The New Denim Project
Arianne Engelberg shares the story of family-run business, The New Denim Project: a sustainable textile laboratory, design studio and manufacturing workshop within Iris Textiles, a third-generation textile mill, operating since 1956 in Guatemala.
What is The New Denim Project?
The New Denim Project (TNDP) is our freshest venture. In other words, it’s the rainbow child of Iris Textiles. Our production systems work under the design principle of upcycling. The process is restorative by design, beginning with collecting, sorting and separating post-industrial textile waste, mainly discarded cotton fibre and fabric scraps from the cutting tables of Guatemala’s denim mills. We grind and shred this leftover fabric back into fibre, and then use the material once again, to spin and develop regenerated cotton yarns. Those cotton yarns are then used to weave our collection of curated fabrics. Our textiles are made of 100% natural fibres, free from synthetics, chemicals and dyes.
Using this textile-to-textile upcycling system, we’ve managed to create our closed-loop industrial mill, which is among the first of its kind worldwide. Circular economies are crucial in the fight against the fundamental causes of environmental destruction. In 2018 alone, we upcycled 834,474 pounds of discarded fibres and textiles. That equates to 7.57 billion litres of water having been saved, along with 800,000 pounds of toxic chemicals and 7.57 million pounds of carbon dioxide that were prevented from entering the atmosphere. This system has also exponentially reduced our use of natural resources, and both our consumption of and dependance on new virgin raw material. More than a mechanical process, it is a visionary journey to lead us in changing our practices, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.
Tell us about the company’s history and mission. At what point did you decide to build a business that adopted a different, healthier model to other textile producers? And in what ways has the business evolved since then?
Around five years ago, my sister Joanna and I joined my father in rebuilding the business. Together, we decided to refresh the vision and values behind the 60 year old company that our grandfather founded. We knew that if we were to remain competitive and relevant for another 60-plus years, we would need to rethink the business entirely and break with the linear patterns that have been guiding textiles for too long.
We were determined to conceptualise the rebirth of our grandfather’s work. To redesign the way we source and dispose raw materials, adapting and improving the current mechanical processes that bring those materials to life; polishing and elevating sustainable textile production, product design, and development.
Despite Iris Textiles having existed for 62 years, TNDP is a start-up within its legacy, which means our roles are very dynamic. We have a truly remarkable team that believes in the project and, together, we are writing our own script for a clean industry. Overall, I oversee the creative direction behind our collections, as well as the progress of our sustainability efforts. My sister Joanna is our business development guru and head of collaborations. Jaime, my father, is head of production and our textile engineer behind the magic. He is our team’s official life coach as well. His patience and passion are both vital traits when seeking to manifest ideas that initially seem only possible in our minds.
At our core, we intend to work using sustainable design principles that are embedded in the very genetics of our manufacturing processes, our materials, and in the context of all of our movements.
Which clients have you worked with?
Our phenomenal clients and contributors so far in this journey have included Barneys NY (Japan), J.Crew, West Elm, Wool and The Gang, Whole Foods, Madewell, Tomorrowland (Japan) and Halo Creative Design by Timothy Oulton; independent designers such as Mara Hoffman, Industry of All Nations, Kordal Studio, Caroline Z. Hurley, Study NY, House of Land, Luna del Pinal, Meema, and Olga Reiche; as well as coffee geniuses Finca San Jeronimo Miramar and Nossa Familia. And of course, our partners in production and distribution: Takihyo, Algodones Mayas, La Workshop, and so many more brilliant talents who have worked hard pushing innovation forward as well as raising awareness of the potential for positive impact inherent in textiles.
As we envisioned our circular manufacturing process, we also envisioned our supply chain relationships becoming less linear. We have created a more open and fully transparent connection between all contributors, opening new communication channels within the supply circle—farm, mills, studios, brands, clients, shops, students, agents, and so on. It’s a new approach that permits the sharing of ideas, values, and understanding, so we can work as one.
How have your personal (or family) values and life experience shaped your work?
Our grandfather, Joseph Peter—known as Abale—came to Guatemala City from Europe after World War Two; he was a Holocaust survivor. He carried an infinite amount of mourning his entire life but, more than that, he was a dreamer. He passed on to us his appreciation for the simple and ethereal pleasures of life, the results of hard work, the strength of family, and the beauty of being alive in this chaotic world. He was everything: the boldest and warmest. He taught us all we ever need to know, including mastering the art of adapting to change and springing upwards from it. His character remains the fundamental law of our everyday work.
The New Denim Project
“We knew that if we were to remain competitive and relevant for another 60-plus years, we would need to rethink the business entirely and break with the linear patterns that have been guiding textiles for too long.”
“Waste is a design flaw. Therefore, we have chosen to spend our time and effort in re-designing mechanical processes to create premium quality upcycled yarn, fabrics, garments and accessories.” – Talk us through your manufacturing process and environmental focus (i.e. your closed loop system) and any benefits / challenges you have encountered.
In this new era of design, real innovation seeks to replicate nature’s model of efficiency. It’s obvious to me that if we want to seek sustainable solutions to the world’s same old problems, we must study natural organisms. Specifically, their capacity to adapt to life on Earth, and their patient and powerful ability to survive over extensive periods of time using life’s raw energy and tactics. Just as all of life is interrelated—and just as every living thing on Earth contributes to the trajectory of every other living thing—players in the fashion industry must stop working in isolation. A sustainable future requires co-creation from different fields and mindsets. All elements in a shared economy belong together, and must strive for the preservation of the entire ecosystem. Our system is all about the search for this symmetry, and a celebration of balance.
