There is an astonishing amount of textile waste in Hong Kong. But the documentary reFashioned can help you make sustainable fashion choices that will make an impact.
As a shopping paradise, Hong Kong has an abundance of fashion stores, many of which are fast fashion. Although fast fashion is cheap and easy on the pocketbook, it is hard on the environment and its cost, in terms of sustainability, is monumental. But there are other options available and making small changes in our lifestyle and switching to pre-loved clothes can make a big difference. reFashioned, an upcoming documentary on fashion waste directed by Joanna Bowers and produced by Kate Davies, highlights sustainable fashion alternatives. We chat with Joanna and Kate about their new documentary and its objective.
reFashioned – circular fashion pioneers
The three protagonists of reFashioned include locals Edwin Keh from HKRITA, Sarah Garner from Retykle, and Eric Swinton from VCycle. The film explores personal challenges and cultural mindsets in the race to reverse the effects of pollution caused by the fashion and textiles industry. It also highlights how technology can play a vital role in driving Hong Kong’s homegrown push towards a more productive circular economy.
Hi Joanna! Did you always have a knack for storytelling? How did your journey to filmmaking start?
I’ve always been attracted to the creative arts. The family legend has it that I was prancing around on my tip toes at two years old after watching The Nutcracker! Later, I took up ballet and was a dancer for a really long time. After that, I pursued broadcast journalism at the University of Leeds and, coincidentally, I always got a fashion placement for news assignments.
And then I fell into directing and acting when working with commercials in Los Angeles. I directed my first short film in 2009, this was about 10 years into my career. The rest of it just evolved organically. The Helper was something of interest to myself – in telling the story of domestic workers. Afterwards, people knew my name from the film, which helped in creating reFashioned.
You’ve previously worked in Dubai and the United States, but how different is it working in Hong Kong’s film industry?
Joanna: They’re all so different! I love the diversity of Hong Kong. My friends and colleagues here all come from so many different backgrounds and so many different sectors, and that’s really interesting to me. I’ve been in Hong Kong for over a decade now and it’s home to me. In terms of language, I’ve worked with people who speak English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, and the same is also true of the audience in Hong Kong. A lot of our crew members are bilingual and occasionally we’ve had interpreters. You just adapt and make it work.
In addition to the sustainability issues, what else inspired the making of reFashioned?
Kate: Edwin Keh – one of the main protagonists of reFashioned – is an alumni from the Liberal Arts College at Whittier College and he reached out to Joanna and wanted to share the story behind HKRITA.
Laura Southwood from EcoDrive introduced us to Sarah Garner of Retykle and Sarah represented an entirely different aspect compared to Edwin. Sarah was coming from being a part of the industry that created the problem of fashion waste; she had an epiphany after having children and started thinking “What is my purpose?” She’s on a mission to create a greener world for her children.
Likewise, Eric Swinton from VCycle reached out to us and then it all came together.
What do you aim to achieve through reFashioned? What do you hope audiences take away from the experience?
Joanna: We want our audience to feel inspired that they can be part of the change. We want to educate them first of all on what the problems are and what the solutions could look like. But we also want to put the control and power back into the hands of our audience. After watching our film, if you rethink how you buy and how you treat your clothes, that’s huge.
Kate and I came into this and neither of us are experts in sustainability. Every person of our generation is as guilty as the next person in consuming fast fashion because we weren’t aware of how problematic it is. We’re all in such a different place now where we’re more conscious about sustainability and so are the fashion brands.
Kate: This is an appeal to all ages, it’s not just for our generation. We want the next generation to be aware of this and make conscious decisions that will improve their future. With every small green decision you make, you’re voting for the future you want to create.
How did reFashioned come to be included in the lineup for the Life is Art Festival?
Joanna: To be honest, it’s all mostly due to our network of women in film. When The Helper was about to release, Emily Ting – another fellow filmmaker in Hong Kong – introduced me to Jocelyn Choi, as a film Emily had directed was released at Movie Movie. So then we got connected to Movie Movie and The Helper kept getting reruns, which was amazing and surprised us all. And the team at Movie Movie were very excited about reFashioned and they were all on board.
