Eileen Fisher is a brand that has always prided its commitment to sustainability. Along every step of the supply chain - from the production of fabric, to the farms from which the raw material for this fabric is sourced - fashion brands often forgo ethical practices for the sake of scale and mass production, but Eileen Fisher hopes to make a real difference in the way things are done. The Waste No More collective, led by New York-based artist Sigi Ahl, is the latest initiative in this effort towards a sustainable business model.
At this year’s Salone del Mobile design festival in Milan, Waste No More unveiled a whole new collection of all-white works at Galleria Rosanna Orlandi, curated by Trend Union founder Lidewij Edelkoort and her business partner Philip Fimmano. The exhibition was a brief respite from the overwhelming sounds and colours that populated the rest of Rosanna Orlandi’s hallowed exhibition space, and transported audiences into a calm, meditative haven. A metaphor, no doubt, for how small initiatives that break the traditional cycle of production and consumption, can relieve the world of its ever-growing burden of waste.
Arising from Eileen Fisher’s buy-back policy, where customers are invited to sell their Eileen Fisher clothes back to the company, Waste No More marries art, luxury and sustainability. Sigi Ahl, a painter by training, is committed to finding innovative solutions to the problem of waste - and in doing so, also serves to spread awareness about the problem to those who may not know.
“Once our clothes are sold, we just can't stop there,” explains Eileen Fisher Project Manager, Abigail George-Erickson. “These clothes, there’s a whole other life that they go live, and then what? We really need to take responsibility for this.” Waste No More is an artistic expression of a new, waste-conscious supply chain.
Clothes are bought back from customers, and depending on their quality, they might be restored and resold at a lower price point. “It gives people that love the brand access to the brand, at a price point that they could not afford with the new product,” explains Abigail. If the clothes are beyond repair, however, they take on a whole new avatar: artwork.
The clothes are appropriated into artwork using needle-point technology, which is more commonly used in the automobile industry or for the felting of tennis balls, but which was appropriated by Sigi Ahl to create artwork out of garments. The clothes are ‘felted’ together into new patterns of fabric - a sort of clothing tapestry collage, if you will. Layers of fabric are placed between plates of 5,000 needles, which rapidly punch through the fabric to break down and then rebind the fibre. “There's no water in the process, no glue, there's no chemical finishes, and unlike traditional felting, that uses predominantly wool, water and soap, this is all just mechanical,” says George-Erickson.
The primary collections are designed through the traditional model, using virgin material - but even here, Eileen Fisher hopes to be more transparent, and make more and more sustainable decisions. The brand has a special team in place specifically committed to this end. Waste No More , on the other hand, is working with a product that is already in the market and making sure that does not end up in a land fill somewhere. “Where we are working within the company is basically closing a loop, and creating a circular economy,” explains Ahl. “Where we come in is at the end [of the classic supply chain], when we buy back. We created a new infrastructure… a new type of supply chain.”
In terms of creating artwork out of used clothing - through a mechanism as erratic as needle-point, no less - a willingness to experiment is key. Ahl’s background as a painter helps her see the works as paintings in their own right albeit, paintings made from fibre rather than paint. “We also realised that the clothes are often the central character, on top of the colours and the organisation within,” she explains. “They are some middle thing between painting and object. They are amazing stories of what we do here.” For Ahl, innovation is central to developing both the designs and the new circular business model for Eileen Fisher. “I think we will never arrive at an end,” she laughs. “We actually just discovered the tip of the iceberg. There is more exciting stuff to come.”