Creative Changemaker: Anna Foster from E.LV. Denim
E.L.V. Denim, a trailblazing British luxury brand, breathes new life into the world of fashion by crafting timeless pieces from 100% up-cycled materials. Spearheaded by the visionary Anna Foster, a former fashion editor and stylist, E.L.V. Denim derives its name from East London Vintage. Every creation emerges right in the heart of the British capital, using preloved garments that might otherwise languish in landfills.
But E.L.V. Denim is so much more than just stylish and sophisticated clothing. It’s a beacon of environmental and social consciousness, challenging the status quo of the fashion industry and championing a radical zero-waste policy. In this exclusive interview, Anna Foster invites us into her world, unveiling the inspiration behind her brand and sharing her insights into the future of sustainable fashion.
Can you talk us a bit through what ELV denim does?
In my studio, we salvage materials that cannot be used in their original form. We rework them into something new, preserving their essence. Our jumpsuits, for example, are created from 46 individually handcrafted pieces of denim. These pieces often have front or back damage, or they are misshapen, and some are in sizes that don’t have a broad market. Rather than discarding them, we upcycle the material.
This approach contrasts with the ease of opening a roll of fabric, but I firmly believe that anything worth having requires a little extra effort. It may take more time, but it results in a more durable and lasting product. In essence, I aim to make people revalue their possessions, utilising existing materials.
I’m committed to local production. We have incredible manufacturing capabilities in our community, and I want to utilise these skills and create meaningful job opportunities. In the long run, I plan to expand this initiative to other countries who receive a large proportion of global textile waste. Setting up my ateliers next to the sorting facility.
Ultimately, I believe that mindful and conscious solutions are the key to making a real difference. Instead of just acknowledging problems, we need to offer practical and sustainable solutions.
What happens to the jeans that are damaged?
If the zipper doesn’t function properly, we can consider a replacement if it’s worthwhile. If it turns out to be flawed in any way, like damage from flies or other issues, we would use that as the outside part of the jean. There are so many flawed pairs of jeans but to make the perfect jeans, you can take the outside of one, and inside of the other and pair them together.
If they are more faulty, we have options to either extract strips from them or repurpose them into jumpsuits, dresses, or skirts. This way, we can create unique, self-made designs. For instance, consider this skirt, which is a composite of various squares. The pattern you see is meticulously crafted on the surface, but underneath, it’s a patchwork of different pieces we put together.
Before starting ELV Denim, had you ever experienced other forms of production?
I mean, I’ve never ventured into anything else before. I didn’t have any formal training, which, I believe, has proven beneficial. It allowed me to approach things with an open mind, unburdened by preconceived notions. I wouldn’t categorise it as strictly a business venture. Instead, I view it as a fusion of common sense and innovative thinking. To me, it’s logical to utilise existing materials and traditional methods as a foundation to create something new.
So, whenever I encountered naysayers who exclaimed, ‘You can’t do that,’ my response has consistently been, ‘Why not? Why can’t we do that?’ I’ve dedicated a substantial amount of my time to listening to others. And from those who shared my enthusiasm for this journey, I naturally found ideal partners.
What are the aspects that people are usually resistant to?
Our approach isn’t what ateliers are used to, but it’s also what sets us apart from everyone else. Unlike most brands, we don’t start with a roll of fabric. In fact, we might be the only brand globally that doesn’t utilise rolls of fabric at all. Everything we create begins with pre-existing materials. This approach can be puzzling for many traditionalists who prefer the convenience of working with large fabric rolls, making multiple cuts in one go. In contrast, every pair of jeans we produce is a distinct, one-of-a-kind piece.
We meticulously consider each pair, taking into account their individual nuances. Whether it’s a distinctive double coin pocket, pocket shape variations, or any other specific feature, we need to intimately understand the material. We adapt the pattern down to the millimetre, ensuring that it fits perfectly, even if that margin doesn’t significantly impact the final garment. However, it plays a pivotal role in optimising material usage, which is our top priority. Efficiency in material usage is the essence of our mission.
What inspired you to have such a strong value driven brand?
