What comes first to your mind when you think about sustainable fashion? Latest trends of the beginning of the 21st century? Sophisticated hipster culture?
Well believe it or not sustainability was part of almost everybody’s life for hundreds of years. Before the obsessive consumption culture, people used to treasure and value their belongings, including clothes and would pass them from generations to generations. So the tradition of taking good care of your stuff goes long back in time and is similar in different societies all over the world.
The example that I like the most is an Indian saree. It’s sizeless. So once you get your saree, technically you can wear it all your life and pass it to the next generation, cause it will fit anybody.
Poncho has similar qualities. And there are many more.
But let’s get a bit closer to nowadays and look into USSR traditions. Due to many political and economical factors, there was not that much of a variety of goods available. It was quite common for people to know how to sew and in general make their clothes from scratch.
However, a lot has changed in the last 30 years and the skills are vanishing. Nowadays in most of the post-soviet countries, it’s easier to buy new clothes from a store than make it yourself.
But still, there are people who not only retain the skills and the knowledge of tailoring clothes from scratch but they also pass it on and teach other people this sacred art of making your clothes.
And today I would love to introduce to you Elena Ryleeva, a fashion designer, educator and an internationally recognized expert with decades of experience. I had the honor to meet Elena in-person in her home studio (which was my dream since I first heard about Elena last year).
Elena started her career in Moscow, where she studied in Moscow State University of Design and Technology (MGUDT).
She also worked in Peking teaching her curriculum of sustainable fashion and zero-waste design for students of Raffles Education Corporation for 10 years.
And now Elena is working independently. She is teaching her top-quality courses for students from all over the world.
She is not only providing the knowledge of how to design, but she is teaching how to create a piece of clothing from the very scratch till the end. And this kind of skill is hard to find nowadays.
Zero-waste design is fundamentally different from regular design because you need to constantly adjust the process of creating a piece and it will always be a bit different from what was planned in the beginning. And there will be no waste. And these two factors make the process so much more interesting and appealing.
Elena is saying that this is the future of the fashion industry – zero-waste.
Elena’s most favorite fabric from the beginning of her career was wool. She was born in very cold climate conditions, so the wool was naturally the most comforting fabric because it was warm.
However, it has changed since the move to Asia.
Elena says that polyester takes about 60-70% of the fabric industry. Then it’s cotton and after all the rest of the fabrics.
Polyester is highly harmful to the environment and it takes hundreds of years to decompose.
Cotton is a natural fabric, so it’s less toxic, but the process of growing cotton is damaging as it requires a lot of water.
Probably one of the saddest examples of damage caused by the cotton industry is the Aral Sea, which was located on the border between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and nowadays it’s almost vanished. Starting in the 1960s USSR used the water of the sea to irrigate all kinds of crops including cotton. As a result, the sea almost disappeared.
The shrinking of the Aral Sea has been called “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” (for more info check here.)
Organic cotton is better as there are no pesticides and less water is used in the growing process.
Elena’s solution to the fabric industry problems is hemp. (I agree!) Hemp is such a marvelous and wonderful material. Hemp is growing easily without the need for any pesticides, no extra water (rain is enough) and the final product is very good for skin (as well as linen).
Let’s take a quick look into history once again. Clothes of ancient Japanese samurais were made from hemp. Combined with indigo dyeing the fabric was used even to heal wounds.
Unfortunately, it’s still quite challenging to find clothes that were made from hemp.
In Asia, it’s more common than in other parts of the world.
Generally, the textile industry is more innovative than the fashion industry. New researches and experiments are made to find more sustainable fabric solutions, like fiber from a lotus flower, cactuses or mushrooms.
The horrors of the fashion industry
Elena lived for many years in different Asian countries and she has seen with her own eyes red-colored rivers in Indonesia. She says that “luckily” she hasn’t seen rivers in China.
But she did visit clothing factories in China and she saw the horrific and extremely dangerous working conditions. Manufacturing and handling jeans, for example, is a highly toxic process.
And for what?
So people in Western countries will have their new trends for the next season and throw them away afterwards.
Other people suffer from terrible health problems and die for the latest fashion trends. I just wonder when the rest of the world will finally realize that.
Vanishing tailoring skills
While teaching in different countries, Elena has noticed that the skills of tailoring among fashion students and professionals are disappearing.
She saw surprised and sometimes even shocked faces when she showed the items she had made herself. People don’t do it anymore in most of European countries.
I know that in Portugal and Bulgaria the clothes are still sewed. However, it’s something that is not taught to students in the fashion industry. So designers know how to design, but they don’t know how to make and most of the tailoring work is outsourced.
Elena is also telling about one of her fashion students, who wanted to study tailoring to be able to create customized items for her clients. She graduated from a fashion school with a Bachelor’s degree and she didn’t have the skills she wanted to gain originally. So she started to look for workshops and she found Elena.
Elena is saying that when she saw her student’s graduation works, it would remind her of something they were doing in her first year of studies in Moscow.
She also says that a lot of her students at the moment are fashion teachers themselves who want to learn more about how to make the clothes.
Hemp jacket from the ’80s
What is the oldest piece of clothes you ever held in your hands? This jacket Elena purchased from a second-hand shop in Thailand. It was made approximately in the ’80s, it looks good and you can still wear it. This jacket is about 50 years old.
Feel guilty or buy our clothes
Do we need to feel guilty to be able to make a positive change in the industry? I don’t think so. We should be creative and constantly look for solutions and new skills.
Support your favorite sustainable brand, but do it because you want to, not because otherwise, you will feel bad about yourself.
Elena is encouraging her students to make fashion that people will want to purchase because they can relate to it, not because they would feel bad otherwise.
Sustainable fashion can be unique, beautiful and elegant. We shouldn’t give up on our style.
Elena says that a lot depends on the passion of the students and designers. You can’t create something new and beautiful if you are not in love with what you do. And people who truly want to create are Elena’s favorite students. She prefers to work with a small number of people, but only with those who have the true desire to create, invent and promote sustainability.
Interested in taking a course and learning the magic of creating your clothes? Follow the link here and remember to add “ANNALOGIC” when placing the order.
Do you want to learn more about sustainable fashion? Check out my latest posts here.
Together we will make the positive change happen.
Cover photo by Raphael Lovaski on Unsplash, first photo in the text by Karina Tess on Unsplash, photos from workshops kindly provided by Elena Ryleeva, other photos taken by me.