From organic cotton to natural fruit dye, meet the pioneering Apulian brands embracing eco-friendly textile
In May 2020, two young entrepreneurs, Pietro Gentile and Michele Steduto, decided to sow three hectares of cotton in the plain of Capitanata, in Agro San Severo, in the province of Foggia. On September 25th, Marino Vago, the president of the Fashion System of Italy, cut the red ribbon of the first cotton crop harvest. It is one step for Gentile and Steduto but a giant stride for the Apulian textile industry, pioneering a slow yet firm move towards 100% Made in Italy organic cotton manufacturing. The long-term objective was to create a zero-kilometer supply chain for the entrepreneur’s brand, Gest, which focuses on shirting fabric production by appointment only. The duo has adopted an advanced cultivation system that allows 75% water savings.
While cotton production has already kicked off, Puglia counts numerous brands that carry the threat of sustainability through their creative designs. The designer’s aspiration to adopt an eco-friendly attitude is in response to the environmental threats of fast fashion and the pollution that the global industry creates. VIA Magazine interviewed three visionary Apulian brands that are pioneering fashion’s ethical movement.
Plants à Porter
When Martina Bellomi started experiencing skin irritations and a general feeling of discomfort with new clothes, she was convinced that it was time to find other alternatives. She began searching for the purest textile and experimented with natural dyeing fibers at home. It wasn’t long before Martina left her full-time position as a copywriter and followed her instinct to Puglia, leaving the big city in exchange for office space in nature. Moving to Puglia was not an improbable decision, however, as she carries Apulian roots thanks to her grandmother, who comes from Andria, north of Bari. Understanding that chemical substances in the fabric were harming her skin, Martina sought new ways to source her colors and began experimenting with natural dyeing fibers using plants, flowers, and even food waste.
Her brand, Plants à Porter, was born “with the hope of reducing fast fashion impact on our planet and the mission of sharing a message of love for nature, consciousness, and sustainability.” In her studio, located in the countryside of Cisternino, Bellomi practices ancient techniques in the art of hand dying with research that guides her in choosing the highest-quality natural fibers and recycling textiles with the potential of having a second life.
The mordanting bath is an ancient technique used to ‘train’ the fabric to receive a certain color as well as to make it last. It is a process that requires time and patience, waiting for the fabric to ‘accept’ the proposed color, watching as the dye penetrates the fabric, and waiting for the passage of time to show the results of her labor. To modify the color she uses citric acid and she sources natural linen and cotton to create her collection, and her favorite plant-palette is the rubia tinctoria, a plant whose roots have a strong red pigment used for dying fabrics, and the red onion for reaching the yellow shade. Besides her textile collection, Bellomi also creates talismans with natural plants inside to heal the body and soothe the mind.
“I discovered the infinite possibilities of creating products with plants and food wastes: from herbal remedies for health to plant-based textiles and natural colors.”
Martina is working to produce a vintage wear collection and limited edition home accessories, including hemp and linen upcycled pillow covers and table settings. The pillows also consist of herbs’ healing energy: for example, Bellomi uses millet hulls inside the pillow used to naturally relieve headaches. Bellomi does not seize to search for new ideas and plans to launch a collection of cashmere and wool pants, and a herbal pillow collection coming soon made with chamomile and lavender. She will hold botanical dye workshops at her house where she will teach the healing power of plants and botanical colors.
On Instagram @plantsaporter
Miguel Arnau is a fashion stylist who has an impressive list of editorial magazines and photographers in his portfolio, starting from New York and traveling across Europe. In the middle of 2018, he decided to move to Puglia, took a farmhouse, and launched his brand, Marnau Project, a new name with an online store that is set to launch in one week. The collection comes out once a year, at the beginning of August, and features comfortable clothes both for in-and outdoors. “There is another formula in producing clothes that can last in time. My inspiration was all the things that surrounded me. I wanted to transmit and communicate my passion for this place (Puglia) through the clothes,” says Arnau. His philosophy embraces the right pace, which is to take time and explore all the possibilities and leave the rush present in the fashion industry to understand what he wants to do in the future. Everything required for production is within two kilometers of his farmhouse close to Ostuni. No industrial processes are involved whatsoever, only handmade approaches.
