1G: Can you tell us about Mending for Good and what the organization does?
Barbara Guarducci: Mending for Good works with brands and designers to transform their leftover materials, their over-production, and their waste into new products and new materials that they then put back in their loop. This work is done through a network of social cooperatives and artisans based in Italy and internationally that are working at a very high level. That quality and the possibility to work with luxury is key, so when we involve people to work with us, we train them. Mending for Good is kind of a summary of all the experiences that I have had during my career.
“And I want to say, for us, upcycling is not just a technique, upcycling is a new vocabulary. It’s a new mentality, a new philosophy, and with that word come so many other things because it means real change.” – Barbara Guarducci
I’m a designer, but my projects have always had a goal that was deeper than making ‘stuff’. It was more about empowerment. The lives of the people involved were always at the forefront of my creative process. After working on these creative and social projects for 20 years, I recognised that the biggest problem we are facing now is overproduction and overconsumption so I decided to add upcycling to the work I was doing on heritage, craft, and social justice. Adding this piece was essential for the development of my professional experience.
And I want to say, for us, upcycling is not just a technique, upcycling is a new vocabulary. It’s a new mentality, a new philosophy, because with that word come so many other meanings that represent real change. It’s a new vocabulary because it means community, it means cherishing, caring, it means reshuffling the system, it’s a lot of things together.
1G: And how did you both get into this work? What are your backgrounds in fashion and how did that evolve into the work that you’re doing now?
BG: I’ve always been involved in design. I had my own accessories brand named Soto in 2000 for a few years, where I created accessories from vintage clothing and worked with textile waste. At the time it was a little bit too early and the system was still very linear and very old-fashioned, so I didn’t feel that there was a wider meaning to what I was doing, apart from using old clothes.
I started to work by chance, just like most things in life, with UN projects in the south of the world, I lived in Ethiopia, and I worked in Central and South America, India, and Bangladesh, working with artisans to up-skill their knowledge on design. That gave me a strong sense of justice and the awareness that I always wanted the knowledge of artisans and craft to be part of what I was doing. Then, in 2012, I came back to Italy because I felt that social fragility was growing here. I wanted to change the mindset of the industry and started creating projects that involved artisans from unusual backgrounds in luxury fashion.
1G: I’m so curious about how you got from your own accessories brand to then working with these UN projects.
BG: Well, I kind of had a nervous breakdown. I was not happy. I had agents, I was doing trade shows, and I was very much loved by the Japanese and the American markets, but that was not the point. I didn’t understand the meaning of what I was doing. So I started by chance, the UN knew my work and someone called me. I started working in Mexico and I loved the human connection I could create through creativity. And so I said, ‘Okay, that’s what I want to do’. It was kind of a chain, I don’t know exactly how it started.
“We cannot create a market where brands and producers keep on overproducing. We need to create a circular model, we need to work within companies and support them to reuse their leftovers internally to give them a new value.” – Alessandra Favalli
Alessandra Favalli: I can say I was one of the bad people trying to become one of the good. My background is in strategic marketing. When the financial crisis came in 2008-2009, I started reading about how marketing could be used differently, and how it could work for good not for bad. I decided to do a master’s because to change systemic problems I needed to have more information. I did one of the first master’s in sustainability in 2011. There, I met a journalist from Vogue. She was talking about a few “sustainable” brands and I was thinking, if fashion has the power to change mindsets, we could push sustainability into fashion and influence the behaviour of people.
I started doing some consulting with an innovative social cooperative here in Italy making collections out of the industry’s textile waste. I noticed that, at the start, it was very easy to recollect these discarded materials. Then, of course, producers and brands discovered that there could be another market for them, selling those leftovers and making a profit.
We cannot create a market where brands and producers keep on overproducing. We need to create a circular model, we need to work within companies and support them to reuse their leftovers internally to give them a new value.
