Collaborating with the Next Generation to Remake Fashion for the Circular Economy | By Teslin Doud

Presented with the opportunity to craft a unique role within one of America’s most iconic womenswear brands, Teslin Doud implemented a new foundation within the business built upon sustainability and mindfulness.

Growing up in Northern California, I developed a deeply rooted passion for protecting the Earth. My studies at Parsons The New School for Design helped me to create a design aesthetic that supported those values, my unique entry into the fashion industry challenged and developed my skills for systems thinking. The following is my story of building my career’s foundation in designing for the circular economy.

EILEEN FISHER has been a quiet leader for sustainable fashion in America for over three decades — they have championed natural fabrics, the system wardrobe and social initiatives empowering woman and girls. They have always taken steps to ensure their own impact as a company leaves a positive mark on the world. The last several years they have stepped up as an industry leader for the circular economy by sharing their learnings with the fashion community and embracing collaboration to change the future of fashion.

The Australia Circular Fashion Conference 2018

In early 2015, EILEEN FISHER (EF) made public their ‘Vision 2020’ — a “no excuses” commitment to sustainability with bold goals for the brand to meet by the year 2020. Included in this declaration was a value placed on the end of life for their garments and a dedication to keeping EF clothes out of landfill. As a means of addressing this challenge, and to engage with the next generation, EF teamed up with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in the summer of 2015 to create the Social Innovator Award. Through this partnership three fashion design graduates were given the opportunity to participate in a residency.

The call was put out to over 60 design schools, the three honoured with the new position was myself and two other graduates of Parsons the New School for Design. Coincidentally we were friends and competitors in school.

“My role was to create + innovate a scalable + profitable solution for returned garments received in the Eileen Fisher take-back program.”

Now working for the brand our first design challenge was to create an innovative; scalable; profitable; beautiful solution for the garments which are returned via their take-back program, these were the garments that cannot be resold. EF has been collecting previously owned garments from their customers across the United States since 2009. 

To date EF have taken back over 950K garments, 60% of which are in great condition, 100% of the profits from these sales are donated to charity. The remaining 40% of garments collected that are no longer in good condition to resell, had been stored by the company with an optimistic view that someday they would find an alternative eco-friendly solution — Enter the Social Innovators.

Now understanding the design challenge, we were lead into one of the storage rooms that held a portion of the damaged garments — there were literally mountains of clothing spilling out of the shelves which were stacked floor to ceiling. Before we could begin designing a solution, we needed to learn about EF’s ethos and principles, to assist us in creating the best create realistic outcome that would, rather than an educational project.

For the first four months of the residency we spent our time rotating through the different company departments, such as; retail stores, the recycling centre, fashion design, sales, social media, marketing and the sustainability and social consciousness team.

This turned out to be the most important part of our journey because we learnt about the interconnected workings of a fashion company, that embodies a unique mindful and holistic culture. Our team was small, dynamic and flexible, which enabled us to move between the departments to absorb all the company had to offer.

During the 12 month residency we tackled the mountains of damaged stock, which meant weeks of sitting on the floor digging through bags of clothes.  We anaylised the designs and looked for patterns in garment type, fabrication and the specific location of damage for each piece. We aimed to take traditional techniques of mending, dyeing, and re-sewing to implement a new production flow which would allow us to process the huge quantity of garments. How could we create a system to handle thousands of garments, instead of having to look at each piece individually in order to make a design decision?

During the early stages of our residency, we started to collect data on the recognisable patterns – wool had holes, silk had stains, cotton was pilled – with this specific information were able to predict and manage expectations about what types of garments would be returned. This was the start to building a comprehensive inventory system that would support the creation of EF’s special ‘Remade’ range.

The Australia Circular Fashion Conference 2018

We spent time cutting, sewing, dyeing and testing, then we realised that our challenge was not only to design beautiful garments but to design systems to assist existing processes within the company, and what it could look like by integrating them with all EF departments. 

With limited time to complete our challenge, we decided to focus on three main ‘Remade’ techniques. Number one: Creating new felted fabrics. Number two: Using over-dyed silk tops with natural dyes to camouflage stains. Number three: Engineering classic EF styles to fit within the new ‘Remade’ range. While each style’s colour was one-of-a-kind the process could be duplicated and we integrated it into a factory flow.

The result?  A 500 piece collection, of 12 different ‘Remade’ styles that were showcased at a pop-up shop in Brooklyn, New York.

The ‘Remade’ pop-shop was a huge success! Most importantly it reflected the ethos of EF and affirmed the direction of the company. While the techniques we used to re-make EF garments were not revolutionary, the process of scaling them into factory production was unexplored innovation within in the fashion industry. At some point during our residency, it became clear that the solutions we were designing were the final pieces in facilitating a closed loop design system. We addressed garments end of life by looking at ways to maximise the inherent value of each item. This was done by extending garment wear and investigating ways to process garments (and the scraps) back through the design phase, all while utilising recycled materials. We saved every scrap, every button and every zipper with the same commitment of sending nothing to landfill. Ultimately this is the same optimism that brought us to EF in the first place.

“It became clear, the solutions we were designing were the    final, important, pieces to a closed-loop design system.”

Not only were the systems and processes we were developing framed in the context of circularity, but information started to flow in a loop as well. The data gathered from sorting and processing the damaged garments meant that we had very important findings to pass onto the design and fabrics teams. This would then help the initial, first design phase with the entire life-cycle in mind. We took note of things like fabrics we saw time and time again, the same stains or damages reoccurring in the same spots and the critical insight into garment construction. All of this knowledge would enable designing the garment’s second life easier.

Remade garments are now a permanent part of the EF collection. They live within the EF Renew department that grew from a single take-back program into a holistic circular department that incorporates two recycling centres; one being omni-channel outlets for resale and the other, an innovative ‘Remade’ design team that collectively formed the Tiny Factory in Irvington, New York.

The impacts of the Social Innovator Award went beyond creating solutions for longevity in clothing. We believe the value doesn’t end with the a garments first wear. 

Not being locked into any one particular section of the company, gave us a unique ability to exist outside of normal protocols and processes. We became an important tool, by bringing the ideas about circularity (only existing within small pockets of the company), to the forefront where they could be identified. The commitment invigorated EF’s spirit to be a champion for the circular economy on an international level.