Reet Aus: the Estonian designer who’s managed to establish her name as a synonum of upcycled fashion. She was actually the first designer PR Fashion Room had an exclusive photo session with, exhibiting her Song Festival shirts. As this is to date the most read post on our blog and we already looked into her work in our “Meet the Designer” section, then today we visited Reet in her studio at Pikk tn 41 for a chat. Many of our readers have asked what upcycling really is, so we picked her brain and found out what she does in Bangladesh, what is her mission in business and what she’s planning next.
Enjoy the interview!
What is the difference between upcycling and recycling?
Upcycling (est. väärtustav taaskasutus) is a new and specific term that is hard to translate on its own. In general, there are three terms when talking about waste hierarchy. Reusing covers situations when you take for example a glass bottle and use it again for the same purpose – or it’s case of all common second hand stores when the object is used repeatedly for the function it was created for in the first place.
The other two terms – upcycling and downcycling – go under the umbrella word recycling. Upcycling means that you take a material and do not transform it but through design give it a new quality or value – which is what I do.
Downcycling (est. väärtust kahandav taaskasutus) covers the transformation of potentially useful material to another product through use of energy or resources, like plastic bottles that are downcycled to another form of plastic of lesser quality.
This is quite a new area which is why these terms are often used in wrong situations. Also, calling downcycling upcycling gives the product more value as in the waste hierarchy, downcycling consumes more energy. The most sustainable approach is of course to reuse products in their original function. This is followed by upcycling that of recycling options is the most ethical method – for example, making new clothes from your old ones which is what we do a lot as well and is a fast-growing trend in society. At least it is in Tallinn and Estonia, not to mention more environmentally conscious societies that focus on local reuse of products.
Actually, when we wanted to add a certification of upcycling to our clothes, we discovered that there were none, so we made one ourselves – it’s called Upmade and marked on clothes with a an arrow heading upwards. Now it is given out by an NGO who invites an independent auditor to judge whether it can be given to a company or production line.
We are also working in Bangladesh where we cooperate with an certified factory whose waste materials we use to make our collection. Basically we take the material that is left over from mass production – and the amount of that material is extraordinarily large. To give you an idea, this company we work with produces 240 million items a year and 18% of material is left over in due process. The waste is actually new material but has no application as it comes in uneven measures of 10 to 30 cm. So we set up a small certified upcycling line in the same factory – we know all the workers and visit them twice a year. This is where Reet Aus Collection with Upmade certificate is produced.
At the moment, we are also doing a project together with the Estonian company Sangar and their Upmade certified production line in Tartu – we have a small Upmade collection coming out in the fall next to their regular shirt collection.
We often HEAR that Estonian design is expensive. How would you say the price of upcycled design is negotiated?
Well, there is a big difference in where you manufacture the products. When we talk about upcycling, our prices are quite average because it is produced Bangladesh where living standards are lower than in Estonia. But if you compare items made in the same factory for us and H&M, our products are about 10 times more expensive.
This has two reasons: we want to pay a little more to the employees and our products are more complex. They are cut by hand and take more time which is why the net value is higher than of mass production. I am aware of the price model of mass producers – for example H&M makes 6-7 times more profit than a small producer from a simple shirt priced 19.95€. They make their profits by the amount of products they manufacture and sell. If they were a small company, this pricing would lead to financial loss.
When we talk about the EU, our pricing is average – all of our employees want to get a normal pay and we have certain standards set by minimum wages. In Bangladesh, we pay the employees twice the amount of their minimum wage which also shows that the scenery in Asia is not all the same, everyone tries to do their best.
Altogether, it’s simple: big corporations manufacture in cheap places, pay the least they can to employees and hide their profit in the huge amounts of production. Their business model is set up on low quality items that reproduce mass consumption. Independent brands and slow fashion like us focus on manufacturing clothes for more than one season; if you lose a button on the shirt, you can come to the studio and we replace it. The whole idea is the one of mutual sustainable relationship with the client – both parties take responsibility.
We manufacture a thousand times less, focus on quality, ethical production and consumption, and the price is therefore higher. You basically just have to ask yourself, who do I want to give my money to? An unethical producer with whom I have no idea where the product is coming from and who pockets the profit (in a capitalist society, that’s usually the one owner) or an ethical producer with whom I know where the materials come from, how it is produced and what their business mission and concept is? What you consume is thus a very personal decision.
Lately you have widened your business to for example Germany. Where are you heading?
You never know how it all goes but yes, Germany is now our second largest market after Estonia. It has been a natural development as their consumers are quite environmentally conscious and their economical climate is a lot more stable than in other European countries. Stores are permanent and don’t change often; consumers prefer ethical items and clear concepts. We are soon heading to Hamburg for a pop-up for three weeks to get a better idea of their market, meet new stores and make ourselves more visible.
If a person is in a designer’s studio for the first time, it might happen that they leave with something they will never wear. When a person comes to your store, what do you recommend them to buy FIRST?
Our most selling products are of course T-shirts and jeans, as generally happens. Why our T-shirts sell really well is probably thanks to a fortunate cut – for women it’s not just for leisure time but all other situations as well. Our design has a recognizable handwriting, so it can be a statement for the person who wears it. Jeans are of course something that people wear a lot, so it is usually the first choice in changing from regular products to ethical products.
Thirdly, women love our dresses, especially the ladies who work in the office but are looking for something more playful to wear. The same thing – I think we have perfected their cuts as we try to design a dress that can be worn for home, office and festive events, so they’re quite universal. Seems that people who prefer ethical and cheerful casual products, have found out about us.
One thing we as your clients have noticed as well is how well the products sit. How did you perfect the cuts?
It’s very hard to design even a shirt that fits all body types. It’s a long process of perfecting the cuts to make the design fit most of women. In the process, I try them on to different people and we very much encourage customers to give feedback. There have been occasions where we just take some clothes off the collection because it fits one person but not the next four. Our aim is to make a dress for example in size 38 that fits every woman in size 38 – complicated to accomplish but in most part, we have succeeded.
PR Fashion Room’s experience of wearing Reet AUS Design
We became solid fans of Reet Aus’ creation about two years ago. Since then, we have had several great opportunities of using her clothes in our photo sessions and PR Fashion Room’s creative director Pille wears her design on regular basis, especially the favorite blue checkered shirt that has been through several events, photo shoots and important business meetings.
What we value most is that her clothes are ideal for wearing every day of your life – the key word here is definitely comfort. Reet has managed to work out cuts that fit people with all different body types which is why – if you want to get started yourself or give a friend a present like her T-shirt with the Upmade arrow -, her design is always a safe but playful bet.
Thank you, Reet, for enlightening us on upcycling!
See more posts in PR Fashion Room over the years:
PHOTO COURTESY: Reet Aus and Kerli Sosi
TEXT IN ENGLISH: Carina Paju