“It’s key to work with a strategic mind, with someone more on the marketing side, because we are creative but we also have a lot of data. We analyze the challenges that companies have. We create very original projects but also give a data-driven output.” – Barbara Guarducci
1G: How important do you think it is to have the balance of Barbara’s design background and your marketing background for the success of your work together?
AF: As I said, the problems are systemic and we need to look at them from different angles.
BG: The design and the creative input are key to what we do because our projects are very strongly design-driven. We work with designers, so we need to understand what they want. At the same time, it’s key to work with a strategic mind, with someone more on the marketing side, because we are creative but we also have a lot of data. We analyse the challenges that companies have. We create very original projects but also give a data-driven output. It’s key to have both skill sets and work together. When we brainstorm for projects, I’m more on the creative side and Alessandra is more on the concrete side. We meet in the middle, it’s perfect.
“Most companies are happy to produce a small capsule collection with waste materials. But changing the whole system using leftover or returned garments? That’s a different story.” – Barbara Guarducci
1G: It’s interesting to hear you talking about data when you’re working with brands. I’m assuming that brands invite you in as consultants, so there’s obviously a desire for change from them with that invitation. But then once you’re in, is that data still required to prove the ways that they need to change? Is there resistance from brands?
AF: When we work with data, it’s easy for the companies to understand why we’re doing the project. However, for the time being, very few companies have asked us to prove the impact.
BG: I think what you’re also asking is ‒ is there the belief from brands in doing something with us, in doing something different? It’s very complicated, it’s not easy.
Most companies are happy to produce a small capsule collection with waste materials. But to change the whole system using leftover or returned garments? That’s a different story. It also depends on which department we work with, of course. For us, it’s always beautiful when the design team gets involved because then we can create new products and new materials.
We don’t mind doing the smaller projects, because we know that we are going inside the company and slowly creating a new mindset from within. We don’t have to prove things. We do the projects, they work well and the aesthetic is very strong, so things are changing naturally.
“On an industry-wide scale, technological research will push forward systemic change.” – Barbara Guarducci
1G: So you do feel like there is an appetite for change amongst the big brands that you’re working with?
BG: There is an appetite for change but, of course, when we work with young designers like Bethany Williams, for example, it’s different because they have sustainability and upcycling in their DNA. This is what they have been doing from the beginning so the conversation is different ‒ it’s easier, it’s smoother.
With the big companies, we meet people and they really want to change but sometimes there is a strong lack of time to tackle this problem. On an industry-wide scale, technological research will push forward systemic change. Now, we are giving solutions that address what is already there.
1G: And are there brands that stand out for you both as doing this work really well ‒ either companies that you work with or that you admire from afar?
BG: We admire Marine Serre very much. Her concept is based on working with post-consumer waste, creating beautiful high-end products from discarded garments and materials, she created a new virtuous business model. We also admire Coach and their Coachtopia project, they work very strongly at every level of their processes with upcycling and recycling in mind, and the circular economy is embedded in their system.
Christopher Raeburn’s core business is based on upcycling and recycling, so inspiring!
AF: Also, Bethany Williams, of course. She is the queen! She is really systemic in the sense that she works only with leftovers and she wants to collaborate with social cooperatives, reinvesting part of her profits in social projects. She has what is called the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ effect. She has definitely been the first of a growing new generation of designers working with upcycling and social values in mind and we are very lucky to have collaborated with her from her very first collection.
BG: There are designers that we don’t work with that we admire. Helen Kirkum, for example, is a real visionary. She’s transforming the upcycling concept from making one-of-a-kind upcycled sneakers into products that are still bespoke but more mass-produced. That’s what we call a systemic solution. We need to think about upcycled production models that allow us to work with waste transformed in quantities. She’s taking upcycling a step forward, making it the new norm.
Through our collaborations at mending for good, we aim to implement the same concepts and create upcycled collections that can be replicated.
I could mention many young designers I love who are experimenting with upcycling, among them I truly admire the conceptual and creative work of Tolu Coker, Ksenia Schneider, Florania, Caroline Hu, and Buzigahill.
