Designers from around the world find inspiration in traditional garment making in their quest to eliminate fabric waste.
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This article is part of a series examining Responsible Fashion, and innovative efforts to address issues facing the fashion industry.
Bhaavya Goenka grew up watching trucks filled with discarded textiles from her parents’ garment factory in Jaipur, India, headed to nearby landfills. In 2017, inspired by that childhood memory, Ms. Goenka, 27, founded Iro Iro, a fashion label and service that reclaims textile waste and uses it according to indigenous practice. She is one of a growing number of designers representing their traditional cultures in the conversation about zero-waste fashion.
“There is this consciousness around textiles and materials that existed in our collective cultures for a long time, and I’m just trying to draw inspiration from that,” Ms. Goenka said. Iro Iro’s mission includes collaborating with design houses to collect their scraps, breaking them down into smaller pieces and working alongside artisans in villages to weave them into new fabrics. In addition, Ms. Goenka occasionally designs zero-waste collections of her own.
The language used to describe traditional Indian garments may not fit into the contemporary lexicon of sustainable fashion, but such designs are inherently zero-waste, Ms. Goenka said. She explained how each of India’s 28 states applies zero-waste pattern-cutting techniques to suit its climate. “In Kashmir, where it’s very cold, they wear these wool gowns with long sleeves called pheran. Down south, where it’s hot and tropical, people wear kurtis, which are made with more breathable fabrics. Any type of Indian clothing that’s colloquially worn, like the sari, choli, lehenga, kurta, do not have shapes that leave behind waste.”
Ninety-two million tons of textile waste is created every year, and according to the United Nations, the fashion industry is responsible for as much as 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions. A report by the World Economic Forum in 2021 named fashion, along with its supply chain, the world’s third largest polluter and later that year, the Australian Climate Council released a statement linking fashion’s environmental effects to fast fashion in particular. Consumers today are more likely to purchase clothing more often and by 2030, global apparel consumption is projected to rise to 102 million tons a year, from today’s 62 million tons.
While no one is sure exactly how much waste is generated during production, Timo Rissanen, associate professor of fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney, estimates roughly that 15 percent of textiles are discarded in the cutting process alone. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to keep large retailers accountable. Even companies such as H&M and Uniqlo, often thought of as pioneers in sustainable fast fashion, have been called out for their lack of transparency.
In 2015, Professor Rissanen, 47, wrote, with Holly McQuillan, a book called “Zero Waste Fashion Design,” a term it defined as “fashion design that wastes no fabric, by integrating pattern cutting into the design process.” In the book, he called this practice as “old as dressing the body with skins and cloth” and focused on pattern cutting, but proposed that fabric waste is not the only consideration in zero-waste design. While seeking to eliminate fabric waste, the designer must also be aware of how the clothes look and fit, how they are made and what they are made with.
Most cultures around the world have long traditions of working with materials respectfully, but the discourse about zero-waste fashion is overwhelmingly Western, Professor Rissanen wrote via email. “Fashion and discourse about fashion ought to be as diverse as humanity, and that realignment is thankfully in motion,” he said.
Duni Park, a 47-year-old Korean designer based in Tokyo, founded Gallery Shili, a sustainable women’s wear brand, in 2011. Each kimono is made of eight rectangular strips cut from a single bolt of cloth, also called a tanmono, Ms. Park explained over email. When making a kimono, alterations to the fabric are kept to a minimum, and when curved shapes are necessary, the fabric is delicately folded and stitched instead of cut — as in origami. Any excess length is hemmed up rather than cut off: “There is 0 percent waste of the original fabric,” she wrote.
Ms. Park, who finds secondhand kimonos in Japan and reinterprets them for a more movement-friendly design, said hers was “not a nostalgia-driven brand.” Instead, she is inspired by the zero-waste nature of kimonos to create modern zero-waste looks. “When you break apart a kimono, it goes right back to the original fabric, as if nothing had ever happened to it,” she said. “It’s like a whole new blank canvas is given to you to draw anew.”
Like many owners of sustainable businesses, Ms. Park struggles to evaluate sales per value or production, but her line has expanded from one collection of scarves to 11 different lines of coats, jumpsuits, shirts and shoes. She said she had also learned to use the fabric she has more efficiently. “Ten years ago, we would upcycle 30 kimonos into 30 scarves, but now we are creating up to 200 items with 80 to 90 kimonos,” she said.
For Adeju Thompson, a 31-year-old Yoruba designer in Nigeria, zero-waste design is also about connecting with nature. He is the founder of the Lagos Space Programme, a luxury label founded in 2021 that specializes in nonbinary fashions. Recognizable for its sleek lines and bold use of color, Mr. Thompson’s clothes are inspired by both his queer identity and his African heritage, he said. One of the line’s signature items is a modern take on the kembe, a type of Nigerian wide-legged pants, that, like other Lagos Space Programme designs, creates no textile waste. Additionally, many of Mr. Thompson’s designs use organic dyes, particularly indigo, sourced from plants in the forest.
“It’s a very beautiful, tactile experience — dipping your hands into the water over and over again like a kind of meditation until they turn blue,” he said. While the Yoruba people have traditionally used the organic dyes for adire, a form of storytelling that relies on textiles dyed in symbolic patterns, Mr. Thompson said he was afraid both the sustainable and cultural aspects of the art form were being phased out with the rise of chemical dyes and fast fashion. “Our design practices are very much rooted in our collective identity, which encourages green behavior,” he said.
For many designers, zero-waste practices are as synonymous with community as they are with sustainability. Some spoke about how many types of cultural attire — like saris, kembe, kimonos and hanbok — are not form-fitting, making them easier to pass down from one generation to the next, or to be shared among people of varying sizes within one community.
Sung Ju Beth Lee is a designer of another zero-waste garment — the hanbok, or traditional Korean dress — at Darcygom. The brand, founded in 2017, has collaborated with Korean brands like Ottogi and Oriental Brewery to upcycle their banners to create modern hanboks. Ms. Lee explained that in Korean culture there is a piece of clothing for newborns called baenaet jeogori that is pieced together from secondhand items in the family. The garments have a worn feel that make them softer, and provide a way for elders to pass down loving energy to the next generation, she said.
Ms. Goenka, of Iro Iro, said she inherited her mother’s saris when she died. Although her mother had a different body type, Ms. Goenka said, she is able to wear her saris because the garments are worn through a draping technique that adjusts for size. “There is just so much in terms of body acceptance and body liberation that exists in all of these ancient garments,” she said.
Abu Sadat Muhammad Sayem, a research associate at the Manchester Fashion Institute who studies how zero-waste pattern cutting can be applied to mass production, said it was not enough that high-end and custom-made fashion designers are practicing zero-waste design techniques. Instead, the onus needs to fall on mass producers, like Zara, H&M and Marks & Spencer, to cut down on textile waste.
“One of the approaches to improve intellectual fabric utilization is to look at cultural items from different parts of the world and see how it can be applied in the fashion fast styles,” he said. “That may not be the single solution, but it may be one of the solutions.”
Ms. Goenka expressed optimism about the impact that smaller brands can make. She said 80 percent of her company’s revenue comes from collaborations with designers, hotels and factories that want to cut down on their waste.
“I really believe that the next big thing is a lot of small things,” she said. “Lots of smaller brands are working on similar concepts but catering to different aesthetics and forming a diverse tapestry. This is what makes the world go around, and not just seeing 10,000 pieces of the same brand. So, the question is, how can we accept our pasts and use our histories to inform our futures?”