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‘Sustainability means nothing’: How Atelier & Repairs’ Maurizio Donadi approaches responsible fashion

Maurizio Donadi’s jacket has a long history.

The jacket, made from a pure indigo denim, began its life as the uniform of a 1960s French steel worker. But where once the jacket was utilitarian, it now sports delicate patches made from rare Japanese fabrics, and the interior is lined with white stitches, hand-stitched in the Italian sartorial style.

Like all of the clothes produced by Donadi’s Atelier & Repairs, the jacket is one-of-a-kind, repaired and transformed by the craftsmen employed at Donadi’s Los Angeles studio. It is an entirely new and unique piece, made from vintage, unused or unsold elements from other clothes.

This is the business model behind Atelier & Repairs, the brand Donadi started in 2015 with the aim of taking on one of fashion’s biggest problems: massive overproduction.

“The numbers are staggering. The industry produces 150 billion finished garments a year for a population of 7 billion people on earth – and probably one-third of those 7 billion cannot afford one item a year anyway. And then because of seasonality, you keep that overproduction going. Every six months, something new,” said Donadi. “Ideally, we are an effort to eliminate the excess of finished garments but also of textiles. Billions if not trillions of yards of materials and fabrics are produced and never used.”

Donadi describes the creation of Atelier & Repairs as the conclusion of a “mystic crisis” he had. After 35 years in the fashion business, working at brands like Armani, Benetton and Ralph Lauren, he was looking for a new venture, but could not reconcile the creation of a new brand with the knowledge that the fashion industry already produces so much that goes unused. Much of the fashion industry’s excess material ends up burned, as Burberry showed when it destroyed more than $36 million worth of clothes last year.

Atelier & Repairs fits into the larger trend of upcycling, the act of taking older, existing pieces and updating them. Some of the biggest names in fashion have dabbled in this trend, such as Ralph Lauren, in addition to younger brands created with upcycling as a core part of their identity, like For Days. The rise of fashion consignment platforms like The RealReal and ThredUp signals consumers’ willingness to forego the constant cycle of new seasonal clothing and look for gold among the clothing that already exists out in the world.

Instead of producing new pieces, Atelier & Repairs sources unused and unsold garments from other fashion houses and from vintage shops, and restores and transforms them into something new. What sets the company apart from other upcycling brands is that Atelier & Repairs does not do collections. Every single piece is examined, considered, restored and embellished on an individual level.

This both ensures that every piece is completely one-of-a-kind and means that Atelier & Repairs moves like an “incredibly slow brand,” according to Donadi. Because of this, the brand’s operations are limited to its e-commerce store and one L.A. boutique, although recently Donadi has begun selling small selections to a few high-end retailers.

“We are very demanding in the work that we do,” he said. “At one point, we had to stop outsourcing production and open our own factory. That is a major commitment. We can only produce so many pieces a year due to our process. Not many retailers in the world understand what we do. We haven’t really communicated what we do because we are too busy thinking about the product.”

While there is an undeniably ethical aspect to this business model, Donadi said the desire to challenge himself creatively was an equally motivating factor, calling ethics and creativity the “two pillars” of the company. People are at their most creative when they are under limitations, according to Donadi, and that desire to limit one’s self in order to discover new creative ground is just as important to the creation of Atelier & Repairs as the desire to curb the fashion industry’s excess.

This vision appears to have been successful so far. Atelier & Repairs’ pieces have been featured at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong over the last few seasons and are a favorite of Bergdorf Goodman’s men’s fashion director Bruce Pask, who features new pieces from Donadi every few months.

Atelier & Repairs’ business model is consistent with the trend of “sustainable fashion,” but Donadi balks at this term.

“Sustainability means shit. It means absolutely nothing,” he said. “It’s an empty word used for marketing reasons. We are a responsible company. Being responsible means you think about something before you do it. Responsibility is not about using organic cotton; it’s about treating people right, giving them good working conditions, paying them right, not polluting the planet. There is no purity to sustainability. No company will be ever be pure, but every company can be responsible.”

For all his objections to the superficial elements of sustainable fashion, Donadi does feel a deep obligation to the environment and to diminishing his negative impact on it.

“I am responsible for managing brands that produced so much excess,” he said. “I couldn’t bring myself to sell another T-shirt. I became uncomfortable with the idea. [Atelier & Repairs] is an attempt to eliminate what I helped create, this problem. I don’t believe in war, I don’t believe in religion, I don’t believe in passports or borders. I believe that all of the earth belongs to everyone, and I want to represent that idea through my work. My medium is textiles. I’m not an artist, but I do know how to make a pair of pants.”

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