Fashion Artifacts: a Sustainable Path to Circular Fashion | EDGE Talks to Karen Glass

Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection

I began seeing the clothes I had been accountable for making as post-consumer waste: in thrift stores, jammed into markdown racks, and on the streets as rags.

From an organic farm to procurement of fashion artifacts to a zero waste product development operation, Karen Glass, founder of Ø [zerøwaste] GLASS, walks the talk of a circular fashion system – the circular economy of fashion.  She believes in using textiles to its highest utility and value at all times.  Today’s fashion is a linear, finite system designed to go in one direction from manufacturer to consumer to landfill.  The Ø GLASS brand is transformative and is the antithesis of a linear approach.  With a zero waste goal, the product process is restorative: re-using, recycling, up-cycling, and repairing unwanted or presumed to be end of life textiles and garments.  The best part of this business model is the source of materials. 

Over the past few decades Glass has collected a fashion archive of textile artifacts from around the globe, that, in many, have a provenance and historical record.  Keeping textile wastes out of the landfill is one of preservation.  Glass adds a new chapter in the life cycle of these artifacts by creating multiple pieces from a single piece until the original artifact is completely used.  This hand created body of work can be considered coveted [non-disposable] investment pieces, like art, that transcends time.  Objects fit for a museum.

Glass describes her circular fashion work ethic as being influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi.  She says, “Our work and our product – especially the up-cycle – is always incomplete, impermanent and imperfect; it may be in a state of repair at the beginning or throughout the duration of its cycle, it may be transcending from textile waste to a beautiful new piece, or it may be a finished piece that will be worn and then, one day, go back into the up-cycle process.”

What were the factors leading to Karen Glass’ Ø GLASS?  Our conversation begins when she was head of global production of a specialty retail company and involved in the development and process of an organic farm on her property.

Karen, what road or journey led you to Ø GLASS?   Why a sustainable mission with a primary focus on zero waste?

Glass: Throughout the 30 years I worked in the fashion industry, I was accountable for making millions of pieces of disposable clothing.

For a period of that time I was head of global production for a well-known specialty retail company. There, I was personally accountable for managing the sourcing and manufacturing of millions of pieces of clothing.

In the last 10 years of this industry work, I was developing an organic farm with my ex-husband on Pine Island, off the west coast of Florida. There was a general consciousness of conservation among the community that lived there and we redeveloped our own home and the surrounding farm property with this in mind, including building a fashion and textile art studio on the farm, that I worked out of.  Zero waste processing on a farm is a financial obligation in order to stay in business. Food margins are low and managed very tightly.

Ø GLASS | Karen Glass, Founder - test clothes
Karen Glass [c], Ø GLASS founder – in the studio

That said, observing this agricultural process was just one influence, there were four catalysts that I can name.

Firstly, I came to know the process of life as being multi influenced and highly synchronistic: a multi-dimensional experience.

The second catalyst came when I was asked to develop an organic apparel line from concept for a European brand. I learned the necessary requirements for producing textile according to GOTS (global organic textile standards), learned environmental waste management and impact, and developed a deeper understanding of social compliance.

The third catalyst was when I began seeing the clothes I had been accountable for making as post-consumer waste: in thrift stores, jammed into markdown racks, and on the streets as rags.

The fourth big influence in my journey towards Ø GLASS was the hundreds of pieces of global textile and fashion artifacts I have collected over the last 20 years or so of industry work for concept and collection inspiration. The studio was filled with pieces that, at that time, had no continuing value. Our Ø archive line was truly born of these artifacts, then Ø 2 followed.  Ø knit started as a dialogue with a Nepal factory that I worked with to become GOTS certified.  We started to talk about waste in the knitwear process and how we could get it as low as possible.

Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection
Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection

What a treasure, hundreds of pieces of textile and garment artifacts.  Like art, these artifacts are a marker of our time and our culture.  From the looks of your line, fashion and art appear to have a harmonious existence.  How important is art in your sustainable platform and why?

Glass: Art and process are the integrated voice that defines our brand and our product lines. The aesthetic we have developed has emerged because of the discipline of zero waste process and creed: life with fewer things of greater value.

The artists that we select to represent influence the work we do and vice versa.

There are obviously many ways to make art and fashion, but our adherence to a mentality of conservation and preservation is what drives our work.  It is a circular rather than linear movement.  Currently I see this movement defining multiple aspects of society and culture.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi has also influenced my lifestyle and the Ø aesthetic as well. Our work and our product – especially the up-cycle – is always incomplete, impermanent and imperfect; it may be in a state of repair at the beginning or throughout the duration of its cycle, it may be transcending from textile waste to a beautiful new piece, or it may be a finished piece that will be worn and then, one day, go back into the up-cycle process.

