A Sustainable Epiphany

By Debora Pokallus, originally published on Eco Fashion World


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In the past decade, more and more designers are discovering that they can create a fashion collection with respect for the environment and workers, without sacrificing quality and design. The greatest encouragement for the movement is seeing designers who have tremendous mainstream opportunities, and choose to change their direction to sustainable fashion. So, what does a designer do after completing a demanding fashion design program in Bogotá, heading off to Milan, Italy to learn haute couture patternmaking and sewing techniques, and landing a prestigious internship at the atelier of Christian Lacroix?

Juan Pablo Martinez, after an impressive education, returned to his homeland and began a fashion business in Bogotá. “When I worked with Christian Lacroix I learned from him that he didn’t deviate from his own history, he recognized it, explored it, and felt proud of his heritage, so I decided to work with my own resources, rediscovering fabrics, techniques, and finishes from the Colombian Andes. I travel to small towns to look for new resources and there are also some local trade shows for artisans where you can find real treasures.” He realized that to become a successful fashion designer he must look inside himself, his country, his roots to find what made him different from all the other fashion design students at the Atelier Chardon-Savard in Paris. They came from Israel, Japan, China, Turkey, Senegal, USA, Switzerland, Austria, India, and although they shared the adventure of artistic expression, Juan Pablo could see that the best students would reflect their own culture in their design.

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Photo by Carolyn Clement

He began working with materials from the Colombian Andes to create a womenswear collection, and he opened a shop focusing on custom tailored men’s suits. He grew up in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, a city in the mountains, 2,600 m above sea level. Peasants in this region dress in layers to protect themselves from the cold weather, and the top layer is a garment fashioned from “ruana,” a heavy squared wool cloth from the region of Boyacá. The fabric is made by hand by local artisans from virgin organic wool and has a very soft texture. He started making coats and jackets with ruana, and these collections were well-received by an international clientele. He went in search of other materials indigenous to his country and incorporating them into western silhouettes to appeal to his growing international clientele. As time went on, however, he began to feel that he was at a standstill, fashion was losing meaning and interest. When his first son was born, he realized that he wanted to leave a better world for his son to live in and that fashion, in its current state, would not achieve this. A viewing of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, made him more sensitive to the effect fashion has on the planet and increased his dissatisfaction with the mainstream fashion industry. A year later he was invited to show his collection at Eco Chic Geneva and he discovered the new, refreshing and vital world that was Eco Fashion. All of his concerns converged giving him a new passion in his metier.

Juan Pablo reinvented his brand, taking all he learned from his training, internship and sixteen years of designing and adding his newfound sustainability. There are not too many fabrics in Colombia that can be considered sustainable, most of them are artisan made and only one that is made from recycled fibers. Over the years he researched sustainable and fairly made fabrics, learning how to source materials that would meet his ethical requirements as well as meet the demands of the industry. As he worked with the many artisans, he learned it is best to work with those already organized in cooperatives, such as in Cucunubá, a small town north of Bogotá, who are backed by the Fundación Compartir. The weaving industry in this region goes back to the pre-hispanic era when native Indians worked on waist looms to make cotton fabrics for clothes, and, depending on their quality, ornament and construction, reflected their social position. He uses beautifully woven herringbone alpaca fabric from Cucunubá, and a recycled cotton and PET fabric made in Medellín by Ecohilandes, the first sustainable fabric produced in Colombia. This particular fabric is not dyed, the color is given by the recycled fibers’ original color. He worked with artisans from all over Colombia, and he felt like a kid with a new toy, just playing around and discovering what was possible to create.

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He showed his first collection Colombiamoda, and then at Identidad Colombia, a project created by Artesanías de Colombia, the government entity promoting Colombian crafts. His first show during Colombiamoda was so successful, that Mario Boselli, President of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, invited Juan Pablo and the other designers to participate in the next Settimana della Moda at Milano Moda Donna. His Milan debut was a tremendous success and in the words of Cav. Mario Boselli it was “the best collection, mixing fantasy and market acceptance.” His successes fueled his zeal for sustainability and have driven his work in other pursuits.

He has worked closely with Corporación Biocomercio Sostenible, a NGO that works in projects related to the sustainable use of natural resources, particularly the use of natural dyes in Colombia, opening a new and ecological industry in the country. A project supported by UNCTAD and Cluster de la Moda de Bogotá took him to Argentina to visit INTI and understand first-hand the process of directly extracting pigment and freeze-drying it, allowing the dye to be available all year round, in a simple, economic and sustainable way. A trip to Perú explored the Peruvians’ work with natural fibers such us Alpaca, organic cotton, Vicuña and different natural dyes: cochineal, red corn, achiote, red onion and turmeric, and also the different kinds of organic cotton grown in the country. For three years he has been invited to participate in a panel discussion on sustainability in fashion and the apparel industry at Ibagué Maquila & Moda, a local trade show in the city of Ibagué.

Throughout his creative journeys, Juan Pablo has remained connected to his roots. The basis of his collections became the ruana, and he incorporates layered looks and local materials to complete the line. He worked with Alicia Perilla, the best artisan textile designer in Colombia, to develop new textiles: fabrics hand woven in Cucunubá with organic cotton from the Santander state, organic wool from the Boyacá state and silk from the Cauca state, in all kinds of different blends.

Juan Pablo has set his sights on the United States and Canada, and his first collection for this market combines all the elements of his many years in design – exquisite tailoring and finishing from his work creating custom men’s suits, style elements from the indigenous clothing of Colombia, new fabrics from 50% recycled PET and 50% recycled cotton, and high end designer silhouettes that suit the North American market. The collection is deceptively simple – shirt dresses, jackets, shorts, but the quality and finish is meticulous (the pieces can be worn inside out!) and yet, the price points of the collection are exceedingly affordable.

Juan Pablo Martinez is a talented designer, who, despite (or because of), his sustainable epiphany, successfully and beautifully combines the art and beauty of fashion with a consciousness and sensitivity to the environment and demonstrates that responsible and sustainable fashion can have form, function, beauty, quality and affordability. We look forward to his next collection and how he continues to evolve and grow his collection, and push the eco fashion envelope while raising the bar on quality and design.

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Debora Pokallus is the CEO of Bel Esprit LLC, operating two online showrooms for independent and emerging designers. The Bel Esprit Showroom spotlights international designers of ethical fashion, and the Bel Esprit mission brings social and environmental awareness to design companies. With nearly 30 years of industry experience as a designer, sales and marketing professional and ethical fashion insider, she now devotes her work to discovering and promoting the best ethical fashion collections around the world. She appreciates the art of fashion, while seeking to transform the business of fashion into an industry that respects the Earth and its inhabitants.

Eco Fashion World

Eco Fashion World's mission is to promote eco fashion companies through informing consumers of their options and linking them to where they can find the products. Also, it provides an extensive resource to mentors in the eco fashion industry. Let's build this eco fashion community - together!

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