UPCYCLING: THE NEW COUTURE?

Meet creative director and design wonder Sebastian A. De Ruffray as he explores his definition of couture and how he creates through deconstruction.

PHOTOGRAPHER_ ANTHONY SEKLAOUI 

FASHION EDITOR_ GABRIELLE MARCECA 

STYLIST_ ALLY MACRAE

UPCYCLING: THE NEW COUTURE?

FEATURED DESIGNER_ Sebastian A. de Ruffray, SEVALI

WHERE ARE YOU BASED_ Paris

YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WORK AS “UPCYCLED COUTURE.” WHAT DOES “COUTURE” MEAN TO YOU? 

My work is strongly based on deconstruction, a concept that has influenced my perception of things. I have a “deconstructed” idea of couture. In contrast to the classical understanding of it, couture for me is more about a particular moment in which a strong feeling is expressed through fashion—when fashion speaks on its own. 

HOW DID YOU COME TO DEFINE WHAT YOU DO AS COUTURE?

I’m looking to give an extra value to upcycling and techniques that sometimes go underappreciated. Discarded garments and haute couture are concepts that do not normally go together, but I find that duality very inspiring. I came to the idea of “upcycled couture” as a way to transmit my intention of pushing the boundaries of upcycling to a higher level. It’s not couture from the traditional point of view. 

YOU SAY THAT YOU NEVER LOVED THE IDEA OF UNAPPROACHABLE OR EXCLUSIVE FASHION, BUT IN THE CLASSIC SENSE, COUTURE REALLY IS THE EPITOME OF UNAPPROACHABLE AND EXCLUSIVE. HOW DO YOU RECONCILE THAT?

I think the time has come to re-evaluate the meaning of couture. I believe it is a concept that evolves, and it needs to stay current. Couture is also the most experimental side of fashion, where everything is put into question. Proportions are put into question, materials are put into question. Maybe it’s time to put the word itself into question?  We live in such uncertain times that I think it is more important than ever for people to take risks. Designers should put themselves and the industry in question. I like to believe there are no rules or limits in creation. 

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE ARTISANAL (COUTURE) TECHNIQUES YOU’RE BRINGING TO UPCYCLING?

Most of our pieces are draped in the stand. We almost have no patterns in the atelier. Selected garments are unpicked and placed on the mannequin, pieces are mixed, overlapped. There is a lot of hand stitching, hand dyeing, and hand painting. We either repair embroideries or embellish them with sustainable beads. As we work with vintage clothes, sometimes the material presents color irregularities or stains that are not possible to remove. We embroider on top of these stains, covering them with thread. The techniques are adapted to suit the material. 

YOU’VE SAID THAT EACH MATERIAL YOU CREATE COMES WITH AN INHERENT MOOD OR ENERGY, AND THAT YOU’RE SHIFTING THE FREQUENCY OF THAT ENERGY WHEN YOU UPCYCLE. CAN YOU SHARE AN EXAMPLE OF A FINISHED PIECE AND HOW THE ENERGY OF THAT PIECE SHIFTED OR CHANGED THROUGHOUT YOUR PROCESS? 

Our upcycled puffer coats are a very good example. We rescued some abandoned flower-printed mattresses found on the streets of Paris. Even though the original object was not a garment, it shared the same feeling of comfort with our coat. Is fun to see people wearing it and say, "It’s so comfortable I could fall asleep!” In this case the original energy didn’t shift, but it was highlighted and elevated.

HOW DID YOUR EXPERIENCE AT ALEXANDER MCQUEEN INSPIRE THE WORK YOU’RE DOING NOW? 

McQueen has always been one of my main references. As a kid I remember seeing his work in fashion magazines. Coming from Chile, I never imagined I would be working at Alexander McQueen. It was just too surreal for me, and it was my first working experience, a few months after moving to London. I had never been exposed to that level of excellence and detail before. That was definitely something that shaped me. His outstanding ability to express deep emotions through clothing is one of the things that inspires me the most. 

