She’s passionate, thoughtful and intriguing and works as a zero waste fashion designer. Meet Fiona Clements, a graduate of Otago Polytechnic School of Design and founder of New Zealand sustainable fashion label, Senorita AweSUMO. She is also cofounder of Dunedin Design Incorporated the non-profit organisation behind the designer-run Dunedin retail store GUILD. We spoke to the talented designer on Skype ahead of Eco Fashion Week Australia to learn more about her sustainable fashion philosophy.
Eco Warrior Princess: How long have you been working as a designer?
Fiona Clements: When I graduated in 2011 from the Polytech course I set up my business the year after in 2012 . So it’s been five years now, but it’s only the past eight months where I’ve been doing it full-time. I was working in childcare part-time while designing. So I was basically running from job to job to job every single day and it was just too much. And I just said, Well I need to focus and I want [design] to be supporting me. So I decided to go full-time.
EWP: And what got you interested in the zero waste aspect of fashion?
FC: I was at Polytech in the second year of my course and I realised how much textile waste my class mates were throwing out. They were just putting it in the bin and I was like, Woah no way I will totally use it! I never really had a lot of money to spend on fabrics and I was just getting to that point where I was thinking, How do I make this particular thing when I can’t afford to buy the textiles? So I started using what the others were throwing out and then I actually put a bin in our classroom that was just for textiles. And I’ve still got some of that stuff because I haven’t been able to use it all!
So there was that. And then I started doing research on what it was like on a global scale and what I discovered really shocked me. Then I found Timo Rissanen’s paper “From 15% to 0” investigating fashion without creating any waste.”
And then in 2011 I actually went to The Cutting Circle with [zero waste fashion pioneers] Holly McQuillan, Julian Roberts and Timo. That was really inspiring and it just proved to me that it was totally possible to work zero waste in whatever aspect you’re doing, whether it’s using commercial offcuts or zero waste pattern making or just thinking outside the box. It’s totally possible to create garments out of offcuts. In fact, my graduate collection was made entirely from commercial offcuts; so all the small pieces were pieced back together and it was like a massive jigsaw puzzle.
Senorita AweSUMO is Back from the time of holiday and rest and into the world of love your clothes! This garment is a blend of bamboo and organic cotton. It really feels like your wearing nothing next to your skin, very luxurious on the largest organ in the body, the skin. We absorb so much through the skin why wouldn't you want to treat it with respect and love.
After that, I got selected to show – as part of my class, five people were selected to show – at the iD Fashion Week in Dunedin which is a big fashion week here. So that was what solidified the idea that it was possible [to do zero waste fashion]. And I keep meeting people who keep reaffirming to me that I’m on the right track.
EWP: I noticed that there is an increasing consciousness from the designer front to minimise impact and that not every design graduate is coming out wanting to take over the world, and particularly the wasteful fast fashion world. And from a design perspective, I think it’s imperative that designers are working to reduce textile waste.
FC: The gap is between the design and the manufacture. That’s where the waste is actually created. So if you can minimise that, or if you can just remove that waste altogether then that’s how we can really move forward I think.
EWP: Do you think that model is scalable though?
FC: Yes I think it’s scalable. I’ve actually got some patterns that I’ve made now that I think could go into the current manufacturing space and be made in bulk. And that’s one of my next steps; is that I really want to test that idea out. There’s a small manufacturing company just around the corner from me and they do a lot of work for local designers and I’d love to take some of my patterns there and see what the barriers are for that to happen: a zero waste pattern in the current system. See if they can read it, and understand it and whether it actually works and what other barriers there are that we need to overcome.
EWP: Now talk me through the fashion industry in New Zealand. Is fast fashion dominant there like it is here in Australia?
FC: H&M’s just opened here in Auckland so yeh fast fashion is here too. And we have Kmart, and Cotton On and Glassons. Glassons was a Dunedin company at the beginning and now they’re actually doing a lot better.
Actually, they didn’t participate in that study [Ethical Fashion Report] and they got an ‘F’ mark. Now they’re actually making changes and getting more transparent and now I think they’re on a C+ or something now. That report is really helping people understand a whole lot of things and it is changing. I think people are becoming more aware and they really want to see people like me doing well. And they’re really supportive of local designers.
I’ve got a lot of support here as we’re only a small city; there’s about 120,000 people here. The city is very supportive because we all know each other and the networks are there. And the Polytech is super supportive here, of me and of all their graduates really. I’m on their external advisory committee since I graduated. When I went through the fashion course, they weren’t really teaching anything about sustainability and I had to go and find our for myself but now they do. Now they have bins in the classrooms where people can put in their textiles and other people can use them, and they are trying to make changes.
