In a world where a fashion trend can be rendered defunct in a matter of days, the fashion industry is responsible for an increasingly significant burden on the planet and its people. For Italian-born Orsola de Castro, what began as a mere experiment in creativity has in 14 years evolved to become a passionate journey to redefine the concept of fashion production. Now based in London alongside business-partner Filippo Ricci, Orsola’s creative sustainable fashion label, From Somewhere, upcycles pre-consumer waste – high-end fashion and textile surplus – into beautiful clothes that aim to establish a balance between consumption and disposal.
The imagination of Orsola de Castro, a spirited little girl growing up in Italy, was occupied with two childhood dreams. Her adventurous spirit and insatiable curiosity fuelled her dreams of living the itinerant life of an archaeologist; her caring, nurturing side compelled her to become a young mother. At the age of 17, she chose to begin her journey as the latter. “I wasn’t ready for the big world of university,” Orsola reflects. “I wanted to have children very young, which was very much against all of my friends’ and family’s principles. It was expected that I would study and make something of myself. But I opted for the other way around and I have to say that it was the best decision that I ever made.”
Around the same time she began her new family, Orsola made the trip from Italy to London, where she has since spent a large part of her life. “I came to London for freedom,” she explains. “I needed to express myself more wildly. I’ve always been horrendously self-sufficient. I wouldn’t say I was running away but rather running towards something.”
The next few years saw the blossoming of her creative side, fuelled by her curiosity and adventurous spirit. She explored the art of printmaking, studying at the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica in Venice and completing several courses in the UK. These creative forays then, somewhat accidentally, led her to fashion.
“Everything I’ve done in terms of my fashion career is entirely haphazard and by accident,” Orsola laughs on reflection. “At the time I was printing on textile and I was upcycling and buying ancient woodblocks and disfiguring them with Sellotape to change their shape. I printed on textiles with them to make scarves and wallhangings, which were sold in a shop in the UK called The Cross.”
In another twist of upcycling, Orsola also made use of the crocheting skills she learned as child to revive an old cashmere jumper that was full of holes. But instead of covering the holes, she crocheted around them. When the owner of The Cross saw the cashmere jumper, she promptly asked Orsola for ten more to sell in the boutique. “They sold out in one afternoon,” Orsola recalls. “Literally within four months we were in Hong Kong, New York, Browns in London and various other shops. It really was an accidental beginning.”
In 1997, Orsola created the first collection for her fashion label, From Somewhere. While the nature of her method – using vintage clothing to create fashion pieces – was eco-friendly in essence, at the time Orsola was simply driven by creativity. “Back then there were a lot of designers – like Russell Sage and Jessica Ogden – who were dealing with vintage,” she says. “So it was quite trendy to have that element of vintage and it was an easy place to start. It wasn’t about eco being fashionable – eco just didn’t exist then. To a certain extent we had no stigma. It was before the great surge of H&M and fast fashion, so the industry was still a little slower and there was really much less understanding of the whole thing. That was wonderful because you were recognised for your label and not for your eco credentials.”
It wasn’t until 1998 that Orsola felt the first stirrings of her environmental conscience, when From Somewhere started selling some of its pieces through the fashion chain, Jigsaw. “They started sending us all the damaged and unsold cardigans and knitwear from their factories in Hong Kong. At that point I realised not only that the industry discards twice, if not three times, the amount of what the consumer discards in terms of damage, but also that they have absolutely no idea what to do with them,” she says.
She soon discovered that most of what was discarded was being thrown away. “That just seemed so ludicrous to me,” Orsola recalls. “I became more aware of the issue of waste, and by 2000 I was utterly committed to using just pre-consumer waste.”
Around that same time, Orsola’s now business partner, Filippo Ricci, joined From Somewhere. In the decade since, the two have carved a place for themselves in the fashion industry by turning luxury designer pre-consumer waste and textile surplus into stunning, unique garments. Since 2002, From Somewhere has produced its collections in collaboration with the Cooperativa Rinascere in Veneto Italy, which combines 100% upcycling with 100% ethical trading and aims to exist as the antithesis of fast fashion and sweatshop conditions. As part of its operations, the Cooperativa also rehabilitates and re-trains disadvantaged people suffering from mental illness and addictions.
One of their most recent headturning collections was a collaboration with Speedo, using the waste resulting from the Olympic ban on the brand’s neoprene LZR swimsuit to create a collection of dresses. “Speedo decided not to landfill the waste or burn it, but instead gave it for upcycling and we were chosen as their fashion partner,” Orsola explains. “I think Speedo was shocked by the results – we were all shocked by its phenomenal success. The company’s PR estimated that, in terms of press, we reached 50 million people, so it was a really exciting, bizarre thing to happen. It’s not a collection that was designed to be a bestseller – it was designed to be a shocker.”
Another of Orsola and Filippo’s triumphs has been the creation of Estethica, the part of London Fashion Week that showcases London’s ethical fashion industry. “We were very successful at London Fashion Week and the only upcycling/recycling/eco label there for a long time,” Orsola explains of the beginnings of Estethica. Seeing From Somewhere rank consistently amongst the highlights of the festival, the British Fashion Council turned to Orsola and Filippo when looking to create a showcase of ethical fashion that highlighted the high-end aesthetic they had achieved with their brand. Recently celebrating its fifth birthday, Estethica has become an important fixture at London Fashion Week.
On what fuels her creative process, Orsola puts it down to the sheer beauty of chaos. “It really is about some kind of internal disorganisation,” she laughs. “I’m just very messy and disorganised as a human being, but I look at everything in terms of colour. I can’t describe the way I technically or creatively put things together – it just happens. I think it’s probably the fact that I don’t have any fashion training. I put together fabrics that don’t want to be together and I find a way to make it work. I need to work with people who are both very creative and technical, but who are all quite discombobulated and mad than to follow the masses!”
In terms of her most cherished achievements, Orsola prefers to view the journey as a whole. “The challenges and the successes are all in the same cup for me,” she reflects. “The fact that we are an anti-brand, and that we do the opposite of what fashion requires and we’re still here 14 years later. And the fact that we’ve broken every single rule in the book – those are all challenges as well as successes. I profoundly admire the industry and the people who have made it. I’m not anti-industry – I just hope that we can find a better way to celebrate what a great discovery it is. I’m always inspired when I see people using their hands beautifully, whether they’re just literally cutting out a neck from a jumper, or if it’s embroidery or painting; it just fills me with joy.”
As for her dreams for the fashion industry, Orsola asserts that, while it’s on the right track, there’s still a long way to go. “In ten years’ time I don’t think I’m going to see the industry where I want to see it,” she muses. “I think it will be longer than that. I believe that fashion needs to come down a step. I think that aspirational fashion needs to aspire throughout the whole supply chain and I’d love to see an artisan global industry with fashion mimicking the way that it was when it started. Our clothes should speak our politics in a sense, and the industry should be more transparent. I want to see the women who make the clothes we buy as content as the women who buy them.”