Redressing waste

Designers were tasked with coming up with dresses using car seat fabric made from recycled plastic bottles

When selecting fabrics to make fashion apparel, most people would opt for something ordinary like wool, cotton, silk or linen. Can one depart from these norms? Apparently so.

In one of the initiatives in our rush to reuse and recycle, Ford Motor — in partnership with Redress, a Hong Kong-based NGO which aims to reduce waste in the fashion industry — held “The Redress Forum 2016: Ford Design Challenge” at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum earlier this month to promote eco-friendly designs. Ten designers from various countries were paired into five groups of two to create a dress out of Ford’s car-seat fabric, which was made from upcycled plastic bottles.

The 10 designers were also finalists from the fifth EcoChic Design Award by Redress which searched for emerging sustainable fashion talents from both Europe and Asia.

Inside the museum, sewing machines were humming in the background as the designers worked frantically to finish their dresses. Each team was sent onto the streets of Hong Kong earlier that same day to search for inspiration for their designs. They were then given three hours to produce their work and present it to the panel of judges.

Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Redress.

Underneath the seemingly calm facade, it was clear everyone was frantic inside. Each designer darted from one side of the room to another. Hands were busy with scissors and needles. Pieces of fabric were strewn around shapelessly. Suddenly, we started to see formations of grey, red and copper on the mannequins. Their three hours were up in no time.

In the end, designers Amy Ward from the UK and Pan Wen from China were announced as the winning team. Their floor-length asymmetrical dress was inspired by the underpass on Victoria Peak — a famous lookout spot in Hong Kong.

“We looked closer at things as opposed to the skyline and landscape. We realised it’s quite reflective of the sustainable fashion industry,” said Ward.

“You have to get to know the garment and look a little bit deeper in the sustainable industry to understand what it’s really about.”

The winning team from Ford Design Challenge received HK$10,000 (46,000 baht). All the works that were created for both the EcoChic Design Award and Ford Design Challenge were showcased on the runway of Hong Kong Fashion Week held last week.

Marie Smyth, senior designer of Colours and Materials Design from Ford Asia Pacific, was one of the judges for the event. She said it was an exciting moment to see all the young designers from different disciplines working with sustainability in mind.

“Our trend team at Ford has found that 90% of consumers expect recyclability and less impact on the environment [when they purchase a product]. They believe it’s the right thing to do,” said Smyth.

Ford has been incorporating the idea of sustainability in its designs. Soybeans have been converted to make foam for various cushions inside the car. It is claimed the car-seat fabrics, made from plastic bottles, led to over 11 million plastic bottles being recycled. They would otherwise be floating around in the ocean, or dumped into landfill. It is estimated that over 300 parts inside Ford vehicles are made from recycled materials. Ford is currently in a partnership with Heinz to develop by-products from making ketchup into bioplastics, which will then be integrated into different parts of the vehicles.

Thai textile designer Belle Benyasarn.

“Sustainability is something that every industry should be embracing, advancing and encouraging in their practice. It is only going to reduce resources and our global footprint,” said Smyth.

Fashion is seen as a good platform to bring awareness of sustainability to a broader audience. And by partnering with Ford, Christina Dean — founder and CEO of Redress — said it has allowed her to promote eco-design in a different format and reach a new market with the message.

“I hate to say it, but I think the world is screwed. We’re in a mess. We’re running out of resources. We have to find a new way of doing stuff,” Dean said. She called the fashion industry “a greedy machine” and she intends to change it for the better.

Upon relocating to Hong Kong in 2005, Dean was horrified at how bad the waste and pollution problems were. She founded Redress in 2007 in hopes of addressing the issue.

“China, in particular, makes clothes and textiles for the world. The industry is one of the biggest global polluters. And that’s partly why China is in such a mess — from a pollution perspective,” she said. Hong Kong became a perfect scene for her effort as it’s a big fashion influencer in Asia and lies in close proximity to mainland China.

Crossing over to our country, the concept of sustainability and fashion hasn’t yet quite merged, at least according to Belle Benyasarn, a Thai textile designer who competed at the Ford Design Challenge.

In Thailand, brands such as Freitag and Rubber Killer are turning recycled materials such as truck canvas and car tyres into fashionable bags. Still, the market remains quite niche.

“Recycled materials are great on their own. But in their application to design works, it’s quite difficult to shed the original image. We have to put in quite an effort to make sure it doesn’t look like trash,” said Belle. The designer previously viewed plastic bottles as worthless items that can’t be turned into luxurious items.

“But, today, I feel it really looks paeng [expensive],” she said, pointing to her design on the mannequin. “The fabric materials made from plastic bottles are really beautiful, and surprisingly suitable for fashion.

“With sustainability, eco-design and recycled materials — I think the trend hasn’t reached Thailand just yet. Not many designers have done it in a way that won’t make it look too crafty. Nobody has yet to make it like a normal fashion item. But I think we could be seeing emerging trends in the near future — maybe in five years.”

About the author

Writer: Melalin Mahavongtrakul
Position: Feature writer of the Life section