When a commercial building in Bangladesh that housed a garment factory collapsed in 2013 killing more than 1,000 workers in what has come to be known as the worst garment industry accident in history, Sarah Jay knew she had to take action.
Exactly one year after the tragedy, the Montreal fashion activist says she travelled to the scene with a camera and a recorder to document the remains of the collapse and, simultaneously, the dark side of fast fashion.
“It was a really difficult trip. I put myself there to feel the situation and go home to bridge the gap for workers’ conditions and convey the urgency of these matters,” said Jay.
As a result of the disaster, Jay — an avid proponent of sustainable fashion — joined the Canadian branch of Fashion Revolution, a not-for-profit global fashion activism movement that advocates for better working conditions for garment workers and encourages the industry to be more sustainable.
“This tragedy really shook the fashion industry,” Jay said. Given how important workers are in the production chain, she says they deserve good working conditions — something she says starts with ethical production and consumption.
“I reflected on the excess in my closet and was concerned with where clothes go [once they’re unwanted.]”
Jay is now one of the judges of Fashion Revolution Canada’s first Student Upcycling Challenge — a competition that challenges high school and post-secondary students across Canada to transform existing clothing into new garments, reusing textiles and fabrics to give them new life.
“This is the way for the future, and we need to stop using new and reuse other clothing and fabrics to protect the environment and factory workers,” Jay said.
Expressing the change she wants to see, Jay wore an upcycled dress on the red carpet of the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFA) in 2019 in hopes of redefining the term “luxury clothing.”
“I went to the bedspread aisle at Value Village, my favourite part of the store, and found a polyester duvet that had a nice dimension and shine and upcycled it as a $12 pink duvet dress for the gala,” Jay said.
The Student Upcycling Challenge invites students to create similar works. The contest closes April 7.
Anabel Tremblay, 19, a second-year fashion student at LaSalle College, signed up for the challenge after being approached by her teacher.
“I was already upcycling and sewing items in my wardrobe … and this is a great opportunity to earn recognition for my work,” said Tremblay
Before hearing of the challenge, Tremblay had already upcycled two corsets — one using the fabric of a used blouse and the other a pillow case found in her old apartment.
“I like using fabric that already exists, especially vintage pieces because they have a story and more potential than a new fabric,” she said.
For the challenge, she decided to upcycle white linen pants she found in a donation box provided to fashion students for Green Week in her school lobby.
When she realized the pants didn’t fit, she knew her only two options were to bring them back or upcycle them.
“So I cut one side and put a metal circle to make a hole and lace it like a corset so it can fit any waist,” she said.
“On the other side, I made a skirt I took from fabric I had from a past school project.”
Tremblay says she’s also going to dye the pants orange organically by using old carrots left in her fridge for a “summery look.”
For Tremblay, winning this challenge would represent a celebration for all her recent upcycling efforts. This is her first time applying to a fashion competition.
“I think this is nice and a very trendy challenge,” she said. “Climate change is the conversation at the moment and fashion can be eco-friendly.”
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