“There should come a day when what we call ‘the circular economy’ is mainstream.” – Alessandra Favalli
1G: You’ve both touched on it, the idea that upcycling becomes so normal that it’s not even talked about, or that the beauty of the garments that are produced speaks for itself rather than having to rely on the marketing of a product as being upcycled. Is that the goal?
AF: Yes, there should come a day when what we call ‘the circular economy’ is mainstream. So we won’t care if this comes from something that was pre-consumer or post-consumer waste, we just want to wear it because it’s beautiful. That’s the shift that fashion has had in the last years. Fifteen years ago when you were talking about sustainable fashion, generally, the design was not really ‘wow’. You would wear something because you knew you were doing it for good, but from a design perspective, it wasn’t good. We aim to show that you wear what you wear because you like it, because it’s beautiful, even if you don’t know that something is made from waste or made in a social cooperative. In the end, these practices must become common.
BG: But we need laws. We need laws and regulations because if brands are obliged… that’s when a bigger and more consistent conversation starts to happen.
“Fifteen years ago when you were talking about sustainable fashion, generally, the design was not really ‘wow’. You would wear something because you knew you were doing it for good, but from a design perspective, it wasn’t good.” – Alessandra Favalli
1G: How do you feel when brands work with waste products or social cooperatives and it’s very heavily publicised? Do you think there’s a risk at times of people jumping on the bandwagon and not really being invested in this work other than for publicity?
BG: The projects that I appreciate the most are the long-term projects. Projects where there is a relationship, where you let the people who work for you grow, where the artisans from social enterprises become actual suppliers to brands and not side projects or special collaborations. For example, I have collaborated for 10 years with the Zegna Foundation on a creative project with the hand-weaving department of San Patrignano, a drug rehab community utilizing craft as a tool for change and recovery; this long-term collaboration has shown the success of embracing a project with consistency and help it to thrive and become independent with the right time needed to achieve results.
A real forward-thinking luxury brand I admire, Chloè, is collaborating with WFTO artisans. The next step I would love to see from them is to involve these artisans and producers as part of Chloè’s supply chain for their main collections, hopefully, they have already implemented that! I am looking forward to seeing these approaches become mainstream in the industry.
There’s always a risk, of course. You may find someone who is undertaking a project just for communication, but then you do a project with a brand that fits your priorities and helps your artisans and sometimes, when the project is successful, people change their minds and start thinking differently. There’s always a positive output and new space for possibilities.
“Sometimes they really need to have these short-term projects as a start, to see if they match.” – Alessandra Favalli
AF: That’s one thing that we have seen in companies. They have the supply chain that they are used to. They know how to interact with their suppliers so they cannot change from one day to another to new suppliers if they do not know how they’re working. Sometimes they really need to have these short-term projects as a start, to see if they match. Not all of those one-shot projects are just for communication purposes. Sometimes they’re one-shot projects because the companies want to test something.
“When we are in contact with established brands we always try to get them involved more, to meet the people they work with, to have more of a relationship with our artisans, because this is what is important for us, to create a sense of community and inclusivity.” – Barbara Guarducci
1G: It sounds like potentially shorter-term projects can act as a first step, which is interesting because one of the ideas I’ve been thinking about is your emphasis on long-term commitment to these values being in such stark contrast to the extremely high production rates in the fashion industry. How do you work with your long-term approach in a system that is so focused on the new?
BG: When we start a project we don’t allow any special treatment for the artisans and the social cooperatives we work with. Fashion brands collaborate with them as they would with any other supplier. Our artisans know very well the rhythm of fashion and they provide quality service. Of course, we are talking about manual work and we have to allow the time for the making. Those who know, the people who speak our language, know perfectly well the value of the handmade and behave respectfully.
The way we work with young designers is different, there’s more empathy, there’s more community, there’s more conversation, and the human aspect is stronger.
When we are in contact with established brands we always try to get them involved more, to meet the people they work with, to have more of a relationship with our artisans, because this is what is important for us, to create a sense of community and inclusivity.
