Circle By Design: EDGE Talks to Ophir El-Boher – a circular Design System and strategies for a sustainable future

What I hope to accomplish is basically a diversion of the practices we use to satisfy our materialistic needs. I personally believe that the urge for something new is something not worth trying to change, what I focus on changing is the reaction to that urge.

courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Mario Gallucci, Copy of PNCA-MFA-Thesis-2019-DSC_7598
“you are controlling the machine”, The DIY-Pocket-Dress print detail

This is part two of a two-part series of my conversation with Ophir El-Boher, Oregon based designer, artist, educator, curator, and scholar.  In part one, “Down to Earth”, we ditched a linear system for a circular one. Why? It’s environmentally, socially, economically, and structurally sane, oops, I mean sustainable.  Part two, “Circle By Design”, Ophir takes us on a journey of a system within a system and vision of the future which isn’t too far from the present if we could just see it.

I’ve often said we need to shift our consumption values so that the entire fashion system can shift along with it.  Ophir El-Boher creates a circular design system where the end-user has skin in the game.  The consumer not only sees value in fashion but accepts responsibility in it’s life-cycle.  Ophir, who possesses a fascinating blend of creative and scholastic skills, envisions a world where fashion is a benefit not a detriment to the environment and it’s inhabitants. “My strategy is to design systems where individuals can produce fashion items out of waste, according to an existing design, in a way that is circular. . .my theory is that if some percentage of your closet is made by you through such a system, then you have changed your consumption behavior for the long term, and therefore will be a much better fashion consumer and user.”

With our public health, social, and economic crisis, how are we to define fashion today and tomorrow?  Ophir says we are in crazy times and is not surprised.  The distress over our world has been materializing over a period of time and she points out, “In many ways, we should be expecting such global crises to happen more and more often, with the growth in human population, the degradation of resilience in ecosystems globally, and the planetary changes we observe, such as climate change.  As humanity, it is absolutely necessary that we are all, each and every one of us, concerned about the future of the planet, and use our best abilities to come up with better plans.”  She has an interesting view on those ‘better plans’ and speaks to five sustainable strategies that will define our culture and future.

Our conversation continues. . .

RPH:  You are developing a design business model with emphasis on an upcycling system.  Focusing on a system that produces the product, not just the product itself is quite unique and different for a fashion concept.   What is your vision?  What do you hope to accomplish?

OE:  The model that I am developing includes distributed design in its core. That means that I design for the end-user to be part of the design process and the production phase. In terms of my role, it is definitely a shift from the common understanding of the fashion designer. I do design the clothing themselves, I think a lot of silhouettes, and I am always working on combinations of materials, colors, and details defined by existing clothing that exist in high quantities repeatedly. And I do love being busy with just that. However, what I spend much of my time doing is designing the production systems for repeatedly making my designs. My vision is of a world where fashion is beneficial to the environment and its inhabitants. My strategy is to design systems where individuals can produce fashion items out of waste, according to an existing design, in a way that is circular. This strategy is not supposed to eliminate other strategies, but to add up to other sustainable practices. My theory is that if some percentage of your closet is made by you through such a system, then you have changed your consumption behavior for the long term, and therefore will be a much better fashion consumer and user.

For example, if one makes one dress out of upcycled material, through my system, they learn much about the process of making clothes, they then respect their existing clothing much more and treat them in a way that prolongs their useful-life phase. They also learn to recognize the qualities that make garments long-lasting and therefore will choose wisely next time they buy something new. They also will learn the value of their existing textile-waste and its high potential to stay out of the waste stream, and finally, they also gain the tools to reach this potential. What I hope to accomplish is basically a diversion of the practices we use to satisfy our materialistic needs. I personally believe that the urge for something new is something not worth trying to change, what I focus on changing is the reaction to that urge. What is it that you choose to do when you just want to get something new? Sure, you can and will go shopping, at least some times, and there’s not much we can do to eliminate this option in our current cultural landscape; however, we can add more options. I want people to learn how easy it is to repair something, to refashion an item, to sew something completely new and wonderful out of used textiles. I have all the reasons to believe that these activities definitely satisfy that urge, and that they lead to a shift in consumption patterns too.

Ophir El-Boher, DIY Kit Making Process, IMG_20190413_210711
The DIY-Pocket-Dress making process

Are consumers ready for this?  What is the feedback on your approach?

Some are! I don’t think that my approach to sustainability is for everyone, and that is absolutely great. We need diversity in our efforts toward sustainability just like in any other big change we’re trying to achieve.

I have worked closely with dozens of individuals to implement my design systems for upcycling clothing, many of whom have reported a shift in fashion consumption and are continually using my system for the production of more items.

However, not everyone has the time, place, and equipment to become their own fashion producer, and for that, it is really great that the sustainable fashion community has created systems for swapping, resale, upcycled manufacturing, and other opportunities to get dressed sustainably. Ideally, every human being should know the very basics of simple repairs, or at least should have access to someone who does. There are different practices to achieving sustainable wardrobes, and no closet should commit to one solely. Again, diversity is the key to resilience, and our systems should be as diverse as our closets, as our societies.

Fashion plays such an important role in our culture and identity.  This will be an interesting marker of our time if we are able to shift our values to a better future to protect people and the planet.  The pandemic has accelerated the industry’s need for a circular system.  This time in history is right on top of how the world is struggling in coping with the impacts of climate change and resource shortages.  How will fashion history be written?  What will be said about this transition time and how will fashion’s contribution to our culture and identity look like when we get on the other side?

