A/D/O by MINI | Keeping Tabs on Mariah Esa

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Fashion

Keeping Tabs on Mariah Esa

The British fashion designer is blazing a new trail in sustainable design, using deadstock clothing labels to produce exquisite, hand-stitched garments.

If you’ve ever taken the scissors to an itchy label inside your clothing, you may have noticed the strangely aesthetic appeal of its underside: the overlapping threads in graphic blocks of color, the slight iridescent sheen. It was exactly these qualities that caught the eye of emerging fashion designer Mariah Esa, one of Britain’s most exciting new proponents of sustainable design, who created her graduate collection entirely from waste garment labels, meticulously hand-stitched together and transformed into elegantly tailored jackets and skirts.

Esa, 22, graduated from De Montfort University in her native Leicester last year and has already made waves in the fashion world, receiving praise from the design team at ethical fashion house Vivienne Westwood. In September 2019, she was selected to show her final collection at the Graduate Fashion Week “Positive Fashion” stand during London Fashion Week, capturing the attention of cult London retailer Browns Fashion, who invited her to take part in their recent Browns Nomad pop-up store in Berlin.

“I didn’t know too much about sustainable design or the consequences of fast fashion until I witnessed it first hand,” Esa told The Journal. “In the summer before my final year of study, I did a placement at a manufacturer. I’d read the statistics about the amount of waste being produced by the fashion industry but, even so, when I saw how much was being generated by just one company – out of all the manufacturers across the globe – I was shocked.”

When Esa returned to her studies, she was determined to use her medium to counteract the negative effects of this burgeoning “throwaway fashion” culture. “I went to a British Fashion Council talk where Orsola de Castro, the creative director of Fashion Revolution, was speaking about her social media campaign #whomademyclothes, which encourages transparency surrounding big brands’ production methods. It got me thinking about a batch of unused labels I’d seen while I was working at the manufacturers, and I suddenly thought of repurposing them into fabric.”

Inspired, and with only three months left to produce her graduate collection, Esa called a label maker to ask what they did with their deadstock. “The owner said that regretfully they paid a company to throw the labels into landfill or burn them,” she said. “So I asked if I could come and look at what they had.” She arrived at the factory expecting to see a “small pile of labels in a corner” but instead was taken to a vast crate brimming with rejects. She filled a box and a half with labels – “I could have taken ten times as many,” she added – and began her mission to transform them into garments.

“My tutors couldn’t believe I was planning to make the entire collection from individual labels in such a short amount of time, but it was sheer determination on my part!” she laughed. Esa had decided to base her designs – comprising largely of kilts and deconstructed jackets, accompanied by label-adorned combat boots – on school uniforms and traditional tailoring methods. “I’d recently taken part in the Golden Shears tailoring competition [where she was named a finalist] and had taught myself tailoring techniques from scratch.” she said. “I loved the hidden interior elements of tailoring and decided to expose them in my designs – something I wanted to incorporate into my final collection too.”

But first she had to perfect her fabric-making method. “I faced a lot of challenges,” she said. “There was a lot of trial and error in terms of how to place the labels and get the fit right. One day the garment would fit perfectly and the next it would have changed shape entirely, just because of how it had been hung!”

But all her experimentation paid off. The resulting four-look collection, made of around 25,000 labels, is an exquisite design feat: Esa cleverly recreated the effect of tartan for her painstakingly realized kilts, while her jackets merge bold colors and panelling with refined cuts to covetable effect. “The labels predetermined the colors to a certain extent, but to my surprise they all worked so well together,” Esa said of the Wes Anderson-esque palette of pale pinks, bright reds and aquatic blues. 

“My aim was to show that you can make a beautiful collection from waste: to make people look twice, to think, ‘That’s a nice fabric’, and then get up close and realize it’s made form labels. I was really happy to get that response from the Browns’ buying director, Ida Petersson,” Esa enthused. “I also loved that at London Fashion Week, people came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got me thinking about how I can repurpose my own stuff!’ I felt like the collection made a statement.”

That’s Esa’s hope for the future too – she’s just rented her very first studio in Leicester and has started work on her next collection. “It’ll include labels but I’m also looking at other materials to repurpose, and this time there will be unisex designs” she revealed. 

“There’s a generation of young people with a ‘wear it once, put a selfie on Instagram, and bin it’ approach to clothes and it’s up to young designers to push back, to make an impact on the world – however small. I want to promote a conscious design practice, while creating designs that consumers will want to wear again and again, season after season.” And we have no doubt that she’ll succeed.

Text by Daisy Woodward.

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