Eileen Fisher Designer Carmen Gama Believes Making Clothes Is a Lifelong Commitment
Where others see waste, Eileen Fisher sees possibility. The woman and her label are champions for sustainability, striving for a company that is “circular by design” (everything that is produced by the company is later recycled into new designs) in an effort to reduce the industry’s impact on our environment.
As part of her goal to be 100% sustainable by 2020, Fisher needed a groundbreaking solution for thousands of garments collected as part of the company’s recycling initiative. Designer Carmen Gama joined Fisher as one of three students selected for the CFDA’s Social Innovators Project. Gama and her Parsons classmates spent a yearlong residency with the fashion house, creating a new production concept that honors Eileen Fisher’s pledge to Mother Earth.
The Renew Collection answers the brand’s call for sustainable fashion by repurposing once-loved garments as one-of-a-kind pieces. We caught up with Gama, who is leading the design charge for the collection, to discuss her passion for responsible fashion.
Carmen Gama and Eileen Fisher
What first inspired you to create sustainable fashion?
During my Parsons years, I was hit with the reality of the industry’s impact on the environment. I loved designing and creating new garments, but I was frustrated by the fact that there are already so many pieces out there. That’s what motivated me to be a more ethical designer. I challenged myself to create using the materials that I already had so that I could be part of the solution instead of adding to the problem.
Tell me about the process. How do you create new clothes from recycled pieces?
There are a lot of ways to give garments a second life. Our Renew Collection includes gently worn clothes in still-perfect condition. These are cleaned and resold. Some pieces come to us in near-perfect condition, but with a stain or minor flaw—these become part of our Renew Collection. These pieces are over-dyed with natural, plant-based dyes that are safe for the environment before they find their new home. When we receive sweaters with moth holes or trousers that are torn, we mend them by either reweaving or patching them. We’re calling attention to the damage in a way, but I think it adds intrigue to the garment. Still, about 25% of the clothing we receive is damaged beyond repair and becomes part of our Resewn Collection. These pieces are transformed entirely.
I start with the materials. I’ll sort through our massive inventory database to see what I have to work with before I start designing. I see, for example, that I have 1,000 pairs of the same green pants in inventory. Great, that’s where I’ll start. Once the design is made, the clothes are completely deconstructed and the fabric becomes a blank canvas for the new pattern.
And we save every scrap of leftover fabric. We use a technique called “felting” which allows us to layer fabric pieces to create an entirely new material. Absolutely nothing is wasted.
What has been the impact so far?
We’ve collected over 800,000 recycled pieces since Green Eileen began in 2009, which is incredible to think that we have prevented that much waste from ending up in landfills. In all of her collections, the Eileen Fisher label sources responsible materials, avoids using any hazardous dyes and pesticides and, overall, maintains a higher standard of business. It’s not about creating more, more, more. It’s about understanding that the life of a garment does not end once you’ve stopping wearing it.
How do the Remade pieces fit with the Eileen Fisher aesthetic?
Eileen herself is so committed to responsible fashion that her involvement and support for this line has been crucial to its success. My job is to design pieces that don’t look like they are made out of old clothes, but are beautiful in their own right. I usually start by going into current line sheets to see what patterns are the most loved and iconic, and then I design from there. It’s the most efficient way to use my inventory, but it also ensures the Eileen Fisher style.
A common misconception of Eileen Fisher is that it is a mostly monochrome look, but you’d be surprised by the variety of colors that come to our warehouse. I absolutely love color, so that’s what I like to design.
What are your goals for Remade?
We are learning a lot as we go and every season we’re shooting for bigger quantities per style (inventory permitting). We hope that our efforts inspire the fashion industry at large and more people start to consider their impact on our planet. We’re always working toward our goal to be 100% sustainable by 2020. However buzzy the word “sustainable” has become, our goals are not ambiguous. We’re taking action.
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