Vancouver Sustainable Fashion Designers (VSFD) - Painting Waste by Varvara Kronberg Zhemchuzhnikova

Please share about your journey to become fashion designer? Looking back, can you remember any moments growing up that hinted you'd embrace this career. 

I remember the moment when I felt I didn't want to be a fashion designer any longer. After 6 years of formal fashion education in Moscow, Russia, and almost 2 years of Master's programme in Fashion and Clothing design in Helsinki, Finland, I went to New York to present a collection of textile prints at a large textile fair. 

It was my first time in USA and in New York in particular. After living and studying in Helsinki I got an impression that people care about sustainability, that designers aim to design intentionally and produce ethically and that the world is moving towards a better practises. And then I found myself in the middle of NY with all the major fashion brands presented, with overflow of product, with sales up to 70-90%, with screaming advertising and impulsive shopping. 

No one seemed to care how it was produced, how much pre-consumer waste was produced along the way and how fast these garments will become post-consumer waste and end up in a landfill. I felt awful and didn't want to add to this messy industry or anyhow to be related to it.

Why was it important to you to offer a sustainable, responsible, Eco fashion line and how do you incorporate ideals such a Zero Waste into your work?

It took me over two years to recover and find my own way of being a designer and artist working within the fashion industry. I went back to my previous practice-based research in zero waste pattern cutting and took a closer look into the field of emotional attachment in design. I figured out that I can't stop designing, as it is in my nature, therefore I need to find the better practises of doing it. That's when I jumped into sustainable approaches in fashion. 

My thesis project for AALTO University (Helsinki, Finland) - a two year long research and production process - was an exploration journey what I can do differently.  My ready-to-paint project explores the possibilities of sustainable production and co-creation with the consumer. It aims at creating additional value to provide increased emotional attachment between consumers and products by producing high quality, emotionally valuable, and therefore durable clothing. Altogether, the project targets reducing both preconsumer and postconsumer fabric waste in the fashion industry." (More: There I made zero waste garments for children (artists) and mothers with labels that feature all the design and production parties, with prints patterns that are made with their artworks. My aim was to eliminate waste in the production process, educate the consumer, and bring emotional attachment to the final garment, so it stays away from the landfill. 

At the same time, doing research in waste percentage in fashion production I realized the scale of this problem and its invisibility to the majority, not only consumers but designers as well. That's when the idea of Painting waste project occurred.  I kept thinking about these cutoffs/ fabric leftovers/ waste that every non-zero waste designer / company has. I understand that as one individual I cannot solve this problem, but as an artist I can bring attention to it, so we can all together think of the solution and the concept of this waste.

Nowadays, it is widely known (I hope) that modern clothing industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters. And as said previously there are different levels of waste streams such as pre-consumer and post-consumer. In Painting waste project, I mostly work with pre-consumer, industry waste. Upcycling (=making a product of higher value) this textile waste into art is one of the solutions to bring the value back to the discarded textiles. At the same time it is the way to question our practises of wasting resources and labor involved in textile production. 

In the creation of the paintings and art objects for the project the textile waste or scraps collected from fashion brands or independent designers are used. Sometimes I add textile scraps preserved by older family members or those I find at thrift stores or recycling organizations. I paint with the sewing machine bringing what was considered waste back to life. And then I add the layer of paint to connect two media together and question the concept of waste. Is it really a waste what we consider to be a waste? What if we cover a discarded silk in gold is it still a waste? Can the waste be a resource? Is it just our perception that puts labels on things to be waste or something of value for us. These are some of the concepts I wish people can think of when looking at my paintings.

And as someone from the fashion industry I want to point that now is the time we consider the waste we create daily as a resource for our future creations, it's more than enough of it.

Where do your find inspiration for new work?

In my painting waste project, I find inspiration in collaboration. As I work with other designers or fashion brands to get the waste fabric, there is always a starting point that's coming from outside. I get the resource to create with from other people-designers. Every time I get fabric scraps, there is always a story behind it, another designer's inspiration and creative process. I start there and add my input to it. I try to connect us both in the new painting and give it a new third life.

Please share a bit about your brand - client, materials, type of clothing you offer, where it's sold, collections or made to order?

As the project is fairly new, I don't have established practice of how I work with fashion brands or how is it sold. I explore the possibilities at this point. So far, I approached designers and brands myself suggesting to send/give me the waste from the cutting stage. After collecting it, I'd make a painting keeping the rights to it. But I'm open to new unexpected proposals to collaborate to come from the other side as well. How do I sell? Through Instagram and exhibitions. One exhibition is running right now at El Kartel in Vancouver where new works are presented to the public and are available for purchase. I work with commissions as well.

What are the biggest challenges you face as an sustainable designer?

The realization that I'm a tiny part of the huge industry that is very slow to change in every level.

How do you help customers understand the higher cost of sustainable garments when they are so inundated with sweatshop-produced cheap merchandise?

In my case, the question is how do I help my customers understand why something that was considered waste suddenly costs money, and that exactly what I love about this project. It basically looks at the question of how much our waste costs us as well as the next level of questions on the topics such as waste as a resource and how we can transform our perception of waste. 

To be honest, I'm not helping my customers to validate the cost of the paintings. I'm OK if someone says this painting is a waste and I'm not paying for it. Contemporary art in many cases faces similar judgments. Every opinion is valuable. For these paintings, I wish to show them either in the museums bringing the questions to the public further, or on the walls of owners who see the meaning in the paintings from this project and it becomes a statement for them to have this art piece in their home.

How do you incorporate sustainable living in other areas of your life?

I do try to own clothing that has a story behind them and has a personal meaning for me as well, therefore I keep it in my wardrobe longer (forever). 

How did you connect with Vancouver Sustainable Designers, and what are the benefits of being a member?

Over Facebook. I got invited to the group by a friend and joined the group mainly to learn about Vancouver's mindful fashion community. I've attended only couple of events so far but, it's been an amazing resource of knowledge and new connections work and non-work related. I'm sure it will grow into something bigger with time. I feel great to be a member of a group and seeing other like minded designers brings me hope that we can "do good design" together. 

Anything else you would like readers to know? 

I'll be happy to see you at the El Kartel exhibition event running now through July.   ( )

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