Thursday 31 August 2023

Orsola de Castro - Fashion Pioneer


Really happy to bring you Orsola’s story today. It took a lot of no’s and an eventual meeting to get here. To change her reply to yes to being one of my Inspirational Women, you will find out later in our conversation why. But persistence paid off on this occasion and her voice as part of this series is an important one for me. Orsola’s work brings people along with her, she is a maker, coupled with a desire to show others how to elevate their own creativity keeping people, circularity and working within planetary boundaries in mind while doing so. She is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Estethica, Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution and Author of Loved Clothes Last. As with all my interviews we will take a journey through her life.



D: You're from a very artistic family were both your mum and dad involved in the arts?


O: No, my dad was a businessman, and died when I was 2½, and my mother is an artist.


D: So, your mum was your influence as far as art was concerned?


O: She allowed me the freedom to be creative, because that's what she was also doing for herself. In terms of style we are very different. She would unravel clothes and make changes to her own clothing and that's where she's influenced me the most. In terms of art, again, it's more to do with having had the agency, the freedom.


D: What pulled you towards fashion?


O: Accidentally, I had no interest in fashion whatsoever when I grew up. I had an interest in clothing and clothes and spent an enormous amount of time thinking about clothing, but I never really contemplated a fashion career. My relationship with fashion was to interact with the clothes that you wear in a very deeply and profound way, and I was hugely interested in what other people wore. Fashion for me was always a social experiment rather than a career choice.


D: When did you move to London?


O: I moved to London to finish school and took my A levels here. In Italy the schooling system is more like a baccalaureate, where you have to study several different options, including things like, Greek, Latin, maths, chemistry, science and physics. So, I came to the UK to do my A levels and choose my own subjects and to learn in English.



D: At heart you are a creator. You started your label From Somewhere in 1997. Tell us about that.


O: From Somewhere was the culmination of a journey. I started by making hats, buying old vintage hats and very theatrically transform them. Those were sold in a couple of stores in London. My second thing was a collection of crocheted hats, for the same store where From Somewhere started. At that time, I was printing and wood blocking on silk too. All of this precedes the actual brand which started in 1997. There is a long story of how this brand came about, how I started reusing and why.


D: You mentioned crocheting, I know it's very much part of you, who taught you to crochet?


O: My Grandma when I was 6. She was probably a worse teacher than I was at teaching crochet because she had completely no patience and nor have I, I can't teach people to crochet to save my skin. She was the same. So, I learned really fast because it was terrifying.


D: With From Somewhere, you won the Observer Ethical award in 2010. What drew you to upcycling?


O: It’s difficult to explain. When I started, From Somewhere as a label, I was already doing this. I was, already a maker. I have been transforming clothes since I was 12 years old. It was one of my school tricks. I would literally take my crocheting along with me. The thing about doing crochet around holes or crochet around jumpers or altering the shape of something with a crochet needle, again, that was my game. Teachers would comment that I wasn’t paying attention in school, but I would be still making. My mother influenced me with this, she is very brilliant. She believes that there is a brain intelligence and a heart to hand intelligence. She believes that the hand intelligence, the making, probably came before the brain intelligence when it comes to our evolution, and I profoundly identified with that. Again, I am not an artist. I am an applied artist, practicing applied arts, proudly, I am a maker. So, From Somewhere was the culmination and it started only because a very good friend of mine said ‘OK right, now I wanna sell you. I'm going to take all of these things you are making and we're going make it into a brand and I am going to take you out into shops. If they hadn’t, I would otherwise have remained in the equivalent of what this room is I am talking to you now from but in another house, without ever selling anything. 

I'm not outgoing with what I make, but I am compelled to make. I can't externalise it in any way unless I work with others. When From Somewhere started it wasn't a burning desire to do something commercial with upcycling, it was somebody else’s burning desire to show what I was doing and partner with me on that journey. But it wasn't an attempt at anything, apart from my own story, my own story around recuperating clothing, I loved old things, I liked that look. This was 1997, and the beginning was definitely an artistic decision, a creative need.