1G: Do you take different approaches to working with artisans and social cooperatives at home in Italy versus how you approach working with cooperatives abroad? Sometimes I think there can be a risk when working in different cultures of not wanting to impose a system of working or a system of values on other communities, but as you said, if you are working with European brands you do have to work within their structures ‒ how do you manage this?
BG: I agree, that respect for the cultural knowledge and the heritage of artisans is a key aspect. I haven’t worked on projects in the south of the world since 2012 because that’s when I started working on the Italian supply chain focusing on upcycling, high craftsmanship and social values.
When I was doing collaborations abroad, I always tried to find locally skilled technicians to teach the groups I worked with. I always tried to make connections within the same country with people who have the knowledge, and who could teach other people who didn’t have those skills. I was co-ordinating and giving creative input because I knew the market that they had to refer to, but I always tried to keep things local or national as much as possible.
In Italy, one of the latest training projects we created was a professional training program for refugees to learn manual machine knitting because, in Tuscany and Italy in general, we are experiencing a lack of this much-needed skill. These young people, young men, were looking for jobs so we created a training program in partnership with a social cooperative we work with and that was very successful. We have huge challenges here in Italy in handing down craft knowledge and creating new upcycling skills, so we are now focusing on this.
“Craft heritage is disappearing, so we need to teach it to younger generations, younger artisans that want to continue.” – Barbara Guarducci
1G: Are there any challenges or surprises that stand out for you both in your work with Mending for Good?
BG: We feel that craft heritage is disappearing, so we need to teach it to younger generations, and younger artisans who want to continue. Here in Italy, we have this huge challenge that might not be the same in other countries in the south of the world. We have a strong knowledge of high craftsmanship that is unique, but it is facing challenges; at the same time, we want to create job opportunities for people experiencing social fragility. We strongly believe that manual work can help and that through craft people can find a new dignity.
AF: The other thing which is in some ways surprising, is that while working we have been asked to do training on upcycling and to do workshops on mending and repairing internally in companies, even if that was not our first scope. What comes out here, which has been a positive surprise, is that there are so many people, and not just in the textiles industry, that are so open to workshops on repair and reuse of garments. Generally, people have completely abandoned discovering how textiles are made or understanding different materials, so to see people that are coming back in some way into these handiworks is nice. We see people who are so enthusiastic about learning how to fix and embellish their beloved garments.
1G: What does a truly ethical fashion and textiles industry look like for you? If we’re imagining a dreamland, what would that be?
AF: Well, we have written a manifesto on this!
BG: Yes, we wrote a manifesto because we discuss a lot about the concept of honest fashion. To us, the word honest summarizes what we believe in. Honest fashion is about dignity, representation, transparency, and respect. To us, a perfect industry is one where over-production is ended, where profit is not the only goal, but reinvesting in communities is key, where over-consumption is not promoted, and where people along the supply chain are represented and visible.
AF: We tend to represent ourselves as makers as well. In the fashion industry, there are so many people talking about what we need to do ‒ but apart from talking, we also need to show and help consumers understand what the best choice is.
To change things you need to use your hands and enter into those systems that right now are completely linear. We need to work with both our heads and our hands. That’s why we call ourselves makers.
BG: Mending for Good at the end of the day means mending a system forever, that’s our goal. We would love that. We are very positive because we meet a lot of people that are thinking alike. We love working with young designers, and we love seeing that they have such a different mentality, it’s something that makes you feel like ‘Okay, there is a way out’!
1G: Are there ways that you think that students and young designers can incorporate the ideas that we’ve talked about into their projects, even if that’s not necessarily coming from their university?
AF: Students need to understand how the system works because you can’t change things otherwise. Students already have disruptive ideas but at the same time, that’s not enough. This system is not just about a mindset but about how, from an economic point of view, companies are organized.
1G: So you need to know what the rules are to be able to break them?
AF: Yeah, absolutely.