De Wasserij is Rotterdam’s hotspot for innovative fashion. Located in a repurposed laundromat, the hub offers approximately 30 studios to approximately 50 fashion professionals. De Wasserij tries to bring the fashion industry together on a microscale, so you will find professionals from across the fashion chain together: people that work with textiles, fashion designers, stylists, photographers, sales and PR professionals.
Zuza sat down with Esther Muñoz Grootveld, De Wasserij’s program manager, to chat about the opportunities and rabbit holes of sustainable fashion.
Hi. Can you introduce yourself for our readers and tell us what is your role in De Wasserij?
I am Esther Muñoz Grootveld. I am a freelancer and my practice is to work on sustainable fashion projects that increase awareness of what is going on in the fashion industry and how we can make the fashion industry better.
My role here is program management. That means a lot of different things but I think my most important task is that I drive the community. We opened in November 2019 and I have been connected to the project for one and a half years now. The founders of De Wasserij hired me as a consultant, specifically to build a fashion community here, and also to build the brand of De Wasserij.
Three years ago, a group of fashion professionals in Rotterdam contacted SKAR, co-founder of De Wasserij, to collaborate because they realised that changing the future is more effective when working together. That is how the idea of De Wasserij started. So it is a project that was not made up for the community but the community wanted it for themselves.
What is the importance of sustainability for De Wasserij?
It is very important. I think when people think about fashion and sustainability, most immediately think about biological cotton. But sustainability has a much broader definition, it is not only about materials. Also, there are discussions and different perspectives on the use of for example biological cotton. Shouldn’t we focus on polyester because it takes way less water and you can recycle it? There is obviously no one answer that solves this one huge problem. What we try to do in De Wasserij is to bring together a lot of different people that have their very own specific take on sustainability. For example, we have two designers that work on the Living Colour project and found out how you can colour polyester in a sustainable way.
Oh, they do something with Puma!
Exactly. They figured out a way to dye fabrics without using chemicals, they used bacteria, they put a piece of fabric in a lab and the bacteria on the fabric. Then, they kind of ‘scare’ the bacteria so that they start producing pigments. They now managed to create several colours in that way. They just did a collaboration with Puma. It is really nice that this big industry player picked up on this Rotterdam initiative.
Then, we have for example lingerie designer Arí van Twillert who has a background at the TU Delft. She calls herself a fashion engineer. She really believes in the hyper-custom-made, so she will scan women’s breasts and she will do 3D-printed braces for a bra that fits you perfectly. So you only have to buy one and never again another bra.
And you probably never want to take it off.
Yes, and then she handcrafts the bra with beautiful materials. Then, there are several designers, stylists, and photographers that are focusing on what is going on in terms of image-making in the fashion industry. Why do we still produce mostly garments for men and women? How do we make sure people that are gender-fluid are represented? Is there genderless fashion that is not a shapeless T-shirt?
Berend Brus, for example, makes garments that can be worn by men and women. When we think of a man, we have a really specific shape in mind, but Berend tries to tweak that and he shows fitted dresses on men, without making it into drag. These garments speak to a non-binary audience and this represents an alternative, sustainable future as well.
These are three very different examples of what sustainable fashion can mean. It is not only about re-use. Here, we try various buttons that we can push to make the world better.
“Sustainability” also means social sustainability.
Yes, and I think that people sometimes underestimate fashion. It is such a powerful tool when it comes to social sustainability because it is used to express who you are and what you feel. I’m very interested in this area. Of course, re-use remains pivotal as well. It’s very nice to see, for example, Awareness Kollektif with their Swap Shop taking the next step with their business model here in De Wasserij. The idea is quite simple, but there was no permanent point where you can swap. They really jumped into the need of a large group of people that just don’t want to contribute to growth any more.
It is so nice that there is a point where you can bring old clothes that you do not like anymore, and they have a story. When you go into The Swap Shop, you start talking to people, like ‘Why are you getting rid of this? This is great!”, and seeing that people can give garments that are already loved a new life. I am obsessed with swapping, I really love it.
If you’re looking for tips on how to swap and shop second-hand more effectively, check out our Tips on shopping second hand.
What would you say is the biggest challenge for sustainable fashion?
I think there are several. One is that innovations that are being created, for example, the dyeing with bacteria, are very expensive to scale up. For some innovations, the technology to scale up is not available yet. To scale innovations, you need investors and strong connections to the industry. The traditional fashion industry is not changing very fast, so that is a problem. I also think that, still, the consumer market for sustainable fashion is relatively small. There’s a lot of talk of doing better, but Primark is still allowed into our inner cities, and there are still lines in front of the door when a new store opens. So I think there is a big challenge in terms of awareness. I believe that for fashion it might be the time that the government steps in and, for example, puts a tax on fast fashion.