I’ve always had a strong connection to clothing, perhaps because I watched my mother craft garments in her unique way. She wasn’t a professional, but she had a knack for repurposing old pieces, giving them new life, and she held onto her clothes for years. I still have some of her cherished pieces.
Her approach instilled in me a deep appreciation for valuing things. I observed how society was gradually losing this sense of attachment and value for what they owned. It seemed like people were accumulating possessions without truly cherishing them. I wanted to change that, to reignite the passion for clothes and the stories they hold.
I had a career in the fashion industry for over 20 years before embarking on this journey. During that time, I occasionally received unique garments as gifts or found them at sample sales. These pieces meant so much to me because I knew they were one-of-a-kind. It baffled me that only a select few had access to such uniqueness. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to wear something special, something with a story.
So, I set out to create entirely unique garments using recycled materials. Each piece I make is distinctive, as it’s constructed from various repurposed components. When something is truly unique, you naturally take better care of it, treating it like an heirloom. I wanted to pass on this sense of value to others.
Moreover, the world has seen excessive waste in the fashion industry, especially in the late 90s and early 2000s when mass production took over. It was a time when quality and sustainability were sacrificed for quantity. It is crucial to reevaluate this attitude, as it has a significant environmental impact and disrespects the hard work of those who made these items.
Where do you source all this denim from?
We source our jeans from wholesalers in the north. Typically, people donate their clothing to charity shops, believing it’s the best way to handle used garments. However, charity shops can’t absorb all the textile waste generated. The donated items are collected by textile associations, which then transport them to a central facility. It’s essential to note that in the UK, we no longer sort our waste domestically.
Instead, the collected clothing is bundled and sent off, often to third-world markets in Africa. The assumption is that these regions can make use of our discarded clothing. Alternatively, the clothing is sent to sorting facilities in the north. At these facilities, the items are categorised and resold. Vintage stores, like many others, visit these facilities to select what they want to stock in their shops. I also visit these facilities and take what others have left behind.
What comes first to mind when designing, the aspects repurposing material or the creative style of the product?
I assess my available resources and figure out what I can create from them. The beauty of this process is that it can be repeated over and over. Take, for instance, the straight-leg design where I aimed to get two different pairs of jeans from a single pair and two pairs. To achieve this, I would swap out the inside parts and rearrange them to highlight the contrasts.
For example, if there was one black gene and one light blue gene, I’d swap their insides to create a striking contrast. To make this concept work across various sizes and measurements, I needed to source jeans starting from size 34, using the jeans others don’t want.
But then, as I delved deeper, I discovered more jeans with damaged insides. This presented an opportunity to create larger patterns with different shapes. This is how I introduced styles like flares and boyfriend jeans into my collection.
Recently, we unveiled two new jeans, marking the first time I’ve introduced new designs in four years. Our business has been running for five years, and I initially launched one design, now, we’re embarking on an exciting journey with these fresh additions.
What are some of the challenges upholding the sustainability of the company?
I believe that sustainability in the fashion industry is a significant challenge. To be honest, not many people are fully committed to it because it requires considering various factors, like where you source your materials, how and where you produce your clothing, and the conscious decisions you make. In our case, we never use raw material, only pre-existing material and this can be quite challenging.
Despite the difficulties, the rewards are substantial. We are proud to position ourselves within the luxury sphere, creating items that are designed to last a lifetime. To me, something that endures for a lifetime is the epitome of luxury. Our garments are handcrafted with meticulous care and attention. They go through multiple stages, from curating the material to grading, pairing, and quality control. Each step is carefully considered, and we conduct multiple quality checks to ensure that the material meets our high standards.
People often complain about the price of truly sustainable items, but the effort and attention that goes into creating quality clothing should never be equated to the cost of a cup of coffee or less. It simply shouldn’t. I believe you can make something as sustainable as you want, but it’s essential to consider the process. For instance, some products claim to be made from recycled materials, but the transformation process can be highly toxic, making you question the sustainability of the material in the first place.
I think these are the critical conversations we need to address. Instead of focusing solely on whether something is made from recycled materials, we should delve into the processes that might harm the environment. So, it’s essential to be more thoughtful about what sustainability truly means and the choices we make in the fashion industry.