This summer’s go-to surf and activewear label, Californian Salt Theory Company, pairs exotic, customised illustrations with durable fabrics of recycled polyester. Savant had a casual chat with Jillian Bennett, Californian surfer and sustainability activist, whose personal story combining passion for surfing, illustration and travel has made dreams of her very own eco-activewear label become a tangible reality. On a rainy Friday afternoon in London, she welcomed us to get a glimpse of her wonderful world, under sustainable sunshine.
What’s behind the story of Salt Theory Co? How did you grow interest in fashion and sustainability in particular?
When I was young, my mum always had me interested in what I was wearing. In 2011, when I was doing an illustration course in Florence, Italy, for 2 semesters, I ended up getting an internship in jewellery design that got me more into fashion. For my course, I had to create a garment, but I had no clue how to do it, I didn’t even know that was part of the illustration course! In the meantime, I had been offered many opportunities to take it forward with my illustrations and fashion, but it never was the right time. Then it was not until about a year ago when a friend of mine asked me to do some illustrations for T-shirts, and surprisingly, it got me hooked. [It helped that] someone believed in my artistic vision, which took me closer to my own dream of having a brand one day.
How did you reach the slow fashion approach, which, as we all know, is not so easy to push forward…
I’m a surfer and I’ve always been very close to the outdoors. Because of that I have always been interested in what’s going on with sustainability. When I started my initial research, I quickly realised that a lot of the fast fashion brands have almost 126 seasons per year, which is a devastating waste of resources. [The way I perceive it] as an artist, that’s such a shame because I don’t even give someone an illustration without feeling that I have spent enough time on it, and so to me, I think fashion has become too much of a disposable product. It’s not fair, especially when fashion has so much to do with who you are and how you express yourself, and a lot of people have lost touch of that. I think it needs to become more of a conscious effort for people to save up to buy something that is made as a Fair-trade. Also, one of the main aspects that led me to sustainable thinking was travelling. As a traveller you have to consider, ‘I can only bring 5 to 10 pieces in my suitcase, so they better last longer!’.
“As an artist, I don’t even give someone an illustration without feeling that I have spent enough time on it, and so to me, I think fashion has become too much of a disposable product.”
Would you say that you wear only sustainable clothes now?
Now I’ve made a vow that I am only going to buy second-hand. All these are second-hand (shows what she is wearing), this I have had for nearly 7 years now (shows her jacket), and if anything rips, I’d rather fix it, and try to keep reusing it and reducing the consuming part. Another reason why I wanted to start my own brand was to give this other option to people. Especially when it comes to outdoor clothes, a lot of brands use viscose and spandex, which is not a very eco-friendly approach to it. My approach to activewear has also considered the multiple use aspect — you could even go in the water with them!
Your passion for surfing combined with your own bold, artistic illustrations has led to creating a brand of sustainable activewear. Who is your muse?
That and also travel is a huge part of what I’m doing. The pieces that I design are created keeping my muses in mind — the active everyday girls. I ask myself ‘Can the everyday girl wear this?’. Say, she goes to Thailand — she wears it on the plane, she…walks around and she wants to go in the water, then she can go in the water. After that, she can still wear it around in the market. So something that has a little bit of multiple function to it, without it completely dying in the wearing process.
“I don’t want my dream of becoming a designer to affect what I think is a huge issue in our world today, which is the environment and its protection. I see slow fashion as an immensely important salvation to the industry today.”
It’s hard to find durable pieces these days, especially when it comes to activewear, because mostly the fabric gets very faded and ugly. I find sustainable activewear a fascinating concept.
Yes, it almost stretches out too much. Sometimes it’s to do with how you treat your products, like how you wash them. That will also be a huge part of our campaign — how to get people to take care of their pieces once they do have them. People must realise that taking care of their clothes is as big of a responsibility as wearing the clothes itself.
Tell me more about the available pieces. How does the functionality principle apply to your garments?
By far we have 2 tops - one with a hoodie, and then the regular long-sleeve. The way I’ve designed the pants is a little bit more like a cigarette pant, similar to the old 1950s style. My leggings are not just leggings, but have more of a style to them — I wanted to make the cut, the ankle part, a bit less tight and more sophisticated. It’s a bit looser, too. I kept in mind some of the old cuts and patterns, and even used Audrey Hepburn as a source of reference to add a little bit of passé to it.
