Orsola de Castro, a fashion designer, is now a revolutionary in reusing. She has now written a book that will help people care for their clothes and the planet.
Orsola de Castro has a split in her jumper’s armpit. She raises her right hand in the air to see what it is: a slash from tomato-red wool peeks through pale skin. De Castro calls it a “memory hole” and tells the story about the jumper’s long existence. It was her cousin’s and then her daughter’s. It is an old Benetton from the time when it was made in Italy. “It’s not visible on Zoom, but it is very nice wool,” she said, her arm still raised.
De Castro, 54, is an activist and lecturer. She was a former designer, and co-founder of the not-for profit movement Fashion Revolution. She has become an anti-Marie Kondo type with the publication of her book Loved Clothes Last. She believes in “radical keeping”, and not decluttering. “Keep is the only way to stop a throwaway culture.” She says, “So I am an obsessive keeper.”
This book contains many shocking facts about fashion’s effect on the environment and people. De Castro says that the book is as much about mending clothes and mending systems. It took her just four months to complete it. Her daughter Elisalex, who owns the sewing-pattern label By Hand London and her colleague Bronwyn Sier assisted with research. “That meant that I only had to vomit words, and which were nestling within me, quite pumping for to get out.” She talks fast and lyrically, with her eyes shining behind thick-rimmed cat eye glasses. Her salt-and pepper curls are trembling as her gestures are energetic.
De Castro was born in Rome. Her mother, an artist, runs a traditional Venice printmaking school. Her father was a businessman. He died when she was just two years old. Nonna Stanilla, her Venetian grandmother, taught her to crochet when she was six years old. At 16 she moved to London, did her A-levels and then had her first child at 18 with her fourth children. For years she made clothes, starting with a small range of upcycled hats and then moving on to printed textiles.
In 1997, she launched From Somewhere, a brand that specialized in salvaging knitwear from those who were deemed irreparable. Nicole Kidman and Liv Tyler were big fans of her deteriorating cashmere cardigans with tightly crocheted stitching.
“Some people love rescuing pets.” She says that she started out rescuing clothes and has never stopped. Her initial design process was creative and not ethical. She was “climbing mountains in rubbish in a warehouse” trying to find holey jumpers when she had a eureka moment. She says, “I thought: “OK. I am not just designing – I am recovering.” There is a purpose. It’s not only aesthetic; it’s also deeply moral in many aspects.”
De Castro presented the brand at London Fashion Week, which she found frightening. She says, “The moment I became politically – which took me five minutes because I could always feed waste or the environment into the discussion – there was, according to some, a feeling of: ‘You are exposing my backyard.'” Ethical fashion was initially marginalized – it was “considered too crunchy and inept” – but slowly, things started to change. In 2007, De Castro was invited by London Fashion Week to launch Estethica. This exhibition showcased ethical fashion.
She and Carry Somers, an Estethica designer, founded Fashion Revolution in 2013 after Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. In which 1,135 people were killed when a textile factory collapsed. De Castro describes it as “the worst ‘I told you so’ incident”.
Fashion Revolution is now present in 92 countries. It is growing along with mainstream awareness about the climate crisis, and the inequities inherent in global capitalism. Sustainability is now a standard in fashion. The horror stories of Covid’s pandemic include claims that Pakistani workers earned 29p an hour making clothes for Boohoo and Leicester employees working in unsanitary conditions, without hand sanitizer or social distancing. garment manufacturers in developing countries are facing hunger and homelessness as brands cancel orders. This has demonstrated that injustices still persist.
De Castro sees similarities between Rana Plaza, and Covid. “It has highlighted how horrible it is, so I believe there is a chance that many of the real sustainability issues can be addressed. “We’ve had a time to act before, unfortunately, it will be forgotten again.” One way to join the movement is to develop a long-term mindset. Here she explains how.
Take care of what you buy
De Castro says, “Your first habit should consist of turning your clothes inside-out and reading the label. It can be helpful to learn a little bit about fabrics.” She explains that polyester has millions of microfibres. It has been found at the bottom of the ocean as well as the summit of Everest. About 500,000 microfibres get released every time you wash a piece polyester. How do you purchase polyester? It’s important to buy something that can be washed frequently. Polyester underpants are not something you should buy. You should buy a polyester undercoat that you can sponge-clean.
Wash less often
Overwashing can lead to garments going to the early grave. She says that washing clothes was difficult and laborious before the washing machine. “Women would give anything to not have to wash their family’s clothes, and the level of ingenuity of how to delay that wash makes it literature. It’s so brilliant: all that sponging and spot-cleaning, and putting in the sun for bleach.”
