Reet Aus: Estonian fashion designer saving the planet

  • 2015-11-04
  • By Stuart Garlick

TALLINN - Tallinn Fashion Week is not just about glamour for the sake of it. The four days of designs on show told a number of stories. There were established designers and labels, up-and-coming Estonian companies, and first-timers, getting their inaugural experience of a big catwalk occasion.

One of the most anticipated shows took place on the night of Oct. 24, in the final set of shows. Reet Aus, an Estonian designer, has made it her personal mission in recent years to bring the principle of “upcycling” to a wider audience. This show was another opportunity to see what is possible with clothing made from discarded fabrics. But rather than being an experiment in ethical fashion, a fad, Aus hopes to make a statement with high-street fashion retailers, and effect a change in how clothing is made, bought, and sold.

That much was clear from watching “Out of Fashion,” the recently-released documentary film that shines a light on the wasteful practices of the fast-fashion industry from which almost all of us buy, but also offers an alternative.
The film begins with the pageantry that comes with the opening of another enormous H&M store, this one in central Tallinn. The smiling faces of the first customers are contrasted with the droning routine of a clothes-sorting room, where items are packaged for stores. The point being made is about the sheer amount of clothing manufactured. “I worry that we’re overproducing,” Aus says to camera, “so one day I decided to stop buying new things.”

She buys a pair jeans in Zara, taking them to a chemical-testing facility in Finland, where they are analysed for the properties of materials used in production. She is told that the chemicals in the jeans could be “very harmful to skin and toxic,” and so the discovery takes Aus on the next part of her journey, and gives the film its second act: the Estonian, along with a small and loyal team, goes to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to find the factory where the jeans were made. She manages to find a factory that works on behalf of Zara’s parent company, Inditex.

“Out of Fashion,” in spite its focus on the ostensibly dry topic of factory production, takes the audience on a journey, and tells a number of human stories, as Aus persuades Mr. Naved, the surprisingly welcoming boss of the factory, to work with her on producing a run of upcycled garments. We also see meetings with managers at sceptical, and at times cynical, fashion multinationals, as the indefatigable Aus and her team present their ideas on making fashion less about waste.
Aus explained later, “The best way to do upcycling is to add it into normal production, and to do it on-site, so, for example, H&M would have their own line, and an upcycling line. If you look at the small brands doing upcycling, there are a lot of them, but the influence is extremely small.

“It’s best to do it all as part of the production process, because when I was getting the waste materials, and taking them to a factory, it was very time-consuming to get an upcycling product out. That’s why upcycling hasn’t been so successful in Europe yet. To adapt it for mass-production, there has to be very good co-operation between the brand, the production, and the designers. It’s an extremely complicated system, because it’s global.”

Big companies all have a corporate social responsibility strategy. Sometimes, initiatives are accused of being “greenwash,” that is, making a company look superficially good, without changing what happens within. When questioned about why she was unconcerned about the potential of being just another good-news story for a big fashion company, Aus replied, “because I really think it has to start from somewhere. And even if they use it as marketing message first, finally they will be in the situation they have to go sustainable. Everybody knows that.”

Upcycling, Aus feels, will remain a niche within the wider fashion industry, rather than the norm. “Upcycling can’t be very big, because it deals with waste, but it can be always part of conventional production. It helps to bring back to production around 52 per cent of waste.”

Estonian innovators frequently make their name offering niche solutions to problems, which then grow into very serious initiatives. Transferwise looked at the problem of banks being able to overcharge, in their view, for currency exchange, and proposed a solution that has grown in popularity. Aus, in some ways, is similarly taking on established practices with a new perspective.

Her influence runs deep in the latest generation of fashion designers. Established designers, in the main, have not grown up with upcycling in mind -- however, students of Fashion Design at the Estonian Academy of Arts, where Aus teaches, are environmentally-conscious, while also keen to make individual statements that leave a positive impact on the world.
Barbara Krmelj, who is enrolled in the Fashion Design course at the academy, does not view upcycling as simply an environmental necessity, but as something that can add character to clothing. “Upcycling can be fun, intelligent, playful, unique; upcycled garments have a lots of stories behind them. They can be more personal, can be a statement of individuality, different from all the others,” the budding designer explained.

“Out of Fashion” Reet Aus may be, according to the title of her film, but the intense interest in her new collection at Tallinn Fashion Week seems likely to herald the continuation of something very promising for the principle of upcycling. Aus is an example of how fashion can influence positive change in the world, but also how, when a designer thinks outside the box, great things can happen.