D: A desire to create.


O: Yeah, and then I realised in which industry I had somehow ended up in and what was happening, and then the awareness came. It's interesting because I've been asked the question millions of times, ‘when was that turning point’ and I never felt there was one. But retrospectively I know now when that moment was, at the time I didn't realise.


D: Because people are asking you these questions all the time, it makes you think about where that point would have been. Would it be the same with the ethical side, that you realised you were in there rather than actively doing something about it?


O: The ethical side and the sustainable side which was around recuperating clothing that I'd always done. I've been shopping vintage and transforming my own vintage clothing since I was a kid. The ethical and the understanding about the industry and the understanding that I had very solid principles came one day when, I never remember whether it was Bergdorf Goodman, or someone else of that size, a big apartment store from the United States, saw our crocheted jumpers. At the time we were selling them in NYC, London, Tokyo, Milan. That dept store wanted to make a big order, but we couldn't fulfil it, we’re talking 10s of thousands of crocheted cardigans to sell throughout their stores in the United States. We had a meeting and they said ‘that’s not a problem we already produce in China. We can choose the ones we like, and we can take it to China and have it manufactured there.’ To be honest with you, I was so naive I couldn't understand, I said ‘what do you mean? How are you going find them second hand in China are they going have good second-hand cashmere in China?’ Then they explained ‘we're just going to copy them and make them new.’ Had we gone ahead we would have made a fortune, but it was not something I had to think about. ‘No’ came out before I could even think about it. Then even when I thought about it ‘No’ came out again and again and again. That day I came back home and I told the story, right then I knew my principles were solid, and it didn't cost me anything apart from the money I could have made. There was no question. And it's only been literally in the last couple of weeks, going through my sketchbooks and diaries that I remembered this incident and thought, ah ha that's interesting. This was 1998 and I said no to a massive deal because my gut said no and my loyalty to the people that were making my jumpers and the loyalty to the story of that product made me say no.


From Somewhere was the first incarnation, then we expanded onto free consumer waste and working with luxury industry leftovers, we had set up our own fashion department within a social cooperative in Italy at that point, between I'd say 2005 until 2014, all of my collections were made in a social cooperative by people with either emotional or physical difficulties or disabilities.



D: You are a forerunner in so many ways Orsola. Inspiring future generations to work in that same way. So many more people benefit from that way of working and the power of that way of working. From 2005 to 2014, that was with Estethica and Reclaim to Wear?


O: It's a little bit complicated with such a long period of time. The brand was called From Somewhere, and what we did, was that we commodified the message so that other people could use it. We called our method for upcycling Reclaim to Wear. Reclaim to Wear was a form of self-certification. It was difficult to export, or to sell, upcycling at the time. At least people know what it means now, but then they didn't even know what the word was. We didn't even use the word recycling then either. Reclaiming was the one I used the most. So we had to create something to explain how we were doing it and Reclaim To Wear was an easy way for us to talk about the method but not about the style.

When we created the Topshop collection for instance, it was a Reclaim To Wear venture rather than a From Somewhere collection. Although I worked with their design team, I was not the designer of that particular collection. We worked as a team, and I was the provider of the method. That's why it was called Topshop Reclaim To Wear. With Speedo I was the designer of the collection which made it a From Somewhere collection.

We had to create a story around the fact that what we were doing was replicable using resources viable for others. I was already teaching it as a technique and because we were upcycling at scale, and were probably one of the very, very very few brands that managed to upcycle, upscale and reproduce because obviously we had so much material and notoriety, I guess. So, we had to have Reclaimed To Wear as a definition of the system that we had invented.


Estethica started a few years after, in 2006, I co-founded it with my husband/partner Filippo Ricci.

