A Zero-Waste Design Pioneer: Shelly Xu
Shelly Xu Design is about maximizing beauty using minimalism - in other words, creativity under constraint. What life experience(s) developed your passion in this area?
I come from pretty humble beginnings. One of my earliest memories was sitting on a refrigerator dining with my parents in a 70 sq ft home. We could only fit one table or one bed at a time, so we rearranged furniture throughout the day to make living work. That was how I learned about creativity under constraint—finding beauty in a room full of limits. To me, creativity under constraint is democratizing because you don’t need more materials to create amazing things.
Why has zero waste design not yet been adopted by the broader fashion industry? What are the challenges?
I hope we can change that! There are several challenges today.
One is that people tend to see zero waste as a limitation to design. However, creative constraints like zero waste leads to the most innovative designs. To quote Picasso, “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention. It obliges you to make a kind of progress that you can’t even imagine in advance.” Instead of designing whatever that we think is cool, I think using restraints like zero fabric waste will force us to come up with truly new innovations in design. And it will be better for the planet too!
Another challenge is that zero waste designs can be seen as hard to scale. Especially if the design uses one-of-a-kind scraps. But I believe the true value of zero waste design is at the very beginning—you can design to eliminate any fabric scraps to begin with, especially when using current technology that can find the most efficient cuts to a garment—this is something SXD is working on.
Each of your designs starts with dead-stock or remnant fabric. Please share with us more about your design process.
The vast majority of a piece of clothing’s carbon footprint comes from fabric production. That’s why I’m a big proponent of using what’s left over from previous production runs, rather than producing new fabric.
One of the projects I’m most proud of is our SXD X Climate Refugees Jacket design. Bangladesh is one of the largest dumping grounds for denim waste. The facilities in the area make denim pants for the rest of the world, and we found piles of “roll-end” denim strips there. These are narrow pieces of fabric at the end of fabric rolls too small for another production run. We calculated the common size of the strips and designed our zero fabric and water waste jacket around those dimensions. This was such a meaningful project for me because each jacket was literally transforming materials that would’ve been wasted into beautiful pieces that people love wearing. Also, by saving the material cost and by having minimal designs, we were able to transfer the cost savings to pay climate refugees in Bangladesh about four times the local wage to work as our seamstresses. These are people who lost their homes to due to the impacts of climate change, and we got to help them rebuild their lives.
Are certain fabrics easier or more difficult to use for zero waste design? If so, which are more favorable to zero waste design?
In general, SXD focuses on cut and sew fabrics because there’s the biggest opportunity there to remove fabric waste. But more importantly, zero waste designs should use fabric that people want to wear over and over again. Because at the end of the day, no matter how sustainable a piece of clothing is, if it’s not worn and loved, it’s just waste. That’s why I particularly loved working with KATLA’s organic cotton fabric. It’s soft, it feels substantial, and I can see people (including myself) living in designs made out of the material.
What was the impetus for the hoodie collaboration with KATLA?
KATLA takes out inventory waste by working to only manufacture items that will be sold and worn, SXD takes out fabric waste through design. Collaborating allows us to create a truly clean production process, which just makes so much sense.
There are few styles as timeless and beloved as the hoodie. If we can show how great this staple can look and feel while being totally zero waste, we can start shifting the conversation on just how universal zero waste can be.
What message do you hope customers will take with them with the hoodie?
That their favorite go-to hoodie is actually zero waste.
You’ve made the design open source in the back of the hoodie so creators can make their own zero fabric waste version! Tell us how that works.
Yes! Think of it as an invitation to make your next hoodie zero waste, because it takes all of us. The geometric design that you see in the back of the hoodie is the pattern of how we cut our fabric without waste. You’ll see that each piece fit perfectly together. A lot of people look at a zero waste design pattern and think, that can’t work! But in this case, you get to wear the real thing, experience it, while also seeing that it is a zero waste design. In fact, this hoodie design is not only zero waste, it also consumes ~25% less fabric than most hoodies. The accompanying QR code will give even more detail on how the design can be adopted by a creator.
If the fashion industry were to adopt zero waste design principles, what is the potential environmental saving?
Let’s just take the hoodie as an example. Hundreds of millions of hoodies are sold globally each year, and this number has grown since the pandemic. Some back of the envelope calculation shows that if SXD’s process was applied to all hoodies, we could’ve saved enough fabric to go around the Earth three times, avoided emitting three million tons of CO2, while also saving the industry about $600M in material cost in just one year!
For designers who are interested in implementing zero waste design, what resources would you recommend they look to for guidance?
I started learning about zero waste designs by deconstructing the traditional kimono, which is a thousand year old zero waste design that is timeless, versatile and now universally loved.
Zero Waste Fashion Design by Timo Rissanen and Holly McQuillan is how a lot of people start learning about zero waste design.
I think we are still very early in realizing the potential of what zero waste designs can do. So I would recommend designers to not only read what’s out there but also play with the fabric yourself. I would challenge designers to create zero waste designs that are not only zero waste, but also aesthetically better so people would want to wear the piece, much less in fabric consumption because that matters in reducing the fabric problem, and simpler in cuts to help the design be more scalable.
Lastly, I have been deconstructing some of our zero waste designs on our Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/shellyxudesign]/) and YouTube (https://youtu.be/CEttjPY_OMA) channels.
Aside from the Shelly Xu hoodie, what are your favorite Katla items?
The ÁSTA DRESS and the MARÍA SLIP DRESS are instant classics. So versatile. I can wear them to fancy events or just wear them at home. They can be easily layered with anything. They can be worn inside a jacket or over a turtleneck. I just love them. I can see them being passed down to kids and grandkids because they would go with anything in the future too!