Of Pirarucu Skins and Other Sustainable Things

The challenges of merging tradition with innovation in the fashion industry
By Kati Vereshaka
Kati Vereshaka
Kati Vereshaka
November 3, 2015 Updated: November 19, 2015

Traditionally, we simply called what we wore, clothes, garments, vestments, and then, at some point fashion was born.

Trends change at an ever-increasing pace until we arrive at a point where, by the time a trend appears, it’s almost obsolete. The viral dissemination of fashion images on social media are making trends visually ubiquitous and therefore nearly obsolete by the time they hit the stores materialized as garments. Wearing such creations has become an exercise in precise timing even for those who simply want to wear well-made clothes.

Where do we, as a civilization, go from here?

The planet and some people who are listening to its needs are telling us to stop and reconsider our choices.

Simone Cipriani, the founder of the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) has undertaken the task of implementing more responsible and sustainable practices in the fashion industry.

“We want to change the face of the fashion industry, to show that this is viable for any fashion brand.”
— Nina Braga, director, Instituto-E

Cipriani was recently in New York, where he has collaborated with The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to launch The Hand of Fashion—a new series of conversations addressing sustainable practices for the fashion industry.

According to him, traditionally, fashion has been about the artisans, materials, processes, and impact—all these things together in a single product. But modern fashion industry has divided these tasks so that each process is carried out by different people in different places.

Through the subdivision of labor “we lost the holistic vision of the product,” said Cipriani. “This is when the artisans started disappearing from the industry.”

Artisans have been replaced by often underpaid workers who are merely responsible for performing the same task every day, often in poor working conditions.

This is also why in his opinion, today’s fashion products have lost their value. But perhaps consumers are no longer content to simply covet and pay for products unless they can also justify the purchase because, if Cipriani is to be believed, they want to know more about what they’re buying. 

The Hand of the Maker

“We are going back to artisans because consumers want to see the hand of the maker,” said Cipriani. This time, he added, the fashion industry is going back to artisans with new materials, new processes, and innovation. 

Hand-weaving eco-jute into fabric.
Hand-weaving eco-jute into fabric. (Instituto-E)

On Oct. 29, Cipriani discussed sustainable materials and artisanship with Nina Almeida Braga, director of Instituto-E of Brazil at FIT. Instituto-E is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote human sustainable development. Braga shared stories of how the company’s artisanal partnerships have been changing the livelihoods of impoverished communities. She also spoke about the creation of some new materials that are starting to pique the interest of the fashion industry in Brazil and beyond. 

In partnership with sustainable fashion brand Osklen, Instituto-E launched a project called e-fabrics to research new raw materials that could be renewed in a sustainable way, as well as looking for innovative processes. Braga traveled all over Brazil for two years looking for raw materials. 

“We want to change the face of the fashion industry, to show that this is viable for any fashion brand,” said Braga at the talk. 

An Unexpected Treasure 

Among the more unusual raw materials found by Instituto-E and Osklen was the skin of the giant Amazonian fish called pirarucu. It is a protected species that has been managed by local populations who have helped the species regenerate. Locals still hunt it in traditional ways for its meat; and although they use its giant scales as nail files, they used to throw away its skin—until Braga got involved that is.

Nowadays pirarucu skins are used to make fine leather for fashion garments and accessories. This creates extra revenue for local fishermen who are the caretakers of the fish stocks as well. The tannery, which is three hours from Rio de Janeiro, is run by 30 women who would have moved to the city had they not found employment. 

Tanned piracuru leather from the Amazon.  (Instituto-E)
Tanned pirarucu leather from the Amazon. (Instituto-E)

Braga emphasized that through Instituto-E initiatives they try to achieve a 50 percent social and 50 percent environmental balance. But sometimes in Brazil, the social is more important. 

Organic cotton, for example, involves 906 families that grow and process the cotton and live in the northeastern part of Brazil. Without it, those families would not have any work at all and would also move to the city where living conditions are worse. 

The initiative works with different regions in Brazil to also manufacture organic jute and organic silk, and recycle plastics and cotton. 

Can makers of fashion merge tradition and innovation?

Beside the obvious economic benefits of small local industry, there are also bigger questions that need to be answered.

Journey of Sustainability

Cipriani emphasized that sustainability is not a recipe, but a journey that must grapple with deeper questions such as: Can makers of fashion merge tradition and innovation?

The issue of cultural misappropriation is another elephant in the room, something that both Cipriani and Braga are keen to resolve when they connect local communities with fashion brands. Fashion design is rife with counterfeit reproductions. This amounts to intellectual property theft, according to Cipriani. 

It remains to be seen how designers can navigate the dire straits of inspiration and citation of traditional motifs without crossing that line that is not always so clearly defined.

The Hand of Fashion continues through spring 2016. The series is free and open to the public.