There are many ways in which to address a broad issue like sustainability in fashion. One of these is simply going straight to the source, where all the magic begins: the raw materials.
During the past few years, some very innovative ideas have started to be developed upon in the field of fibers by creative and visionary minds, which now thanks to modern technology and the tireless work of these visionaries, are presented as viable solutions for a more sustainable world. We are not talking about just organic fibers either, but instead of fabrics created by innovative systems of food fibers processing such as apple or orange peel. The latter case can apply to Ferragamo, the first luxury brand to use orange fiber to create a capsule collection of accessories and ready to wear which launched recently. Another example comes from Atelier Terra Urbana, a Slovenian brand using apple skin as a successful leather substitute. There are more possibilities, of course, offered by the initial success these two brands have had for alternative sources.
We talked to Mateja Benedetti the team behind Atelier Terra Urbana and asked what revolutionary materials we might be wearing in the near future and the pros and cons of a sustainable fashion brand.
You created a brand “Atelier Terra Urbana” that combines the natural and sustainable with luxury fashion. What made you decide to choose this path?
Years ago, when I saw different sustainable fashion brands, I found them very untrendy, very poor, and in most cases very unattractive. In the eyes of customers, sustainable fashion was just for ecologists, vegans or environmentally conscious people. For other customers, however, “real” fashion was something else. Real fashion was represented by luxury and aesthetic, basically, everything that sustainable fashion was not. Because of that, I decided that we had to do a sustainable brand that would represent the highest values in the fashion industry. And not just that, would be synonymous with luxury, beauty, and innovation. We decided that we wanted to become a healthy trend, the fashion of the future. This was a challenge. To make a comparison, it was challenging in a similar way as if Van Gogh would only have black and white colors to paint his beautiful sunflowers. So we started to look for techniques that would support our designs despite the numerous restrictions imposed when designing environmental clothing.
Environmental friendly fashion is key to your brand’s philosophy. This led to using only organic materials for your creations. Other than cotton, silk, and wool, however, you focused on some very revolutionary materials, such as apple skin. Where did that idea come from? Furthermore, what kinds of processes are required to make garments from apple skin?
Manfred Schweigkofler, the director that I work with as a costume designer for operas, called me and asked me if I wanted to collaborate with him and Hannes Parth (of Italian company Frumat), who has developed a sustainable vegan leather. First of all, I wanted to see this apple skin material, to touch it, to feel it and get an idea of what kind of forms I could develop. I think this is one of the best solutions for leather goods. First of all, it’s made from apple waste produced by the food-processing industry and recycling is one manner of sustainability we should continue to work on. It’s also important that the quality is good and that the aesthetic is similar to animal leather. You can design it as leather and sew it as a textile. If I compare it to leather, it’s easier to work with. Laser cut is one of the methods that you can use, to which the material resists, it stays in good condition.
What kind of technical innovations are required to make this kind of fashion work? How difficult is it to accomplish, and how does it combine with a “green” organizational mission? First, understand that working with certified organic materials is difficult. They aren’t as good as artificial textiles because they’re natural, so they wrinkle. Furthermore, you have limits on what patterns, textures, and colors you have available. For example, metal colors don’t exist at all. Sometimes it feels like I am in the Middle Ages. This is why it takes so much time and effort to get something that you want.
We are developing almost everything you can think of: patterns made with water-based printing (designed by Sasa Kladnik), natural embroideries, etc. All of this is copyrighted work. We have only 2-5 colors in a season that we can use, so when I start designing clothing, I have to first check what materials are available. We are collaborating with some small, but very good companies like Ercigoj Art Embroidery and others that share the same values as Terra Urbana such as fair trade production, sustainability, responsibility, ethics, and a commitment to high quality.
Apple skin isn’t the only edible/waste material you use, you also utilize fish leather. How do you treat this material? How do you transform it into a beautiful garment?
Fish leather is a different story. Fish skin is limited by its size and it’s very expensive. For me though, it represents a good substitute for a snake or crocodile skin for those customers who wouldn’t otherwise care about endangered species. It’s a good alternative until we invent something not made from animals with the same texture. The material comes from fish caught in the sea or farmed for food. Not a single hide in the tannery comes from an animal bred for its skin. If not used, the skins simply dissolve. It’s difficult for use in clothing, so I use it more for details like the collar of a vest. In the future, we will also make accessories and bags.
What is the importance of upcycling to you? I believe that upcycling and recycling go together hand in hand. Both are very important for sustainability because we are living on a planet that is drowning in garbage. We are producing a lot of waste materials, but at the same time, we don’t think enough about the alternatives for how to reuse them. So I support people who are working on those problems with all my heart. Whatever are we to do with all this plastic, textile garbage etc. that we throw away every day on this lovely planet? My way is a bit different. I work with natural materials because they decompose 10 times faster than materials made from petroleum. They are certified and that means they are created without the use of any chemicals or additional treatments like insecticides, pesticides or synthetic additives. They are biodegradable and really healthy for the body.
You also looked to bamboo and hemp for raw materials. Why these plants and what are the results in both terms of sustainability and the quality of the final product? Hemp is natural and in my opinion one of the most ecologically friendly fabrics in the world, as well as the oldest. Hemp fiber breathes, is biodegradable, and a renewable resource which grows quickly without herbicides, fungicides or pesticides. A poor appearance is my only problem with this material. For a luxury look, we had to combine it with rich embroideries. Bamboo, however, is the opposite of rigid hemp, incredibly soft, smooth, antistatic, luxuriously comfortable and a strong material overall. It has excellent wicking properties, is antibacterial and is a good solution for skin problems.
What benefits are brought into peoples lives by the new sustainable technologies that Atelier Terra Urbana uses? I think I already mentioned most of the benefits, but the biggest is surely that Terra Urbana can help preserve the world and all life on it for the long term. Future generations of people, as well as our water, earth, air and health will be preserved, a preservation effort sorely needed right now.
Cover Photo: Jani Ugrin