De Castro claims that many of these methods are simpler than you think. “The vast majority of stains can easily be removed with a quick moist sponging.” De Castro also recommends thoroughly sniff-testing worn garments and placing them back on the shelf when possible. It is also important to read the washing instructions. “We all knew that cotton can be washed in warm water, but wool shrinks. It is a wisdom we have lost and will need again.”
De Castro says this is equally important for fast fashion and designer clothing. Because price is not always a sign of longevity. According to De Castro, a bra made from strong material will outlast delicate and lacy designer underwear, provided it is properly cared for. No matter how expensive your pants may be, she suggests that you retain some water after a bath or shower and hand-wash them.
De Castro’s favorite quote is “Nothing is made and nothing is destroyed. But everything is transformed.” This is attributed to Antoine Lavoisier who was one of the founders of modern chemistry. She says that the fact that there is no “away” is a chemical truth and not an activism ruse. She says that for every clearout, stuff is either disposed of in landfills or incinerators. These landfills are often located in countries where regulations are less strict and toxic materials are more likely to be decomposed in a more dangerous manner. Sometimes, cluttering up your life or property can lead to cluttering of another person’s land or life.
Use a moth decoy
You can keep a sacrificial Lamb – an old jumper, or a ball in a yarn moths will love – that can be chewed in your closet while other knits stay intact. De Castro suggests that you will need to be creative with fabric. “I don’t know if moths live in a particular region, but I do know that camel wool is good for my moths. Shetland is another one. Woo, they love Shetland! My moths are just like my cats.”
Hide your clothes
“I have a game that I play with myself. I keep things hidden from myself for long periods of time.” De Castro says that she kept them hidden in a bag and placed it under her bed. “I hide things that don’t suit me. It doesn’t matter if your body, mind, or trends change. I keep them in a bag and put them under the bed.” Then she rediscovers them and can show them more love. “A couple of years ago, I found my hidden skirt. I didn’t even remember I hid it. It is now a constant part of my wardrobe.” De Castro says.
Make your imperfections shine
De Castro loves “pareidolia”, which is the art of spotting faces in clouds, stones, and other objects. It’s done with stains. Her children, when they were young, would “draw” patterns using embroidery to create shapes from the stains on their clothes.
Brooches are another way to conceal stains or holes creatively. “I always keep two to three in my bag. In case of a stain I can cover it up temporarily.” “My jacket looks military-like with rows of brooches that cover moth-chewed lapels. It gives me confidence. It makes me feel like a well-dressed human.”
She advocates boro, a Japanese method of patching denim using layers of fabric scraps. These are then affixed with visible stitches. It is not because she is an expert in the craft (she doesn’t own a pair and points out the numerous tutorials on YouTube), but because it is easy to live in distressed jeans and enjoy their beautiful decay.
Do not upcycle
Although it is tempting to believe that upcycling can transform your wardrobe, De Castro cautions against this. Amateur upcycling, she says, often generates more waste. If you don’t like making mistakes and learning complex techniques, she suggests that you “do what is possible, but I believe everyone should do their job.” You don’t need the skills but have enough upcycling material in your closet. “Perhaps two of those evening gowns from your mother that don’t fit your style or taste. How about you put them all together and make them into something?” She suggests looking for local tailors and clothiers, or fashion students to help bring new life to an old garment.
Rethink charity donations
Many charity shops cannot sell the excess donations. Many clothing items are sent abroad to be “often to Africa, Haiti, or eastern Europe where textile skills were lost because of too many of our rubbish… We’re no longer donating, but we’re dumping.”
She encourages you to explore other avenues before you make a decision. She prefers to give items to family and friends who will wear them. Don’t think of it as if you are selling anything if you give a donation. Don’t donate anything you can profit from, but pick up a ripped hem or polish your shoes. It is important to be competitive with yourself. You can think of it as “I want to see that in my window!” Lesser-quality textiles can be used for kitchen rags, or taken to a textile recycling center.
Normalize mending at all price points
Many people find it difficult to buy durable clothing made from natural fibres. The time-poor might be reluctant to shop at charity shops, do spot-cleaning, or sew. De Castro insists that her longevity philosophy is comprehensive: “The idea cheap fashion doesn’t warrant mending” she says, “It is precisely those with limited economic or time resources for whom longevity should be invented.”
It is her ardent desire that repair – which is already available from Toast brands but at a high price – becomes mainstream. She envisions a world where repair stations are available in all shops, from Sainsbury’s and Primark. This would be convenient for busy people, and it would also allow them to “see and understand the culture and practice of repair”.
You can request these innovations by writing to the governments or companies. She says, “One-hundred percent of the population wears clothing, so we have responsibility as consumers, however, brands and governments have an obligations to make it as sustainable possible. We need to see the brands that have made so much money on us as a society intervene – it’s time for give-back.”