When we were showcasing at White in Milan, the then head of the BFC was Hilary Riva and they came over to visit and were really intrigued by our collection. At that time we were selling to maybe 70 to 75 stockists, all of the top stockists globally. Really, really good stores, really important stores. My product was always made from rubbish but I always made it look high end and good quality. Fillipo told Hillary, this is such a wasted opportunity for the BFC because sustainability is happening in the UK. It's forming in the UK. The UK, and particularly London, is coming out as one of the major centres for sustainability in fashion. It's a nascent movement and unless you embrace it, you'll be missing out on something. Three months later they contacted us and said, OK, we want to do a sustainable area at London Fashion Week, but we want it to be like you are, with the scope of being high fashion rather than ethical fashion and that's when we started Estethica in 2006.



D: At that time that upcycling, recycling, sustainable fashion, was not seen as upmarket.


O: But when I started From Somewhere in 1997, many designers that were referencing vintage. We called it that, reference vintage and people such as Preen, Crysta Davies, Russell Sage, Jessica Odgen, were all using vintage. So, it was super bloody trendy then. When mainstream fashion started realising about sustainability in fashion, they started getting scared, that's when the stigma first came. It's not a coincidence, because I never saw this stigma around it.


D: I never saw a stigma around it either, when I was at university, we always shopped at vintage stores too. That was the way it was. I guess this happened around the same time that fast fashion, really took off, this negativity around it.


O: A lot of the clothes that was sustainable at the start was crunchy, but that was because they weren't designed, they were not supposed to be. They were products that were supposed to be made by communities. So, they were kind of designed by missionaries in some ways. But if you think about it, things like Birkenstock have always been cool and sustainable and sustainable fashion at the time looked like Birkenstock and yet we were gunned down. We were gunned down for a reason, and it's precisely what you're saying, fast fashion was speeding up and luxury fashion was becoming consistently more glossy and more machine made, and what the mainstream did, deliberately, deliberately, deliberately and deliberately.

They made anything that was artisanal or handmade made look shit. It was partly a reaction from the 70s and the hippie look, but it was partly a deliberate and extremely successful attempt to remove us from the origins of luxury which is hand made. Which is about what the material is made from, which is about craft and which is about different cultures and those ethnicities. And they made it all about a shocking pink bag, made god knows where, and by god knows whom, from god knows what, and that was deliberate. Anything that didn't look like that, that wasn't fluro in those years was stigmatised, they called it granola, porridge, itchy socks, camel hoarders, all of these names were used to describe the many different styles of sustainable fashion that there are in this world. How pathetic is it to put everything under these labels? It was an open declaration of war and hostility, this is 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 10,11,12,13,14 in which every single media, publication would say ‘finally, a sustainable brand you can wear’. Crap. That was a deliberate ploy to destroy a vast improvement because they knew they couldn't emulate it. 



D: So, I guess this was happening also around the same time that big industry was closing factories in the UK and offshoring everything. And of course, that globalisation and offshoring put the burden of production squarely on the shoulders of people in the global south. That coupled with the aggressive drive to push down costs resulted in the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, which spurred you and Carry Somers to set up Fashion Revolution to highlight the bad practices in the fast fashion supply chain and fashion industry globally. The work of which has helped reshape the conversation.


O: This is something I feel very strongly about, we do not only condemn fast fashion. That's a very easy mistake to make. Of course, fast fashion has an incredible negative impact, but so does luxury. We (Fashion Revolution) would never only talk about fast fashion. We said very clearly from our second meeting that we weren't only there to break fast fashion.


D: Because luxury is guilty of similar practises.


O: They are extremely similar. There's a difference in terms of quantity and quality produced but luxury certainly has their own billions of products.


D: You've achieved so much with Fashion Revolution and it’s good to see that it is global now and with over 80 hubs. What would you say were your proudest achievements with Fashion Revolution.


O: It’s the move to restructure Fashion Revolution so that it is more in the hands of the country coordinators and that is my opinion and my vision. It was always meant to be for the people that took part in it, I never wanted it to be anything else but as an open source, as reachable and as participatory as possible. That is what Fashion Revolution was supposed to be and I'm glad that this is what it became. 


