A road to sustainable fashion: up-cycling t-shirts

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A look from Madam Chino x MildFever Spring Summer 2017 collection. Image: Vanessa Andrew

By Borjana Alia

On immediate thought, fashion and the environment may seem like they’re completely non-related.

Vanessa Andrew shows they are not.

Since 2003, Andrew has been taking steps in the fashion industry to promote sustainable clothing.

She launched her label, Madam Chino, in Milwaukee with the goal of making people feel good in their clothes while helping the environment.

Prior to her days as a designer, Andrew had no intention of ever being immersed in the fast- moving fashion industry.

She was an artist using the media of painting and drawing. But once she started getting into sewing, her perspective changed.

“I had this sort of change of heart of what clothing means to people,” Andrew said.

“If you feel good in something, you look good, and if you look good, you feel good,” she said.

“It was a reciprocating idea. I could be helping people in this regard, and that’s when I realized, I wanted to help people and help the environment, so that was sort of my way in,” she said.

From simply screen printing on a few t-shirts here and there to co-founding a marketing cooperative for designers and her own label, Andrew established roots in Milwaukee for the up-and-coming local fashion industry.

In addition to her fashion design work, Andrew was also teaching sewing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Studio Arts & Craft Center, as well as summer classes through Boys & Girls Clubs.

Image: Asher Freedman

Driven by determination and a passion for the environment, Andrew says she wants to speak for buyers who may not understand what goes into the production of clothing, saying, “It’s easy to not pay attention to the production chain of things that happen.”

She makes it a point in her own designs to carefully choose where she sources her fabrics from.

One main factor that differentiates Madam Chino from most fashion labels is how she up-cycles old t-shirts for her pieces.

Andrew has created all kinds of silhouettes through upcycled t-shirts. Whatever specific request a client has in mind, Andrew is able to creatively and sustainably create that piece.

By doing so, Andrew can not only save money production-wise but also repurpose t-shirts that would otherwise end up incinerated or in a landfill.

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a little over 3 million tons of textiles in municipal solid waste (MSW) were combusted in 2018.

“Landfills received 11.3 million tons of MSW textiles in 2018,” the EPA said. “This was 7.7% of all MSW landfilled.”

That isn’t the only way that Andrew is able to be sustainable in her design work.

She also sources materials from her community.

“People are calling me all the time to donate fabric on rolls. I take denim in, t-shirts, sweaters, Snuggies, sometimes bedsheets or duvets if they’re in good condition, and then I do have a local source for sail cloth,” she said.

Milwaukee designer Vanessa Andrew. Image: Madam Chino website

That’s not the only way some people in the fashion industry try to be sustainable.

Holly Easland knows the importance of the types of fabrics chosen for a piece.

She’s been working in the industry for 35 years in children’s and women’s clothing, while teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in design studies for the past 10 years.

Supporting companies that are open about where their fabrics are sourced from and what material the fabric contains allows the consumer to understand the price, longevity and durability of the piece, Easland said.

“Fast fashion companies are turning over vast numbers of styles every year, and then they’re very disposable,” Easland said.

“Where are those clothes going to go? Many of them are synthetic fabrics like polyester, and those are very hard to break down, whereas it’s much easier to recycle a natural fabric,” she said.

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