Just days before our much anticipated event* in Varna on sustainable practices and the role of design in reframing the narrative on the imminence of taking actions for saving the planet now, we present our special guests in consecutive interviews.
Darja Malesic is a fashion designer with a postgraduate degree from the Royal College of Art in London. She has extensive experience in the international fashion industry, where she has worked for over 20 years. She has designed for luxury fashion houses such as Dolce&Gabbana, John Richmond and others. She is currently consulting for companies and developing her own products based on the local craft and sustainable materials and collaborating directly with various Slovenian wicker artisans.
In the last ten years she has become increasingly focused on the research and implementation of Ethical Responsibility within the Fashion Industry, in particular the issues of sustainability, the circular economy, and inclusivity in fashion (especially for disabled groups). She is attracted to collaborations that could have a real impact on people, society, and the planet, with a genuine sensitivity to the challenges of the 21st century.
Her Flowe water bottle collection encourage a re-evaluation of traditional crafts – wickerwork as well as the use of local and sustainable materials such as willow, corn husk and rye straw. Flowe water bottles takes the personal reusable water bottle and makes it into wearable ethical fashion accessory.
Let’s start from the beginning. What was it that shifted your focus from the luxury fashion industry to becoming a founder of an ethically responsible and sustainable business?
DM: Working in the luxury fashion industry was interesting from a creative perspective, but I became increasingly concerned that it was extremely wasteful of resources, and often highly polluting. Also, I’ve always been interested in design and concepts outside of fashion and clothing. This and some big life events, that happened to me back in 2010, made me start looking for a new direction. I returned to my hometown of Ljubljana (Slovenia) and opened my own design studio. I made it my mission to use my creativity mainly for projects that could have a real positive impact on people, society, and the planet.
What is your definition of sustainable/circular fashion?
DM: It’s about getting a balance back. Working with nature to replenish what we take from it. Producers minimizing the damage their industry has on the environment through the choice of materials and technology and chemicals it uses, and finding ways to avoid long transportations,
and supporting the local. Reversing the habit of producing and selling more and more quantity, whilst degrading quality. Consumers avoiding fast, throw-away fashion and embracing stylish clothes that are designed and made to have a longer life-span, and that can finally be recycled or composted at the end of the cycle.
It is about the responsibility of everybody involved in the supply chain to produce new pieces with a little as possible of damaging effect and about consumers altering their way of living.
Way back in 1713, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, create the term sustained yield forestry, and encouraged “using resources in a way that extracts only so much from the environment that nature can regenerate”. In the 300 years since Carlowitz wrote this, the planet has faced drastic environmental issues from climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and massive air and water pollution. Sadly, the fact is on a global level, there is very little regeneration of nature happening, regardless all of the sustainability development goals of the last few decades.
Basically, true sustainability should be a necessary attitude towards the regeneration of the planet, that we should apply to any field or industry, including fashion. Perhaps it could be regulated on a national or even global level. Of course, we also need to participate as individuals, by practicing so-called sustainable living.
It’s not just sustainability that matters so much to you, but also ethics and local production. When choosing the artisans to work with on your own products, what factors are most important to you?
DM: When it comes to any sustainable product, my feeling is that makes sense to first search for locally-produced materials, and for local production.
When I started with my latest project, I made my first research into what local raw material supply is available, and what was produced locally. Back in the late 90’s the textile and clothing industry in Slovenia used to be quite big, and this is when I moved abroad. But by the time I returned in 2010, it was almost gone. So, I started looking in the other areas and discovered traditional wicker products.
It was not so easy at first to find artisans for cooperating. Firstly, there are not many craftspeople who still possess these rare skills, and then not everyone is interested in experimenting away from the strictly traditional.
I am currently working with 3 dedicated craftspeople specializing in wicker, and with a local social enterprise that is employing disabled people, who are also makers of Flowe products. Every artisan is dedicated to different wicker materials and techniques. We use local and sustainable materials, which are either renewable resources (willow, hazel) or 100% agricultural waste material (corn husk, and rye straw).
