Evolution from Beach to Barneys

This is late October 2010, the view from my room onto my favorite beach at sunset which is on the other, Caribbean side, of the island and reflects pink from the clouds onto the water. Tomorrow I start collecting beach plastic for 750 tees for Barneys New York. A dream project that was given to me by Julie Gilhart, the fashion director, after I won their Best New Sustainable designer award last Earthday.

Six years ago I first walked this beach, first noticed the traces of beach plastic in the surf line, and then the larger pieces caught in seaweed and beach grass. I started by picking up the most interesting and weathered shapes. I took pictures of beach plastic as it somehow tried to look pretty and fit in with nature.

I took the beach plastic back to the house and then back home to my studio near New York where it sat in bags and boxes. I am a fashion designer so I think in fabric and body shape, but I also think wearable so I gradually made earrings and necklaces from the most interesting shapes I’d collected. I started as  a purist, using only the shapes exactly as I found them, but as the beach plastic in my studio piled up I broke it up into smaller pieces and added it to fabric scarves and sarongs which I sold at the Delano in Miami Beach.

With this picture I entered the Barneys competition and I won six Loomstate organic tees: Blue, green, yellow, orange, red and purple. I took the blue tee and sewed my favorite blue pieces around the neck like a necklace and send it back to Barneys with a Thank You note….

A months later I was in the Barneys NY conference room and a month after that 750 blank Loomstate tee shirts arrived in my studio and I booked my trip to the island to harvest beach plastic.

A tile which I cut up and you can find on some of the black tees.

The bottom of a laundry basket which you can find on some of the yellow tees…

During the first week of December I moved the project to a pop-up studio made from 2400 plastic bottles at Art Basel Miami. There I continued to cut, shape, lay-out the design on each tee, mark them up, roll them up and send them to Lucia, Sandra and their team of local women who diligently sewed on each piece. They embroidered about 30.000 pieces of beach plastic over four months!

By Christmas I had run out of supplies and I went back to harvest some more. I guess in all I cleaned about 100lbs, four large totes, off the beaches. And still it never looked like I had made an impact on the litter I left behind.

After the Christmas trip I had enough tees back from Lucia to start  packing them up. I checked each one, stamped it with a Plastic is Forever +  logo (just above the much larger Loomstate logo) and bundled them using recycled bags.

I spent the last four months doing little else, as my husband, daughters, friends and hairdresser will attest, but, while doing my manual labor, I had  time to think.

About beach plastic. About plastic pollution, About its impact, about solutions, about re-purposing some of the plastic that is already out there. I thought about how plastic in its current form has been around for a relatively short time and the impact it already has on the environment.  I thought about why we do not take ownership of disposable plastic. How we buy the product within; the laundry detergent, the water, the toothpaste, but do not feel we own its container. Nobody owns the container. Its not our problem. And therein lies the problem. We have come to treat plastic as a cheap, throw-away material. We forget that it was heralded as the substance that would stop us from plundering earth’s natural resources like wood, tortoise, ivory etc.

The solution lies with us, with each and every individual, to stop and think before we choose convenience over wisdom.

I created this 750tees interactive blog-gallery to show the full scope of this beach plastic project, and how it slowed me down to a place of understanding.

We can all slow down.

If you stop right now, take ten minutes to really see each image you will notice that every piece of beach plastic tells a mysterious story. How did the barrette, the crate, the tooth brush, the toy soldier, the bead end up on that faraway Bahamian beach? Who owned it? What did they do with it and why did it get into the ocean? Did it come from a cruise ship? A seaside garbage dump, was it casually tossed away or accidentally lost?

If we slow down enough to think  then maybe we can stop just long enough to change the effect of disposable plastic on the ocean’s ecosystem, and when you choose to wear one of the 750 beach plastic tees you choose to own disposable plastic and reinvent its destiny by making it desirable and yes, even beautiful.

Barbara de Vries.

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