Inside the Collection

Slow fashion and upcycling – an interview with Rachael Cassar

Plinth with 4 female mannequins and 2 male mannequins wearing a mixture of casual and formal clothing.
Good Design Awards 2018: Fashion Revolution Australia exhibition. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Concerns about the harmful impact of the global fashion industry on the environment and worker exploitation, particularly in the case of low priced, low quality fast fashion, has prompted the exploration of alternative ways to source materials and produce garments.

The fashion industry consumes vast quantities of resources, such as water and fossil fuels, and generates 1.9 billion tonnes of waste per year in addition to clothing and accessories. Part of this is the 60 billion square metres or 15% of the estimated 400 billion square metres of textiles created each year that ends up as waste on the cutting room floor. Of the clothing and textiles that are sent to landfill, natural fibres such as wool and linen will decompose whereas polyester, nylon and other synthetic fibres will take approximately 500-1000 years to break down, without considering the chemical dyes and finishes used in textiles.

Two mannequins on display, one wearing white dress, the other wearing sheer black dress and cape.
Good Design Awards 2018: Fashion Revolution Australia exhibition. White ‘Sinking Night’ dress and black ‘SIX’ dress with ‘RUBY’ cape by RACHAEL CASSAR. Photo: Ryan Hernandez, MAAS

Fashion Revolution, established in response to the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse, is a global movement calling for radical change in the fashion industry, seeking transparency, raising awareness about exploitation and environmental damage and promoting better practices. On display in the Good Design Awards 2018: Fashion Revolution Australia exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum are four Australian labels illustrating some of the principles promoted by Fashion Revolution Australia, including considered (or conscious) sourcing of materials, upcycling, circular design and transparent supply chains. One of the designers is Rachael Cassar, whose eponymous Sydney-based slow fashion label seeks to draw awareness to alternative fashion production methods. This includes upcycling, where materials that might otherwise go to landfill are recycled and given new life in an item of higher quality, as well as reconstruction, where new garments are created from old.

This approach is described by Kate Fletcher in Sustainable fashion and textiles design journeys – 

Slow fashion is about designing, producing, consuming and living better. It is about combining ideas about a sense of nature’s time (of regenerating cycles and evolution), culture’s time (of the values of traditions and wisdom), as well as the more common timeframes of fashion and commerce. Its emphasis is on quality (of environment, society, working conditions, business, product, etc.)… it is simply a different approach in which designers, buyers, retailers and consumers are more aware of the impacts of products on workers, communities and ecosystems.

Here Rachael Cassar speaks to MAAS Assistant Curator Alysha Buss about slow fashion, upcycling and her ideal future for fashion.

Have you always wanted to work in fashion? What inspires and interests you about fashion?

Yes I have always wanted to work in fashion. I am interested in constructing an image, a mood and essence of character. I respond heavily to materials. I enjoy manipulating and experimenting with fabric.

You describe your work as ‘slow fashion’, what do you mean by that?

The practice has been set up as a slow fashion business that sets a path for alternative fashion systems and production. It is experimental in its structure as there was no suitable format that was conducive to up-cycling and one-off pieces when the practice was established in 2006. I do not outsource manufacturing – everything is controlled, designed and constructed by myself.  I encourage slow consumption. A return to craftsmanship where hopefully the creative process and practice adds value to the item and evades disposability.

There is increased questioning of fashion industry practices and demand to know how our clothes are made and their impact on the environment. What prompted you to start a slow fashion label and work with upcycled materials?

During my degree I learnt about sustainable practices and the devastating effects our industry has on the environment. As soon as I was educated in this area, I immediately adapted a sustainable approach to the way I create. I always dabbled in extending the life of discarded and broken items, so it was clear that upcycling would come naturally.

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The kid has an opinion.

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The Good Design Awards 2018: Fashion Revolution Australia exhibition has three of your pieces on display, which feature upcycled materials such as antique lace, crystal chandelier beads, production offcuts and wedding dress tulle. Can you describe your creative process, how you source materials to upcycle, how you piece these together and how this differs to conventional ways of working.

I am a bit of a bower bird. I collect materials all year round and have done so since very young. I always have a library of fabrics to choose from. These fabrics can come from anywhere – second hand markets, op shops, auctions and donations. They are in the form of scraps, preloved garments, damaged rolls of fabrics, trims, antique linen – anything that I can find second hand. I work directly on to the mannequin stand with a combination of deconstruction and drape. Sometimes I will completely remove the context or trace of the original garment, deconstructing it to a flat piece of fabric, or I will maintain certain elements of interest and displace them on the body. This practice differs from the conventional structure of the industry as they are all one-off pieces and cannot be mass produced or repeated. I only produce one small collection per year.

Part of Fashion Revolution’s mission is to work towards a safer, cleaner and fairer future for fashion. What does an ideal future for fashion look like to you?

The ideal future for me is where everyone is conscious of their actions and footprint. Where people understand themselves within the bigger context…  I hope everyone adapts a deeper, sustainable understanding and approach to all areas of their lives. I think the more people connect with concepts around sustainability, the more likely they are to make the changes we need. I hope that I can connect with people through my work and that ultimately it makes them reflect on all practices and choices they engage with. I hope the structure of the fashion industry is reformed to make way for alternative, circular approaches to the way we design and engage with fashion. That more value is seen in the creation of goods. That we care and value what we make and consume. That we slow down.

The Good Design Awards 2018: Fashion Revolution Australia exhibition is on at the Powerhouse Museum until 16 March 2019.

Alysha Buss, Assistant Curator, October 2018

Sources

Christina Dean, Hannah Lane, Sofia Tärneberg (Redress), Dress [with] sense: the practical guide to an eco-conscious closet, Thames &​ Hudson, London, 2017, p 221

Kate Fletcher, Sustainable fashion and textiles design journeys, Earthscan, London, 2008, p 173

Alden Wicker, ‘How fashion is wasted’, Fashion revolution fanzine #2 : loved clothes last, Fashion Revolution CIC, 2017, pp 6-8

Dilys Williams, ‘Chapter 4: 1990-Present’, Fashioned from nature, V&A Publishing, London, 2018, p 151

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