Fatra was self-founded by activist, designer and professor Akilah Stewart. Translating to ‘trash’ in Haitian, Fatra produces high fashion, luxury bucket bags featuring a variety of upcycled prints and fabrics with the base of every bag being a plastic bottle retrieved from the ocean. Fatra prides itself on the mission of regeneration rather than recycle; and proclaims that creative waste management is key to alleviating the pressure of waste on the planet. Stewart tells us how the commoditised definitions of ‘sustainability’ and ‘luxury’ must be re-defined to move forward as we discuss ethical labour, Fatra’s latest collection, and all things accountability.
Your focus is on reintroducing waste back into production and making fashion circular to alleviate environmental pressure on the planet. What made you take the decision to actively combat plastic pollution by converting it into the base for high-fashion luxury handbags?
So, the whole idea of Fatra is less fashion design and more Creative Waste Management. It’s basically showing that you can do many things through waste, it doesn’t necessarily need to be fashion, it could be literally any other industry. Fatra just so happened to go into fashion because that’s my background – I did design for about 10 years and I also feel that fashion is a way to speak without saying anything, it’s always a conversation piece, it’s something you’re going to wear out and people are going to ask questions about. Once you tell people the bag is made from a plastic bottle and that its made from recycled materials, I think that that’s where real education and growth can begin.
Fatra’s mantra is "educate, alleviate, inspire" when it comes to upcycling and being eco-friendly, can you tell us a bit more about that, and why it’s so important to spread this message of regeneration in the fashion industry rather than just recycle, we can use what we already have to make new things?
I think regeneration is a lot more important to me than just recycling because of the cultural aspect, it was part of my life. Growing up with parents from the Caribbean, our culture was less about just using less because you can, it was more about reusing existing things to prolong their life cycle for as long as possible, it’s about the regeneration both in the short term and the long. It’s important to add that we already have "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" but what happens with that recycled piece? How can we regenerate that at a different stage of the chain, instead of having to fix it at the end?
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Every bag on Fatra is unique, can you talk me through the process of selecting recycled fabrics for the Fatra bags? Is it a case of designing as you source unused materials from different places, or is it more a selective, collection-based process?
The design process is a very unique one, it’s design in reverse. It’s human and waste centred first so therefore my designs are based on whatever we receive from brands and communities, we go through that and let that tell the story in the bag. It’s quite selfless in terms of design, that’s why I want to stray more from fashion and into creative waste management, for me it’s more thinking, "what do we have that we can salvage?" before I begin designing, in comparison to many designers that create a collection of solely pinks, or purple silk, because that’s exactly what they want to create without question. The industry has to be able to shift with the community and not the other way around.
How big is the Fatra team? I understand you are self-founded and self-taught, is anyone else involved in the production?
It’s all me baby! I have a very small team in terms of support, we have an organisation called ‘Sisters in Sustainability’ which includes a whole host of Black women within the sustainability space where we all share opportunities and information.
My brother is also a part of the process while being the creative director for his own brand, so he has a lot of input into my brand and then it’s just different people who are excited about the brand, I love collaborating with artists from different backgrounds and experiencing different perspectives. That’s the whole point, artists need to enter different industries to gain different perspectives and create different outcomes. I think now is the most important time for collaboration, there has been such a shift this year, with everything going online, it’s important to not only have doctors in the room to fix a certain problem, but we also need different voices, and that’s what collaborating is about. Using creativity as a problem-solving agent beyond the aesthetic, although the design aspect is important, this is essential.
You have stated previously that society needs to redefine what ‘sustainability’ is and give credit to the indigenous communities who have been living sustainably since the beginning of time – for example, using every bit of an animal as to limit waste and pollution was seen as logical to sustain life. How important is it for you as a Black female business owner to restore sustainability to its original definition and project the voices and practices of the marginalised communities on your platform?
Let’s talk about this! Prior to founding Fatra, I had a brand called Sweet and Salty Shoes where I designed footwear and the fashion industry was very different then and I think I took a lot of lessons from that and applied it to Fatra, in terms of having a mission and wanting it to be about sharing the voices of the voiceless and looking at fashion as a whole and thinking about how I bring those two aspects together. A large part of me is an activist so I think that it’s so important to define sustainability for what it is, when you don’t fully understand the definition of something you cannot act accordingly so when you, as an educated person on sustainability, explain what it truly is in terms of materials and ethics etc, people are going to fall off because not everyone is able to understand and do those things. Defining sustainability as an ancient, non-glamourized survival tactic is crucial because sustainability is not new, it’s newly found. There are so many different communities that can teach you so much about sustainability, we need to lean into the regenerative side of life in that there is always something to reflect on, someone has lived and done this before us. Sustainability in communities has been broken down and resold to you, excluding the people who were there at the beginning.
