Clothing with a Conscience

September 21, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Space Between is a New Zealand social enterprise challenging waste and exploitation in the clothing industry. Its first collection transforms unwanted postal uniforms into stunning new fashion pieces.

Jennifer Whitty’s wardrobe reflects her adventurous, energetic approach to life. “I love fashion for its potential to allow self-expression, its tactile nature, its deeper resonance and its magic and power,” says the fashion researcher and designer.

But Jennifer is well aware of the fundamental flaws that the fashion industry shares with other consumer industries. “Fashion reflects the times we live in. Our focus on growth at all costs is taking a huge toll on our hearts, minds and planet,” says Jennifer, a lecturer at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington, New Zealand.

She believes that we buy too many clothes too cheaply, resulting in increased waste, resource depletion, a hastening of climate change and the exploitation of workers. It’s in response to these issues that Jennifer co-founded Space Between, a new green business model for fashion that uses design thinking to find ways to bring about positive change in the fashion industry.

Run by staff, students and graduates of Massey University, Space Between aims to create new garments from unwanted clothing and other waste material. It also encourages the elimination of waste from fashion production, and stimulates debate on the future of fashion.

Creating new garments from old

One strand of Space Between’s work is the Fundamentals Range of upcycled garments — clothes made from previously used or discarded fabrics. The nine pieces in the first Fundamentals collection incorporate cutting-edge design techniques, with many made to be worn in multiple ways for maximum versatility and longevity.

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Space Between’s Fundamentals Range includes red-and-yellow leggings from merino wool. Photo (BY-NC-ND): Nikita Brown

In 2012, New Zealand Post identified that up to 9000 of its uniforms were still in good condition but were ending up being used as rags or shredded. With corporate uniform manufacturer Booker Spalding, it asked Jennifer and her colleague, researcher Holly McQuillan, to carry out a pilot study into the feasibility of developing a sustainable way to dispose of the uniforms.

Jennifer and Holly devised a series of upcycling strategies and techniques that could be used to turn unwanted items of clothing into wearable everyday garments. The garments in the first Fundamentals collection were made by local manufacturer Earthlink, which employs people with barriers to employment such as mental health problems or drug and alcohol issues.

Stand-out pieces include a ‘spliced’ sweater dress, a ‘conjoined’ cardigan and funky red-and-yellow leggings made from merino wool. The collection is striking and original, yet every single garment has been upcycled from New Zealand postal service uniforms.

Creating new clothing from existing garments rather than standard rolls of fabrics posed some technical challenges, says Jennifer. “There is a misconception that recycled fashion should be cheaper than new fashion, but a lot of time has to be spent on the cutting process because each garment is different.”

Jennifer hopes Space Between will be able to make the transition from producing garments that have already been made to creating clothing on demand, with customers pre-ordering from its website.

A social enterprise run by Massey University’s School of Design, Space Between sells its garments through pop-up shows and a website. Staff, students and graduates run the shows and process orders.

While Space Between received one-off seed funding from the university to develop its website, it is now seeking crowdfunding to hire a designer to help the business grow.

Exploring zero-waste garments

“The fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world,” says Jennifer. “We want to find alternatives to mass-produced, high-waste clothing and to develop ethical business opportunities for designers. It’s about creating clothing with a conscience.”

Jennifer’s personal interest in sustainable fashion was sparked by her childhood love of animals. “I was animal crazy from a very young age, and went vegetarian at four or five,” she says. “Becoming vegetarian was the trigger for my interest in systems and cognitive dissonance — how things are shielded from us, whether it’s the way farm animals are raised or the way our clothes are produced.

As well as producing upcycled garments, Space Between runs a Fashion Lab that explores ways to create zero-waste garments and develop different models for the future of fashion.

The Fashion Lab uses events, films, research and education to comment on fashion products, services and systems, challenging not just the way we make clothes but the way we use them. One of Space Between’s projects is the Wardrobe Hack, which involves designers helping people revive their existing wardrobes rather than buying new clothes.

“We need to ask ourselves why people throw so many clothes away, or don’t wear the clothes they buy. There is a lot of anxiety around fashion, and the fashion industry perpetuates the idea that if you’re not on trend you can’t express yourself through clothes,” says Jennifer. “That’s where fashion designers come in. We shouldn’t just be making fast fashion; we should be using our eye and judgement to help people find joy and pleasure in the garments they already own.”

Making fashion responsible

Space Between’s ultimate aim, says Jennifer, is to be a hub for fashion design, research and production using fair trade labour and ethical fashion practices. It hopes to connect with hubs in other cities and countries that share a similar goal.

The energy Jennifer has invested in Space Between speaks to her conviction that growing numbers of people share her refusal to close their eyes to the realities of consumer industries.

“Consumers don’t get to hear the real stories between the items they buy,” she says. “We want to resurrect the power of fashion and make it responsible again.”

Tags: slow fashion, sustainable fashion