What else could you possibly add to your future lines?
Well, it’s activewear for now. We want to move into a bit of loungewear possibly in the fall, and start adding pieces. So at the moment, we have started with athletic wear and then we move forward… I’ve been designing some new patterns for more exciting pieces for everyday.
What materials are you using?
These pieces in particular are made from recycled polyester (recycled plastic bottle fabric), and we’re trying to find more fabrics that are pushing the sustainable elbow, because now there is very little available. The fabric we are using comes actually at a higher price point, but I’d rather be behind that because I am trying to avoid leaving a bigger footprint in the process. I don’t want my dream of becoming a designer and having a brand to affect what I think is a huge issue in our world today, which is the environment and its protection. I see slow fashion as an immensely important salvation to the industry today.
Is it true that there aren’t too many suppliers for the fabrics?
In the future, we may even have to potentially come into developing our own fabrics. When some brands do it from 100% organic cotton, or from some other fabrics that are sustainable, for me it is important that the dyes that go along with it are eco-friendly, too. So I make sure we use only natural dyes, not chemicals. I’ve even been doing some research on fabrics that are made out of seaweed, so it takes a lot of testing and research.
“Maybe I cannot change everyone’s thinking, but at least I don’t want my dream to be another factor that contributes to today’s consumerist society and constant bulk-buying, and damaging the environment while producing all those fashions.”
Why does the sustainability part particularly matter to you?
It is not only for the sustainable, eco part to it, but is also to do with the appreciation of what you wear. I think, as a designer, it is important to be a role model — to portray your beliefs to the consumer, because the consumers will catch on. From the beginning, the designers communicate — look, this is what is available, and if only sustainable is available, then you also better wear sustainable. Although the consumer plays a part in the decision-making too, if the designers would be more transparent and say, we have 126 seasons available or we have 4, or just anything less than that, it would help to make the industry more transparent.
What’s your opinion on seasonless clothing?
I would also like to work towards this principle, and produce as few seasons as possible, hence why I have introduced the multiple use function to my garments. For us, travellers, functionality often comes first. The idea of our line is that some pieces are interchangeable — you can combine countless outfits out of a few pieces. I’m all for the smaller closet. Even if that means people buy less from me, it doesn’t matter because that for me conveys an important message. I am not saying that I don’t love clothes, but if I see something specific I like, then I automatically have to think of at least 5 other pieces to go with it…
And on top of that you have to consider, how many times am I actually going to wear these items, maximum 5?
Exactly. Also, when I was younger, I was a frequent visitor to drift stores. I loved second-hand treasures! Although back then my sewing skills were very immature, I still tried to sew pieces out of existing pieces and amend them on my own. Perhaps that’s something innate that comes from the art side, but I want to help people recognise that they can make good use of this DIY principle. That’s also part of the blog that we are starting now for Salt Theory Co — our Tumblr account and the website. We are putting up different videos to give people tips on how to turn their old garments into something useful. Even if it’s not particularly our product, but then they can make it to go with one of our products, if they want, of course.
“[…] the fashion industry has for so many years been full of this tumbling and all that comes to my mind is, ‘Where does it end?’. When you are mass-producing so many things on such a big scale, there are huge consequences to this.”
Why is it important to promote slow fashion?
When I saw your page about sustainable fashion, I was instantly hooked. People are more and more interested in it, so together we can make it more visible. I think it is something we all need to keep pushing because the fashion industry has for so many years been full of this tumbling and all that comes to my mind is, ‘Where does it end?’. When you are mass-producing so many things on such a big scale, there are huge consequences to this. And I mean, if you have seen… ‘The True Cost’ (say it out loud together, laugh) by Andrew Morgan.
That truly made me feel like this can’t go on anymore… I do not want to own these fast fashion pieces anymore (I even got rid of most of my Zara).
I mean, once you’ve seen something like that, how can you go back to the store, and buy something for 5 or 25 dollars, that has no value, no Fair-trade certification? Personally, as much as I would love to save money, I think there are other ways to save money. I don’t think that supporting this fast fashion industry should be a way to save money. It’s simply not sustainable for our planet anymore.
