Recycle, Renew: EILEEN FISHER Sponsored Project Focuses on Sustainability

 In fall 2018, global fashion brand EILEEN FISHER partnered with the College for Creative Studies to sponsor a student design studio. Known for years as a leader in sustainable fashion design and production, EILEEN FISHER challenged BFA Fashion Accessories Design Students and MFA Color and Materials Design students to design and fabricate creations using innovative recycled material developed at the brand’s factory in Irvington, New York.

“Partnering with the CCS students was a personal highlight for me,” said EILEEN FISHER Chief Operating Officer Jonci Cukier. “There was such passion, artistic expression and individuality coming from each student. I grew up in the Detroit area so this was particularly special to me. I loved helping to spread the importance of sustainability.

The project was launched with a field trip to New York City, which included tours of EILEEN FISHER’s Madison Avenue showroom, the Irvington factory and the Renew store, one of several where consumers can purchase rehabilitated, lightly used styles for less.

“EILEEN FISHER is the absolute leader in sustainable design thinking and sustainable ways of delivering a product,” said Chair of Fashion Accessories Design Aki Choklat. “It was a great opportunity for CCS students to work with a company like that.”

The importance of standardizing sustainable or “circular” practices in the fashion industry — which consider the entire lifecycle of a product, from conception and design through production and its safe disposal after use — cannot be overstated. According to the World Economic Forum, the global fashion industry accounts for 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. And the conservation organization Worldwide Life estimates that a single cotton t-shirt uses 400-600 gallons of water and may travel as far as 3,500 kilometers before it even reaches the consumer.

Sustainable fashion practices address the negative environmental, social and economic impacts of the fashion industry, especially “fast fashion” — clothes that are mass produced cheaply in order to maximize manufacturer profit.

From its Renew buyback program and fair trade suppliers to eliminating non-organic linen and cotton by 2020 and shifting its global dye houses toward responsible chemical, water and energy usage systems, EILEEN FISHER is pointing the way forward by making clothes and accessories that are beautiful, timeless and environmentally conscious.  

“Working with EILEEN FISHER was just a delight,” said Sally Erickson Wilson, chair of the MFA program in Color and Materials Design. “We often work in collaboration at CCS on interdisciplinary projects; this one involved two departments, Fashion Accessories Design and Color and Materials Design. They were fairly small teams, 12 students in all, and the trip to New York City was fun.”

More important, Erickson Wilson pointed out, students were not only able to witness firsthand the process by which EILEEN FISHER recycles used garments but also how the brand creates an entirely new material —  felt — from clothes that are too worn or too damaged to repair.

After a process of cleaning and sorting the garments that are returned to them — by color, by fiber content and by construction — the company determines one of two destinations. From clothes returned in good condition, the cut-and-sew operation repairs and creates new garments. Other, less viable garments are run through a custom felting process, after which the felt is repurposed into pillows, wall hangings and artwork.

The company gave felt to the students so that, back in Detroit, they could come up with their own sustainable creations. “It was working with the felt material that gave us, back at CCS, the opportunity to create a range of product scenarios,” said Erickson Wilson.

What to do with all that felt? Students were limited only by their imaginations. Fashion Accessories Design students primarily used the felt to create handbags, belts or footwear — an entire collection, in some cases — while Color and Materials Design students also experimented with the fabric in other ways: by manipulating or re-cutting it, by designing new combinations and relationships, and by developing a merchandising hypothesis in line with the EILEEN FISHER brand mission and commitment to sustainability.

Recent BFA graduate Kayla Donaldson (’19, Fashion Accessories Design) designed a 10-piece handbag collection and recalled being inspired by the felt’s possibilities. “I tried not to force the material to be what I wanted to be. I wanted the material to speak to what it would be best suited as,” she explained.

“I’m glad that I took the class and the trip,” Donaldson continued. “It has changed the way I design and has encouraged me to work with materials that I have a connection with, like old clothes from myself and my family and thrift shops; to create work that makes me excited and anxious to do more; to enjoy the process and take time to experiment and discover; and to embrace the humanness of myself and my work and to celebrate that instead of wishing that my work looked like it was made by a machine.”

Chance Lauver, an MFA student in Color and Materials Design and a freelance apparel graphic designer, created the “Perfectly Imperfect” collection, which sought to “embrace the chaos of [EILEEN FISHER’s] felted material and mix it with contrasting fabrics and colors. The project focused on the juxtaposition of the material through simplistic lines that allowed the disparity to tell the story.”

Lauver also noted that working with the EILEEN FISHER brand helped him “to further develop my knowledge of the importance of upcycling in the fashion industry and the steps that need to be taken by the industry to move towards a more sustainable future.”

Reflecting on the experience, Choklat and Erickson Wilson agreed that the behind-the-scenes experience at EILEEN FISHER in New York, working with the brand’s metro Detroit team, and the felt design project were, collectively, an exceptional learning experience for students. “It was an opportunity for us to understand what EILEEN FISHER stands for as a company,” said Choklat, “and to see their point of view in the fashion world.”