Industry Interview: Irina McKenzie
We are excited to feature Irina McKenzie for our first Industry Interview!
Irina is a serious boss lady that’s righting the harmful fashion industry. She runs FABCYCLE (a fabric waste recycling company), Frameworq Education Society (a non-profit), and the Vancouver Sustainable Fashion Designers (a community for local sustainable fashion designers). On top of all that, she also does sustainability work for Vancouver Fashion Week and is the Vancouver Regional Manager for Fashion Revolution. We chatted in-depth about her journey and discussed how everyone can take tangible steps towards slow fashion.
You are so involved and add so much value to the fashion industry. Can you walk us through your background and how you got started?
For sure! I studied law abroad but when I was doing my articling, I realized that I did not want to become a lawyer. I still got my license to practice law, but decided to seek new adventures and come to Canada. Luckily, I found a job in the specialty retail* field, and it was a career change that I truly needed at the time
After a few years, I was ready to take another leap of faith and wanted to become self-employed. However, transitioning from an employee mindset to being self employed is hard, so I went through Groundswell, a social entrepreneurship program. I highly recommend the program because it encourages and provides the tools for early stage entrepreneurs to build a healthy and stable business that reflects who they are and what they are passionate about.
After completing the Groundswell program, I started my first business called Frameworq. I was planning on creating a design lab. I envisioned a retail space where one side was a lab for designers to experiment with upcycling*, and the other side would sell high-end upcycled garments. However, it was difficult to find the right designers to partner with because I wanted to sell high-quality, sustainable clothes that were wearable for the everyday consumer. At the time (and even today), there aren’t many designers that can produce high-end upcycled garments. Perhaps it was just bad timing, but ultimately I decided to pivot from this initial plan.
While I was working on Frameworq, I needed to find designers to join the design lab and recruit a designer partner. Therefore, I did an open call for designers, gathered as many as I could, and started a challenge to see what magic could come out of it. This gave birth to the Upcycling Project. I challenged designers to upcycle used clothing and create a system (and not a one of a kind piece) to create clothing from textile waste (used clothing) through mass production. I got 23 designers on board and we experimented with materials for two months. At the end, we had a wonderful exhibition and a big fashion show. However, even with all these efforts, I wasn’t able to find the right designer to scale the project.
From these experiences, I have learned a lot and gone on to start Frameworq Education Society, FABCYCLE, and the Vancouver Sustainable Fashion Designers.
*Specialty retail consists of businesses that focus on specific product categories. An example of that would be kiosks at the mall that sell certain items.
*Upcycling, also known as creative reuse, is the process of transforming unwanted fabrics into new materials, or products of better quality, or for better environmental value.
How was Frameworq Education Society started?
Back in 2015 when I got deeper and deeper into upcycling, I connected with another project from Groundswell and we started doing Fix-it events. My first Fix-it was at Groundswell on Earth Day in 2015 and since that first event, I was hooked.
These fix-its are community repair events. We host them every month at the Mount Pleasant Library. We bring 3-4 sewing machines and lots of sewing supplies. The participants bring something to repair, and we help each other fix clothes and other textiles. We really built a community around the fix-its, as we have many people that return every month, since there’s always something to repair. We’re now registered as a non-profit and it’s only growing from here!
Our upcoming events include:
November 18 - Pockets Workshop (add pockets to your clothes)
That’s amazing! How about FABCYCLE, how did that begin?
Simultaneously when I was working on Frameworq, I became quite interested in textile waste. I discovered a New York company that recycles textile waste to divert it from going to landfills. I thought it was a great concept and wanted to bring it to Vancouver. That gave birth to FABCYCLE. We take scraps, offcuts, end of rolls and any other textile waste no matter how small it is from designers and companies to ensure it does not end up in our landfills.
The process is quite straightforward- companies and designers reach out to us, and we organize a pick-up. We weigh the fabrics on site and charge the brand. For brands that frequently have scraps, we can provide a bin to keep on-site. After we get the scraps, it’s sorted into two primary categories: reuse and recycle. We aim to find reuse partners for bigger pieces to turn into other garments. For any scraps that absolutely cannot be reused, we find a way to recycle it.
An important piece for me is also the community. For more interesting scraps (think gorgeous lace, velvet, sparkles, sequins, etc.), FABCYCLE gives it to artists for free. I like to think of it as matchmaking - we pair a designer with their dream fabric at no cost. So if you know any artists that can work with scraps, send them my way!
I love that! So how does the Vancouver Sustainable Fashion Designers community play into this?
Vancouver Sustainable Fashion Designers is a community I started after attending an EcoFashion Week Collaborative Conversation event in 2016. At the event, we all identified the need for sustainable fashion to be discussed 365 days a year, not just during the conference. Therefore, I started a Facebook group and took the conversation online. To date, we have 450+ members and get together every 2 months.
Wow! And how does your work with Vancouver Fashion Week and Fashion Revolution fit in?
On the side, I am also the Vancouver Regional Director for Fashion Revolution. I help spread the word, give people in the community tips, and help promote local events. For Vancouver Fashion Week, I am their Sustainability Manager. It’s a bit outside my usual fashion domain, but I am helping the organization become greener by implementing recycling programs.
That’s great! Switching gears, I had some general clothing questions for you. Towards the beginning of a garment’s lifecycle, what questions should a consumer ask when purchasing new clothes, and what fibres should buyers look out for?
It’s quite complex to determine which fibres are better (natural or synthetic). However, there are a few key questions we should ask ourselves:
What is the lifecycle of the garment?
What is the quality and durability of the clothing piece?
What does the end of life look like?
What social responsibility policies does the company have?
These days, a lot of fibres are not completely natural, or completely synthetic - it tends to be a blend. But what’s important is the how long the clothing lasts. If it’s made from high-quality fibre, it’ll last a long time. And when you’re done with your garment, think about what happens to it. Would someone else want it? Could it be consigned? And if not, could it be upcycled or downcycled? These are the questions we should be asking.
That makes sense! In terms of reducing our textile waste, how should the average consumer dispose of unwanted garments?
Ultimately, everyone needs to refuse, reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.
Refuse = don’t purchase clothing if you don’t need it
Reduce = when you absolutely have to buy garments, cut down on the amount you purchase
Reuse = shop your own closet, give clothing to friends and family, consign it, etc.
Repair = for garments with missing buttons, small tears, etc., extend the life by repairing it so you can wear it again
Recycle = make sure your clothing doesn’t go to the landfill by recycling it through consignment, swapping, or properly donating it
If your clothes are in good condition, take it to a consignment shop because if the store can make money, they will sell it- meaning it won’t go to the landfill. For torn or ripped clothes, you can put it in the donation bin. Donation bins make money from collecting materials, so they usually find a home for everything. They have relationships with sorter graders and they make sure every piece goes somewhere that’s not the landfill..
Any final words of advice for our Recloseted tribe?
Ask questions. Be curious about where your clothes are come from, why garments only last two washes, why a t-shirt is only $5… don’t be complacent. Ask why!
Look at your label. For your favourite clothing pieces or garments you’re about to buy, see where it’s made, what the fibres are, how it feels, etc.