D: About a decade ago you were asked what your opinion of the fashion industry today was. Your answer at the time was ‘It needs to change. The industry needs to evolve. Quite simply environmentally, socially, the system isn't working, it's damaging, and I think that all this is finally being recognised and taken into consideration more and more and there's a definite shift towards sustainable practises throughout the fashion and textile industry. The word transparency has never been sexier and some companies are really beginning to include, or at least explore, sustainable solutions. But the shift is towards change and changing takes time and is challenging. It won't happen overnight, and we are dealing with resistance, scepticism and misinformation along the way.’


O: I feel I could have said that yesterday.


D: And that’s my next question, what is your feeling on it today? Do you think there's been much of a shift? 


O: There has been a shift, that has to be said, but the mainstream fashion industry still reigns supreme. At the end of the day, when you go buying online, people still go to the usual suspects. But there has not been that shift in visibility for younger designers that I was hoping to see. There has not been that one big brand putting their hand up to say look I’m going to slow down my production and produce better, none of this happened. The mainstream is still marching on. This is a patriarchal industry which is still guided by middle-aged white men. Now middle-aged white men of that ilk, because I know plenty of wonderful middle-aged white men, but the middle aged white men with ambition, with greed have ended up at the helm of our culture and our society and unfortunately that hasn't changed.

What is happening though is that more and more people are saying ‘Woo, Shame on you’, that has solidified. Also, what has solidified is that younger white men don't want to become those type of middle-aged white men and young women of every colour, shape and size are saying, ‘fuck you, you made my life really, really hard for god knows how many millennia’. That, I feel is what is changing, so it is inevitably a generational shift.

I don’t understand those people that say, ‘I put all my trust in the new generations’. I don't put all my trust in the new generations, I put all of my work for the new generations, because I owe them, I took away from them, unknowingly, but I did. This is what happened. This is the change I notice it with my children, I notice it with the young designers that I mentor and their customers. Change is happening. I am very privileged, because I work with some of the top universities in the world and I can already tell you when I see talent it’s very easy for me to predict who's going to be the next, Gucci or Saint Laurent designer in 10 years, because I'm teaching them now. These are the people I speak to now, and these are the people I spoke to. The last generation are now hovering pretty high up, and when they do take over all sorts of change will happen.

But right now, we still have Arnualt at the top who is in competition with Elon Musk to see who has the most money.


D: You stepped away from Fashion Revolution recently. Was that so that you could put more attention on the people who are coming through and the people that you're mentoring?


O: For me Fashion Revolution was always to a certain extent, temporary. At the very beginning I remember saying it's going to be too big for me!

Of course I am a little bit OMG, but this change is very definitely for me, 100% the right direction. I had to relinquish my role, which I didn't want to, this is a little bit more recent, and we'll have to see, but the reason I wanted to leave was because I wanted this organisation 100% in the hands of the country coordinators.


D: It has been a period of great change for you. You published your first book. And you have been described as your own ‘care revolution’ which is very much part of you. We can see from your story that it's in your makeup from childhood until now. Building on those original foundations, you are reforming Estethica? What are your aims today and going forward?


O: It's difficult for me to know my aims because I am actually very slow at making my own changes. I'm on the lookout for who I am and what I'm doing, and since leaving Fashion Revolution…


The years in my role as the co-founder and spokesperson for Fashion Revolution have been really exciting but also limiting, because I felt a huge sense of responsibility towards my other directors, towards the country coordinators and towards the organisation I co-founded. I also felt that I needed to keep myself in check in order to be the co-founder and creative director of this organisation and everything I said and did came from that.


Ever since leaving Fashion Revolution, it's been fun, I can be different. “Brand me” is a little different, I can say what I want. I can talk about clothes all day long, my own and other peoples. I can think of projects I can do, that are big but where I am paid little, but I still have a huge sense of achievement in doing them.


