I saw Al Gore’s documentary and felt that what I was doing in fashion didn’t have real meaning or impact.
Juan Pablo Martinez
What is responsible fashion?
- When you watch Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and decide as a fashion designer to be environmentally responsible;
- When you learn that between 300-600 tons of textiles are thrown away each day in Bogotá, and you ask friends to give you their discarded jeans so that you can turn them into something new;
- When you embrace the challenge of zero waste and study the cultures of huipil in Guatemala and the Kimono in Japan that make clothes without cutting them or discarding any part of the cloth; and
- When you educate local artisans by going to an indigenous reservation to help Wayuu women make better mochilas (kind of a back pack).
Designer, Juan Pablo Martinez, from Bogotá, Columbia, is all the above in bringing meaning and responsibility to the fashion community.
Juan, tell me about when you started being interested in fashion and how has the Bogotá, Columbia culture influenced your decision to pursue fashion?
I started being interested in fashion when I was twelve. My friends at school all dressed in casuals (Fila, Sergio Tacchini, Lacoste), and I did too for a while but I felt I needed to take a stance and start building my own identity, so I shaved my head and bought a pair of Converse and ripped my jeans. Of course my friends had something to say, so that’s when I understood the power of clothes.
Bogotá is a big city, more than eight million in population, so there’s a tradition in tailor making, and women are very strict with getting the right fit. Our grandparents, called “cachacos”, used to dress very elegant, with a three piece suit and an overcoat, so from a young age I was fascinated with that kind of attire, men’s suit and the rigidity that comes dressing up like that.
Do you find your upbringing in the military an inspiration to your design?
Yes. My father is a retired General. He would wake up every morning and shine his shoes. Then he would exercise and get dressed in wonderful uniforms. I was five at the time but found the ritual very engaging. Sometimes he would dress for a ceremony, or in combat uniform, or the ordinary uniform, and he had all these medals. I was fascinated. Military pieces are designed to look powerful and authoritative but they also have practical elements of design that are very interesting to explore.
My father was a retired Colonel, so I can understand your military influence.
Why did you choose to go the sustainable route versus a non-sustainable practice? What initially took place to get you on this path?
In 2009, I found myself at a crossroad. I had to close my shop, I knew I would keep on doing my tailored men’s suits but wasn’t clear on what to do with my women’s line. I had arrived at a dead end. In December of that year, I got invited to show a piece at the “Eco Chic Geneva” in Switzerland – it had to be Eco-fashion. I thought of Eco-fashion as an outdated hippie thing, but a quick search on the internet lead me to some very interesting designers. At the same time I saw Al Gore’s documentary and so I felt that what I was doing in fashion didn’t have a real meaning or impact. I started studying sustainable fashion and realized even more my responsibility as a designer with the clothes I make along with all the production chain. Then I learned all the restraints, barriers and responsibilities sustainable fashion has, so I felt it I was being challenged and I loved it.
300 and 600 tons of textile waste are thrown away each day in Bogotá.
Feeling the challenge of this responsibility, Juan, you obviously place an importance in ethically and environmentally conscious fashion.
Yes. It is important to create fashion that is ethical and environmentally conscious and it is necessary. We tend to behave in a way that we think that everything will last forever the way it is, and it’s not like that. Each one of us has a major responsibility with our environment and has to think about the impact we have in every buying decision we make and we also have to take into consideration the world we are leaving our children. Everybody wants to make this a better world to live in; by supporting sustainable fashion you can start making a difference because once you learn the impact clothes have on our planet you start realizing you can also make a difference in other areas, it’s a way of living.
Your approach appears to be keeping textiles out of the landfill by up-cycling. Tell us about the denim line that was recently showcased at the MODA 360 fashion event in downtown Los Angeles.
Well, I read that between 300 and 600 tons of textile waste are thrown away each day in Bogotá. I can’t really visualize 300 tons of anything but that seems like a lot. So I thought it’s not enough that I go and buy some dead stock denim. How do I make people conscious of where clothes go when they discard them? So that was it, I designed a flyer telling this story. My wife, Ximena, and I posted it on Facebook and soon we had plenty of old blue jeans to pick up, and got some friends reflecting on discarded clothes.
