EcoSalon at NYFW: Yield’s Zero Waste Exhibit

Yield’s “Making Fashion Without Waste” exhibit, a closer look at an art and a movement.

In the midst of Fashion Week here in New York, it might seem contradictory to go to a show on producing less waste when all around, fashion is flying. In eco-fashion, however, it’s always good to keep things in balance and to have a reality-grounded perspective about the fashion industry. However beautiful, however sustainable, designers have got to keep themselves in check when it comes to the waste they produce with every collection.

Some designers are better at this than others.

The Textile Arts Center launched Yield: Making Fashion Without Waste, on Friday night at their Brooklyn location, featuring zero waste designers Holly McQuillan, Caroline Priebe, Timo Rissanen, Julian Roberts, Tara St. James, David Telfer, Yeohlee Teng, Jennifer Whitty, Natalie Chanin, Carla Fernandez, Sam Formo, and Julia Lumsden.

Holly McQuillan, Yield Curator, designer and lecturer in the fashion design program at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington, New Zealand was available to answer some questions pre-show about the exhibit and just how zero waste can be that when by the simple act of design and creation, there is excess.

Here’s what she had to say.

Yield curator and designer, Holly McQuillan

Would you consider zero waste design an art?
No, it’s a technique. Painting is a technique and can be an art form or a way to decorate your home. It depends on what you do with it, like any technique, its up to the practitioner. So some zero waste design could be considered art, but much of it is commercial design.

Julian Roberts and Holy McQuillan

Why don’t more designers use it if it helps maximize fabric use and create less waste?
Primarily for 2 reasons.
A: When you first start it is difficult to do well. Like any new skill that requires a bit of effort, zero waste can begin badly, many students try it once, it doesn’t meet their expectations and they assume its not possible. The reality is that it’s a technique, like standard pattern cutting and draping on a dress form and sewing, learning it takes time.

B: Because of this, the assumption is that you have no control over the aesthetic – something all designers want. The more you practice zero waste fashion the more you can shape the outcomes. Many good designers have spent 3-4 years being taught the skills of traditional fashion design (sketching, design development, drape, pattern cutting, construction) and then go into industry and continue to have at least some of these skills developed. This enables designers/pattern cutters to have control over the outcomes; a layman has a great deal more difficulty resolving a garment design because they don’t have the skill base.

Julian Roberts

Designers want to be able to immediately be as good at zero waste design as they already are at the traditional models, but of course most won’t be as they haven’t had years of learning in education or industry. So they assume the outcomes they initially see from their attempts are all they will be able to achieve. They also assume that the outcomes they see out there by existing zero waste designers are all that can be achieved, but every designer approaches it differently and therefore has different outcomes.

Recently I’ve been in conversation with one of the worlds best known producers of clothing about implementing a zero waste fashion collection to their ranges. If these guys can do it, anyone can.

Timo Rissanen

Can you talk about “cultural memory” inherent in our clothing and how that ties into zero waste?
I stumbled into zero waste while completing my Masters of Design at Massey University in 2004/2005. My masters (called First Son) wasn’t on zero waste fashion at all – it was exploring the role clothing can play in communicating cultural and collective memory. How clothing can tell a story and the appropriateness of garments as a medium for that. I was interested in the flexibility inherent in cloth, the intimacy of wearing clothing next to the skin, its ability to tell people about who or what you are, the multi-layered, adaptable possibilities of cloth and garments, and importantly the way garments, more than most other personal items, seem to be able to ‘hold’ the memory of the person who wore them.

Sam Formo

All of this combined into a collection of five garments that told a story collected from a group of people about a person important in my life – my father. He was an ordinary husband, father, farmer and friend who grew up in post WWII New Zealand and died in 1993 after a battle with cancer. I was using his life and the memories people had of him as representative of (masculine) culture in post war New Zealand and testing how clothing could be used to transcend time, to communicate narratives and loss to contemporary New Zealanders.

To achieve this I used a process of cutting 2D cloth (landscape) without cutting any part off, and transforming the cloth into five different garment designs that told a different story about my father and the time he lived in. The garments are not fixed, they can be ‘unmade’ and ‘made’ again and again using the relatively complex fastenings, folds and twists, so to be able to make them the way I intended them you need to know the story behind them. However, someone else could make a completely different garment with a different interpretation of a similar ‘story.’’ The garments were zero waste because nothing in memory or time is cut off and removed, nothing is ‘wasted,’ it all comes together to make us who we are, what our cultures are, both good and bad, whether we like it or not.