With Estethica (now reformed) I am concentrating on mentoring and nurturing which is a new addition and comes from the experience of the last few years, but we don’t call ourselves a creative agency, we define ourselves as creating agency. If you think of the work I did for Fashion Revolution and the work that I do with many young designers, mine is a lot about the communication, the branding, the storytelling, the who you are, and this is something that we will also be providing. Who are the people, where are the tools, how can you manifest what you're doing in a creative spontaneous way, and that's the direction of Estethica.


It's been quite stressful because a lot of people are asking, ‘what are you doing?’ I'm telling everybody give me my bloody time. You may think that Fashion Revolution was something that happened overnight, but it was not, and nor will Estethica be, I've never been overnight. If I was an overnight sensation I wouldn't be in sustainability.* 


D: Change takes time, figuring out your next direction of travel and of course it will take a while to decide what you want to do next, and what's right for you.



D: What do you think is next for fashion?


O: I was talking to Rachel Cernansky from Vogue Business and I feel that the next few years will not be that good. I think it's going to be pretty flat. Everybody really knows that change is urgent but they don't quite know where to start. In my opinion, it's really, really simple and I did it by leaving Fashion Revolution. When you remove yourself from something because you say it's got to be somebody else's turn now, that is ultimately the way forward, you must lead by example. I left the organisation that I co-founded because it felt absolutely right, that there was someone else that needed to take that place, that space, that role and it wouldn't be one person, it would be more people, and that's what I need to see in fashion. We need to see those big penises get off their pedestals and actually start paying their supply chain workers. I am a firm believer in the quota and I think you need to create the quotas, somebody said ‘in order to normalise you need to tokenise’. I couldn't agree more. Give us a few more tokens but get rid of the bosses at the top. The only way that fashion can function is if it has a supply chain like food does locally. Not that the food chain is any better for it, but at least we as consumers, citizens, we have access to much wider decision making. The one thing that needs to happen 100% is regulation and the EU is moving ahead with some pretty interesting new laws.


D: We have a lot of laws in this country which are not put into practice. When I interviewed Baroness Lola Young, she said there are lots of laws already but they're not acted on and that if they were all used properly, things would be better. But, when those with the power do occasionally action them, workers end up, being deported, instead of the people who are running the businesses being punished and that is a problem.


O: That’s the problem, no law right now is robust enough when it comes to the workers. There will be laws in terms of the EU that will be robust enough when it comes to the materials.


D: Precisely. They're not even on a minimum wage. Can we get them up to minimum wages? It would be a start and make huge changes in their lives, wouldn't it?



D: I have to say since I started this project, I've really fallen out of love with fashion. And I've been feeling a little bit lost of late as far as it's concerned. But researching and interviewing you has made me feel uplifted again. So, I want to say thank you for that.


O: Never give up on your clothes, they are your skin. You have to make them work for you. Everything’s shit right now. At least let's enjoy our clothes, as safely as we possibly can, because it's everything else that's crap. I spent all day yesterday researching, because the fun of being me again means that I can talk all about clothes again and have been looking for an app that allows me to make cut outs of my clothes by removing the background and had fun all day basically playing Barbie with my own wardrobe. Completely indulgent I know taking pictures of my clothes, then creating lots of mini outfits on my iPad then putting them on. Fantastic. Like when as children we had paper cut out dolls with cut out clothes with little tabs that you folded over to change the outfits. Yesterday was the modern version of that. So not Barbie, yesterday I was the cut out doll and the wardrobe was my book and it was the best.


Another of the funny things, I know I have told you I hate being photographed and I still do, but a little bit less now because, I am back to who I am. I no longer have this weight of being a founder, I can’t wear this because it was fast fashion, even though its second hand. Halleluiah, now what you see is what you get.


D: Also, your message about fast fashion is very apt, to try and change the mindset of the people that are throwing things away, to keep, to mend…


O: There's nothing easier to mend than a post 90s Zara skirt.


D: It's such an important message and means that people can start from where they are today. That they don't feel guilt with the wardrobe that they already have.


O: Absolutely. Yes, I think it’s a good one, HOPE.






Orsola on Instagram


Buy Orsola's Book Here: Loved Clothes Last

Fashion Revolution






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