If you are walking down a street in a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York and its trash day, or it’s any normal day, you’ll see piles of unwanted clothes for the taking – people put out their unwanted clothes for people to take. Taking she did. Sayoko Kojima literally rescued rubbish from her neighborhood, Park Slope, known as “Recycle Neighborhood”, and reimagined a new purpose for the unwanted. Revealing that it happens in different areas in Brooklyn (and I am sure other global neighborhoods, as well), Kojima said, “Many people put their unwanted items in front of their apartment for people to take. I think the spirit of sharing is very kind and great, but over-consuming becomes an issue as I have seen so many unused items.”
Cultural upbringing can distinguish how we value clothes. Born and raised in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, a small town near Tokyo, Kojima was raised to value textiles and clothing by keeping them in a circular lifecycle. Fabric stores didn’t exist, so you didn’t have a need to seek new materials to make new garments. Clothing was reused, passed down, or reconstructed into something new, she said, “Culturally reusing and taking care of what you have and keeping it longer was much more common when I was growing up in Japan.” Passing down clothes from one generation to the next was normal and expected, even if not worn, as did her grandmother passing down her kimonos to Kojima’s mom.
Keeping textiles in a “loop” system was called “remake” in the Japanese culture. Sound familiar? It is not a familiar practice, particularly in the Western culture. “Remake”, upcycling, and “keeping things longer” is what we call circular fashion – an ecological system where we reuse what we already have in circulation, so that it never ends up as waste. Globally, we are far from a circular system, but we can learn and embrace cultures that have and do practice this, and support individual designers, like Sayoko Kojima, that have this vision.
Kojima’s family didn’t believe in the trendy stuff. They saw it as wasteful. At a young age, she deconstructed and constructed new clothes from what was existing. In fact, her first upcycled outfit was from her brother’s old pants after watching her favorite band perform on TV, “I wanted a pair of pants that my favorite dancing/singing group was wearing. Of course, my mom said no. It looked simple to imitate, so I got my brother’s old pants and started cutting and sewing to make similar ones.”
Kojima designs one-of-a-kind pieces, due to her method of upcycling, remaking unwanted clothes. People desire what they don’t have or cannot get. Scarcity. Limited. Vintage. In some way the object is out of reach, maybe too costly, but still desired. Supply and demand. Supply? Kojima’s is limited. Demand? It’s complicated. Like many designers who pursue this path, unless you have a bespoke, custom-made practice, the challenge is to produce within a scale that is efficient and cost effective; producing levels that match behavioral shifts in consumer values as they become educated on the environmental negative effects of over-consumption. In addition, how do you address sizes and body types. Understanding these challenges too well, Kojima would like to locally manufacture (in small lots) her pieces and expressed, “If we could create a system to produce upcycled garments locally it would decrease the price point a little and be accessible for more people. I believe that upcycled fashion should co-exist with other fashion styles. However, the current problem is that fast fashion has taken over a huge amount of the fashion field and consumers disposal of fashion is very harmful to humans and the environment. It is out of balance for sure…”
Although Kojima is academically and technically trained, she didn’t find use for drawing and pattern making within her conceptual process. Instead, her upcycling process is improvisational, creating around a body. She reimagines a new look from the vintage clothing, denim, shirts, and t-shirts that she procures. It takes several days for Kojima to make the “one”, not including the time to find the discarded items. This makes us appreciate her work even more, as she compares her work to the conventional way of designing clothes, disclosing, “I will have to mention that upcycling takes way more work than making clothing from scratch.” Part of the process is dyeing. Using a natural dyeing process of boiling onions and avocado has its issues of length of time, it takes two days to complete, and there is inconsistent dye saturation when mixed materials and yarns are used (mixed materials such as cotton and polyester are typical in today’s assortment of mass-produced clothes). Kojima describes her dyeing process:
Collecting the food waste from local stores:
Onion skins from super markets, avocado pits from Mexican restaurants and tea bags from households. Well all of the used tea bags are from me as I am such a tea drinker.
Making the dye bath:
Boil down the food waste in a pot for 1-2 hours, sit the dye bath overnight to deepen the color, remove the waste out from the pot.
Dyeing the fabric:
Soak the fabric and wring it, add the fabric to the dye bath and simmer for 1-2 hours. Keep the fabric in the dye bath overnight. Rinse the fabric thoroughly and air dye it.
What a process! Yes. But the rewards and benefits of mitigating the planet’s resources, uplifting the value and preservation of fashion, and enhancing identity and individualism are monumental. Cheers to Kojima and others who are on this path forward.
Kojima’s upcycling talents go beyond remaking garments from waste. Presenting at New York Fashion Week Sustainable Fashion show, I saw that she was an emerging designer that offered “the unexpected”. The show was a street runway affair and as the models strutted down the sidewalk I was not only captivated by her designs, but the headwear, too. She channeled extraordinary creativity in a reimagined everyday food container, the egg carton, as headwear. Each piece was sculpted differently.
In our interview, I was so enamored by the collection, whimsical came to my mind and she said, “thank you, whimsical is a good word to explain”, as she went on to explain the story behind it. An experimental project to find a way to make a multifunctional garment out of paper or paper mâché eventually led to the Egg Carton headwear collection. After exhausting her efforts to find a practical application and execution for the “paper garment” project, she abandoned it to look for other options. “I started to look into other paper options and I found lots of egg cartons piled up on the streets. Hmm, I like the shape. What can I make with these? First, I made bags with egg cartons and people liked them. But it wasn’t realistic for daily use as paper gets very weak with water. Hmm, how about more decorative items … Then I came up with making cocktail hats with paper material. Here we have different styles of egg carton headwear! Once I can figure out how to enhance the strength of the egg cartons, I think it could be quite possible that people will walk around with an egg carton bag and headwear.”
Imagination is an unlimited force of possibilities! When you can clear your mind of what was and imagine what can be, you have the ability to renew. That is the talent of Sayoko Kojima. As demonstrated with her garment and headwear collection, she has the skill needed today to participate in a circular fashion system where we renew what we have.
Congratulations Sayoko Kojima!
More about Sayoko Kojima – go to Sayoko Creations.
Photos: Courtesy of Sayoko Kojima
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