“The landfill of old oil trees that are around 200-years is a great inspiration. It is like looking at contemporary life sculptures. The sky, birds, and the colors of sunset – the sunset in Puglia is wonderful.”
Miguel Arnau mixes stitching and prints in his collections that appear as pajamas but are utilized on different occasions. These ‘pajamas’ are more upscaled and detailed. It explains Arnau’s approach in not classifying clothes. Being in the fashion business, one must be tolerant and inclusive, hence producing clothes that would be comfortable for people regardless of age and sex. The brand’s sustainable footprint includes keeping the production close to his house, decreasing transportation to a minimum, using white cotton and handmade artisan work. “My aim is not to sell clothes; I am just interested in doing beautiful things,” says Arnau. In hand with launching his online store, he is working on the upcoming summer collection, including prints and stitching, and will have a wider variety for womenswear.
Miguel Arnau’s website will be revealed soon
On Instagram @marnauproject
Ian von Hessenbeck and Lauren Worthington, the creative directors behind ILLUAH, met in Florence. With all the garments, crops, fibers, water supply, and energy usage, fashion is painfully one of the world’s most polluting industries. Von Hessenbeck searched for new creative ideas to implement while Worthington had an idea and vision to share. Balancing each other throughout the road, they launched ILLUAH in 2019, a sustainable brand that focuses on womenswear and accessories. Ian von Hesenbeck moved to Puglia more than a year ago, and lives in Lecce, while Worthington joins the brand’s meetings from Australia. Ian already has notable experience in fashion, as he worked for YSL in Paris and as an editor for several magazines, including Vogue Italia.
When he felt that fashion was becoming repetitive, he quit it to continue working in interior design, another Ian’s passion. “Lauren introduced me to the world of sustainability, and there was the value,” says von Hessenbeck. Having studied at a school that focused exclusively on sustainability, Worthington was well versed in how to apply those practices in the field. When they first started implementing sustainability practices in their newly-launched brand, there was little exposure to this topic. Their objective was set clear – create a product that will talk to people.
“We don’t use plastic, even recycled.”
ILLUAH brand kicked-off with knitwear and jewels, and as a young brand, the further they grow, the wider will be the range. ILLUAH does not follow seasons, as traveling has blurred the concept of seasonal clothes, so it has set to produce twice a year, and later reconsider the collections’ quantity. To create the knitwear collection, Ian and Lauren collaborate with an Apulian family-run company, and they create the jewelry collection with an artisan from Lecce. The textile in the collection is woven using yarn from plants, pineapples, and weed, operating principally in Florence. The duo left nothing to chance: von Hessenbeck and Worthington traveled to India to research natural color dying techniques and implement the practice into their collections, including those to come, offering jumpers, cardigans, and statement pieces that would, especially with knitwear, change from outdoor to indoor by merely adding a detailed accessory.
Ian and Lauren personally ensure that everything starting from fibers and the boxes used to deliver the products to customers is sustainable. “We are offsetting the carbon emissions by planning the shipment. If we get an order, we check on a particular website, to know how much emission we emit by inputting the distance,” says Worthington.
The ILLUAH collection is available online at https://illuah.com/
On Instagram @illuah
There is a conscious curiosity to wear goods that don’t just look good, but ‘feel good’ – Plants à Porter, Marnau Project and ILLUAH are proof of that.
The Apulian fashion industry today counts almost 5000 businesses and that number continuously grows, including initiatives such as Tex-Tech that aims to create a Sino-Italian research center dedicated to product innovation. There is a factory in the town of Putignano that produces plastic fibers, another factory in Melpignano manufactures luxury yarns by periodically decreasing pollution of the production in the process. The government’s input on the ‘green economy’ is rising as well; according to a brochure released in 2015 by the Apulian council, the region produces 17% of energy from wind, photovoltaic, and bioenergy and over 36% of the energy consumed is from renewable sources.
There is a conscious curiosity to wear goods that don’t just look good, but ‘feel good’ – Plants a Porter, Marnau Project, and ILLUAH are proof of that. This is because we can trace their journey to us. It took us a while to understand this, but now, thousands of entrepreneurs are looking to cultivate a fashion mindset that will speak to the environment as it already speaks to us, and if indeed, who we are is what we wear, then every choice counts.