When Jivamukti Yoga teachers Zoe Foat-Naselaris and Kaja Foat walk into a thrift store, they look at racks of discarded clothes and see endless possibilities: flirty dresses of reconstructed men's shirts, soft skirts out of cable-knit sweaters, shimmering blouses made from colorful scarves. The sisters use the word reincarnate to describe how they recycle unwanted scraps, flawed material, and secondhand clothes into new one-of-a-kind garments. "We work with what has already been created on Earth," says Foat-Naselaris, who, along with her twin sister, designs, sews, and sells recycled fashions through their label, Foat Design. "Holes and stains don't bother us, because we can make a pattern that moves around any flaw."
The Foat sisters are among a growing population of small-label designers, a number of whom are yogis, that are combining fashion, creativity, ingenuity, and eco-passion to give new life to unwanted textiles. This might not seem like such an important task, but consider that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2006 Americans generated some 11.8 million tons of textile waste, or about 10 pounds for every man, woman, and child. Even more alarming, about 60 percent of the clothes recovered for secondhand use by thrift stores (including Goodwill and Salvation Army shops) are then shipped thousands of miles and sold overseas. So discarded clothes—the ones you toss when they either don't fit or feel stylish anymore—not only impact the environment by contributing to solid waste but are part of a system that uses valuable energy to ship them to distant lands where, some say, castoff T-shirts are replacing traditional locally made textiles, having all sorts of cultural and economic ramifications.
For all these reasons, and because being respectful of the earth doesn't necessarily mean wearing sackcloth, yogi designers like Foat and Foat-Naselaris, Deborah Lindquist, Lucid Dawn of Naked Nature, Lisa Salzer of Lulu Frost, and Kat O'Sullivan of Katwise are scanning closets, thrift stores, and scrap-material warehouses for inspiration to create something beautiful and new—without being greedy and wasteful of the planet's resources. "Thousands of garments are thrown out because they are deemed aesthetically redundant or functionally no longer useful. But these clothes have many years of wear left," says London yogi and designer Gary Harvey. His high-fashion line, Recycled Icons, focuses on glamorous eveningwear made from old Levi's denim, military uniforms, and Burberry trench coats. His spring 2008 collection has already received international praise and has been featured in Vogue. "I'm hoping to inspire consumers to think about their waste," he says.
To better understand Harvey's "waste not, want not" credo, it helps to look at a source of his inspiration: the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which suggests that the first step on the yogic path is ethical behavior, including the practices of aparigraha (nongrasping or greedlessness) and ahimsa (nonharming). When you practice aparigraha by not using more of anything than you truly need, you can't help but become aware of the many resources (the earth's and your own) that are normally wasted through unconscious actions. You can see all of the desires you have for things that you may not truly need. When you practice ahimsa by attempting not to harm any other living being (including the environment), it's easy to see the impact that each of your actions has on the whole planet. You start to reconsider your own desires in light of the effect they might have on, say, the green space that will be converted into a new landfill to house trash or on the quality of life of a textile worker living on the other side of the world. With recycled fashion, you can practice both aparigraha and ahimsa and, if you're mindful about it, find satisfaction as well as beauty in your wardrobe.
Ready to Care
"When you really get into the practice of aparigraha, you find that you naturally let go of grasping for stuff," says Jivamukti Yoga cofounder Sharon Gannon. But in our culture, it seems that no one, not even learned yoga teachers, is immune from needing new clothes or wanting to look their best. Gannon, a hip New Yorker herself, understands this and finds that recycling meets her need to enjoy the fun of fashion as well as practice her commitment to yogic ethics. "If you have to have something new, look in your closet and refashion it," she says. "Or support upcoming designers who recycle used clothing. They're creating more than a fashion statement. They are pioneering a movement."
One way these designers make the most of the fabric they have is to hand cut patterns themselves—a sleeve, for example—thereby avoiding having awkwardly shaped sections of wasted machine-cut material that would be deemed too difficult to use and later tossed. Many recycled-fashion designers keep each and every one of their scraps, converting even the smallest pieces of fabric into fringe as well as accessories such as bracelets, belts, bandannas, and headbands.
Virtually nothing is tossed out in the workspace of Deborah Lindquist, a designer of couture and high-end fashions in Los Angeles. The certified hatha yoga teacher repurposes vintage kimonos, Indian saris, and cashmere to create luxurious cardigans, pullovers, corsets, wide belts, dresses, baby clothes, and even dog sweaters. Lindquist obtains her castoff cashmere from wholesale rag houses in the Midwest that collect unsold items from the Salvation Army and Goodwill, compress them, and then sell the resulting raw textiles to the fashion industry for about 11 cents a pound. "People get rid of cashmere sweaters for one reason or another," she says. "They don't fit, there's a stain, they don't like the color. I make use of that."
Some yogi designers are finding more unconventional ways of repurposing and recycling. Lisa Salzer, a jeweler in New York, created her Lulu Frost jewelry label with the mission of reinterpreting salvaged items such as antique door hinges, old game pieces, and hotel room numbers—most famously, the ones rescued from the Plaza Hotel in New York before it was converted into luxury apartments. Salzer's work is available at Bergdorf Goodman department stores, but many designers of recycled clothing and accessories sell their creations at small boutiques and neighborhood craft fairs, on personal websites, and at Etsy (etsy.com), an online craft emporium. "I was always emotionally affected by the profusion of waste," says Salzer, a vinyasa yoga practitioner. "I turned to recycling as an aesthetically appealing way of counteracting the negativity. But I can make a large impact within my industry as a fashion designer."
Designers aren't the only ones devoting themselves to these ideals. Anyone with a pair of scissors and a little creativity can contribute to the refashion movement. Take Melissa Alvarado, Hope Meng, and Melissa Rannels—a trio of yogis living in San Francisco who founded Stitch Lounge, a sewing studio that teaches people how to turn unwanted items from their closets into beautiful new treasures: men's slacks become skirts; sleeping bags are transformed into puffer vests; bridesmaid dresses turn into halter tops.
"Sewing is like yoga," Alvarado observes. "You can take the principles, ideas, and philosophies, and make it into something that fits your lifestyle. We're trying to show everyone how to take readily available items and turn them into something usable."
Perhaps the best part about transforming something from your own closet into a new piece of clothing is that you know where the garment came from. You also learn to stretch your creative muscles to construct an appealing look. In this way, refashions become not only an expression of your beliefs but also a personal creative project. Alvarado takes this notion even further: "When you throw something away, you're taking something that has been somewhere and has a story, and you're killing that," she says. "When you rework a garment, you give it new life."
After eight years of perseverance, Foat Design today thrives with three namesake lines that include a yoga collection of bright stretchy tops, bottoms, and leg warmers; a couture line of blouses, skirts, and accessories; and even a bridal collection. Everything is made of 100 percent recycled fabric, salvaged mostly from mills where companies discard tons of material each year because of holes, stains, or minor imperfections. Even the thread and trim are discards, and the sisters try to work only with used machinery.
"If you buy an organic cotton dress and you get rid of it as soon as the style is unpopular, you're still creating waste. We wanted a business whose main aim was to move forward without harming any people or the environment," explains Foat-Naselaris. "But what we've learned is how to change our own and others' perspective. As they say in Headstand, 'Flip something upside down and make it into something else.'"
Jenny Feldman is a senior style writer at Glamour magazine in New York, where she practices Jivamukti Yoga.