Italian fashion designer Gilberto Calzolari became the name to know when he was awarded the award for Best Emerging Designer at the 2018 Green Fashion Awards in recognition of his design made from recycled coffee bean bags.
For the annual event celebrates environmentally friendly and sustainable fashion from across the globe, Gilberto Calzolari found the sacks used in his design at an Italian market and crafted his design from them. The prize allowed him to present his work at Milan Fashion Week this past February. He was most recently awarded again at Monte Carlo Fashion Week where he took away the prize for Best Emerging Designer.
But this wasn’t the first time sustainability has been part of Calzolari’s work. It is something that has been at the centre of his thoughts, long before beginning his career as a fashion designer. He prides himself on sourcing precious and unusual fabrics and combining them with the highest quality Italian production techniques and tailoring craftsmanship to create a brand that is elegant with a “green” heart. Gilberto has a mission to work against the fast fashion concept that became so popular in the early 2000s.
Instead, he promotes the concept of “slow fashion” that produces quality, long-lasting pieces from materials that are more natural and kinder to the environment.
Calzolari’s fall/winter 2019-2020 collection entitled UNNATURAL was presented as a special event at Milan Fashion Week. It represents the coherent development of a precise artistic path and an even more radical and surprising step forward, where the topics of environmental sustainability and respect for our planet are laid out in an extremely creative and original way. Here we discuss with Calzolari his dedication to sustainability and how he hopes to change the mindset of consumers and the industry with his innovative designs.
How do you think the Green Carpet Awards is helping to raise awareness of sustainability in the fashion industry?
I believe that the initiative of Eco-Age and its founder Livia Firth offers an incredible spotlight to address this crucial issue and honour those brands and celebrities who are revolutionising the fashion industry with their example and their efforts. The fashion sector is currently the third cause of pollution in the world and things need to change.
What did it mean to you to be chosen for the prize last year and how has it impacted your career since?
I can hardly express what it meant to me. Ethics and aesthetics have always been the core values of my brand philosophy, and the award felt like an acknowledgement that I’m on the right path. I believe sustainable fashion is the future and the only way to go but it’s not an easy direction to take as we still face many obstacles.
What can you tell us about the award you were recently given in Monte Carlo? What does it mean to you to be recognised for your contribution to sustainable fashion?
It was a great honour to receive yet another important and international award for my work, and I particularly appreciated the motivation that came with it, as it was given to me for my “green approach”, and for the ethical and aesthetical values at the core of my brand, based on sustainability and innovation.
Why is sustainability important to you as a designer?
I’ve always paid attention to environmental issues. I consider nature one of the biggest sources of inspiration and in my work, the natural element has always had an important role, even concept-wise. So much so that on the occasion of my first collection, inspired by the Arctic, I partnered with Polar Bears International, the most important non-profit association for the safeguard of the polar bear and its habitat. My catwalk show during the “Next Trend” event at the Milano Fashion Week started with images of polar caps collapsing and icebergs melting to the soundtrack of Depeche Mode’s “Wrong” as a statement on the risks of Global Warming.
Needless to say, this commitment is reflected also in the choice of materials, as I love the juxtaposition of unusual fabrics, sometimes even technical and innovative ones, but always keeping in mind the environment. Collection after collection I realised that sustainable fashion is not just a moral imperative but it also offers a great opportunity to be creative and think outside the box.
Your winning dress designs were made from used coffee bags – how did this come about?
The dress has a pure “green” soul even in its conception. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that only when mankind turned away from nature to live in an urban environment, it began to develop an aesthetic perception of the countryside, and a melancholic longing for it. Its beauty soothes our senses, awakens our desires, and reminds us of the true meaning of life. I found all these feelings perfectly represented in a film by Jean Renoir “Une Partie de Campagne”, a bittersweet love story between a young Parisian woman from a bourgeois family and a down-to-earth boater she met during a picnic in the countryside.
From this initial inspiration, I decided that I wanted to pay homage to my own Lombard countryside, so I went in search of the right fabrics. I knew I wanted to use jute but when I saw Brazilian jute bags at the Navigli canals’ market, originally used as coffee bags and then as barriers against the flooding of the canals – a growing concern due to climate change – I knew I could bring the concept further. So I decided to treat the upcycled jute as a real couture fabric, creating a tight-fitting bodice, lined with natural cotton muslin, with “a gocce” draping to form a tulip shape.
Finally, to create a clash from the original material and the high-end tailoring, I embroidered it with Japanese floral motifs in Swarovski crystals, with their exclusive “Advanced Crystal” lead-free recipe that complies with the most rigorous eco-sustainability requirements. I wanted to create a contrast between “poor” and “rich” materials and at the same time prove that creativity and luxury can, and must, go together with the respect for our planet.
What can you tell us about your latest collection UNNATURAL and how is it embracing the use of sustainable materials?
UNNATURAL, my latest FW 2019-2020 collection, represents the coherent development of my artistic path and an even more radical step forward, as the topics of environmental sustainability and respect for our planet are laid out not only in the choice of the materials but also from a thematic and conceptual point of view.