Jocelyn Choi at Edko Films is one of my heroes!
Fast fashion chains can be found in almost every corner in Hong Kong and we’re often pushed to these brands due to the price and availability. Do you think switching to sustainably-made fashion is the best way to combat the adverse effects on the environment? What else can people do to help?
Kate: Living a fast-paced life in Hong Kong, it’s very hard to live a waste-zero lifestyle. But small decisions like opting for a biodegradable bin bag or choosing a reusable bottle over a single-use plastic one helps us slowly get to a more sustainable future together.
Joanna: It’s also looking at a product and thinking “Do I actually need to buy this?” I think a lot of us have this mentality that when we see something we like and it’s affordable, we impulsively get it. We don’t really stop and ponder if we really need it and how often we’d use that product in the course of its life.
And there are alternatives like shopping vintage. Culturally, we may still be a little reluctant on secondhand clothes, it’s almost looked down on. Rather than buying a prom dress you’d only wear once, you can rent it or borrow it from someone. And it’s fascinating that the fashion world is evolving so fast – even within the time span of the making of reFashioned!
Aside from fast fashion, luxury and haute couture are a big part of the cultural landscape, but some of these brands aren’t always ethical or sustainable. What are some good choices for luxury and haute couture fashion with a lower carbon footprint? What should people look for?
Joanna: With any of those, just buy a second-hand one! Luxury is quality and durability – it’s supposed to be the best possible materials and craftsmanship so that it lasts. We’ve got Hula in Hong Kong and many other vintage stores popping up. It’s a lot cheaper as well, so it’s not just an environmentally-conscious choice but a financially smart one too.
Kate: And aside from stores that sell pre-loved products, I’ve bought second hand clothes off Facebook as well! It’s a more relaxed and sociable way to shop.
Do you believe films are the most effective medium to convey messages and call for action?
Kate: I think any medium is effective where you can connect with a character in the narrative and form a personal connection to the people you’re seeing, hearing, or reading about. It’s gonna change you somehow.
Joanna: I think we’re lucky with film because it’s such a visual medium. Different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses; as for films, going to the cinema is an immersive experience. A TV show may be more accessible – it can be watched from just about anywhere, even on phones – but it allows you to tell a longer story and tie together longer threads. Having said that, one of the biggest challenges of filming reFashioned was cutting it down to fit the timing of a movie.
What films and filmmakers have moved and inspired you?
Joanna: I can’t talk about my journey in filmmaking in Hong Kong and not say I haven’t been visually inspired by Wong Kar-wai. Ann Hui is one of my favourite local female filmmakers – A Simple Life is probably my favourite Hong Kong movie that also inspired me to tell the stories of domestic helpers.
I think my biggest inspiration at the moment is Ava DuVernay and watching her come in and blow away all the ceilings for women in the film industry. She comes in and holds the door open for other women in the film industry and supports and nurtures them onto the next project. And that’s what we aspire to be like.
What was different about working with an almost all-female crew?
Joanna: For a lot of our film crew, it was their first film feature credit. For me, I was struggling to get a feature off the ground for years. It’s such a big hurdle in entering the industry, so it’s rewarding to know that I can remove that barrier for other women. And amongst women, we communicate slightly differently. The reFashioned crew’s communication has been amazing and it has been such a collaborative process. And everyone has gone above and beyond to make reFashioned happen.
Kate: To be honest, I met Joanna at a Women in Media lunch so the female theme throughout this experience has been strong. We’re all professionals, we’ll get the job done no matter our gender. But it was a different experience working predominantly with women and the female bond was special to me in this movie.
Your works often bring social issues to light. We loved The Helper and your children’s book, My Extra Special Auntie. Are there any other social issues in Hong Kong you want to explore in the future?
Joanna: We’re developing a TV series right now about the Gay Games coming to Hong Kong in November 2022. I mean, gosh, that would be the most incredible compilation of stories. And I’m also interested in showcasing stories about the women who drive the sampans in Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter. It’s just an idea for now, we’ll see if we turn it into another documentary.
Watch the premier of reFashioned on 18 September 2021 at Edko Film’s Life is Art Festival, buy tickets here.