Sophie Benson pivoted from being a fashion stylist to writing about the social and environmental issues she noticed while sourcing and creating clothes suit her personal style. With a degree in fashion and surrounded by garments she discovered the underbelly of the industry.
Instead of buying readymade she now asserts her creativity in a more sustainable manner, searching through thrift shops for the perfect finds, she creates her own custom wardrobe. The challenge? Making that first cut into the piece since there is only one.
What is the most important takeaway you want readers to gain from your book, especially your new title, Sustainable Wardrobe?
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I really want people to understand that sustainable fashion isn’t a one dimensional thing with a particular aesthetic. Sustainability touches upon everything from agriculture to clothing repair, and your lifestyle, your location, your style, and your access to resources will shape exactly how you engage with it.
If I can be greedy and add a second – equally important! – point it’s that sustainability doesn’t need to be framed as what we need to sacrifice. Instead, I’d like readers to think about what can be gained, because it spans everything from fair pay for workers to creativity and community.
How did you find yourself on a path interested in sustainable fashion, the environment and consumerism?
I’ve always loved fashion. I dressed up in all sorts of weird and wonderful outfits when I was younger and fashion was always really central to my sense of self. It wasn’t really until I was working as a freelance stylist after I graduated from my fashion degree that the impact of the industry came into focus for me.
When I was working in e-commerce studios I saw the poor quality of the clothes up close versus how great they looked online. I started to feel that I was helping to sell trash. Added to that, the endless piles of samples, and the constant churn of new stock juxtaposed with the research I was doing into the treatment of garment workers and the environmental impact of production; I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
I began by completely changing my own shopping habits before transitioning my career from styling to writing about the issues I felt everyone deserved to know about.
You upcycle fashions, sew and crochet. What kinds of creative projects are your favorites?
I love to work with unexpected materials like secondhand curtains, blankets and tablecloths. They create problems that you need to solve creatively and because you can’t simply go out and buy another one, you have to be much more thoughtful about how you use them.
I’m currently in the middle of making a waistcoat out of a small embroidered tablecloth and to get enough fabric for all the panels and facings I had to unpick all of the crochet edging so I could then unpick the seams. It’s a beautiful length of loopy crochet that I don’t want to waste, so I’m now going to use it as makeshift rouleau button loops. And of course, the added bonus is that it’s a one-off and no one else will have the same thing. As someone who hates to look like everyone else, that’s a serious draw.
Any tips for sourcing fabrics and fashions for upcycling?
Always dive into the drawers and baskets at charity shops.
As most floor space is given over to clothes, shops tend to tuck fabrics, yarns, notions and patterns out of the way. By spending time digging through I’ve found beautiful organza fabric, mohair yarn, discontinued 60s yarn, unused vintage sewing patterns, and amazing homeware textiles.
Don’t forget to have a proper look at the things you find, when I’ve not been careful I’ve bought sewing patterns with missing arms and fabrics with huge sections cut out of them!
How do you make time for creating?
It can be very hard to make time when you’re busy with work and life. I tend to carve out little pockets of time here and there. I’ll do an hour or so of crocheting of an evening, or I’ll cut pattern pieces one weekend morning, cut the fabric out the next, and then start sewing the next.
Recently, I’ve tried to commit to a four-day week and although I don’t always manage it due to deadlines, I try to use that extra day to do at least some making or designing wherever possible.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I moved into a new house last year and for the first time in my life I do now have a dedicated space for creating and it’s such a joy! It’s wonderful not to have to pack my machine, my overlocker and everything else away at the end of the day.
Currently, it doesn’t look very pretty because we’re renovating so there are big holes in the plaster, creaky floorboards and dodgy paint colours, but I do have a grand plan for the space. When it’s finally done it will be beautiful. It’s definitely something to look forward to and something I’ve dreamed of for years.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your creative space? How do they improve your work?
I definitely could not do without my sewing machine. It’s a heavy duty Singer which means it can deal with everything I can throw at it.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
While I’m writing I’ll generally have the radio on. If I listen to a podcast I start typing out the sentences I’m hearing, and if I listen to music I get totally distracted by the lyrics.
When I’m sewing I’ll usually listen to music, and crocheting generally takes place in front of some kind of trashy TV programme!
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I tend to look to either archival designer collections or vintage style for inspiration. Generally, the fabric I have dictates the project.
For instance, the size of the tablecloth meant it couldn’t really be anything but a sleeveless top and the embroidery made me think of 60s waistcoat styles that I love.
A pair of pink curtains that I bought from a charity shop were really lightweight but held shape well so they lent themselves perfectly to becoming a take on a voluminous Vivienne Westwood skirt I’d had on a mood board for years.
Generally I’ll do a (very) rough sketch first before making a toile if I need to. I must admit I don’t really like making toiles but because I work with secondhand fabrics I really don’t want to make a mistake with something I can’t replace.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I love the part when a garment starts to come together and you can imagine what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to fit. It’s so fun to see something come to life.
The part I struggle with is deciding on the final design. Again, because I’m working with secondhand fabrics I get choice paralysis because I only get one shot and I want to be 100% happy with what I make.
How does your environment influence your creativity?
It has a huge influence on me. If there’s a lot of noise or mess I find it really difficult to relax into being creative. I need the mental and physical space to let my mind wander.
I also really benefit from spending time in nature or in galleries to refresh my imagination.
Time machine. Where would you go and why? Who would you want to meet?
If I’m being purely selfish, I’d go back to fashion week in the 80s. I know it’s a fashion decade that a lot of people would be happy to see the back of but I adore the extravagance of it all.
I’d love to go back and see shows by designers and brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Escada, Issey Miyake, and Emanuel Ungaro.
If I’m being more altruistic, I’d still head back to the 80s but I’d use all my might to stop the creep of fast fashion and offshoring. Fast fashion has so much to answer, being able to stop it becoming the dominant force in the industry would be a dream.
Interview posted August 2023
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