Orsola de Castro On The Joy Of Bringing Old Clothes Back To Life

 

WORDS BY LANDON PEOPLES

PHOTOGRAPHS BY NICO KRIJNO

Fashion Revolution cofounder Orsola de Castro wants you to love your clothes—not just for how they look but how they were made (and what you’ll do with them when you don’t want them anymore). Her debut book Loved Clothes Last redefines what it means to live a more stylish life.

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The premise of designer-activist Orsola de Castro’s debut book also comes with a promise: that clothing can be appreciated outside of aesthetics in ways that can be as revolutionary for the Earth as they are our self-esteem. Loved Clothes Last seeks to make the clothes we cherish last longer by (literally) mending and sewing new life into them. It’s part-guide, part-memoir and contains just about everything you need to know when it comes to the lifespan of your wardrobe, from point of sale to returns and exchanges; a potent antidote to the feeling of having nothing to wear.

 

Across nearly 300 pages, it raises an important question: For an industry so reared on consumption that it can’t exist without it, is love—that unreliable, uncontrollable emotion—all the supply chain needs to clean up its act? Er, no. But a recent conversation with the Fashion Revolution cofounder offered a jocular comparison that actually serves as a convincing starting point: Treat your clothes like you do your food. You wouldn’t give someone a piece of moldy cheese so why would you donate a T-shirt beyond repair?

 

“We’re able to put the impact of the fashion industry within several other contexts of the world,” she tells Atmos. Through infographics and online campaigns, her organization has gained a prominent following of people interested in learning about who makes their clothes and the side effects of their hang-ups on fast-fashion. “It’s linked with climate change, with exploiting people, and the understanding that you cannot have one without the other; you cannot understand this without understanding that intersection of exploiting people and exploiting the planet.”

 

For de Castro, our shopping habits should lead with the head and the heart—a reimagined system in which they work with each other instead of against; that a garment sets us apart from someone else is a moot point if it was dyed with harmful chemicals and made by an underpaid factory worker (“It might be the right fit for your size—but does it fit your principles, as well?”). And, if we can create a circular closet that isn’t just vintage or ethically made but nipped, tucked, and patched by our very own hands, then we won’t just be sustainable—we’ll be less wasteful and more patient, too.

 

Read more on de Castro’s mission to inspire Generation Z and beyond to scrutinize their shopping habits, acquire more knowledge, and launch a revolution that believes anyone who understands the difference between fair trade and free-range can create longer lives for their closets, too. Because, if we can transcend the customs that came before us—like shopping sprees and Black Friday—then imagine, as de Castro does in Love Clothes Last, how stable (and stylish) a relationship that reminds us of the beauty of loving what we already have can be.

Illustration by Nico Krijno

Landon Peoples

What inspired you to write this book? Why now?

Orsola de Castro

Well, to be honest with you, I was picked up on Instagram by my agent and I nearly didn’t respond. She approached me wanting to do a book on mending and I told her that I am really, really bad at mending myself, even though I practice all sorts of longevity things with my clothes. But I told her that I would be happy to write a book, not just on how to mend, but on why to mend. So it’s more of a manual, but also a manifesto. It tells the story of the industry and why we should be making the changes we need to make, including tips and ideas.

Landon

It’s called Loved Clothes Last: How the Joy of Rewearing and Repairing Your Clothes Can Be a Revolutionary Act. So, beyond the surface level of admiring a garment, how would you define a truly “loved” piece of clothing? What goes into that feeling for you?

Orsola

Well, first of all, the understanding that we are in the fashion supply and value chains. The minute we buy something, we have full responsibility for the rest of its journey towards its end of life. And therefore, we are part of the system and it is our responsibility, our obligation, to make it as sustainable as we possibly can and as ethical as we possibly can. That’s the premise of the book: that every morning when you take responsibility for the clothes you want to wear, there’s a whole other set of questions that you need to ask yourself that aren’t Is this the right fit? It might be the right fit for your size—but does it fit your principles, as well? It’s deciding to take on the life of those clothes and imprint your life in those clothes for as long as you possibly can. And when you no longer want them, to imagine and create a system of donating—which is in itself not dumping, but donating, which is two different things completely as actions.

Landon

Sustainability can come off as greenwashing. But how would you define sustainability? Has your perception of it changed from what you first perceived as “green” or ethical clothes?