I totally agree.  Your perspective on the role of your up-cycling process is quite refreshing.  The garment life cycle never ends.

I’m already envisioning the up-cycling of the Ø knit line, which is made in a process of 0.05% waste.

Ø GLASS | Ø archive, Ø knit collections
Ø GLASS | Ø archive, Ø knit collections

Having an archive collected from all over the world and one with provenance is quite impressive. Have you been able to catalog this archive? What countries did you source from and how do you build a collection around each piece?

Glass: I have yet to catalog the entire archive quantitatively.  There are hundreds of artifacts primarily from countries that have contributed to the global apparel industry, Turkey, China, India, as well as Western and Eastern Europe.

Global research and acquisition of textile artifacts has been a part of the fashion concept and design process for as long as global travel has been possible.  For example, this part of the process really inspired and defined the global fashion movement of bohemian and gypsy-style clothing.

There is change now in the industry, in that historical and global cultural influences in fashion have been used so much that you can find multiple interpretations and iterations of any given cultural influence at the mass market level. This macro trend is now declining and the after-effect is contributing to landfill.

What distinguishes Ø archive from this movement is that the Ø artifacts are genuine to the culture of origin, handmade in historical couture techniques.

Each artifact becomes one Ø archive series, in the same way a piece of art might be a series with interdependent but yet individual pieces of work. There are from 1-4 pieces in each series.

Up-cycling these textile artifacts provide depth, purpose, and unique storytelling that is not your ordinary sustainable clothing line.  Those engaged in the experience and the education of the process and the wearer must see its global cultural contribution to society and the positive impact on a circular economy.  Although you have touched on this, what additional thoughts do you have and how is this communicated?

Glass: The brand as a whole has a multi dimension story and purpose, from the sustainable component to our commitment to the social rehabilitation of victimized women.

I believe in the power of visual art, and the beautifully written word as part of brand strategy to convey our purpose. Although story-telling is important, direct personal experience of the brand and products is so important.  That is why a physical venue such as museum and gallery exhibition, and what we call retail installation, is critical to the development of the business.  When individuals see the product, put it on their body and see others in the product, up close and personal, they are transformed.  Most reactions to our products in-person are very emotional.

Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection
Ø GLASS | Ø archive collection

Ø GLASS offers a purpose, a reason to consume that has an investment value and meaningful experience.  It’s clearly your brand mission and I commend you.  We need more of that.

As consumers, our global consumption values need to shift, as well, so that the entire fashion system can shift along with it.  The industry is seeing some trends, for example, the rise of the secondhand market and a move away from permanent ownership of clothing, such as the Rent the Runway business model.  Karen, what other factors do you see that are propelling this shift or movement.

Glass: There are multiple factors that are contributing to the movement of living with fewer things of greater value. Historically, we’ve seen that cultural philosophies and behaviors take many years to evolve.

Evidence of the evolution of consumption values is apparent in the following: at the macro level, the rise of social impact investing as it has become a 22.8 trillion dollar economic sector that is influencing financial decisions and money flow.

The movement of cultural philosophy and engagement from a post-modern, post-industry perspective to a meta-modern vision of self-reflection and self-awareness, has us collectively watching and becoming aware of our actions and their consequences.

The continuing emergence of the millennial mindset, of fiscally conservative principles and liberal social values, has already created a shift in how money is spent. This is continuing to filter into the mindset of generation Z.  Greater concern for global eco-social action and evolution are not slowing-down (in spite what seems apparent in the global political arena).  So, when we pan-out and take a broader view we can see that transcendence of principles and values is happening.  Further evidence of this is the growth of the circular economy and its more micro subcultures and sub-economies, which are growing into their own multi-million dollar industries, such as: the repair economy, the resale economy, small batch production and the rise of social entrepreneurism that integrates business into the “fiber and fabric” of society.

In the next decade social enterprise will be the expected model not the emerging one.  This is the modern (or meta-modern) definition of transcendence. We are continuing to engage transparency, accountability and appropriate action into our principles, values and daily life activities.

I would like to add that this is the first time in the three years of BoF and McKinsey & Company’s The State of Fashion report that sustainability and transparency are embraced as a strategic challenge for the fashion industry, reflecting rising concerns from both consumers and brands.Ø GLASS

Congratulations Karen Glass and thank you for your contribution to this circular movement!  Maybe one day, a sustainable way of life will be the norm.

For more information on the brand and founder, click Ø GLASS.

Read more, fashion industry statistics and resources: How Wasteful Are We? The Fashion Industries Shocking Truth

photos: courtesy of Ø GLASS