KYOTO — Dresses from sail-cloth, bikinis from Red Army parachutes, trousers from post bags, shirts from table cloths and accessories from car inner-tubes.
Katell Gelebart, a 29-year-old French fashion designer, makes all her clothes and accessories from used materials. While the designs are new and original, the concept is based on reusing and recycling old textiles.
Gelebart, the designer and founder of the Amsterdam-based Art d’Eco label, says she is giving discarded articles “a second life.” She believes design is by definition damaging to the environment because it means the production of new material and therefore additional pollution.
The philosophy behind Art d’Eco is simple: “I want to show that it is possible to combine design and reusing without creating new material and new waste.”
Gelebart says she gets her ideas from seeing materials piling up in people’s homes or being thrown away.
“I think I must give them a second life. That is where the idea for every product originates,” she said.
Gelebart has brought her range of recycled originals to Japan for her inaugural eco-fashion show, titled “Trashion!” in Kyoto on Dec. 1. She is excited about introducing her ideas to a Japanese audience.
“I hope to inspire people to think about what they buy every day and how to create without producing new materials,” she said. “I want to show them that fashion can be ethical, environmentally correct, fun and really new.”
Like most aspiring designers, Gelebart as a teen dreamed of going to Paris and immersing herself in the fashion world. “But when I discovered that world — power, money, drugs, hypocrisy — I didn’t want to be part of it.”
So after studying art history and Scandinavian languages, she got her first job as a designer for a shop in Paris called Robin des Bois (Robin Wood), which, she says, also happened to be an environmental protection group.
Gelebart was hired to make the window displays and to create ranges of stationery exclusively for the shop. Inadvertently, she also became involved in campaigning.
“I became aware of environmental problems and how to deal with them, organize actions and make the public aware of . . . issues like the use of nuclear energy and waste monitoring.”
Through her experience, Gelebart realized that offering alternative products is another way of campaigning.
“Away from long speeches, a skirt made from a used bed cover, or a notebook with a recycled fruit-box cover speaks for itself.”
Gelebart moved to Amsterdam seven years ago as she was attracted by the many environmental groups based there and their dynamism.
“Friends of the Earth International, Greenpeace International, Wise International (World Information Service on Energy) . . . are all located in Amsterdam,” she said. “It made sense to me to settle there and open a shop not far from where they are based.”
Fashion design and activism have also led Gelebart to Ukraine. She is an international representative of 4th Block, a Ukrainian based organization of Chernobyl survivors. The founders of 4th Block were radiation liquidators at the nuclear plant in 1986, a week after the world’s worst nuclear plant disaster.
Gelebart says that they were shocked by their experience and decided to dedicate their life to creating awareness about the implications and consequences of the use of nuclear power.
They opened a museum in Kharkov, the second-biggest city in Ukraine, and every third year they organize an international graphic-art competition.
“I like this way of combining art with environmental awareness,” she said.
Last year, Gelebart held an eco-fashion show in Kharkov. Over a three week period she collected unwanted material from local inhabitants and put together a ready-to-wear collection with the help of local dressmakers.
Gelebart says the show was met with an enthusiastic response. “It opened people’s minds to the possibilities of reusing, recycling and alternative consumerism.”
Art d’Eco now has a workshop in Kharkov. “The working conditions are difficult — power cuts frequently and the machines are old — but on the human level it compensates. From the outside, this region looks like nothing more than an environmental danger zone. But by being there and involving myself, I can show these people that they are not the most forgotten people on the planet.”
Gelebart said the reaction to her designs is the same everywhere.
“In every country where I was able to show my products, people’s reaction was the same — a smile. At first, people are surprised to see a material they know, for example, car inner-tubes, used in a completely different way from what they had seen before. Then they realize that it is not only a design object, but is functional, well made and they haven’t seen anything alike before!”
Gelebart also says that every material she uses carries a story and people often feel nostalgic when they see her use of old bed covers and table cloths.
“So people connect on a sentimental level with the articles, contrary to newly made stuff, which is completely sterile from the factory.”
Gelebart believes her visit to Japan comes at a timely moment for her personally.
“At this time in my life I know deep inside that what I do is the right thing to do. It is good for today’s and tomorrow’s generation. It is new in terms of design and interesting in terms of fashion. On a very small scale it provides a solution to the problem of waste and makes people think of it. For me, trash is the gold of tomorrow!”