Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cut from a different cloth

Rags to riches ... Tanya Greenwood in her eco-friendly store, Handcut.
Photo: Domino Postiglione

Cut from a different cloth
July 30, 2008

One store is turning mountains of unwanted clothes and sheets into cutting-edge outfits, writes Karen Pakula.

The frocks are made from pinstriped jackets and floral bed linen. There are trenchcoats patchworked out of safari suits, jackets from vintage corduroy and the panelled denim skirts are sewn from at least three pairs of jeans. These mixed-up designer clothes are known as "refashioned originals" - which is a polite way of saying they are made from landfill.

The rise of fashion with a conscience has led to designers hunting for solutions in organic and sustainable fabrics, but this trendy gear is cut from a different cloth - of the type found in charity bins. More than 60,000 jumpers and many more T-shirts, coats, windcheaters and old sheets were rescued to make the latest collection from Canada, where the label Preloved was established a decade ago by a retired catwalk model as a creative twist on op-shop hunting.

Julia Grieve's motivation was fashion first, but her unwitting success at emancipating landfill has made her a poster girl for green design across the United States, Britain and Japan.

The concept has arrived in Sydney, though has been a tricky sell. "People say, 'This is beautiful. What fabric is it?' Then I tell the customer that the dress is made from old blokes' trousers, and you see her go 'ew'," says Tanya Greenwood, who started the label in Australia under the name Handcut.

Greenwood is whimsical about the history on her clothing racks. "I like to wonder what sort of bloke wore this before," she says, holding a jacket with shimmering sleeves. "He must have been so cool with his gold jacket on."

Before she opened Handcut in Crows Nest last August, she spent time in Toronto with designers hunting for cast-offs at rag houses, the storage warehouses where donations are sorted into mountains of shirts, pants, socks and children's wear, where the woollens are separated from cottons, the stained and ripped from the undamaged. The rags then go through an industrial wash - "the cruellest of all washing", Greenwood says. "And if the clothes survive that, they'll survive anything."

The market is competitive, with the bigger charities given the first opportunity to buy clothes by the kilo. In the past, the remainder was sent to landfill. But enter the fashionistas, who pick over the last of the treasure, which they lug back to the workshop, cut into pieces, then assemble - navy stripes beside purple polka dots beside plaid - into a groovy new outfit.

The idea harks back to the 1930s and '40s, when industrious women made do by renovating their husbands' outfits while their men were at war. But fashion recycling on this scale is unique.

Greenwood loses carbon credits by importing her stock but has reused the tiles and fittings left by the store's previous tenant - a gelato bar - and stocks ethical accessories including handbags made from recycled 1950s fabrics, beads from recycled resin and bangles fashioned out of knitting needles and is soon to sell shoes made from "e-leather", a British innovation that uses offcuts from tanneries.

Can similar clothes be made here? If you like to DIY, charity wholesalers such as the Anglicare market in Summer Hill sell clothes for $5 a kilo. But Greenwood is not convinced the supply can satisfy her market, which is top-end. Whereas the Canadian discards are often made of pure, woven wool, "you don't have the need for a cashmere jumper here and people tend to buy cheap, disposable clothes. If you mass produce, common sense tells you the quality isn't going to be there.

"Having said that, we've just managed to find 25 kilos of vintage bed linen, because people have a phobia about buying those items second-hand, and we'll be making a range for spring."

Greenwood believes Preloved's green appeal is in part why her customers are on average 20 years older than their stylish sisters in Toronto. But there is another crucial factor to its attraction: "Everything is a one-off. They use all different fabrics, so even if you buy the same dress, it's impossible to look like anyone else," she says.

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