What does upcycling mean in the realm of sustainable fashion: the founder of huner, Hüner Aldemir talks about telling stories with used sails
huner is a brand which has embraced the upcycling aspect of sustainable fashion. Sails retired from the sea are transformed into bags and entrusted to new owners, accumulating new stories along the way. Turning her familial aptitude for handcrafts into a career path, Hüner Aldemir founded and is the designer of the brand huner. She talks to us about why upcycling is important for sustainability and slow fashion.
You are one of the brands in Turkey which has embraced sustainable fashion principles. You also have previous experience in the world of fast fashion, having worked at different e-commerce websites. How did you start this journey?
My journey started a long time ago, when I decided I wanted to be a fashion designer at age 7. My paternal grandmother was a tailor; both my paternal aunts, my maternal grandmother and even my father could sew really well. My older aunt taught me how to sew when I was 8. I’ve been making things with my hands ever since then. The career aspect started when I graduated from Pratt Institute in 2012. I worked with New York designer Peter Som for two years where we were producing four collections a year and every creation was being consumed extremely fast. I worked briefly as a buyer at two different e-commerce websites upon my return to Istanbul. Afterwards I happened to be included in the group whose project was selected to be presented in the Turkish Pavilion at the 16. Venice Architecture Biennial and that’s how huner’s journey started. The ship shaped structure Bastarda was to be made from left over materials found at the abandoned shipyards in Haliç. I was asked, as the only fashion designer in the group, to make a tote bag for the opening of the exhibition. By combining the nautical and upcycling themes of the exhibition, I decided to make the bags out of sailcloth.
What kind of steps do you take as a sustainable brand in terms of production and consumption?
huner is a sustainable fashion brand but the concept of sustainable fashion is extremely broad. Personally for myself and the brand, I’ve chosen to adopt the principles of upcycling. Different from recycling, upcycling is the process of repurposing left over or used materials into forms that are useful again, by adding value to the original material. So our main material, used sailcloth, is a good example for that. We even came across sails from the late 1980’s when we were producing our first collection. Most of the other materials we use in addition to sailcloth are dead-stock, meaning materials that have been sitting around in warehouses for years. During the production process we try to be as zero waste as possible by cutting each piece by hand. All the left over scraps we collected over the years have been waiting to become useful in some way in our storage room.
Your designs are comprised of used sails being repurposed as you mentioned. You may not always get the chance to find the exact patterns or textures you’re looking for as one might in fast fashion. What is the effect of the materials you find on your design process?
To be honest, I haven’t yet faced any negative aspects of not producing raw materials to order, it actually makes the design process a lot more fun. There are a lot of different traces left on the sails. For example, the racing number of the sail boat, the logo of a company if the sailboat has a sponsor, seaweed or rust stains, tell tales… I include all of these in the design process and cut the pattern pieces according to these. So the design process is a continuous one, the basic shape of the bag is the same but the designing aspect starts over with each individual bag. With all the trims in addition to the sailcloth pieces, I don’t actually know what the end product is going to look like until it comes off the sewing machine and is turned inside out. That is the most exciting part of the process for me.
You talk about how each product comes bearing its own story and that the owner of the product will add to its story in the process. What does this cycle look like?
I think that’s the best part of starting off with used raw materials, everything you touch has already lived a life before it has reached you. Once a sail leaves the sea and reaches the customer in the form of a bag, the user starts adding their own individual story to the bag’s life. For example if one person uses their tote bag on their work commute, maybe someone spills coffee on it on the subway or it gets rained on, the laptop they carry everyday starts to leave a dent in one particular spot. Or someone takes their necessarie on their summer vacation and the smell of sunscreen gets ingrained in the lining, a little bit of lipstick leaves a stain next to the seaweed stains. That’s why we take particular care to make sure our customers are able to use their bags for many years, we re-laminate each sail piece for longevity and we only use stainless steel accessories.
You’re currently about to launch your collaboration with WWF. What does this project entail?
It was such an exciting project to work on, and the results have turned out to be equally satisfying for both parties. The collection is comprised of three bags and three sweatshirts and is a perfect amalgamation of the aesthetics of huner and the products that Reflect Studio designs for WWF Market. For the bags we used huner’s materials along with dead-stock waxed cotton, paying attention to upcycling and zero waste principles and making sure each bag is unique as always. For the sweatshirts we combined the graphic nature of nautical flags with 90’s nostalgia and interpreted the B, G and F flags to represent WWF’s Brighter, Greener Future motto.
What kind of difficulties do you face when promoting a sustainable fashion brand in a world of ultra fast paced production and consumption?
I think the most difficult aspect of marketing a sustainable brand is the fact that you’re trying to sell a product you’ve produced while trying to keep customers from over consumption, it creates a huge dilemma. On the other hand creating things with my hands is what I love doing the most so I’m trying to follow my passion by doing the least amount of damage to the world. The most important responsibilities we have as brands are to discourage people from unnecessary shopping, to produce in moderation and to educate our customers.
Why should we value slow fashion?
It should be obvious to everyone at this point how much fast fashion is damaging our world and that it’s not possible to keep living like this. To bring it back to upcycling again, I think the fact that there are still virgin raw materials being produced when there is so much material that can readily be used is a huge problem. We need to keep focusing on being seasonless, utilizing whats on hand, using our belongings for longer periods of time and in general consuming a lot less.
A lot of brands worldwide and in Turkey are aiming to make their biggest sales of the year both online and offline during Black Friday. What is your brand’s and team’s attitude towards this day?
We don’t participate in these kinds of promotions or even hold end of season sales because our production is centered around being seasonless. We don’t have the problem of being left with a lot of stock at the end of a season because we already produce in small batches according to our needs. I also think that the customers need to be more critical about these sales. For example think about the steep price difference between an item at the beginning and the end of a season or how ethical the production process can be for these brands that can still profit with extreme discounts.
What kind of activation are you planning for Buy Nothing Day which follows Black Friday?
This is just swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other, can’t we declare that each day becomes Buy Less Day?
*Translated and published with permission from the original article's author, Iris Işık.