I didn’t know what zero waste fashion was, my manifestation of what we now call Zero Waste Fashion came about from my research into memory and a chance encounter with a pattern for a Kimono (which are usually zero waste). There were no sustainable goals in my master project, just a respect for craft, time, landscape and a desire to communicate an idea.

Yeohlee Teng

Do all the designers featured design with zero waste in mind all the time or was this just a challenge for some for Yield?
Not all the designers are always zero waste designers. All but Julian Roberts had garments that were zero waste in some way, which is why they were selected back in early 2010. Julian Roberts uses a technique he invented called Subtraction Cutting which lends itself well to zero waste fashion, and has been inspirational to Timo and myself in the work we do. So we challenged Julian to attempt a zero waste piece for this exhibition, it is not quite zero waste, but a vast improvement on his usual yield.

David Telfer explores a range of innovative approaches, one of which is zero waste design. Yeohlee Teng and Zandra Rhodes do not always design with zero waste in mind, but are always extremely mindful of how they use cloth. The garments in YIELD are demonstrations of what is possible. Today we could add many more examples, as more and more designers attempt this process, but that’s a whole other project.

Carla Fernandez

How does a fashion designer one day decide to call what they are creating “zero waste” when by the very act of designing they are creating waste?

I’m not even sure where the term came from! It should probably be called Zero Waste Garment Design or Zero Waste Pattern Design. We intentionally didn’t call our exhibition Zero Waste Fashion because not all the designers are zero waste fashion designers, so instead it’s YIELD: Making Fashion Without Making Waste. So when we make the garments in the show we don’t make any (or much) waste. It’s the easiest way to explain what the premise for the show is, and for what we do in general, so it seems to stick.

Principals of waste management ask that you first don’t produce any waste, then you reduce waste, then you reuse it and then you recycle it. So this process targets the first step in waste management, we don’t produce waste in production. Now a company/designer/consumer can choose to follow through with other equally important steps to reduce their environmental impact, or not. Obviously I’d prefer they used organic, recycled or otherwise sustainable fabrics. That they designed timeless garments that encouraged their consumers to buy less and local, That they transported their locally made garments in biodegradable packaging using transportation methods with minimized impacts on the environment.

Natalie Chanin

I’d like it if they encouraged their consumers to wash less, in cold water, and to not use the dryer. I would encourage designers and consumers to support mending services and local craft. And, when the garment can no longer be mended, for it to be reused in another capacity until its eventual disposal – ideally being recycled or composted. Zero Waste Fashion is one step in a possible series of steps. Zero waste fashion can also be about using the scraps for other purposes – such as what Natalie Chanin does, or designers could use textiles that can be recycled into new fabrics. Sustainable designers need to deal somehow with the resources they waste in the production of their garments. There are so many opportunities for designers, consumers and retailers to make a difference, zero waste fashion is one such opportunity.

Tara St James

There a number of important repercussions from designing in this way also:

Designing a zero waste garment is slower: It would be extremely difficult have a lead-time (from design to delivery) of 14 days (such as Zara has) for all but the most simple zero waste fashion design. While the waste reduction from this process would benefit from the vast scale of fast fashion – the more zero waste garments you make the greater the reduction of waste – the negative impacts of fast fashions speed of change would cancel this out. It’s quite the conundrum and something I struggle with a lot. I guess it depends if you believe its possible for designers to stop people from consuming/disposing of clothing the way they currently do.

It requires all members of a design team to consider every decision they make. The production of clothing has long separated out the roles of design and production. To successfully achieve a zero waste garment either the line needs to be developed by a person with strength in pattern cutting, 3D design and construction, or the team needs to work as one in a truly collaborative way. The pattern for a zero waste garment is the 3D design, the pattern and the marker all in one – the design is not a sketch.

You can’t copy an existing design easily: following fads can be difficult. The value in a zero waste design is its originality, its craft and its embedded energy. Garments designed through a zero waste design process will have moments that are unexpected, they wont look exactly like everything else you see in stores because it is difficult to draw a design or to look at an existing garment and say “I want to design something like that.”

Amy DuFault

Amy DuFault is a conscious lifestyle writer, consultant and fashion instigator. She resides in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.