A decade ago, designer Shannon South began making handbags from vintage
fabrics because she loved the bright colors and exuberant patterns.
Although she went on to study furniture design, even working with
Marcel Wanders, she slowly found herself veering from her industrial
design path after she discovered the powerful draw of working with her
hands in an increasingly automated industry. But like any company that
experiences dramatic growth, she became sidetracked by the convenience
of mass-production. The now-San Francisco-based designer founded reMade USA after she saw an opportunity to use her skills—and newfound knowledge—to be a leader for sustainability in the fashion world.
South's vintage fabric handbag business scaled up quickly—she was soon producing a series of bright pink "Hello Kitty-esque" PVC laptop bags, which were easily manufactured in China. The laptop bags were popular, and the system was almost 100% automated, from the online store to the shipping—South didn't have to do much but email files overseas. Still, South found herself constantly being wary of what was being produced. "I didn't have control," says South, who says she will never forget the false, chemical smell that emitted from the packages that arrived from China. "I never felt proud of what I was doing. I rarely talked about my projects with friends."
But two concurrent events—attending design school at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, who at the time was ramping up its sustainability program (initiated by then-department chair Deb Johnson), and volunteering at the conference Pop!Tech, where she was exposed to speakers like Alex Steffen from Worldchanging—South began to realize she did have a choice. "The more knowledge I had, the more I felt really bad about this business," she says. At the same time, she had an urge to go back to working on the bags herself—-the very reason she automated the process in the first place: "I missed the process of actually making things by hand," she remembers.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
About a year ago South went to a Goodwill where she picked up a leather jacket and found herself inspired by its rugged form. Using as much of the jacket as possible, she transformed it into a handbag. Using more coats found at Goodwills, leather scraps and other pieces donations from friends, and a few bits of new hardware, South is able to upcycle almost an entire coat into a bag (or several bags). She tries to source materials as locally as possible. And to help her use the most material from the jacket as possible, she doesn't look at fashion magazines for inspiration, says South, instead, she lets the details from the jackets guide her design. She also created a series of more patchwork-like bags to use up the inevitable leftovers.
Another interesting aspect of South's work is that she can transform family heirlooms that hang forgotten in a closet into a functional object that can be used every day. She cites one customer who asked that his weathered motorcycle jacket he wore for 20 years be converted into a bag for his wife. South appreciates that her work now comes with a story behind it—the better the story, the more likely the user will be to care for the object. And unlike any other material she's worked with, the extremely durable leather actually gets better with age, becoming a functional accessory that's less likely to be discarded.
BIG INDUSTRY ISSUES
The fashion industry has perhaps the greatest ratio of planned obsolescence, with millions of people casting off their clothing every season as trends declare it unfit for use, while millions more pieces are being produced to replace them using questionable methods. There's plenty of room for innovation when it comes to repurposing and reusing clothes that are no longer worn. And although the fashion industry has plenty of advocates for responsible production and materials, South believes that most designers haven't fully committed to ideas of true sustainability in fashion. "Green brands are usually on the side of their normal brands," she says. "Why not make it all green?"
She wrestled with some of these issues in her own decision to use leather. "Leather is a difficult material to produce. It uses a process that has a significant environmental impact with the dyeing and chemicals involved," says South, who is herself a vegetarian and uses very little animal products. While argument could be made that reMade USA's bags glorify leather, South can also see it as a way to reverse that process: Buying her bag might prevent the unnecessary use of chemicals in tanning or potentially inhumane slaughter of an animal.
Recently, after hearing Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart speak about how the retailer wanted to carry more sustainable brands, South approached Barneys, and by the holiday season reMade USA bags will be available in New York and San Francisco stores. Ths is a huge testament to the quality of South's work, being such a small-scale outfit, as well as Barneys' commitment to truly responsible fashion.
For now, South is committed to using her attention in the media as a platform to deliver tips and advice on living more sustainably. But as she scales up her numbers in order to stock Barneys, South is running into a new set of challenges when it comes to issues of production and automation. But this time she's keeping manufacturing local, and working with a group of veteran handbag makers in San Francisco. "One of them always says that handbag makers are an endangered species. There are not a lot of handbag manufacturers in the U.S.," she says. So she's dedicated to supporting and nurturing a craft that's being culturally phased out: "This is a better choice."
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