Crazy times! Everybody is saying it and I think, yes, everything seems completely nuts, on a daily basis, for a few months now, and that brings a lot of anxiety, stress and worry, especially to those affected on a high level, which we shall be honest to admit, not all of us are hurt equally by the pandemic and its impacts. However, while we are all shocked and worried, we shall not be surprised.  Discourse about the distress our world is facing, environmentally, culturally, socially, is happening in an increased urgency for decades. In many ways, we should be expecting such global crises to happen more and more often, with the growth in human population, the degradation of resilience in ecosystems globally, and the planetary changes we observe, such as climate change.  As humanity, it is absolutely necessary that we are all, each and every one of us, concerned about the future of the planet, and use our best abilities to come up with better plans.

What I really enjoyed observing during this time is the work of the practitioners that were concerned and have been preparing for the crises to come. One example that everybody has been noticing is the use of online platforms for communication and education. So many of us never used a virtual conference app before this year, but when we needed it, it was there, free, working perfectly, extremely friendly to learn and use, and useful to the point that we couldn’t imagine our lives without Zoom anymore.

In fashion, I have noticed how the conversations and strategies around sustainability that have been developing for decades have become louder and relevant for so many more cases in the field, and in other fields too.

Here are a few:

Localization- we’ve been talking about creating localized production systems to reduce the significance of the global supply chain as it is unethical, and has high potential to collapse. Since the global supply chain has been completely disturbed, and international trade becomes dangerous and unreliable, we find ourselves in a position where we actually have to rely on local systems. It is amazing that there are so many more localized fashion makers, and that communities all over the world choose to support their local fashion producers. It’s also true that many fashion businesses won’t survive, this devastating reality, we should be grieving. We all have to make sure that we keep supporting the creative small businesses around us.

This is a cultural paradigm shift we are experiencing. In the last era we were absolutely obsessed with quantities, think the Ford’s assembly line, or the common closet of a typical American 16-year-old. In the new paradigm. . .quality, usefulness and uniqueness are the things we will value increasingly.

Minimizing collections- many companies reduce the amounts of items in a collection as a result of the COVID-19 impact. Fortunately, the trend of minimalism, growing for a long while now in fashion’s terms, has been laying the ground for all of us to accept a limited number of styles as a positive thing. This is a cultural paradigm shift we are experiencing. In the last era we were absolutely obsessed with quantities, think the Ford’s assembly line, or the common closet of a typical American 16-year-old. In the new paradigm we’re transitioning to, quantities mean only disgust, quality, usefulness and uniqueness are the things we will value increasingly.

courtesy of Ophir El-Boher, photography Mario Gallucci, Copy of PNCA-MFA-Thesis-2019-DSC_7601

Crafts- craft activities have become more central in many lives since the pandemic held us locked down. The benefits of craft in one’s life, and the benefits of craftiness to sustainability have been discussed much, for example, around theoretical conversations of the maker culture movement. We are extremely fortunate that many individuals and businesses have been creating the content relevant for fashion crafts DIY projects, ready for us to plug, from home, with whatever materials we can gather around us, at any time. We also need to acknowledge that the acceptance of the crafty-look, the pride in saying “I made my clothes”, the availability of fashionable DIY projects, is all thanks to the hard work of many individuals that saw this need coming, and prepared for the shift to arise. 

There’s a new paradigm around understanding growth, and rethinking the cultural connotations of degradation, or reduction.

Curated/thoughtful consumption- there have been many mentions of the rise of the conscious consumer. We see more and more evidence for the changes in consumption behavior, mostly by millennials, that find it very important to put their dollar where their heart is. At this time, it is very prevalent that consumers have to be much more specific in their purchases, as we all experience the financial distress and just need to choose more wisely what to buy. Those that have been investing in defining their belief system have the answers for “what to buy” already prepared to some degree. Companies being transparent about their practices are more likely to attract those that want to make sure they spend their money in accordance with their ideologies, and their numbers are growing, as you personally have been reporting on EDGE, amongst others. For many, the time at home afforded reflective processes and I believe that this collective experience will develop into an even stronger, more visible trend of mindfulness, awareness, and reconnecting with one’s inner values.

Decline over Growth- for a few centuries the one major leading concept of culture (led by western culture and forced on other cultures) was Growth. We believed for the longest time that everything we do in the name of growth and progress is justified. However, some aspects of what culturally we saw as progress we now understand as degradation, think of the effects of industrialization on biodiversity in an ecosystem, for example-decline. While the theoretical conversation about changing this paradigm is highly attended, it is now much more sensible in our experience, with the pandemic’s effects on air quality in manufacturing areas for example, or the drop in fashion consumption. There’s a new paradigm around understanding growth, and rethinking the cultural connotations of degradation, or reduction. I truly hope that the billions of people watching the positive effects of market degradation will redefine their values accordingly, while also finding ways to maintain livelihood, safety, and health to come out the other side of this pandemic.

Thank you, Ophir, for the talk.  Your wisdom, knowledge, and practicality will serve you well for success.  EDGE wishes you the best.

“Circle By Design” is part two of a two-part conversation with Ophir El-Boher.  Part one, “Down to Earth”, goes into depth regarding the value of a circular fashion system, it’s socio-economic effect, and need for infrastructure.

For more information on Ophir El-Boher go to https://www.instagram.com/ophir.el/

Images: The DIY-Pocket-Dress, courtesy of Ophir El-Boher; made out of upcycled cotton sheets & clothes, patched and screen printed with sewing pattern & assembly instructions; photography by Mario Gallucci.