If waste is only waste when it’s wasted, Nece Gene shows us how to turn it into high fashion couture, made from denim industry waste.
We know upcycling is a critical need for the fashion realm; in an age where clothing production has doubled since 2000. Ahead of this year’s holiday season, we saw images deep in the Atacama Desert of Chile where new dunes were forming — not of sand, but of last year’s unsold clothing from around the world.
Meanwhile, secondhand clothing markets like Kantamanto in Accra, Ghana, receive roughly 15 million garments a week– in a country of 30 million.
Yet, the common image conjured in the brain when we think of upcycling needs refinement. We often think of small DIY home projects to make with a few scanty fabric scraps, or patchwork clothing made from deadstock fabric– all valid and necessary in their own right, but seldom do we see examples of avant garde fashion– with a capital F.
That’s why I was particularly excited when Neha Celly reached out to introduce her new brand earlier this year. Nece Gene is all about high fashion couture denim, all made from denim industry waste.
I knew it’d be the perfect look for the Genova Jeans Convention I was invited to a few months later; the first-ever festival dedicated to the artisan heritage of the birth city of denim: Genoa, a sleepy port city in Northwest Italy.
And let me tell you, her outfits were a whole hit. Today, we’re conversation with Neha about her philosophy on all things upcycling, denim, and more.
reuse (discarded objects or material) in such a way as to create a product of higher quality or value than the original.
“the opportunity to upcycle trash, or turn it into new products, was vast”
Tell me about your background, and what led you to start your brand.
I am the founder of Denim design and research house called Bluehemia and have been working in the denim industry with a few denim mills globally and some small arty brands for many years. At Bluehemia, we design, ideate, create and give brands a voice of their own through fabric, collections and communication design.
Having worked as a design and strategy consultant with mills and brands, I know that the beautiful denim comes with a downside too.
In most cases, manufacturing denim is a polluting process that involves toxic dyes and chemicals, many of which end up in our water supply. The denim industry also uses a tremendous amount of water, from growing cotton to creating washed jeans.
Doing my bit of research on how the industry impact could be reduced, I collaborated with the prestigious denim company Arvind Mills to start a sustainable brand called ‘nece gene’.
The products in the brand are comprised of high fashion couture denim and avant-garde products: all made from Denim Industry waste and zero virgin material.
What are your brand philosophies & values?
Our philosophy is to create sustainable fashion that doesn’t come at the cost of design. Creating highly aesthetic pieces using only stocks, closing the loop completely, and making sure there’s nothing that gets wasted in the whole process.
Nece Gene is created based on the basic principles of Regenerative Fashion. Instead of the fashion industry’s ‘make-wear-waste’ philosophy, we follow the ‘innovate-wear-recycle’ pattern.
In the current time, where our planet is already burdened with humongous amount of fabric and garment stocks, it’s best to use up the existing stock to create new collections, instead of creating virgin material. Upcycling needs a lot more effort than regular design process, since it’s using stocks and surplus to create new pieces. The only way though to help regain what we’ve lost is to stop filling our lands with more material and start using what we have.
Take us into your process in recycling/upcycling denim?
Our design process starts from the piles of waste we receive from the mill.
We segregate this material color, weight, and content-wise, post which the real design happens.
- Small yardage bits get converted into couture.
- The waste left from this creation gets re-woven into a new fabric that’s woven on a handloom with thin leftover denim strips. To give it more character, old newspapers, wrappers, and different colored denim strips are woven to make this new fabric. Accessories like bags, cushions, wall hangings are made with this technique. We call this technique ‘Denim on loom’
- Some of this cutting waste is being used to make hard bricks. We call it the ‘DeBrick’. It’s made with compressed denim waste with minimal bio-epoxy. We made a DeBrick stool and some beautiful pendants. A lot of experimentation is happening around this.
- In the end, some small bits and fiber pulp is left. This pulp is used to make 100% indigo, tree-free paper.
The brand is doing all it takes to ‘close the loop’ by using up the last bit of thread and fibre to make aesthetic and sustainable high fashion products.
In terms of manufacturing our pieces, we only manufacture based on orders, making sure there’s no inventory. Also, our collections are planned twice a year, with mindful pieces across apparel, home and accessories.
What would you like to see in your & your brand’s future?
Currently, the brand involves creating products with discarded pre-retail waste from mills. We’ve been approached by a lot of brands and mills to use their surplus and build a similar aesthetic for them. This has been a great step for us in helping brands get on to their sustainable journeys.
Going forward, I’d like to collaborate with more and more denim brands for them to become sustainable through our design and communication ideas. For nece gene, as and when our categories grow, I see repair, resale and rental: a future of all three happening.