The theme of nature that is altered, filtered and modified by man is in fact at the core of the collection and explodes in precious brocade fabrics with floral motifs shining in green and copper lamé reflections, as if they were contaminated by acid radiation; or in embroideries shaped as beautiful blossoming flowers, in reality made from recycled plastic bottles, a symbol of a nature trapped in plastic; while the light blue top in transparent PVC is a tribute to the provocative works by Damien Hirst, where nature is literally immersed in formaldehyde.
As for the choice of fabrics, it is inextricably linked to the theme of eco-sustainability and respect for our planet, thanks to the support of important textile companies that have embraced the “green” issue who without, this collection would not have been possible. From GOTS certified silk to eco-sustainable denim, from EVO nylon, extracted from the seeds of the castor plant, to SEAQUAL polyester, derived from the plastic recovered from the sea; and it even involves accessories and embroidery: from the padding, made of fibres one hundred per cent recycled from PET bottles to the coloured die-cast maxi zippers, up to the upcycling of food-grade packaging – nets for the wrapping of citrus fruits – decorated with scrap embroidery materials.
Are there any restrictions or struggles you face by trying to ensure your designs are made from recyclable materials?
Thanks to the visibility obtained by the Green Carpet Award, I found the support of different textile companies: they want to showcase their innovative fabrics and this allows me to experiment and use different sustainable materials. This said I face many challenges, since at the moment there are not many companies that can guarantee traceable, certificates ecological materials, and on top of this, these kinds of fabrics, padding and accessories are much more expensive than their non-eco alternatives. The economic aspect is probably one of the most difficult obstacles. Sustainable fashion nowadays is still a luxury.
What are your favourite materials to work with?
I like to experiment with different materials, often unusual. Sustainability means not only purchasing bio and eco fabrics but also re-using already existing ones in order to avoid waste, from recycling unused stock fabrics to upcycling “poor” materials and turn them into couture textiles, by giving them a glamorous touch.
How was your recent experience at Milan Fashion Week?
For the first time, thanks to the support of the National Chamber of Italian Fashion and its President Carlo Capasa, I had the opportunity to present my latest collection, FW 2019-20, in a special event in the official calendar. I wanted the audience to experience a performance more than simply attending a fashion show, and for this reason, I set it in the evocative Mosaic Room of the Teatro Franco Parenti, a Milanese historical site which was restructured using original materials recovered thanks to the scientific collaboration of the National Trust of Italy.
The audience found a place of extreme cleanliness and discipline, cold and conceptual like the hall of a museum of contemporary art; and yet magical and surreal, in its succession of aquamarine doors through which models would come and go, illuminated by the diffused light coming from the overhanging skylight. I think fashion needs to communicate emotions along with delivering important messages.
What is the biggest challenge that you face today as a designer?
The biggest challenge is probably the commercial aspect. A lot of people asked me why I decided to commit to a high-end eco-sustainable brand one hundred per cent made in Italy, since it comes with higher production costs, but I never doubted my choice: fashion goes in cycles and after a few years of infatuation for fast fashion and streetwear, customers are coming back around to tailoring quality and refined, certified fabrics. It’s a moral imperative as much as an aesthetic choice and you can tell the difference when you were the clothes!
Who has been your inspiration or career mentor?
Since I was a child I wanted to become a fashion designer and express my personal style through my own collections. I think I inherited this from watching my father, who was a fabric salesman and then a buyer. He was always very elegant and would take me with him to watch runway shows and I fell in love with it. But before creating my own brand I worked for many years for some of the most important luxury fashion brands made in Italy (such as Marni, Miu Miu, Valentino, Alberta Ferretti and Giorgio Armani) and that was an incredible learning experience. I compare it with being a painter during the Renaissance era and attending a workshop by one of the Old Masters.
How would you define your signature design style?
If I have to describe my style, I’d call it fresh, glamorous, romantic and playful – an elegant and timeless design, expressed in a refined silhouette of clean lines, retro details and unexpected combinations. The latter is an important stylistic element for me, which I believe makes a collection modern. I’m always looking for a certain eccentricity.
How important to you is the concept of “made in Italy”?
This is a topic that’s particularly dear to my heart. Made in Italy means the highest quality in production techniques and tailoring craftsmanship. It’s not just a luxury label, it means adhering to the values of environmental sustainability as well as elegance and excellence, which is something even more important nowadays: it’s the sustainable answer to the world of fast fashion. For this reason, though, it’s important that Italian brands fight together to preserve the true value and meaning of made in Italy.
What would you like to see happen in the fashion industry in terms of sustainability?
I would love to see it becoming more accessible to everyone so that we can see a real impact on the environment. This is why technological research is so important in our industry so that we can discover more alternatives in textiles and manufacturing and production processes that lower the carbon footprint and the impact on our planet.
What is the professional motto that you live by?
I truly believe in the importance of doing things with love and passion, and in following my instinct. I believe in the power of positive energy, and this is why nature has such a big impact on my collections. That’s where we come from, and what really matters in the end.
How would you describe your brand in one word?
It’s hard to use just one word as I like the juxtaposition of contrasting elements. I could probably say eclectic, which is a way to say elegant and playful, contemporary and timeless all at once.
In one sentence what is a message you want to portray to the world?
We all need to be part of a big change. Environmental responsibility is the most important challenge of this day and age. We owe it to our planet and to the next generations that will come after us.