Ellen Hodakova Larsson: Deconstruct, reconstruct, repeat
By definition, upcycling turns existing materials into something new and adds value. But Swedish designer Ellen Hodakova Larsson is going one step further, adding functionality too. Deconstructing vintage and deadstock clothing, she repurposes them into new items, flipping the inherent function in the process. Bras which once held breasts now hold keys and lipbalm as handbags. A beach parasol becomes the core structure of a body-sized rosette.
When we caught up with Ellen, she was on her way to Designers’ Nest at Copenhagen Fashion Week AW20, where she presented her graduate collection. Finalists from the Nordic countries were chosen for their originality and ability to bring pressing social and political issues to the fore through fashion. Unsurprisingly, sustainability was a big topic this year.
Here, Ellen talks about the opportunities available to Swedish designers and why fun is the key ingredient in successful upcycling.
Looking back on your BA degree at The Swedish School of Textiles, what did you learn and how did those lessons impact your creative process and vision?
As we were taught about the foundations of fashion design – the construction of a suit, for example – I was fascinated to see how clothes impact a person’s character. Through their forms, materials and shapes, clothes have a story to tell. I became interested in the possibilities of rethinking and reshaping those legacies. From there, deconstruction naturally followed.
There are so many ways to tweak the function of something that’s already been made. When I first started experimenting with upcycling, I worked with what was around me – curtains, bedsheets, and other stuff lying around my room, like bras. That led me to making a shoulder bag out of bras. For any item, there is a way to repurpose it.
How did the program prepare you for postgraduate life? Do you feel well-equipped for the international fashion industry?
At school I learned to trust my intuition, that making clothes from things that already exist isn’t a crazy idea, and that it’s possible to produce in a sustainable way and still be considered high-end. The programme helped me to clarify that if I were to start my own company, it would need to tackle the fashion industry’s overproduction problem rather than contributing to it.
That said, we didn’t learn much about the business side of running a company, such as filling out quotes and all the other administrative hassles. Luckily enough for me, I‘ve been awarded a scholarship and supported by the Swedish Fashion Council, which has helped me to put my stuff out there.
How have you engaged with the Swedish Fashion Council?
I’ve been selected by the Swedish Fashion Council to take part in the annual talent programme, Swedish Fashion Talents. I think my circular approach helped, as they are increasing their support of sustainable design. Essentially, the council offers consultancy for emerging designers and runs workshops throughout the year. It recently ran a seminar on sustainable fashion creativity, which I took part in as a panellist.
Compared to the British fashion industry, how could Sweden improve or vice versa? In what ways does it differ?
To an outsider, British designers seem more willing to try different approaches in their designs, whereas in Sweden everything looks the same – we’re well known for our minimalism.
Things are changing, though. Last year, Josephine Bergqvist and Livia Schück – the duo behind Rare Review – and also Per Götessen, were all awarded by the Swedish Fashion Council as well, and look how well they are doing! They’re making designs that are both explosive and wearable for everyday life. I look up to this kind of balance.
How did The Swedish School of Textiles approach sustainability?
We didn’t learn much about concrete and meaningful sustainable actions. Among the lessons they taught us on sustainability was ways to improve the circularity of a collection through the use of technical materials. It was great, but it remained focused on producing more products.
Again, things are changing for the better. The teachers have now introduced a remake project for the course, where students make new clothes out of old ones.
Where do you source your materials from, and are your designs entirely made of them or are there new materials involved too?
For my BA collection, I used materials from my personal stuff and then went to second-hand stores to fill the gaps. So my designs are almost entirely made of deadstocks. When I went shopping, I was looking for men’s and women’s wardrobe staples, and trying to see their shapes from another angle. Through cuts and divisions, I took the sleeves of a leather jacket and reshaped them into a corset. I always start with an existing garment and go from there.
Are there any challenges unique to circular and sustainable design that you have faced, and how have you overcome them?
Working with leftovers and vintage items can be a challenge in itself, given that you don’t have the luxury of picking the exact fabrics you want. It gives a different aesthetic, but that’s the whole point of it – to work with what is here and now. It’s not about reproducing the exact same piece over and over again, it’s about making one-offs. I find that singularity far more valuable than mass-produced clothing. It’s a different mindset.
What initiatives and techniques would you suggest to other designers working in upcycling?
Look at the potential of a garment and find the creative possibilities within it. What can you do with it? Get off the computer and have a look around and find inspiration in what you already have. You don’t have to sketch on paper; ideas will come to you as you play around. It’s got to be fun first and foremost.
What is your ambition now? Do you want to work for a brand or start your own? Why?
I’m actually working on a remake project for a big company and would love to do further collaborations like that. Now that sustainability is taken seriously, the big players are starting to catch on. There is still a lot more to be done.
What are you most anxious about and why?
I have my ups and downs, but seeing so many people moved by sustainability keeps me going. The hardest thing is to convince companies of the worth of investing in upcycling in terms of environmental benefits, and that it’s the right thing to do. They just want more money, always.