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On the Fatra site, you state that for an item to be luxury, "the human labour involved throughout the entire supply chain must be valued", how do you think we can hammer this message into the big international fast-fashion brands, who still exploit their predominantly female, predominantly migrant workers, throughout the entire production?
It’s incredibly important for me as a brand to lead by doing – I think being as transparent as possible is key. I am going to be launching a platform that will show the customer more about how Fatra bags are created, and also show the reverse of that, show what a conventional item takes to make. A lot of this is education – you cannot know what you don’t know. That’s why our mantra is "educate, alleviate, inspire", if people don’t know that workers are being exploited, how can they change their consumer habits? Everyone has different economic situations so we cannot say, "don’t shop there, it’s bad"; certain stores are some peoples' joy, some peoples’ self-care, and we can’t judge them for that. We need the brands to educate themselves and make change once they know how – again, we can’t expect them to do this without education and resources. They can be held accountable once they take the steps to improve. If you can – do, if you know better, do better.
Your SS20 collection Shit is Gettin’ Wild features various animal print fabrics in the signature FATRA bottle-bag silhouette, what was your inspiration behind this collection?
Honestly, because shit is getting wild! As I said, fashion has to move with society – there is so much going on from COVID, to President Trump, protests, riots, to Black people getting killed in the streets that this collection just fit the times, I swear it’s like I predicted this year and last. It just so happened that fortunately we received a tonne of animal fabric and it just worked from there!
The oxymoronic concept that Fatra is producing luxury accessories from ‘trash’ and plastic waste is my favourite part of the brand – ethical fashion futurism is almost a snub to the rich society who buy a new outfit, shoes and bag for every event. Do you think that brands like FATRA, who are redesigning high fashion to be sustainable and accessible, will change the perspective of society on what ‘luxury fashion’ is?
That’s the goal, that’s the inspire part [of the mantra]. I hope that larger brands start to look at their excess and how to do the same thing better. As a company and as a designer, your goal should be "how can we do this better?". That should always be your go-to every year, inspiring and improving. I think industries need to collaborate to improve and change the system, and big brands need to jump on board, or they’ll be left behind.
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I understand that, pre-pandemic, you led workshops around the globe to educate the population on how to divert waste headed for landfills and put it back into the production cycle. Can you tell us a bit about the educational aspect of Fatra and your role?
I teach everyone! I am a professor at Parsons where I teach adults and children, I also run a workshop called On Wednesday’s We Mend where I teach young communities to mend their clothes, mend their spirits and learn to sew their clothes. Most of the waste in the waste cycle ends up there because of minor issues like rips and missing buttons, when these things can be easily mended and alleviate pressure on the waste industry, if you know how. Intergenerational education is so important and young people should always be in the mix because that’s what keeps culture alive and that’s what shapes, changes and evolves culture - youth and growth.
Would you say that the style and skill level of the Fatra bags has evolved with your sustainable journey and expanding knowledge of the production industry? How does your newest bag compare to the first one ever made?
YES. This is our 4th year in production, since our first bag we have made big changes, Fatra is ever evolving. We have added more durable textiles, and constantly work on strengthening and redesigning certain aspects of the bags after wearing and testing the strength of straps and positioning of fabrics, etc. Another useful aspect of our bags is the fact they can be re/deconstructed for updates in production – you can always send the bags back because our intention is to make a bag you will keep forever. That’s luxury, something you will pass down, something that has a story and a background is luxury. From our first bag there has been such a change – I just released a collection of bags called Bags On Bags which is made from recycled plastic bags and packaging, just branching out my brand and collaborating really. Adding more designs, adding different price points and reevaluating them as we go, Fatra will always be elevating and evolving.
The Western world dumps its rubbish, and environmental burden, on Pacific countries whilst the accountability still lies with the entire Western civilisation. Change in our habits must come quickly, if there was one piece of guidance you could give to consumers to combat wastage build up on a daily level and alleviate the pressure on landfills, what would it be?
If you look at your day-to-day life, there will already be things you do that are sustainable. Don’t be hard on yourself if you falter in one aspect like using plastic bottles or plastic bags, focus on the one thing you already do and do it long term, really commit to making this concrete. Keep moving forward. Take time to research alternatives to something you can change easily without too much stress, there is always a more sustainable option out there.
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