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Berlin Designer Gives New Life to Old Denim

In the right hands, an old pair of jeans can become a coveted piece of art.

Those hands belong to Sophie Rowley, a Berlin-based designer who reclaims waste and transforms it, through her own novel processes, into something altogether different. Rowley’s latest collection is focused around recycling denim. The material became her muse in 2014, when she was a struggling grad student at Central Saint Martins in London.

“I was a bit lost,” she told Rivet. “I was kind of poor, too, so I couldn’t spend much money. I decided to work with what I had around me, to find materials that were of low value and to enrich them through the processes I would apply.”

After “a whole portfolio of experiments” with materials like Styrofoam, glass and more, Rowley found denim. Textile waste was common and easy to come by, so she began playing with techniques she’d learned in her woodworking and ceramics classes.

“Because I have a textile background myself, it was something I could relate to,” she said.

Resin, which was the material du jour in Rowley’s grad school days, also sparked her curiosity. “Everyone wanted to see what they could do with this material,” she said. She began mixing her fabric scraps with the polymer substance, allowing her to shape and sand them into solid structures.

There’s an organic feel to Rowley’s work, which she said is no accident. “I was looking into Azul Bahia blue marble for my denim project,” she explained. “I wanted to replicate things found in nature, like sediments and how they build up. And water—it looks a bit like the surface of water.”

Rowley uses post-consumer waste from recycling centers. “Each jean has a different color, shape and grain. That’s what creates the pattern as well—the way it’s layered.”

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“I’ve always enjoyed taking something very basic or ugly and trying to make it become precious through a process,” she went on. “I wanted to show that something considered worthless can be made valuable.”

Since starting her own firm after graduating, Rowley has consulted and collaborated with some of the world’s leading fashion houses. Kering is a current client, who has asked Rowley to find a use for their textile and leather waste.

“Talking to the brands made sense because we could use their waste and develop new materials together. A lot of brands have started to understand that they want to be sustainable, but they wouldn’t necessarily think about using what they have,” she said.

So far, Rowley has been working with the firm on developing a proprietary material using their scraps, though they haven’t decided on its ultimate application yet. She conjectured that her innovations, which are suitable for interiors because of their inherent softness, could be used to create wall art or furniture for the firm’s corporate offices and stores across the globe.

“I get a lot of requests from retailers, from architects and from product designers,” she said of her other clients. “Recently I’ve had requests from companies asking me, what can you do with our waste? So it’s not just about the recycled jeans process.”

The biggest issue she’s had has been finding a way to scale the process—a challenge that she said has consumed her day-to-day operations.

“To make it into a truly commercial product, the difficult part is scalability” she explained. “I’ve experienced the way a material works on a small scale, and then you try to make it larger and it behaves very differently.”

Still, Rowley is hopeful that she’ll find a way.

“What’s nice about denim is that it’s very universal,” she said. “Every country has denim waste. Anywhere I live, I can get a hold of this material.”