A great example of keeping textiles out of the landfill!
Along these lines, what about your design and development process? How do you approach zero waste?
As I said earlier sustainable fashion proposes a lot of challenges. One of these is zero waste, so I handle two approaches. One, I briefly studied cultures that make clothes without cutting them or discarding any part of the cloth. I found that in the huipil in Guatemala and the Kimono in Japan. I decided to start with the huipil, but surely I’ll be working with the kimono in the near future.
The other approach is really challenging because I have to drape on the mannequin without carving out any piece of material. Seams are now 6 centimeters wide, all leftovers are hidden between the fabric and the lining. It’s very time consuming as I drape myself and discard a lot of useless pieces until I get it right. It’s like trying to drape without having the foundation to do it, although I follow the main guidelines to get it as best as I can.
When I learned about the responsibility a sustainable fashion designer has, I started teaching workshops with local artisans. We went to an indigenous reservation to help Wayuu women make better mochilas.
EDGE did a series on emerging designers from Africa. The discovery was that these designers were engaged with sustainable practices. My conversation with these designers was inspiring. They are philanthropic and advocates for empowering women and children and participate in their government’s involvement in building awareness and infrastructure to the communities. Are you finding a similar outcome in empowering, educating, and improving the livelihood of the community?
Not really through the clothes I make. I work with a couple of artisans and that’s it. But when I learned about the responsibility a sustainable fashion designer has, I started teaching workshops with local artisans – eighteen ladies that hand knit. My friend and I taught them color theory, pattern making, and design. We went to an indigenous reservation to help Wayuu women make better mochilas (kind of a backpack). Now I want to improve the conditions of my homeworkers.
Are you sourcing local materials and production?
Yes, I use local materials, but soon will have to start looking for sustainable materials in the US. All my production is local, made by homeworkers.
In pricing, do you find the environmentally friendly fashion story gives more price value to the product? In other words, is there a premium to sustainable product and is the consumer receptive to this?
Not really. My clients value design, fit and quality. Sustainability comes afterwards. They like the story and how the garments are made but I feel they are not really aware of what sustainability means and their responsibility towards the planet and the people who made their clothes. That goes for my clients in Colombia and the US. But for now, I’m happy knowing that at least one piece in their wardrobe is sustainable, that’s a start.
Sustainable fashion will find its way to knock over the system once again, not because it’s something that absolutely has to be done, but because new generations will shop and relate to fashion and brands in a different way.
The public and the fashion industry have a long way to go in shifting the demand away from unsustainable consumption to a business model that will thrive in a much needed sustainable environment and at the same time, offer fashionable clothing. I’d like to hear your thoughts on the shifting perception from the consumer on sustainable clothing as fashionable.
I think there’s a problem with the system itself, fashion sells and merchandises newness and is programmed obsolete. So everything is a trend and so we hear about the latest trend…Eco-fashion! This is not a trend, it’s not even a mega-trend. It’s here to stay. As we know with technology, changing the way we look at and market fashion, sustainable fashion will find its way to knock over the system once again, not because it’s something that absolutely has to be done, but because new generations will shop and relate to fashion and brands in a different way. So many of the brands we know now will adapt and more will disappear completely.
What’s next for you?
Right now I have to finish the denim collection, take pictures and get it ready for selling. I’m looking for retailers/showrooms in the US, and I already have my next collection in my head. There are a few papers online I have to read and study, and get some new books on sustainable fashion.
Where do you see your brand going?
Everybody says “do what you love to do” but nobody tells you the second part, “get someone to buy your product” so that’s what I’m working on, I want to see my brand growing in distribution in the US and Canada. I want to reach women who understand the brand and are proud to carry it and I can help them build their identity.
Juan, we congratulate you and wish you continued success with your vision of purpose and shifting the paradigm to responsible and conscious fashion.
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