The use of natural, biodegradable, and locally-produced materials that come with fewer carbon emissions in their production, is fundamental in creating a non-polluting product.
Another important part of this story is the social side of sustainability, especially making fair relations within our local supply chain, fair trade works for both the producer and the consumer. I also feel that it is important, where possible, to involve underserved people and social businesses in our community.
How did you come to work with willow for the water bottles from your Flowe collection?
DM: Willow is a very common tree in Slovenia. Different wicker products were traditionally made out of willow, like baskets, wine bottles, fencing, and others.
The willow is an extremely fast-growing tree and is a truly sustainable and renewable resource. In the first years, it can reach up to two and a half meters a year. Young and fast-growing shoots have a greater need for nutrients and carry out photosynthesis more intensively. In doing so, they consume more carbon dioxide, which is taken from the atmosphere. By growing willows, which are very undemanding plants, for the purpose of weaving, we contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The whole process with willow wicker, where only young willow branches are used, is practically carbon negative.
The willows are among the oldest flowering plants on Earth, extending over 130 million years ago. In the post-Ice Age era, they proved to be pioneers of resettlement. Willows are able to withstand climate extremes and adapt quickly to all types of soil.
In a nutshell, a very impressive tree!
Now everything becomes more and more global, are there really still trends in design and fashion which are regional? What does Slovenia bring to the international scene?
DM: Certain aesthetics that emerge often start from a particular place or region and this can be easily detected. Take the trend for Scandinavian furniture for example.
So-called trends have to start somewhere, or with someone, even if the roots are not so obvious. I know that cultural and aesthetic characteristics exist here in Slovenia, but being such a small country it does not always carry the same weight. However, in a world of merged global trends, I think it is refreshing when you get a new starting point, perhaps especially when that starting point is based on a true cultural reference or tradition. This can add a special quality and authenticity beyond fashion and trend.
Slovenia is geographically, culturally, and historically placed in between the Mediterranean, Alpine and Balkan regions, so a mix of this spirit can be undercurrent influence anywhere, be it design, food, or language. But then again there are many successful Slovenian designers with very strong personal design signature, that has nothing to do with their country of origin.
If you take someone who is interested in ethical design and fashion with you to Ljubljana, what places would you show them? What are the “musts” to visit (studios, shops, art spaces, galleries etc.)?
I would point you to the current design exhibition “Created in Slovenia”, by the Centre for Creativity at Cukrarna Palace, which I am taking part in with two of my products.
In Museum for Architecture and Design, MAO is also BIO 27 Super Vernaculars, the oldest and one of the leading design biennials in the world, under the curatorship of Jane Withers, that brings together forward-thinking and environmentally conscious designers, architects, thinkers, and researchers from around the globe.
There is Ljubljana Month of Design 2022, starting 6th October, where you will be able to find some circular brands like Floios – Handmade Jewelry designed by nature made from E-Waste, Volja – Circular approach to menswear, my exhibition, and many more.
Also, the Krater Collective is very interesting, it is placed in revived construction pit, with completely local production of clay, paper, fungi, and wood products.
What should consumers look out for when shopping sustainably?
DM: That the product is making sense. I mean, sense for our common future as well as sense in their own lives. No nonsense. Pure beauty.
* Sustainable Practices in Design and Fashion is a series of discussions and presentations in five Bulgarian cities – Ruse, Burgas, Gabrovo, Varna and Plovdiv. The project is initiated by Liszt Institute – Hungarian Cultural Institute in Sofia and is curated by Studio Komplekt, who are also leading the discussions. The event introduces the general public to a variety of practices that formulate an important change in the industry towards greener production and consumption. Combining science, design, technology and media, they offer new, closer to nature models for the use of raw materials. Each of the selected Bulgarian cities is hosting a discussion on sustainability with two guest speakers from Europe, as well as a traveling exhibition with 24 examples of sustainable fashion and design brands from the Visegrad Group.