For Katell Gélébart, creating ecological awareness in her everyday life goes beyond just designing products made from rubbish.
"There are many levels and many ways to bring sustainability in a system," the 40-year-old recently told The Local.
Her varied work includes replacing polystyrene decorations with reusable cloth in India, transforming unwanted x-rays and obsolete floppy discs into unusual notebook covers, and creating entire fashion lines out of discarded parachutes.
Originally from France, Gélébart came into focus in Germany last year when she won the €75,000 KAIROS prize, awarded every year by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation in Hamburg.
The philosophy of not throwing every unwanted thing away but trying to reuse it stems from Gélébart's childhood. "In my family, we all used whatever was available in the house or around the house, in the garden, garage and so on – to be creative," she said. "For me, it's a way of looking at life."
Gélébart fashioned beds for her toys out of old cardboard boxes and stitched dresses for her dolls herself. By the time she was 18, she was trying to sell her products. This was the time recycled products had started to become popular. "I was just lucky enough to be there at the right time," she said.
Calling herself a "modern nomad," Gélébart lives and works in Germany, Italy and India, where she works with craft organizations and helps local artisans and craftsmen to combine their craft with the idea of reusing.
She produces under the brand ART D'ECO, which she started in Amsterdam after opening a shop there in 1998. "I started to use the term 'eco design' and 'eco designer'. It was completely new then, but you hear these terms everywhere now," she told The Local. Since then, the label, whose products are produced in Ukraine, has two new Ukrainian partners – Vitaly Dushka and Varia Karamushka.
Not having had any formal training in fashion designing, Gélébart is largely self-taught. Normally, Gélébart first thinks of the design and then the material.
"I find the material or people give it to me saying look, can you do something with that? Depending on the limitations of the material – packaging, blankets, or a parachute, I decide what to do," she said. "Then I start hands on with the scissors, cutting, stitching and the last thing I do is patterns."
Being an eco designer poses some challenges too. Since Gélébart doesn't go searching for a material and uses the things she comes across or what people contribute, it becomes difficult for her to make large quantities of the same product and find the same material in the same colour again.
"That's the madness of the fashion industry – the moment you make a product and show it to customers they want it that day itself," she explained. "We are not a factory in the Ukraine. It's the women of a small village, many of whom are working from home. So the production happens at the human pace."
But the current economic crisis in Europe is certainly helping the eco movement, driving people to come up with reusing clothes and other items creatively, but there are still many things that can be changed according to Gélébert.
"For instance," she said. "It takes so many resources to make paper towels, and people use kilometres of it to clean something and then just throw it away. Why not use an old T-shirt and wash it after you're done?"
For Gélébart, wedding dresses are the height of our wasteful consumption society. She has recently created a wedding dress made from a new material she calls "paper/fabric" for an upcoming exhibition in Potsdam. The lace belongs to one of her old dresses and the paper pulp, she explains, is made of textile rags that were rejects of production.
"This wedding dress is disposable and made from 100 percent reused material. It is low-tech as it requires no heavy machinery, not even power. The paper can be made mechanically and the dress has been sewn with a domestic sewing machine," she said.
The bride won't be able to reuse it, though, since this "one time use dress" is only meant to survive for a day on the wearer.