Eco Costume Designer

Agnese Čivle


Estonian fashion and theatre costume designer Reet Aus is the most well-known Baltic eco-fashion designer. She has gained international media attention, including a Financial Times Weekend Magazine publication on Eastern European fashion debuts in the context of global fashion, and her pieces are to be found in Estonia, Finland and Belgium, as well as the USA.

In 2011, as a representative of the Estonian exposition, Reet Aus introduced her work in the theatre costume department to the world – at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space.  

The conversation with Reet Aus took quite a different, but no less interesting direction than planned.

Just like the artist stitches together her unique fashion designs from pieces of fabric, she also unpeels layer after layer of the shell of mass textile manufacturing and excessive consumption, revealing the unattractive scene hiding behind what we know as fast fashion.

In her conversation with, she talks about later attempts to conceal this ugly situation tonne by tonne in the earth’s crust, which is not ready for this and slowly starts to suffer and die...

Reet Aus, however, is not one for talk over action. In close collaboration with Estonian textile producers, the artist transforms raw cloth doomed to the dump into high-quality design apparel with added eco-value.

In 2011, you represented Estonia at the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space. How would you comment on your participation?

I was connected to the Prague Quadrennial for the first time. I’m not really very active regarding these types of events. In a way, I’m an outsider, since I don’t operate within a specific frame – a designer, fashion designer or theatre artist... I guess I am more of a conceptualist. I like action based on a motive and purpose, I like creating conceptual work. The curator of the Estonian exposition, Ene-Liis Semper, asked me to introduce my concept, my work in the theatre.

With German documentary filmmaker Lennart Laberenz, we created a video installation telling the story of how I work and why I work in this way. It was a story about the re-use of materials (upcycling) for theatre needs.

The exposition itself was created with a 100% upcycling concept – the set was created from second-hand clothing and fabric material, and people could watch the video settled comfortably on piles of clothes. The event actually turned out to be quite entertaining – people started trying the clothes on and having small fashion shows. Only half of the props were left at the end of the exhibition.

How would you describe the current trend for eco-fashion? And how would you comment on the criticism it has faced – that it is simply a temporary, transient fad, like the whole bio/eco/organic philosophy?

I work with something completely “unsexy” in the fashion world – scraps, the surplus of production. I intercept materials before they reach the landfill.

My design is not based on work with organic materials. Eco-fashion does not just mean using natural materials – the concept is much broader and quite complex.

Speaking of natural materials, there are many ambiguous aspects. If we followed the life cycle of a specific natural material from start to finish, more than a few social and environmental issues would surface. These issues are complicated and solutions are hard to find, so people avoid talking about them, including many so-called eco-brands.

Last spring I spent a few weeks in Peru and had the chance to see how cotton factories operate and how cotton is grown in Peru, later to be exported to all the corners of the world, and worn by us daily.

First of all, climate change has altered the normal rainy season – Peru has not seen sufficient rainfall in the last three years. Cotton grows more slowly, as the plants consume very large amounts of water. This situation affects fast fashion and mass production to a great extent. This season, cotton is three times more expensive. Soon we will have to face the fact that so-called cheap, fast fashion will not be so cheap anymore.

Secondly, young children are sent to work on the cotton plantations with their parents. At five in the morning, they are on the field already – they are not in school.

However, a positive trend is currently developing in Peru – it will be interesting to see what happens next. Production surpluses are no longer delivered to landfills due to limited resources, and recycling is being developed instead. I met an engineer who has invented equipment specifically for this aim.

However, most of the pollution results from the used clothes we throw out. The trend, which is really a trend, is to buy cheap clothes in bulk and throw them away. Often, the quality of the worn clothing is not good enough for it to be used again and nothing can be done.

A couple of weeks ago I visited a landfill in Tallinn, the largest in Estonia. There are only a few places in the world where textile products are sorted from other waste. It is an expensive process, and it is not clear what to do with them anyway. Thus, it all goes to landfills, rots for a long time and causes serious damage to the environment.

