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In The Studio With Forest Alethea: Creating With Zero Waste

In an age where clothes are so easily accessible—and disposable—it’s hard to resist the temptation of buying cheap trendy pieces that may look good for a hot minute, but are destined to fall apart and get thrown to the curb like yesterday’s trash. That’s the way fast fashion has programmed its consumers to behave with its 52 “micro seasons” a year, keeping shoppers constantly hungry for the latest weekly trends. The consequences for Mother Earth are grim: it’s projected that by 2019, the US alone will produce over 34.5 billion pounds of textile waste, largely due to over-manufacturing. That’s an alarming amount of garments that will either be incinerated or thrown into a growing toxic landfill. Fortunately, there are artists and designers that are addressing these harmful environmental impacts and are paving the way for fashion to become circular.

One of those people is Forest Alethea, a Brooklyn-based artist and sustainable fashion designer that is determined to change the way we think about clothes. Aptly named Forest, she is the daughter of a horticulturist and landscape architect who crafts beautiful, thoughtful handmade pieces from materials sourced locally, with zero waste at the forefront of her mission.

Inspired by nature and her love for textiles, the former Pratt student’s collections span from intricately hand woven tops and flowing dresses to naturally-dyed jackets and wide leg pants, all made from natural and reclaimed or recycled materials.

With our Earth Day celebrations last weekend, we felt it only made sense to continue the conversation on sustainability with Alethea before she heads to Europe for her artist residency, where she’ll be honing her craft in art and sustainable design. Below, we learn more about Alethea’s inspiration, her thoughts on a committed practice to sustainability, and what’s next for the emerging artist and eco-conscious fashion designer.

Tell us a little about your background. Have you always wanted to design clothes?

From a young age I started drawing, crafting, and creating. I grew up around costume design from my mom’s best friend creating for parades to going to circus and drama camp making costumes and arranging fabrics in alternative ways. Clothing design really hit me as a career option when applying to college. I knew I wanted to explore the artistic world as much as possible and fashion seemed to encompass many of the fields I was interested in–sculpture, illustration, photography. I was able to take my creations and turn them into art for the body. Even to this day I view my garments as installations on the form.

How long have you been working with organic fibers and reclaimed materials?

Natural fibers and repurposed materials became more prominent in my process once I started learning about the discrepancies of the fashion industry. I was raised pretty eco-conscious and as soon as I realized the atrocities of the industry I set out to personally make my mark and evoke change in the systems of creating garments. My materials are a direct reflection of my morals. Every material has a source–and a chain of people and processes connected to how they were made. It is the artist’s job to be aware of the ethics of every materials. Some questions I ask myself before purchasing a material:

  • Is the material fair trade?
- Were workers compensated properly when making this material?
- Was the material grown organically?
- Is the material man made or a natural fiber?
- Is there a second hand way to purchase or get this material? (think about donations) – Is there packaging involved?
- Can I avoid packaging and buy direct or in bulk?

Many of my materials are purchased second hand at studio sales. Another fantastic resource that collects companies’ waste fabric is Fab Scrap.

Your collections contain lots of textures and intertwining layers that shape beautifully to the body. Can you tell us more about these sensory-rich materials and their connection with the human form?

My materials dictate the outcome of each garment. I begin with a texture from which inspiration is drawn. Many times my initial outcome is unknown and I just start drawing or knitting. The process and the hand (or “feel”) of the materials in relation to one another leads the garment onward. From many of my knit pieces you can see the layers of inspiration and texture through a gradation of material.

Comfort is another driving factor in my collections. One collection in particular addresses comfort within a “Map Back To Sanity”. We use our clothes as shields from the outside world. Clothing is a tangible form of empowerment. There is a beautiful dichotomy of hidden and exposed that our clothes perform for us. Each individual has a unique way of balancing the two. From layering, oversized clothes, and fitted garments there are endless possibilities of unique comfort.

The visual language in your textile designs and woven pieces are quite similar to some of your illustrations. Does one have influence over the other?

I wouldn’t say one is more influential than the other, rather both my textile work and my drawings stem from the same world I have created for myself. Both textiles and drawings are my way of translating not only my observations but my way of viewing the world. I aim to invoke inspiration in others and record my experiences through many different mediums. I think it even goes beyond just fashion and art into how I complete tasks. We all have very individual ways of doing things and it all stems from how we were raised. I am an only child and i definitely know it influenced how observational I am.

Most of the garments you’ve created are made entirely by hand which is very impressive! Do you ever use a sewing machine or do your prefer hand-sewing and knitting your pieces?

I use a combination of hand and machine sewing + knitting. Personally, I am more prone to doing everything by hand. For me it is about the tactile process of creating more than getting from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time. This is not to say efficiency is not important (I definitely love to be efficient) however if you skip over the beautiful hand work, things are not as special. For me, the whole point of creating garments as works of art is to make each piece one of a kind, made by hand. So you know you are supporting an artist rather than a company’s CEO.

Another common misconception is that garments are made by machines. In this day and age every article of clothing you wear was made by a human being. Machines are just a tool to speed the process along. Very few garments are made completely by machines, and even then the “finishings” are done by hand. This is just one fact to consider when buying clothing from larger companies. The same questions I ask myself about materials apply to buying clothing. It’s a way of thinking, a way of life, to be conscious of your every purchase–of how you consume.

