Since founding her eponymous fashion line in 1984, Eileen Fisher has been focused on bringing mindful consumption to the fashion industry. Her timeless, built-to-last approach to design is just one example of this—she's also led a range of sustainability initiatives like Vision 2020, the company's pledge to be using all organic cotton and linen by 2020, among other goals. Most recently, her famous buy-back program—through which customers can return lightly-used garments for store credit—has evolved into a more creative incarnation titled Waste No More, an interdisciplinary design studio dedicated to making artisanal textiles from post-consumer clothing.
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Some of the recent work created through Waste No More was on view at Rosanna Orlandi during Salone del Mobile in Milan, in an exhibition curated by Lidewij Edelkoort and Philip Fimmano. The regenerative concept at the heart of Waste No More was interpreted into a white, sanctuary-like space meant to confront visitors with the reality of overconsumption while showcasing some of the decorative objects created by Fisher's team entirely from garments beyond repair.
"I love to solve problems, to me, that's where the creativity is."
"For many years, I thought natural fibers were sustainable, partly because they are biodegradable, but while there's a lot of good about natural fibers, there's also a lot of cost and pollution created during the process," Fisher told us as we visited the installation. "By 2010 we were only using about 15% eco-preferred materials and we just said, we're not moving fast enough, we have to make a serious commitment." Pretty soon after starting their buy-back program as a way of reducing the brand's footprint in landfills, they were faced with over three warehouses packed full of clothes. For a while, they had a team working on transforming the lightly used pieces into one-of-a-kind items and special collections, but as the number of items continued to rise they had to get more creative.
"Sigi [Ahl], who was my first employee, found this felt machine and started felting and we set up a little team and just decided that this idea has potential," Fisher says. The group—made up of artists, designers, and seamstresses—now has a dedicated studio in Irvington, New York where they use the felting process to transform garment waste into artistic wall hangings, acoustic panels, and a range of home goods. It doesn't matter how damaged a textile is when it arrives at the studio, the destruction is incorporated into the aesthetic and potential is found in every scrap.
Fisher hopes that people will look at the studio's work and realize that embracing sustainable practices can be fun and a source of unexpected creativity. "Where others see waste, we see possibility," she says. "I love to solve problems, to me, that's where the creativity is."
The company hopes that this can become a new model for the textile industry—one that leads away from unsustainable consumption and toward a future with much less waste. "People have told me that this business could be bigger than our core clothing line," Fisher noted. And that success comes from the support of an increasingly savvy clientele who are seeking brands that make sustainability a priority. "The shift is coming," Fisher says, optimistically. "I heard that last year, 66% more people searched for sustainable fashion than the year before. Isn't that crazy?"