Contemporary Classics with a Conscience, by Gilberto Calzolari

Gilberto Calzolari Bagged the 2018 Green Carpet Fashion Award with a Sublimely Glamorous Design that Mixes Jute with Gems, Catapulting Sustainability onto Fashion’s Radar. Known as “the Oscars of sustainable fashion,” the celebrity-studded Green Carpet Fashion Awards saw a worthy winner bag the ultimate prize of the event: the Franca Sozzani Award for Best Emerging Designer. Step forward designer Gilberto Calzolari, whose winning entry—as thoughtful and beautiful as it was resourceful and sustainable—totally stole the show.

Keep a close eye on what Gilberto Calzolari does next, because to win a Green Carpet Fashion Award this year, he did something entirely unexpected: he took jute coffee sacks bought at a flea market and cut them with exquisite precision, cleverly positioning the sacks’ printed words and symbols, and turning them into an haute-couture dress dusted with lead-free Swarovski crystals. This is artistry and alchemy. Pure genius. At a time of growing awareness of the global fashion industry’s footprint—worth $2.4 trillion a year (McKinsey)—we were extremely keen to find out how he did it…

You spent several years working for prestigious brands before launching your own in 2015. Tell us about your background—did you study fashion design?
My father was a fabric salesman and then a buyer, and he used to take me to the fashion shows at Pitti and Milano Vende Moda. This was the golden era of Italian ready-to-wear—I was 12 or 13 and enthralled by the collections, and soon realized I wanted to become a fashion designer. I graduated in set and costume design at the Brera Academy, then worked for important “Made in Italy” brands like Marni, Alberta Ferretti, Valentino, Miu Miu and Giorgio Armani. Working for such great designers was, I must say, an incredible lesson in style—I compare it with being a painter during the Renaissance era, and attending a workshop by one of the Old Masters. In 2015, I decided to create my own brand.

Could you tell us how your interest in sustainability began?
I’ve always paid attention to environmental issues because I consider nature one of my biggest sources of inspiration. In my work, natural elements have always played an important role, even concept-wise. So much so, in fact, that for my first, Arctic-inspired collection, I partnered with Polar Bears International, the most important non-profit association for protection of the polar bear and its habitat. My catwalk at the Next Trend event at Milan Fashion Week started with images of polar caps collapsing and icebergs melting, to the soundtrack of Depeche Mode’s “Wrong.” It was intended as a statement about global warming. Needless to say, this commitment is also reflected in my choice of materials: I love juxtaposing unusual fabrics—sometimes even technical and innovative ones—but always keeping the environment in mind (for example, the use of eco-fur). I wanted to go a step further with my new Spring/Summer 2019 collection. So, along with a set of clothes made from recycled jute coffee bags, I also used cupro linen produced from the purest cellulose found in nature; the process involves the cotton waste being dissolved and extruded, producing a very fine thread. It’s a material with unique characteristics—comfort, ventilation and resistance; but it’s also extremely delicate, hypoallergenic, atoxic, and 100% recyclable. My goal is to move my collections further in this direction.

Is it difficult to apply sustainability principles to the fashion industry—for instance, in terms of cost and availability?
Sustainable fashion is still a luxury. In preparing for the Green Carpet Fashion Awards I had the opportunity to study and question topics such as: where materials come from, their composition, their carbon footprint, and the impact they have, and their manufacturing process has, on the environment. It was an enriching experience in terms of my awareness. I believe sustainable fashion is the way to go, but it’s a long process and not an easy one, because eco-conscious fashion presents many challenges, such as cost and access to materials. Manufacturers need to help us by offering a much wider choice of eco-friendly, sustainable fabrics and techniques at reasonable prices.

What inspired your crystal-embellished jute look?
It all started from the concept behind my Spring/Summer 2019 collection. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that when mankind turned away from Nature to live in an urban environment, we began to develop an aesthetic perception of the countryside and a melancholic longing for it. Its beauty soothes our senses, awakens our desires, and makes us think about the meaning of life. These feelings are perfectly represented in a film by Jean Renoir: Une partie de campagne, a bittersweet love story between a young Parisian woman from a bourgeois family and a down-to-earth boatsman she met during a countryside picnic. From this initial inspiration, I decided to pay homage to my own Lombardy countryside, so I went searching for the right fabrics. I knew I wanted to use jute, but when I saw Brazilian jute bags at the Navigli canals market that had originally been used as coffee bags, and then as barriers against the flooding of the canals (a growing concern due to climate change), I knew I could take the concept further. So I decided to treat the recycled jute as a couture fabric, creating a tight-fitting bodice lined with cotton muslin, and a tulip-shaped drape. I needed something to create a clash between the original material and the high-end tailoring, and that’s when I came upon on the idea of enriching this dress with Swarovski crystals. So I approached Swarovski with the idea, and they were absolutely wonderful and incredibly supportive! They sent me a detailed report on their exclusive Advanced Crystal formula, showing how it complies with the most rigorous sustainability requirements, and I realized that it fit perfectly with the spirit of the Green Carpet Fashion Awards. The result is an elegant dress sprouting from the surprising combination of humble materials and precious Swarovski crystals. To me, this is the proof that creativity and luxury can and must go together with respect for our planet.

It’s exciting to be invited to demonstrate the “recycle, upcycle, re-use” message at Milan Fashion Week in February 2019, no?
It’s a great opportunity in terms of visibility. Even though the limited access to materials and pricing makes it impossible to put together a 100% sustainable collection, my goal is to include further sustainable elements in my collection, step by step—for instance, through eco-friendly fabrics, committing to not using real fur, and upcycling stock fabrics (which reduces waste).

Can we expect to see any surprising new sustainable developments in the near future?
I hope so. I’m definitely open to new proposals and solutions in terms of materials and technology. Thanks to Eco-Age, I’m discovering interesting manufacturers that are experimenting with new techniques and fabrics. I don’t know how long it will take until this becomes a more common and accessible reality, but it feels like the dawn of a new awareness, and it’s exciting.