In Germany and the UK, old clothes can be placed in special containers. They are sorted, sold and sent to countries with a lot of second-hand stores, including the Baltic States.  In fact, second-hand stores fill their shelves mostly with the potential contents of the UK’s landfills! How ironic! Second-hand stores manage to sell about 20% of what they buy – the rest ends up in our landfills.

Actually, we still have no idea how great a problem this really is. But we will soon come to realize it, when it stares us in the face.

A fad or not, it is still good that people are acting with intelligence. Even those who make these decisions based on fashion trends – only because they wish to be modern. Whatever! That’s OK!

After the example of cotton you mentioned, it seems that “all that glitters is not gold”. How can we avoid confusion and do the right thing?

Even better than recycling and downcycling is reusing, when clothes are kept the way they are and worn again and again. Upcycling, too – when clothing or material is given a new value and quality.

And how do you do it?

In recent years, I have been working mainly with production waste, with industrial textile scraps from factories. I have been working with a denim factory n Estonia for some time. That is why my designs are so complex – they are are patched together from scraps, from small bits, not from whole pieces or bales of material.

My last two collections were like this, and I am continuing to explore the textile off-cuts that are available in Estonia, and understand what I could do with them.

Where do you draw inspiration for your new design ideas?

Inspiration comes from the material. In my last collection, I tested a variety of materials – industrial scraps, as well as pre/post-consumer materials.

I want to patent my last collection. The idea would be that anyone who has taken a liking to my design could use a pattern to create clothing from their own, their mum’s or friend’s old, boring jeans. Although no one usually wants to reveal how their models are created, I’m willing to be transparent. People can pay for my design and then - do it yourself!

How popular could this upcycling idea become - are people ready for such a solution?

People do not realize how much clothes we have! How many jeans are produced worldwide in one minute! On average, there are over 27 pairs of jeans per person. It is impossible to wear them out, so people throw their clothes away. A lot of them!

I stand for quality design clothing that is expensive and doesn’t just get thrown away. You don’t just throw away jeans worth 500 EUR. Before I buy something, I try to understand whether I’ll keep it and if I really need it.

However, people continue buying cheap fast fashion. This is a truly stupid trend.

Perhaps because they’re not ready to pay such large sums?

Instead of buying, say, three dresses from Zara and then spending all summer running into people wearing the same clothes, you could choose one high-quality designer piece. The math only takes five minutes!

How can people be motivated to choose local designers instead of Mango made in China or Zara made in Turkey?

To be honest, I have no idea!

The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark no longer have large production sites. They are all in Asia. But here in the Baltics, we still have small production units that can create good, high-quality things. I myself am a great fan of Estonian fashion designers. The Estonian fashion scene is really big right now. There are a lot of good designers, and it is hard to single any one out.

Everything lies in public awareness.

Perhaps the solution could be online stores for local designers that would serve as a source of information at the same time...?

It’s possible! That’s why I’m sure is going to be a hit– virtual fitting rooms – software developed by an Estonian company. Otherwise internet stores are not the best place to choose clothing. With the help of this software, however, by entering your data, the virtual mannequin will demonstrate how the clothing will look on the wearer. I’m also now thinking about adapting my design products for online fitting.

What should your creative climate be like? The environment you work in?

I don’t need one. To me, the most important is my independence and freedom to do what I really like to do.

For a long time, I chose to work only with alternative projects, but I was also invited to collaborate with a classical dramatic theatre. For the past two years, it has been interesting to observe how these two worlds coexist and where they meet. I work in a classical dramatic theatre, where innovative experiments take place. And I also experiment in my work.

I consider creativity to be a part of our lives, part of us – you only need to sit down and start working. It’s a natural process. I don’t wait for inspiration and I have no rituals.

You are practical! (?)

Very! Others say that I am a bit of a hippie, but I'm actually practical!