, overhauling a factory is obviously expensive. Loomstate, for one, has backed away from a big production of denim until it can do so more efficiently, Mr. Mackinlay Hahn said.
Even as schools like Parsons teach the next generation of designers to make sustainability a core part of their creative process, few brands or retailers are powerful enough to bring about a supply line reinvention. An exception is Wal-Mart. The nation’s largest retailer has used its power to change the items sold on its shelves, telling suppliers that it would proffer only fluorescent light bulbs (which use up to 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs) and concentrated liquid laundry detergent (which uses 50 percent less water). In 2008, the retailer set forth a long-term goal of zero waste in all its stores. Yet even for a behemoth like Wal-Mart, that goal is far from being realized.
Fashion labels striving for zero waste have an added dilemma: not sacrificing style for sustainability.
“If it doesn’t look good,” Mr. Mackinlay Hahn said, “it’s not going to sell.”
Students in the new Parsons class will be asked to figure out how to create zero-waste jeans without compromising style.
“Jeans are one of the most wasteful and polluting garments that are made,” said Mr. Collins of Parsons, citing not only the unused fabric, but also the dyes added only to be washed out again, the energy used to transport the denim all over the world, the packaging, and the gallons of water used by consumers to clean the jeans. “And of course it’s one of the staples of everyone’s wardrobe.”
Students in the class will explore how to change the way jeans are made and cared for, from sourcing fibers that have not been exposed to pesticides or fertilizers, to how frequently consumers wash their denim. The top design will be manufactured at Loomstate’s California factory and sold next spring at Barneys New York.
“What that will do is prove to the big companies that you can do zero waste and make money out of it,” Mr. Collins said.
But that will depend on whether unconventional jeans will sell. One recent morning at Parsons, Mr. Rissanen rearranged on a swath of denim the muslin pattern for a classic five-pocket jean, showing how much fabric could be saved if the design were somehow different — fewer pockets perhaps, or adding embellished seam detailing.
Another option is to use fabric scraps to decorate a garment with curlicues and flowers. Excess fabric could also be used to make something entirely new (American Apparel, for example, has used excess material to create accessories and underwear). But Mr. Rissanen said the challenge of zero waste is to keep the design driven by function.
In some ways, zero waste is not new. Throughout history, consumers have had to adopt similar practices, such as rationing during wars, when women fashioned new outfits from old ones. Also, classic hobbies, like knitting and quilting, can be zero-waste endeavors.
Indeed, Mr. Rissanen became interested in the concept about six years ago, when he was studying 19th- and 20th-century designers like Madeleine Vionnet, a French dressmaker known for her use of the bias cut, whose work suggested that zero waste was possible. Additionally, his family has always gravitated toward what one might charitably call sustainable practices. Or as Mr. Rissanen put it: “I’m from a very thrifty family.”
In the second half of the Parsons class, students will try to make jeans more sustainable in their post-retail life. That means rethinking how jeans are cared for and, eventually, disposed of. The students may, for instance, establish a campaign encouraging consumers to use less detergent and to wash denim in cold water.
“We’re offended by 15 percent waste in fabric,” Mr. Collins said. “We believe in great design. But we don’t believe in wasting clothes.”