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Re-Fashioned: Injecting New Life into Old Clothes with Veronyka Lau

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Did you know that our tiny island generated 137,000 tonnes of fashion waste in 2020 alone? Only 6,000 tonnes of that is recycled while the remaining 131,000 tonnes (the weight of 11,000+ double-decker buses!) is incinerated. The Renew Earth Sweat Shop is a response by Post-Museum and artist Veronyka Lau to this sobering and somewhat embarrassing fact. It’s a participatory art project aimed at creating a community around sorting, breaking down and remaking waste right here on our own shores – our waste, our responsibility.
Artist Veronyka Lau
Artist Veronyka Lau at the Renew Earth Sweatshop pop-up showcase at Temasek Shophouse

Tell us about your outfit. What are you wearing and what influences your style choices?

The dress is from the SSVP Shop when we visited them for the project. It is from COS by the H&M group and I found it at $3. What a find. I love its clean lines which normally would be worn as is but since I was opening the Renew Earth Sweat Shop, it went so well with the belt made from ties by the SSVP Shop volunteers and a pair of slip-ons by professional sustainable shoe-maker Lisa Teng.

My fashion choices revolve mainly around a singular common factor – found/thrifted. The beauty of thrift shopping is the freedom to go in any one direction in the one place. It reminds me that every fashion choice is a want, never really a need, and we can let go of the part of us that feels any material thing defines us and have fun with it.

Tell us a bit more about how you came to be aware of the issues surrounding the global fashion industry, such as its environmental impact and the unfair labour conditions that often exist.

I think I was that kind of contrary kid and remember asking how people could allow trash to be thrown into the sea. The answer I got was that the sea is so big and just thinking that that is so… wrong. I’ve not stopped following news about the environment since and when we go down that rabbit hole, we find all the issues around environment exploitation, waste, unfair work conditions all interlinked and intersecting.  When I started working in an office in my first job, shopping seemed to be a bonding factor amongst friends as everyone started having a bit of money right? That’s a lot of office people needing a lot of office-conquering and self-care stuff and so at odds with what we were starting to know about how these behaviours are affecting forests, water systems, farmers, factory workers. I’d find myself going back to the thrift stores.

What motivated you to start this project with Post-Museum and what do you hope to achieve through it?

Back in the late 2000s, a friend and I stumbled into this place on Rowell Road called Post-Museum. She was as deeply involved in queer rights as I was in animal welfare at the time and I think there was that feeling of coming home. At that time 107+109 Rowell Road became the place where the arts and civil society community congregated. I have been a long-time volunteer at their Singapore Really Really Free Market. After every SRRFM, we are confronted with all the waste left behind. Fashion waste was a big part of it and we had to move it around to say Salvation Army, Greensquare Textile Recycling and all these different places. A lot of it went into the dumpster. A small Renew Earth Sewing Club was started in 2017 and just became this idea of the Renew Earth Sweat Shop.

The Renew Earth Sweat Shop
The Renew Earth Sweat Shop pop-up showcase at Temasek Shophouse.

Prior to the launch of the pop-up showcase at Temasek Shophouse, Renew Earth Sweat Shop ran a series of Ideation Workshops – tell us a bit more about these workshops and how they align with the goals of this project?

We wanted to do things a little differently from the previous edition of the Renew Earth Sweat Shop last year. If we are serious about dealing with the idea of recycling, repurposing to reduce fashion waste, we needed to go beyond bringing people together to upcycle something. We needed to connect with professional makers, fashion designers, people who stock and sell sustainable items and really explore the possibility of building an industry around fashion waste.

The Ideation Workshops made it possible for us to bring so many more voices together and it’s been amazing to be amongst the company of people with incredible skills and ideas to share, it just made everyone better. It led Tien and I to experiment with the idea of what if Renew Earth Sweat Shop could also become a community sorting house with the over 200kg of waste we collected from our partners. Could sorting and breaking down and providing quality raw materials from a source enable more people with skills to turn them into everyday wearables, usables?

What are 3 of your favourite upcycled fashion items from the pop-up showcase and who made them?

I love these pieces – the patchwork cropped top by artist Christine Bay, detachable collar by community participant Felicia Ong and duster by sustainable designer Adel Ng of Muta Wear, modelled here by artist Natalia Tan. They’ve taken fashion scraps and reimagined them with such an eye for colour and composition into something so fun and dynamic. I’d be really excited if they were the start of a real collection.

Patchwork cropped top
Patchwork cropped top by artist Christine Bay.
Detachable collar
Detachable collar made by community participant Felicia Ong.
Duster
Duster by sustainable designer Adel Ng of Muta Wear, modelled by artist Natalia Tan.

Felicia got the idea of the detachable collar from one of the Ideation sessions when someone mentioned how perfectly good shirts get thrown away because the collars are the first to yellow. I also love that Adel is experimenting with garments that look great on more than one body size because trying to make clothes available for all sizes is one of the compounding problems on top of a very big problem.

Do you think that Singaporeans are open to the idea of wearing fashion items that have been redesigned and reconstructed from used and discarded clothing? If not, what do you think needs to be done to change their mindset?

I believe if they see good design, well-made, from carefully sorted and selected materials in actual online and offline retail spaces, they would take a second look. Helping a potential shopper make a connection to the people who made these clothes could also bring that touch of authenticity that people might gravitate to.

What next for you and/or for Renew Earth Sweat Shop?

Is the next Sweat Shop a full collection and getting down into the guts of what it means to produce? Is it a full-scale sorting and sewing house? A community retail space? When a project comes to an end, there’s always that mix of anxiety about whether we could once again find the kind of support as we have had from National Arts Council and Arts Fund and then with Temasek Shophouse, and a kind of revelry in the freedom that this can in fact go in any one direction from this point forward. Must also ask Tien!

 

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Feature image: A very distressed Loewe bag was given a new lease of life by Veronyka Lau. Artist Natalia Tan added the distinctive detail, a length of woven fabric made from stripped yarn.

The Renew Earth Sweat Shop pop-up showcase is on at Temasek Shophouse till 30 September 2021. Register online for free workshops and learn to make your own upcycled fashion items.

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