The Re-Pete Project anorak is made from 29 recycled bottles. Designed as one size and gender neutral, every cagoule is 100% recyclable – it can be broken down, rewoven and remade, never ending on landfill and actively preventing plastic from landing in our oceans. Jessica Bumpus talks to its innovative founder Katie Walsh.
“I just sat down and wrote a list of everything with the environment in mind,” says fashion designer Katie Walsh of the moment she embarked upon The Re-Pete Project, the circular outerwear label she now runs from her dining room in Whitechapel, East London. It also regularly sees her out and about on the banks of the River Thames, with her family in tow, cleaning up its rubbish-strewn beaches.
“I just kind of knew the whole running of a label,” she explains, having already had two fashion labels in the past, the first of which was also conceived in the same dining room 15 years ago. “From manufacturing to finishings, to packaging to shipping to design, I thought how can I do this properly so it protects the environment and actually benefits it?”
Built on the premise of zero-waste, as well as protection and versatility, the Irish designer has taken single-use plastic and transformed it into a long-life product with a real functioning purpose. Walsh has developed a unisex anorak, part fisherman’s smock, part army poncho and part Cristobal Balenciaga in its refined but oversized design. It’s made to fit and look good on people of all shapes, sizes and heights.
“If people are unsure about what a huge size would be on a person that’s 5-ft-4 I just write a little note going ‘Roll sleeves to fit’,” she says. “It still has that essence like Cristobal Balenciaga. I’ve always loved his work and that play with volume and simple lines and not being afraid of that.”
Walsh studied fashion design at Kingston University before working at Alexander McQueen as a pattern cutter. She launched her label Poltock & Walsh in 2006 and then Bolzoni & Walsh in 2011, both to international acclaim. They were featured in Vogue and Elle, showcased at London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week, and worn by a list of names including Kate Moss, Rihanna, Florence Welch, Emma Watson, Sienna Miller and Alexa Chung.
“Back then, it was all like this kind of glitz and glam,” recalls Walsh. And the pace of everything she already felt was increasing. “By the time I finished after eight years, I just felt even high fashion was becoming fast fashion.”
It was after she had her second child in the early 2010s that Walsh decided to take some time out to raise her family. “I took time away and just didn’t think about it,” she says of fashion. “But when I started to think about it again, I knew I wanted to do something that was sustainable,” she says, sitting cross-legged on her sofa.
She is wearing a pair of vintage Calvin Klein jeans from the 1980’s that are several sizes too big – but look cool because of it – into which she has tucked a Sunspel T-shirt that she has had for at least ten years. “Whatever I buy is well made, or well-made second hand or I make it myself,” she points out. These are essentially the three ingredients that make up her new venture.
Walsh had been to a Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition, Fashioned From Nature, and recalls being shocked by what she learned about the impact of the fashion industry on nature. A couple of years later she attended a talk in which the curator explained that while the exhibition had initially set out to explore how fashion is influenced by nature “you know with silhouettes or plumage,” explains Walsh, that when she got down to the research and saw how disruptive fashion had been, she ended up kind of changing the whole direction of the exhibition. This was eye-opening for Walsh, who had begun her own research looking at materials made from natural rubbers, attending expos such as The Sustainable Angle and listening to talks. It was through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation she discovered circularity.
“It was just that moment when I went ‘Yeah, that makes sense, that can really make a positive impact on the environment!’ To design out of waste by bringing it into perpetual use and then allowing natural ecosystems to regenerate. Fantastic!”
Walsh had already been dabbling with the idea of creating a versatile capsule collection. It was from these “scraps of an idea” she drilled down to come up with one piece, the anorak. She says, “Starting with one piece, that would have been unheard of, back then. I’ve started an outerwear label but I have one anorak.”
“It’s such a simple thing to make something out of single-use plastic and to make it into a long-life product. You have that responsibility as a designer to do it correctly. And if we don’t, who else is going to do it?” She praises Patagonia and Stella McCartney for leading the way but thinks everyone can do their part “just to understand how much power each person has by what they buy.”
She works with a “like-minded” company called SympaTex, a German textile mill that makes high-tech fabric from recycled plastic and has done so since the 1980s. Each anorak is crafted from 29 recycled plastic bottles with the resulting fabric being 100 per cent waterproof as well as breathable.
She persuaded sustainable designer and lecturer Mala Siamptani to hand-make her the anorak’s toggles, which are made from plastic milk cartons donated by London eateries. The Pete cord is also recycled, and the garments are manufactured in Europe by fairly paid workers. There are no swing tags or unnecessary accoutrements. Care instructions are printed on the garment itself in environmentally-friendly ink and there are no excess fastenings. Its easy shape can dictate how it is worn by the wearer and every anorak can be recycled and remade all over again.
She’s keen to share all this with everyone. “I’ve done lots of research into making a sustainable product and I’m happy to share that, which you would just never have before. I think it’s lovely.”
It’s remarkably different compared to her earlier days in the industry: “You needed to uphold a grand facade back then whereas now it’s OK to be real and show your true journey.” In her case, that’s “pattern-cutting on my bedroom floor with my kids jumping over my work”, which she hopes will motivate others to see that it really is OK to start small. “It will grow if you keep at it.”
The community part of the project is something she’s keen to explore even more. “I want it to be a platform for sharing information about the environment and organising local beach clean-ups and talking about the circular economy and you know hopefully even just inspiring other people to think ‘Oh I can do something like that! She’s started on her own with two kids as a single mum, I can do that!”
10 per cent of profits from The Re-Pete Project go to The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit organisation that develops technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. And staying local is also important: using local suppliers and manufacturers in the UK and Europe, as well as currently selling only there. “I know this is cutting out a worldwide market but ultimately the most important thing here is to do the best for the planet instead of monopolising from it.”
In time, as the project grows, she will work towards finding the right factories in each continent to ship to local customers, while keeping CO2 emissions down and supporting local communities. But there’s no rush.
“I’m really not promoting people buy an anorak every year,” points out Walsh. “I’m taking a by-product, which is single-use plastic, which is affecting every corner of the planet and putting it into a long-life circular product, so it’s taken out of landfills or oceans and putting it to good use. I think that’s part of the solution for our overconsumption and overuse of plastic. So that was really important for me.”
Images by Mark Peckmezian