“When you look at small, less-known artists, they actually have a voice; a visual fingerprint. So you would actually think, ‘Oh, that textile looks like a girl’s painting’, which makes it a little more individual, too. I want to keep the art industry engaging with my fashion brand, not separate.”
Are you still working with your illustrations elsewhere?
I am currently illustrating a children’s book. We are working on an idea right now that plays into the sustainable thinking — community-based movement where we are trying to access kids, to be precise. So I am trying to approach my mission from many different angles.
It’s often easy to think of doing something, but when you start doing it for real, you instantly face a completely different level of challenges. Did you ever think that you want to give up, you can’t do this anymore?
Not only that, but as a beginner, and having no following, you go through painful challenges, more or less. First of all, I thought, ‘How am I going to make my brand stand out, and compete with people who have huge impact on this scale?’. So, that’s why I decided to make use of my personal taste — athletic streetwear, first. That’s something that a lot of people can use, especially with that amount of interest. My attention was drawn to the surfing community and I’d look at the pro-surfers and their go-to brands, without namedropping. I’ve loved these brands since I was a kid, but I quickly realised that what they’re doing is not ethical. There’s a huge quality issue that doesn’t match the high price you’re paying.
How did you figure out your own price range?
We want the price range to be accessible, but we are actually paying a lot for the Fair-trade. For example, the top will be around 70-80 USD. But at that rate, you know that everyone was paid correctly and that it’s Fair-trade certified. I have met the people who sew the products [in a small-scale warehouse], and the whole process is all very personally connected to me.
I think that way the products are more unique to the consumer, too. Also, your prints look very personalised. It’s especially unusual to see them on activewear. How does your vision as an artist bring aesthetic value to your garments?
The print motifs took me a lot of trial-and-error to create. In the future, I want to use other artists as guest contributors. There are so many wonderful young illustrators out there who could contribute to creating beautiful, honest fashion. The thing that often loses me with other brands is that the prints are digitalised and commercial, and have completely lost their artistic value, which looks like lack of creativity. But when you look at small, less-known artists, they actually have a voice; a visual fingerprint. So you would actually think, ‘Oh, that textile looks like a girl’s painting’, which makes it a little bit more individual, too. I want to keep the art industry engaging with my fashion brand, not separate.
What’s the lifespan of your items? Would you say that they last forever?
I have been trying them out for some time now — wearing them constantly and trying to pull and tear them and go in the water with them. I’m my own consumer. By far everything has been very good during that test of durability.
When I am designing clothes, it’s about quality versus quantity. I’d love people to buy my pieces, but I want them to get the idea too. We aim to access the community directly to build an awareness to environmental issues — for example, the ocean is a scarce resource, and our waters have become contaminated far too much, and it is affecting the fish and wildlife. We may run out of fish within our lifetime, because there is far too much contamination that comes from factories, and the fashion industry also plays its part in it, in contributing to this endless continuum of wasting the natural resources that should be precious to us. Even though I don’t know how big a difference one brand is going to make, but I think of it in a way that, if these big brands would all stop contributing to this, then it would bring a change. But for that they should think, ‘Right, we have got all the money but we have not done it, but this person who doesn’t have anything to do it, is doing it, with 100% effort, without getting any return for it.’
“[…] There is far too much contamination that comes from factories and the fashion industry also plays its part in it, in contributing to this endless continuum of wasting the natural resources that should be precious to us.”
I also believe that everything we do in life should grow out of passion. And in that way, you don’t even need to take anything else into account when you believe in it with all your heart.
What I realised the other day was that, maybe I cannot change everyone’s thinking, but at least I don’t want my dream to be another factor that contributes to today’s consumerist society and constant bulk-buying, and damaging the environment while producing all those fashions. Luckily, there are some slow fashion brands that are fighting for it, and you see more articles popping up every day. Hopefully it makes us think — ‘maybe we should do something about this, because it’s not like we’re going to have all our resources forever’, and I didn’t want to start off going in the wrong direction. I don’t know if I could sleep at night just knowing that I didn’t try creating my own sustainable label.
Get your surfboards ready for S/S 2016, in all-sustainable Salt Theory Co, of course. Golden beaches of Cali, be prepared for the arrival of your activewear label du jour!
First collection available for pre-orders March 25th - 26th.