In order to upcycle our own waste, we collaborate with our coffee partners, Finca San Jeronimo Miramar (FSJM), a paradise and eco-diverse farm in Suchitepequez, Guatemala. The farm is a private nature reserve and a well-known research laboratory developing natural methods of growing coffee. FSJM collect the leftover cottonseed from our spinning process and, once composted, use it as natural fertiliser for their coffee and other crops. Together we work under a shared system, generating a circular economy where all discarded materials are eternally metabolised.
Your yarns and fabrics are all made from upcycled cotton and upcycled pre-consumer waste fibres; why have you chosen to do this and why would you encourage others to also explore upcycling?
Textile and apparel manufacturing in Guatemala exceeds all other traditional industries in terms of export value, and has done so since 2012. Guatemala has exported more value in textile products than sugar, coffee and banana. The textile industry is a tremendous driving force in Guatemala’s economy. The problem, as in most places, is the textile industry operates with a linear system, and has not innovated its core structure.
Worldwide, the fashion industry generates US$1.7 trillion, and global production is set to rise by 63% by 2030. About 1.24 billion pairs of jeans are sold annually, with 15% of the fabric used to make that amount of denim wasted during the cut and sew stage. This means we waste enough fabric to make around 150 million more pairs of jeans, which is crazy.
It is a monumental industry, in desperate need of innovation. So the question for us was: why not explore this opportunity? As creatives and industrialists, we must have a 360-degree vision and perspective of what is happening around us. We have created a system that puts out massive amounts of material, therefore we must create a parallel system that can recover and reprocess it, and ultimately replace the prior establishment.
If we want humanity to move forward, we must build ideas that contribute to a collective economy. We must encourage upcycling in our businesses, our homes, and daily life activity. The world cannot continue absorbing our waste. There are near infinite amounts of leftover material floating in our ecosystem. We do not need more stuff—we need new proposals, new systems, new ways of life. In today’s reality, upcycling is the epitome of freshness; it has the power to make us return to our natural state of conscious behaviour.
Do you see scope for fast fashion businesses to drive positive change in the garment industry without changing their core business model?
I truly think it all comes down to the authenticity of their intention to drive change. Albert Camus said it best in eight words: ‘In order to be, never try to seem.’
We cannot selectively numb components of our operations and expect to create tangible positive impact. The desire to drive positive change must be ingrained in our DNA of everything we do: the way we design, how we live, why we work.
Fast fashion businesses must invest in understanding intellectually and emotionally how a collaborative system works. Understand that this connection comes as a result of authenticity, which then results in credibility. To earn this credibility, one must be committed to changing the story that we keep believing and sharing: that happiness and wealth come from having as much economic growth as possible, and that therefore we must produce more, so we ourselves can have more. Unlimited growth will not lead to sustainable development. It doesn’t matter how many green collections we design, they will have no real impact if we do not truly change their narrative. We must slow down. Once we understand this, investment in design and new systems will come naturally.
The New Denim Project
“If we want humanity to move forward, we must build ideas that contribute to a collective economy. We must encourage upcycling in our businesses, our homes, and daily life activity. The world cannot continue absorbing our waste. “
Sustainability is a broad umbrella term that encompasses many things. How do you define ‘sustainable’ and/or ‘ethical’ fashion’?
Sustainability is the most sophisticated manifestation of design. It is the architecture of life and of all thriving species and systems on earth. Sustainability utilises bioinspiration, and strives for a biomimetic future. It contemplates the entirety of design—from the most microscopic component of an item to its final material and aesthetic; its lifecycle, level of utility, and its social, financial and environmental impact. Sustainable design, by its very nature, adds to the earth, rather than taking from it.
‘Sustainable’ and ‘ethical’ fashion is what fashion has always intended to be. Fashion does not refer to pieces of clothing—fashion is the framework of our second skin. It is an artistic process, a transformation of fibres, evidence of the creative mind. Fashion tells us stories, breathing history, telling us what is happening and where we’re going. Fashion makes culture.
Any fashion that is neither sustainable nor ethical should not be labelled ‘fashion’. Perhaps if we called all ‘non-sustainable and non-ethical’ apparel ‘fast, irresponsible, polluting, and poorly designed pieces of clothing’ we would understand the beast we have built. It is obvious that we reached a point where sustainable and ethical fashion have to be labelled as such because all the mainstream, conventional options are not. Language is one of our most powerful tools as human beings, so we must turn these labels around and change the narrative. The story of the good guys as outcasts and that harmful systems and products will always be the norm of manmade design must not be the narrative any longer.
Where do you see the most significant challenges / opportunities? What excites and/or daunts you about the future of the garment/textile industry?
The challenges are endless—materials, waste, consumption, education, design and, again, the age-old narrative that we must sacrifice our ecosystem to live pleasurably. But, just as we have all these challenges, I see a tremendous opportunity to explore and manifest solutions.
We must not forget that throughout history, civilisations who have failed often abused the system that sustained them. Those who have thrived have withstood great challenges, withstood earthshaking change with creative collaboration and resilience. Humanity has sustainable design encoded genetically in our bodies, and that earthshaking change can ultimately be for the better.
New generations excite me. I believe through time we have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for empathy, consciousness, and creativity. These three basic attributes have the power to, in time, change our course, and perhaps guide us to the most innovative and giving phase we have ever seen. I hope I live to see it.
Photography Juan Brenner
Production Sigrid McCarthy
Sub Editor Reb Mery
Pictured Sisters Arianne and Joanna wearing Kordal Studio, alongside Arianne’s father Jaime who wears Industry of all Nations. Their outfits are part of a collaboration between TNDP and these two brands, made from upcycled cotton and upcycled denim fabrics.
Visit The New Denim Project