Lots of #NEW stock in at @guilddunedin from me. #zerowaste #goddess #tunics and #organiccotton #diamondbackT #handpainted by me. #supportlocal #handmade #dunedindesigned and #made. Did you know when you buy from me your supporting me, not some conglomerate just little old me! Thanks for your support those that do, #yourAweSUMO #love
The local network’s been really fantastic. Alongside running my business, I also run a non-profit and we’re trying to do a lot of community outreach stuff and we run monthly mending sessions and teach people how to sew to help get those skills back up. And people want to learn and use these skills!
EWP: So do you think we can eradicate fast fashion in ten years or do you think that there will always be a part of society that will want the cheap, fast fashion?
FC: I think it’s an education thing. I think in 10 years there will be a shift, but I think it will take that long to shift. In this way of thinking, New Zealand is a little behind the rest of the world. Things take a lot longer to come here and they take a lot longer to shift and change. We are a bit slower but there is a whole community that’s really conscious and they’re really shifting things and they want it to be different. But until it hits the masses – the people who still shop at Kmart and still shop at Warehouse – it’s a hard one.
EWP: I come across people who say they’d love to purchase better but they can’t afford it. What’s your advice to people who say they can’t afford to buy sustainable fashion?
FC: Learn to do it yourself! Make it yourself! Make it individual! Mend your clothes. Make them last. Treat them like your friend. And everything you need is in the second-hand store. You don’t need to buy new. I think it’s all just education. And that’s where our outreach programs help because people learn and they also learn by doing. And I think we have to be prepared to share our skills and knowledge with other people so they feel empowered, and they grow their skills and that’s when they have the ‘a-ha’ moment and that’s when the shift starts for them.
EWP: Now you’ve been designing full-time for just eight months. How’s business going so far?
FC: Really great. I feel like it’s in a really good space. I’ve had a volunteer coming in and working for me doing sewing and cutting which has been a great help. And we’re talking about what some part-time hours will look like and I’m definitely at growth point and it needs to become more than just me. I want to be able to support other people and local manufacturers.
EWP: So has it been challenging trying to grow your business?
FC: Definitely. I am at the point where I need to learn Search Engine Optimisation for my website. It’s feeling a little beyond me right now because I need to be making stuff. My brain can’t handle it all at the moment. I might need to get someone to do it all for me! [laughs]
EWP: What’s one thing you’ve learned now that you wish you had known before starting your fashion label?
FC: How much money it would take! [laughs] I’m crashing at my parent’s house to minimise expenses as it’s important to have the studio as I get so much work done and it has everything I need to run the business like internet. And I think also the level of support that you really need. You need to have people around you that you can talk to; that you can ask stupid questions of and not be afraid to ask those stupid questions.
EWP: And given it is costly to compete in the world of fashion when you’re up against the likes of brands such as H&M who seem to have an endless marketing budget to spend on advertising and marketing, what motivates you to keep going?
FC: Nature..? [laughs] I’ve grown a lot in the past year and I’ve learned so much about myself and I have had personal challenges – physical, mental, emotional – and I’ve acknowledged those and I’m working through them. And it’s been inspiring to see others working through their own challenges too. I’m really connected to the earth and I meditate a lot. It’s more holistic for me too. There’s an idea around the body as a vessel and you’re here to serve a purpose I guess, and I know what my purpose is now.
My purpose is to speak out about what’s happening in this industry and give people a better option. And I feel a sense of guardianship towards nature and environment and I need to protect it and feel that it needs a voice. I feel like I need to stand up and say what needs to be said.”
EWP: What’s the one thing about the fashion industry that still shocks you, even with all the experience and knowledge you have, what still shocks you about it?
FC: The human rights atrocities that happen every day and the environmental degradation. It’s really heart-breaking. We should be treating people like that. I don’t expect to be treated like that and I don’t expect us to treat other people like that.
Fiona’s compassion for people and planet and her disarming sense of humour is infused in her colourful, quirky and unique zero waste designs. To view her avant-garde zero waste fashion offerings, visit senoritaawesumo.com.
Want the chance to see and try on her designs in person? Pop in to the GUILD retail store located at 45 Moray Place in Dunedin.
Fiona will also be showcasing her zero waste designs on November 25 at Australia’s first international sustainable fashion week, Eco Fashion Week Australia.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Title image courtesy of Sharon Bennett Photography.