Exploring ecological fashion with designer Hannah-Lee Jade

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Hannah-Lee Jade Turner is an artist and fashion designer from Waitākere, West Auckland. With a new collection recently launched, we visited her studio at 203H Karangahape Road for a chat about her design process and the story behind the Hannah-Lee Jade label. What follows is a journey of personal discovery and insight into some of the wicked challenges of creating a sustainable fashion brand from Aotearoa.

So how did Hannah-Lee Jade come about?

As a young person, I was so into making clothing and costumes, and dress-ups, so it really started as a little child's dream, but I always think that wanting to become a clothing designer happened when I was ten years old when I entered the event Trash to Fashion. Fast-forward going to high school I continued choosing the fashion tech programmes and was thriving in that class - pretty much only as well - I was getting into trouble a bit in the other classes. So when I finished high school, I knew I was going to make a label.

Showing us through the archives.

When I moved to Berlin I think that’s really when I started to consider selling. Cause I had a shop front that got traffic, and I was with a community and we were definitely trying to make an income from our space. I saw a lot of growth in the industry there. That was a big point that highlighted fashion’s problems for me, and sustainability.

So I went extreme on researching what’s the most ecological fibre you could get. The journey was deadstock - but I was getting so much plastic that I went off that idea - to organic fabrics. When I moved to New Zealand it was so hard to get any of those good fabrics and I thought, is it really ecological to ship it all the way here from those suppliers that I was using in Berlin? So that’s when I was like, what am I doing - there's so much textile waste, and so yeah, now that’s the step.

I always hear you use the term ‘ecological’, as opposed to all the others you could use, such as sustainable. Why specifically do you use that one?

Sustainability is considered like it's green, but it's been green-washed. So if I buy a recycled t-shirt - PET recycled plastic. All of the resources that have gone into that are not ecological. I don’t know if I’m using the term right, but break it down - is it logical? is it good for the environment? - no.

One bag of post-consumer textiles.

I’m just gonna say it right now cause it’s been an experience, this [ repurposing textiles ] is not that sustainable. Ecologically maybe, and it could be sustainable if I had a bit more of a system, and maybe I'll create a better system. But for example, if I’m getting an order for a clay earth top and I run out of clay earth t-shirts that I've sourced, then I need to go and try to find some more of those. Instead of going through a whole bale which usually takes me forty minutes, sometimes I’ll try and go buy one at a second-hand store, but they don’t always have a beige t-shirt that has no massive graphics on it. So sustainability’s a massive question, and I’ve been to a sustainable business meetup recently. That was really informative about some decisions. We talked about sustainability in terms of wellbeing.

All of [ these terms ] are considering the environment but I think I use ecological because the eco-system is really considered there. I focus on the natural fibres with my recycled textiles because I want to work with them. I know they’re nice for the bodies and every time you wash them there's not micro-plastics going into the wash. Ecological is literally the environment for me and sustainability is like sustaining yourself. So I think that’s why I use the term ecological, because sustainable has just been masked, warped.

What do you think is your personal connection to the label?

There’s one side that’s really just my art practice and self-expression but then the other side is to do with working in so many environments that I have disagreed with. Fashion is so often about exclusion, and it's always something that I’ve disagreed with. So I like the idea of creating something that’s less like that. It’s tricky though cause there’s this concept of exclusivity that makes people desire things and then you sell them. 

Making fun in the studio.

I love having someone in here [ the studio ] and being able to think about wellbeing as one of the first things. Like, let’s come and have tea. Cause I have not had that in work environments and it has been hard for me when I've had a hard time or just been overwhelmed.

I think I've got a natural keenness in being a leader and making sure we have a good time and making sure people don’t feel excluded or put down. So I would love if I could have a business that would be fully sustainable in every sense of the word. And be able to be like cool this is a nice space to work in, it's got good core outcomes, it's got a good circular system.

Going forward, do you intend to continue using repurposed textiles, and what’s your process?

I’ve been calling it post-consumer textiles cause three’s also bed linens, it’s not just t-shirts or whatever. At this point, my main supplier is Mr Bo Jumble’s - their stock comes from clothing bins and all the hospice shops that don’t sell - so they basically get all the waste textiles from this region. It’s where I get men's shirts mainly, the linens, and jersey fabrics.

I’ll have my colours in mind. Then I wash it. I usually will iron it before cutting because it’s just easier to cut, and usually sort it all into colours. But that’s basically it, then I start cutting and making. Oh, there’s a bit of unpicking actually, which is very time-consuming. 

It’s a puzzle every time cause you have a t-shirt and it has a print on it or a rip or paint or whatever, so you’re like puzzling where you’ll get your pattern piece in, still making sure it’s on the right grain line - which is like the way the fabric’s been made - which is fun actually but really time-consuming. And there’s never the same time solution. Because each t-shirt is a different size, different print, different damage - whatever.

A shot from the latest collection modelled on an ancient landscape.

So yes, but literally the other day my friend was like “oh you should sell these” (points to long sleeve top). It’s dyed with onion dye and it’s a deadstock fabric and it’s merino, but it’s buying it from a fabric store which I’ve been like “no I don’t do that!” so I’m wondering if that’s something I’ll do. 

Revive - her latest collection - is a post-consumer textiles-based project.

also good.