I think that understanding and transparency is also an important point. I cannot name one brand that is 100% sustainable because if you still produce consumer goods and you put them on a market where they are not really needed, you can question if that is actually sustainable. And there are so many boxes you need to tick. I think many brands do not even know, cannot even really prove that their production is sustainable because they’re not present in the factory where it is made. It is difficult but I think brands can do more to show and share what they do know with consumers, so consumers can decide whether this product is something they want to support or not.
I have been working on sustainable fashion projects for some 10 years now. My most important learning is that knowledge is power. The more you know, the better you can choose what you want to be part of and what not. I do not dare anymore to go into an H&M shop, I cannot, just because of what I know. And I learned a lot about why products cost what they cost. If you start learning how to make clothing yourself, you start to understand why something costs what it costs when you buy from a local designer. It’s not that they put huge margins on it – it is the time, the love and the materials.
What’s the dirtiest secret of H&M?
I would not know that, I am just a consumer like you. They do try to do good, like with their incubator for sustainable fashion initiatives, the Global Change Award. They are also trying to figure out how to transform their business into something other than a fast fashion industry because that is sinking slowly. What I do not like about brands like these is that they sometimes seem to pretend to have invented the wheel. H&M for example launched a repair concept in its store in Berlin, and a company such as Zalando is now launching second-hand shopping. These are great initiatives, but I do not like that they market it as something ‘new’. Small start-ups mostly inform these kinds of ideas and I’d like to see them being credited and supported a bit more.
The marketing of companies can be very misleading. I can imagine when consumers see a jeans brand launch the ‘most sustainable’ denim, it can be very convincing that this brand is ‘one of the good guys’. It is a great story and it is great they invest in this kind of innovation, but mostly these kinds of products form a very small percentage of their total production and the impact is rather small. That’s information that people need to have to decide whether they are OK with buying into this kind of brand or not. It is difficult – I’m not a saint, I buy new stuff. But I do push myself to ask critical questions and question my own consumer behaviour.
Cleaning plays an important role in keeping your favourite items longer. Read our “Cleaning your clothes the natural way” article to discover how to ensure the sustainability of your most-loved items!
Where would you want to see De Wasserij in five years?
Definitely as more than just a place where people work. We have an integrated Makers lab, where also people from outside the building can work, and what we would really love is that this place becomes a local production facility for people that work with textiles and fashion. If you have a fashion brand, you need a lot of volumes to produce outside the Netherlands. Many designers never reach these kinds of volumes, either because they are starting up or because they are choosing to keep the volume low, or their brand is made-to-order. It is great for the environment but bad for the brand. In the Netherlands, production facilities are scarce. It is also quite expensive to produce here and consumers are not always willing yet to pay a higher price for local products. So we are trying to find out how we could make it more accessible. I think it will take a couple of years before we manage to set it up.
We do not really want to build a factory, but we would love to build a hybrid network of, for example, designers that just graduated and are starting their own brand, but do not have the means to work on it full time. So they work on their brand for two days a week and for the rest of the week, they work in a side job. We would love to say to them, ‘Why don’t you support the production of the collections of others to train your skill, and at the same time sustain yourself’. They are one target group that I did not really know existed.
Then, of course, in the Netherlands there are people with an immigration background that possess great sewing skills. Many of them have worked in or have run factories, and really know how to set up a production line. But they cannot find a job here because in the Netherlands there is barely any textile production anymore. So we are talking with some producers to see what are the possibilities to facilitate this group. If different groups with different skills come together, I think really cool things can happen. People can benefit from each other’s expertise and the craft of making clothes could get a new impulse. My dream would be that somehow we can host that here, that we have this network of people.
Last question, what is your favourite fashion item?
This is a very dirty secret… I love shoes. I should probably give you a more sustainable answer…
I love your shoes, actually. It was the first thing I noticed when you greeted me at the door.
Thanks, I’m kind of a collector. I do not have thousands of pairs but I like to buy shoes that are very well shaped and that are almost like objects rather than shoes. If you had asked me this 10 years ago, I would have a very specific answer. The older I get and the more I research fashion, the less I care about what I wear but there is a specific style I have and I love pieces with a story. So it is more about the feel of what fits me, it is not very tangible.
If you’re a fashion maker with fresh ideas that you think will fit the vision of De Wasserij, write to Esther at firstname.lastname@example.org