Interested in sustainable style? Alicia Tsi, founder and designer behind ethical fashion label, Esse, decodes eco-friendly fabric options – because they go well beyond synthetic vs natural...
Smooth and silky textures, breathable layers and beautiful, rich colours. We’re talking sustainable fabrics – and if you’ve been getting into ethical fashion and shopping a little more meaningfully, it’s time you get acquainted. Alicia Tsi, founder of local label Esse, is all about pared-back style and creating clothes that are made responsibly and designed to last. We got together to talk sustainable style, what’s at the heart of Esse. And as a designer who’s committed to using materials that have good eco credentials, are certified organic or rescued from waste – there’s nobody better to break down sustainable fabrics for us than Alicia…
You spent time in the designer fashion game. What made you start anew with Esse, and commit to sustainable fashion?
Being in the industry for a number of years fuelled my interest in the fashion supply chain. This led me to research on the impact of it. What I found totally changed my perspective – learning about the negative social and environmental impact (it’s the second most polluting industry next to oil), I decided that I wanted to take a more transparent approach to my brand and approach the processes of the fashion supply chain in a more conscious way.
As a consumer, I was quite dismayed at the quality of clothing from fast fashion brands and the habits that fast fashion brands encourage people to cultivate. I used to have a terrible shopping habit, but over time it made me feel like I was devoting way too much space in my wardrobe to purchases that left me feeling empty. I missed having a real connection to my clothes and I wanted to develop a relationship with the things I was wearing. I also wanted clothes that could withstand more than just a few turns in the wash, and began to seek out timeless investment pieces rather than throwaway deals.
What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned along the way?
Being a conscious, eco-friendly shopper does not have to come at the expense of style. This journey has led me to meet so many amazing green fashionistas like Susannah Jaffer, Founder of Zerrin and Laura Francois, Country Coordinator at Fashion Revolution who have a great sense of style and who still manage to shop consciously.
Fashion can impact the producers in a positive, non-exploitative way. For example, one of the fabrics that we use is Khadi cotton, handwoven by women in Maheshwar, India. These women are part of the WomenWeave NGO, which upskills and trains marginalised women allowing them to make handloom weaving a sustainable income source. In addition, the cotton that is grown to make this fabric is organic and non-Azo free dyes are used, reducing this fabric’s impact on the environment.
Adopting a greener lifestyle is a journey (baby steps is the right approach!), so one shouldn’t feel intimidated or pressured to make a 180 degree change overnight. I’m still learning along the way how I can apply more sustainable practices and take a more circular approach to the brand and my life.
How have your own fashion and shopping habits changed?
I’ve cut down on shopping drastically, thinking carefully about every purchase and the purpose it will serve in my life – for example, how many wears I can get out of every piece, what occasions I can wear a piece of clothing for.
I also gravitate towards brands that make clothes ethically and incorporate elements of sustainability in their supply chain. My mantra is to buy fewer and buy better, so every piece that I purchase is really an investment piece. One of the things I love to do is to visit vintage and thrift shops when I’m travelling – which is one of the most sustainable ways to be fashionable.
If there’s one thing you’d like fashion lovers and chronic shoppers to learn, what would it be?
Be curious and ask where your products are made. Knowledge is power – that alone can spark a conversation and help you gain a better understanding of each piece you choose to invest in.
What do you find most meaningful in your work?
Being able to tell the stories of the makers, and inspire customers to make more ethical and sustainable shopping choices through our garments.
Sustainable fabrics decoded:
Cotton is a staple fabric for most of us, so I wanted to elevate it with the use of organic material (grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers) while keeping the designs timeless. There are many other certifications of organic cotton but we try to use GOTS certified fabric (Global Organic Textile Standard) because it is the worldwide leading textile processing standard for organic fibres, as the entire textile supply chain is certified, right down to the ecological and social criteria.
I’ve used organic cotton to create a maxi dress (pictured above), wide-leg pants and paper-bag pants, which highlight how comfortable the fabric is on the skin. They are also key to the range because the billowy silhouettes showcase the breathability and lightness of the fabric.
Lyocell and cupro
While both of these fabrics are man-made, it’s important to know they aren’t synthetic (synthetic clothes are essentially made from petroleum). Lyocell is a fabric that is made from regenerated wood cellulose. It uses less water than cotton to produce, and takes just half an acre to grow enough trees for one tonne of Lyocell fibre, whereas conventional cotton needs at least five times as much land. Although it is mixed with conventional dyes, which can be harmful to the environment, Lyocell requires a lot less dye than cotton.
Lyocell is soft and absorbent and breathable, and one of the main reasons I love it is because of its ‘drape’. I thought that sleeker designs like my relaxed sheath dress (pictured top) would showcase Lyocell’s smooth and silky texture. It’s also a material that is perfect for everyday wear, because it’s really absorbent and is easy to care for (it’s machine washable) so I wanted to make sure that the piece created was work appropriate too.
Cupro is made from cotton linter: soft fibres that are often discarded during the production of cotton and recycled to create this breathable fabric. It has a lower environmental impact than other fabrics as it’s produced in a ‘closed loop’ : the chemicals used during its production can be extracted, and the water reused. It feels similar to silk, and drapes beautifully – perfect for our relaxed jumpsuit, and the tie-back halter dress pictured above.
These fabrics made from hand-spun yarns that are hand-twisted and woven. Most handloom fabrics are made from cotton yarn or a blend of cotton and silk yarns. These beautiful, textured fabrics are distinguishable from the uniform look of machine-made fabrics, and this textured look is only achievable with human skill.
By partnering with women weavers at an NGO based in Maheshwar, India, we support handloom weaving as a time-honored art, and help keep this age-old tradition alive. We also support the women who want to make handlooming a profitable, fulfilling, sustainable and dignified income-earning activity.
Cotton khadi (or handloom cotton, which I used for the shirt dress above, and for a stole, is extremely precious. The textured and non-uniform look was perfect for pieces that allowed the fabric’s character and identity to shine through.
When the term ‘deadstock’ or ‘leftover’ fabrics is used, the connotation is material that is ugly or old-fashioned. I wanted to challenge this notion by making pretty pieces that showcase how leftover fabrics can be beautiful. In addition, I wanted to create some awareness around the fact that a lot of good fabrics go to waste just because they were over-ordered or because fashion brands think that a colour or material is out of trend.
Each pound of waste from apparel production is associated with 2.06 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. By diverting fabrics from the landfill, we can potentially help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The fact that each of our rescued fabric styles is limited edition, makes it extra special, and gives that piece of leftover fabric a new lease of life – like the rescued denim top above.
Like this story? Check out more of Singapore’s eco entrepreneurs:
Raye Padit of The Fashion Pulpit has convinced us to swap, not shop
Susannah Jaffer’s online boutique Zerrin is about shopping meaningfully
Stephanie Dickson is the force of nature behind Green is the New Black
The Green Collective is Singapore’s coolest eco-friendly store
Source Collections created the best T-shirts ever: and they’re a sustainable, local design
Build your zero waste kit with these small businesses