You’ve repurposed clothes that were once worn on different parts on the body. For example, you’ve taken a pair of old jeans and created it into a chic halter top. How do you decide what the reclaimed garment will be in its next life? Is there a strategy or is it a feeling that dictates your creative direction?

The reclaimed garments are not as much of a jumping off point, so much as the fabrics themselves. It is much more of a creative direction that steers me to choosing one fabric over another. Especially when quilting, fabrics will speak to one another when placed side by side. By grouping fabrics together I am able to establish a dialogue between them all–and this creates a cohesive piece. Using a critical eye and understanding what “feels” right moves each piece forward, until it feels complete.

Would you ever consider outsourcing your designs to a manufacturer or do you prefer creating small collections independently?

My whole practice revolves around the process of creation, so I personally would never outsource to a factory. My independence allows me complete control over every garment. I am able to insure every one is one of a kind and is not mass produced. It is such a problem these days that we have been conditioned to buy more and more items we do not need. In reality every purchase should be considered, calculated, and fully realized. This allows for true necessity to shine through. We also are then able to distinguish quality over quantity–especially in terms of fashion. Fast fashion has taken over what used to be a beautiful craft–creating garments as masterpieces. Unfortunately companies realized they could blind the consumer and convince them to purchase even in the absence of complete necessity.

This is not to say I do not appreciate and relish the business side of things. When a company is able to flourish they will need to source a factory to produce the amount of goods in demand. It is this

company’s duty to realize their values and morals and not take for granted cheap labor and unregulated working conditions in return for a cheaper product and greater profit. Today there are a few companies who have taken it upon themselves to change the way the industry has done things over the years and strides are being made in the right direction. Notable companies include Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, Ace + Jig, and Zero Waste Daniel. These companies are using many alternative methods to combat typical industry practices.

On the topic manufacturing and the waste it produces, I read that the average American throws away about 80 pounds of clothing every year. That amounts to roughly 26 million pounds of clothing that will likely be incinerated or disposed into a toxic landfill. What do you think brands, retailers and designers need to do to make fashion more friendly to the planet?

In my ideal world there would be many laws in place regulating the fashion industry. In a utopia, fashion revolves around the craft of creating textiles, passed down from generation to generation and being innovated at every step of the way. But this is not our reality. We have factories that need to be regulated, with standardized working conditions, providing workers with a living wage. The chemicals used to dye fabric need to be banned and switched back to natural dyes that are able to be neutralized so water systems are not polluted. Our industry in general needs to take a step back and slow down. Producing numerous collections a year is creating massive amounts of unnecessary waste. Only produce what you need. Most of all, I think a very important initiative has been on the forefront of making radical changes in the industry–Zero Waste. Zero waste is not only applicable in fashion, but with food, products, and our everyday lifestyle. It allows us to take a step back and realize “Hey, everything I come in contact with has a life cycle”. This life cycle is crucial to understanding the overall impact we are having on this earth. Yes, call me a hippie, or radical, but also realize this whole life cycle dictates a chain of events that impact everything around us.

It seems fast fashion brands are starting to address sustainability by creating more eco- conscious clothing lines and recycling programs. For example, H&M will give consumers discounts if they bring their old clothes to the store to be recycled. However, reports say only 1% of those clothes will actually be made into recycled fibers – and that doesn’t stop the fast fashion giants from producing hundreds of millions of garments every year. Critics say that this campaigning is a form of “greenwashing” or brainwashing the consumer into thinking that they are doing some good for the environment. What are your thoughts on greenwashing?

Our reality right now unfortunately includes companies which will try to do the bare minimum environmentally while trying to gain the largest target market. By including these “greenwashing” tactics companies can put a label on something that might not be completely true. Therefore it’s our job as consumers and fashion innovators to educate those who may not be aware. As standards are raised as conscious consumers, companies are then forced to change their practices.

Do you think it’s possible to change the consumers voracious appetite for fast-fashion?

Absolutely! It will no doubt be a long and challenging road to go down, but it is most definitely possible. A similar movement for slow food has been long underway and look how far we’ve come. In New York, Dean and Deluca and Whole Foods prevailed with organic produce even as a kid I was always the one with organic food and off brand snacks. But look how far we’ve come. Our standards have been raised and we aren’t afraid to go the extra mile to obtain healthier, local, or organic ingredients if it means making a difference for our bodies and our ecosystem. The same is becoming true of the fashion industry and it is only a matter of time before slow fashion and zero waste is normalized and widely accepted into society.

Getting back to your work… You’ll be heading off to Europe soon for your artist residency. So exciting! Where will you be headed to and what will you be working on?

I am traveling to the South of Spain, Greece, and Morocco for three artist residencies over the course of the summer. I will be working on numerous projects, some of which include a collaboration on a knitwear collection and a few commissioned pieces. Most of all my trip will encompass a record of my time in each destination based upon the cartography of not only the land, but the people. I am using a range of mediums from painting to textiles and will end my trip right outside of Marrakech at a yoga retreat center creating art for community.

With that said, any long term goals?

I do have a larger project just at the forefront of developing. It will be a dialogue of inspiration made tangible for those who may not have as much everyday creativity or travel in their lives. This project is definitely in the works though!

Images courtesy of Lanna Apisukh

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits.

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