YOU’VE REMARKED THAT THERE’S NO TECHNIQUE THAT MORE ACCURATELY DESCRIBES THE TIMES WE LIVE IN THAN UPCYCLING. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS? 

Upcycling is directly responding to an urgent need. The fashion industry has reached a critical point. It needs to find more sustainable ways of developing products and managing the incredible amount of waste it produces. Upcycling appeared as an effective option for battling these current challenges. However, it is just one of the constantly growing creative options to do so.

AS MORE AND MORE DESIGNERS BEGIN TO EXPLORE UPCYCLED ONE-OF-A-KIND PIECES, HOW DO WE MAINTAIN THE INTEGRITY OF COUTURE? WHAT HAPPENS IF EVERYONE MAKING ONE-OFF PIECES CALLS WHAT THEY DO COUTURE? IS THERE A RISK IN USING THAT WORD LIGHTLY, OR DOES THE ONE-OFF NATURE OF UPCYCLING MAKE IT COUTURE BY DEFAULT? 

In most cases an upcycled piece is a unique piece. I do believe such a piece is couture, but not necessarily because of its one-of-a-kind particularity. The one-of-a-kind character alone is not enough for it to be called couture—but that is my personal interpretation. 

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE COUTURIER IN THESE TIMES?

I like to think about the industry as a collective — I think it is important to realize the power of collectiveness. The role of the couturier doesn’t differ much from any other member of the fashion system. We should all aim for a more sustainable future, and we all have the responsibility to put things in question, to fight for gender and race equality, and to keep fashion aligned with what is going on in the world. Particularly the couturier and fashion designers should speak through their designs, creating collections with a clear and relevant message. Fashion should be a reflection of society and work for the progress of it.

IS ART AS A REFLECTION ON CONSUMERISM, OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE PLANET, AND GLOBALIZATION ENOUGH?  

I would say the question is, can anything really be enough? It is important to understand that it will never be enough, but we should all do something nevertheless. Art, through its universal language, has the ability to encourage others to find their own answers and solutions for sustainability. I find that very powerful.

– Sebastian Albornoz de Ruffray is a Chilean designer who lives and works in Paris / @sevali

SCARF DRESS_ RECLAIMED VINTAGE SILK SCARVES, SEWN BY HAND_COLLECTION 03_SEVALI / GARMENT BAG OUTWEAR_MADE WITH DEADSTOCK PVC_COLLECTION 03_SEVALI / VINTAGE SHOES
KNIT LEOTARD AND LEGGINGS_ MADE FROM REPURPOSED VINTAGE ARAN SWEATERS_COLLECTION 02_SEVALI / DUVET COAT_MADE USING OLD MATTRESS FABRIC, SILK LINING, THREAD EMBROIDERED APPLICATIONS_SEVALI
COAT_ MADE FROM REPURPOSED VINTAGE MOTORBIKE JACKETS, SILK LINING_ SEVALI_ COLLECTION 03_ / TARTAN BRA AND SHORTS_ MADE FROM UPCYCLED WOOLEN SCARVES AND SWAROVSKI CRYSTALS_ FW20_ LOU DE BÈTOLY / VINTAGE SHOES

"Couture is the place in fashion, where everything is put into question. Proportions are put into question, materials are put into question. Maybe it’s time to put the word itself into question." — Sebastian A. De Ruffray

SHIPPING LABEL TAPE TOP_ DELIVERY SERVICES SHIPPING NOTES PLACED ON THE MANNEQUIN AND SHAPED WITH TAPE_ SEVALI_COLLECTION 03
DRESS_ VINTAGE BEDSHEETS DRESS, DETAILS STITCHED BY HAND_ SEVALI_ COLLECTION 02 / GLOVES_ MADE FROM REPURPOSED VINTAGE LEATHER JACKETS AND CONSTRUCTION GLOVES_ SEVALI_ COLLECTION 02

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