Orsola

No, no—I go by the book. For me, sustainable means something that you can read in the dictionary and that’s the meaning. I know that the word, along with circularity, is used wrong as terminologies and also for greenwashing. But the point that we make at Fashion Revolution, and I guess in the book, is around wanting to acquire more knowledge. If we see what happened with the social movements of recent, we’re seeing a whole generation of kids that are saying You taught me wrong. You didn’t tell me the truth. I am going to educate myself and learn about these issues before I can become an active part of changing them. This is a fundamental, vital change in the way that the next generations are thinking. We can apply this to fashion because fashion as a system not only was built on colonialism but certainly built on exploitation from the very start of industrialization. There isn’t a moment in which the fashion industry was perfect and lovely and everybody [was] hunky-dory [and] sewing happily, merrily away. That never happened.

 

We’re able to put the impact of the fashion industry within several other contexts of the world. It’s linked with climate change, with exploiting people, and the understanding that you cannot have one without the other; you cannot understand this without understanding that intersection of exploiting people and exploiting the planet.

Landon

What are some ways that the book teaches shoppers to scrutinize their shopping habits?

Orsola

It’s [about] changing your shopping habits by asking yourself different questions. For instance: What’s the perfect pink? It’s not necessarily a shade of pink with a bit of lilac or a touch of orange or whatever. The perfect pink is made without the use of azo dyes—which we know pollute and are carcinogenic—without the exploitation of our waters, and without the use of chemical substances that we know are toxic.

 

We need to shift the questions that we ask when we buy. If you spend an awful lot of time finding the right fit of a piece of clothing, why not also ask if the person that made it was paid a living wage or allowed to unionize? Those are the questions we need to start asking in the future. We’ve started to a certain extent with food, in a very selfish way, via ingredients—but this is something we need to transport to fashion and include the social aspect, which I think we’re ready for.

Landon

How do you think other people, even just in more rural places or outside of large cities, will reconcile with this idea of asserting extra time and care for their clothes in a world that moves so fast?

Orsola

We need to take into context to whom we’re speaking and what their opportunities are. Some of us are more privileged than others and we can take the time to spot clean. But the book talks about a kind of advocacy that makes caring for our clothes, and repairing them in particular, available in the wider community. I can take the time to repair my clothes or afford somebody to mend them for me—but if I was a single parent with three kids in lockdown? No bloody way that I’d be repairing their jeans. So, [for example] why don’t we have repair aisles in every supermarket? They pick up where a hem has dropped; that takes about three minutes and you can do that while you buy your frozen chicken. It’s society that needs to reinstate not just the culture but the opportunities to make our clothes last a long time.

 

It’s the same with plastic. If you are of a very low income and you’re struggling to put food on your family’s table, you’re not really going to be worried about doing plastic-free shopping. It’s the supermarket that has to give you cheap plastic-free products.

 

The book gives you the opportunities to think about your habits and then to find the right one for you. We can’t be over preachy because we’ve seen the light and expect that other people also can.

Landon

You mentioned this notion that we need to be more cognizant of where our clothes end up. What would you say to someone who maybe doesn’t have all the answers yet but is looking to dispose of something simply because they’re just tired of wearing it? Is that idea now something of a luxury or privilege?

Orsola

There are so many questions: Could the piece go to somebody else that you know? Is it in good enough condition for you to pass it on to a friend or a colleague or just offer it? Or even just make it a gift rather than dumping. And if that’s not the case, if it’s really something that you don’t want anymore—or if it’s in a really bad state—you consider the best route for it. If it’s in a really bad state, you’re not going to want to give that to charity because it’s going to be in a bad state for you and in a bad state for somebody else. So, the likelihood is that that piece will just end up in some Sub-Saharan country or in Haiti—or just going somewhere where it’s already unwanted in the first place.

 

Or is there another way? Is there a textile bank that you can take it to where you know it can be downcycled into mattress filling and so on and so forth? Do the work and see what’s available locally to you. If it is a case of something that might have a little tear and you want to give it to charity, then mend it first. It’s a donation, meaning that it’s a gift in a way, no? If you’re donating something, you have to make it palatable. If you want to really help a charity, they have to be able to sell that piece. Just do the legwork.

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