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Goethe V&A Residency
Interview with Arianna Nicoletti

Arianna Nicoletti.  © Chiara Bonetti
© Chiara Bonetti

Arianna Nicoletti is this year’s Sustainable Fashion Resident with the Goethe-Institut London and the Victoria & Albert Museum. She is a Berlin-based fashion designer and entrepreneur working within the field of sustainable fashion. In her research she focuses on circular systems for textiles. Arianna Nicoletti is also the co-founder of the fashion label Aluc, the concept store The Upcycling Fashion Store and the non-profit association Future Fashion Forward, all in Berlin.

Arianna Nicoletti, you claim that textiles and materials are often worthless in our society. Why is that?

Today the clothes we buy are often cheaply produced and are low in quality. Over the past 30 years, globalisation and industrial developments shaped today’s fast fashion system. In this system, clothes are produced on a fast pace, without putting much emphasis on the quality of the material. In fact, the clothes sold in many fashion retail stores are often so poorly produced, that after a few washing cycles they will fall apart or will not fit us anymore, which ends up with us buying new clothes. Another problem is that the system is based on fast changing trends. Today big retailers are bringing out new collections every three weeks. Consumers are pushed to buy these new looks in order to keep up with the most recent trends. That is why clothes are totally worthless today.
You are trying to disrupt the system both at an industry and consumer level to affect change in the fashion industry. How could for instance your “Upcycling Fashion Store” in Berlin change the way consumers think about the sources of their clothes?

The store was a great place where people came in and informed themselves about upcycling fashion. Some were curious, what the term meant, others asked more critical questions: Why are these clothes so expensive, even though they are recycled? Why should a scarf made from leftovers of men’s suits cost over 100 euros? My partners and I would explain that upcycling is a very complicated way to design fashion. First, the designers have to find second-hand clothes or leftover materials, which involves a lot of research. Then they have to deconstruct these old clothes or figure out how to match pieces of leftover materials, before they can start designing. This whole process takes much longer and costs money. So, talking to our visitors really transformed their approach to upcycling fashion. This educational work really inspired me and helped me to develop new projects in the field of consumption education

The awareness for sustainable fashion and conscious consumption has grown over the past couple of years. Does your activism and work benefit from this ongoing Zeitgeist?

Yes, definitely. When we opened the “Upcycling Fashion Store” almost ten years ago, people came in and asked us about bicycles. They thought we ran a cycle shop! The term upcycling was just arising back then. When we closed the store in 2017, people were not asking us about the term anymore. They came with newspaper articles and wanted to check out the store. At the same time, fashion and textile universities still do not provide enough education on this topic. Most universities do not talk about sustainability or discuss the value of materials. Often the students would like to learn more about this, but the professors are not putting it on their agenda. Yet, how can we disrupt the system, if there are so many conventional-thinking people in educational institutions? Three years ago, I started the non-profit association Future Fashion Forward with a strong group of Berlin based activists in order to campaign for sustainable fashion. We organize curated tours and workshops for students and NGOs and visit designers, start-ups and apps working in the sustainable fashion field. The demand for these tours is growing really fast.

 How could the fashion industry learn from your work in order to improve issues such as waste, pollution or unfair labour conditions? 
More than from my work, I think the industry could learn from the consumers. Consumers need to demand more transparency, which is a key factor for the future development in the industry. Horrible things have happened, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza manufacturing building in Bangladesh in April 2013. The problem is that many brands are working on a sub-contractor basis. Companies such as H&M surely have contracts with certified manufactures in Bangladesh or China, which look great on paper. But these manufactories give the work to subcontracted suppliers, making it difficult to trace back, where these clothes were produced.

There have also been huge achievements in the past couple of years. The “Fashion Revolution” campaign and the “Clean Clothes Campaign”, for instance, got big fashion labels to reveal an extensive list of their manufactures on their websites. But the fashion industry cannot simply depend on designers or consumers changing their behaviour. We really need the help of governments.

It is so interesting for me to understand how the waste from the food industry can become a valuable raw product in the fashion industry. The circular economy in textiles needs more synergies like that.

During your two-month residency, you are interested in exploring and analysing works in the “Fashioned from Nature” exhibition, which is running at the V&A until 27 January 2019. Which aspects from the exhibition are you most interested in?

The focus of my research will be circular fashion, in particular recycling technologies and circular fashion practices. I already started researching about technologies such as “microsilk” by tge company Bolt Threads, which is a lab-produced fibre made out of the protein contained in spider webs. I am also really fascinated by orange fibre, made out of orange peels, and by leather alternatives such as “Myco”, a lab-grown bio-material made out of mushrooms. It is so interesting for me to understand how the waste from the food industry can become a valuable raw product in the fashion industry. The circular economy in textiles needs more synergies like that. At the end, I will make a wall installation in my studio at the V&A to visualise the results of my research.
This interview was condensed and edited from a half an hour conversation with Arianna Nicoletti

Link to the whole audio-interview on YouTube.

The residency takes place from 15 October -15 December 2018.
Events programme with Arianna Nicoletti as part of her residency.