• Orsola de Castro
"Collaboration is my mantra. Only then can big brands and their suppliers change. Brands need to have control over what they produce."


Orsola de Castro founded the experimental, sustainable fashion label From Somewhere in 1997. With Filippo Ricci, she also started Esthetica, London Fashion Week’s highly praised ethical-clothing showcase. De Castro advises large companies like Britain’s Tesco and Topshop on sustainability and is a big proponent of upcycling – the use of leftover materials in fashion collections. “Students have to learn to design differently,” she says.


As a sustainability expert, you judged these designs with a different eye than the other Lichting panellists. What did you notice? “A few collections could easily be turned into sustainable collections. For example, Jef Montes [of ArtEZ Institute of the Arts in Arnhem] used neoprene. That’s a polluting material – it’s delicate and easily damaged. He could find an alternative to neoprene. It’s about pre-consumer surplus – looking for leftovers. Montes is good at cutting, pattern-making. That’s closely linked to the sustainable principle of zero waste.”


“I could tell from Tess van Zalinge [of AMFI Amsterdam Fashion Institute]’s collection that she’d be good at working with knitting waste – the fabric selvedge, often small pieces, that you get from the manufacturers. That’s what we call upcycling.”


Upcycling, using leftover bits of high-quality materials, is still a relatively unknown phenomenon. “Upcycling is mainly about reducing excess textile production. It’s become very popular with students in the UK. It’s simply more difficult for students to work with organic cotton, because they always have to order at least several hundred metres. Upcycling is very cheap, sometimes even free.”


“In the 1980s, recycling was very normal among students – they’d make collections out of secondhand clothes. These days, we’re not far from that mentality. Upcycling is a sign of the times, but you either like it or you don’t. Just as you make the decision to go further with knitwear or prints, you choose to do upcycling. It’s not for everyone.”


So you didn’t discover any sustainable collections at Lichting. Do bachelor students not tend to work in a very eco-conscious way? “These students don’t, anyway. We’re further ahead in the UK. Sustainability is part of the second-year curriculum at almost every school. I did a project with Central Saint Martins [College of Art and Design] in London. Eighty students divided into 10 teams had to design capsule collections. The results were shown at Esthetica, and they were amazing – it was one of the best projects ever, according to the BA fashion course director, Willie Walters.”


Is a sustainability project a wake-up call for students? “Yes. It challenges them to be creative. The students in the current generation, whether or not they’re aware of sustainability, totally get it as soon as they’re made aware. That’s because they’re the first generation that thinks the world’s going to end. My generation never knew that problem.”

So that mentality means students need to learn to design in a different way? “Yes, because we’re on the point of a revolution with upcycling. Designing differently is part of that. In the social and environmental arena, all of industry bears responsibility, but the fashion industry especially does, because it’s one of the biggest polluters. I think the high street is desperately trying to find responsibly produced items at the moment, and the big fashion houses are rushing to get their acts together.”


Is there great demand for designers who specialise in sustainability? “Not great enough. I’ve got to be honest – it’s the most difficult hurdle at the moment. Things are at a standstill. The problem is, although the designers are willing, the suppliers aren’t. There is a need for designers who know what to do in this situation.”


So the fashion industry isn’t doing much? “The industry’s lazy! Twenty-five years ago, “fast fashion” became popular – it’s a lot quicker to throw away clothing than to rescue and repair it. The fashion industry needs to reinvent itself. In the future, we’ll definitely see a carbon footprint tax, which means the more a company pollutes the more it will have to pay. In the end, that’s how it always goes with humanity – only when saving money becomes an issue do things start to happen.”


“Fashion today is still linked to creativity rather than to saving money or water or energy. I’m doing pioneering work with something I know will be the next big thing. Because resources are finite. Materials are getting more expensive. Everything needs to be more efficient.”


“Collaboration is my mantra. Only then can big brands and their suppliers change. Brands need to have control over what they produce. Bruno Pieters’ Honest By is a transparent company and a fantastic example.”


So people need to be encouraged to set up green brands? “Definitely – the buyers want it! Esthetica showcases the best eco-friendly designers at London Fashion Week. It is important that the brands are able to say what sets them apart. For long-time, eco-friendly fashion suffered under a stigma – the whole scratchy woolly socks thing. This new generation doesn’t have that.”


What was your impression of Lichting in terms of developing talent? “It’s a wonderful initiative. I do sometimes think: Why have a competition? You could just have a group show. But I understand that sponsors want a winner, so that element is important.”


“Otherwise, it’s vitally important for a country to have a decent platform like this, with an international panel, so talented young designers get seen at the international level. Because today everything’s international and online.”


By Georgette Koning