Wolves once roamed Yellowstone National Park before hunting made them a distant memory in the 1920s. But the park sought to “rewild” this primeval pocket of America and bring back the wolves. Seventy years later, they returned — and with them came a more balanced, healthy ecosystem. The river stabilized, plants flourished, and other animals once again made their homes in the park.
For Lisa Siedlecki and Jennifer Silbert, the story of Yellowstone and its wolves captures the spirit of Rewilder, their LA-based fashion brand that crafts beautiful bags from salvaged materials. These two designers are on a mission to not only transform beer filters and old climbing ropes into stunning bags, but also to inspire thoughtfulness around the objects people buy.
We interviewed Lisa and Jennifer to learn how they breathe new life into discarded, yet quality materials and reintroduce them to the world as fashionable, handcrafted bags.
What sparked the idea of Rewilder? Was there a particular “aha moment”?
We found this amazing material that was going to the landfill in huge quantities, and immediately saw the potential to use our design skills for good. As designers working for large companies, we wanted to do something towards building a healthier planet and took a leap of faith to start Rewilder. We began experimenting, and once we got the details right, we knew we had something unique that would work — a line of 100% repurposed bags. We spent a year thinking about the material, how to use it, and what a sustainable brand looks like in the world today.
Could you share your personal journeys from working in the fashion industry to taking the leap to start your own business? What ultimately gave you the courage to take that leap?
It was the perfect storm of creativity, inspiration, and experience that gave us the courage to dive in. We both spent 15 years in our respective industries (Lisa in fashion and Jen in architecture) learning everything from material sourcing to management skills to large scale production. We were horrified by the amount of waste we saw, and felt responsible as designers to change people’s perception of salvage materials through good design.
What are your thoughts on the fast fashion craze, and its effects on both fashion and the environment?
Unfortunately, fast fashion isn’t a craze; it’s the norm. We are horrified that most things are only used or worn a few times, and believe that planned obsolescence is a design problem.
We see the trend of companies talking about sustainability, and being “eco.” We take those claims really seriously, and when we say those words, we truly mean it. We don’t cut corners with materials (even when it’s much easier to source new); everything is genuine salvage; we pay fair wages and make our product in Los Angeles, keeping our footprint small.
You can have style + sustainability at the same time; you don’t have to choose. At Rewilder, we want people to understand this, and use their power as consumers to demand that companies design with respect for people and the planet.
Could you share the difference between “upcycling” and “repurposing”?
Upcycling is taking something and improving it, while maintaining the same function. Repurposing is taking one thing and using it as something else completely. This is what we do with industrial materials – they have a first life in manufacturing and a second repurposed life in fashion. Both upcycling and repurposing are reclaiming existing material (critical to the future of our planet), and both are better than recycling.
Why is it important to you that your bags are vegan?
Being vegan is an environmental choice, just like we use salvage materials because we recognize the critical need to conserve our natural resources.
What inspires the design and aesthetics of your bags?
Our core collection is unlike anything you already own – classic silhouettes that stand out for style and functionality. Our aesthetic is rooted in the materials that we use, and the desire to make long-lasting styles that transcend fast fashion.
Could you walk us through the process of making your beautiful bags and the craftsmanship that goes into each one?
Each Rewilder bag is handcrafted from start to finish, all under one roof in our Los Angeles studio.
When we receive materials our first step is to clean and sort, separating material to be dyed and categorizing by color. Working with salvage materials is not easy – we never know what scratches, holes, or scars are going to be there from its first life – so all our fabric is closely inspected before being hand-cut into pattern pieces for bag construction. Our handles, made from salvage climbing ropes, go through a proprietary 5-step process that transforms them from a tubular shape (for climbing) to flat, strong handles for your bag.
We are proud to make everything in LA, paying fair wages and understanding the true cost of fashion production. We want to be able to show the world that it is possible to make highly crafted goods out of salvage materials; that fashion and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.
To learn more about our process, here’s a behind-the-scenes look:
What types of materials do you divert from landfills?
We look for specific characteristics in our material choices:
- Not recyclable / landfill waste
- Durable / strong
- High tech
- Design potential
Right now we are diverting five core materials from the landfill — all things that cannot be recycled and live for thousands of years on the planet. Our core material is a filter cloth originally used in beer manufacturing. The beverage industry throws away over 100,000 tons of this material each year. We also use climbing ropes collected from local gyms when they are no longer safe for climbing. We recently introduced salvage seat belt handles, and are in the process of sourcing a few new high tech materials from the automotive industry.
How do you find the materials that you source for your bags?
It’s tricky. Many companies are resistant to letting us dig through their trash, so it takes grit and determination to find the right people to help manage that process. Our first material – filter cloth from beer manufacturing – took over a year to source reliably. At the most basic level, we look at the materials all around us, and then do detective work and follow its path to the landfill. Nothing is trash until we trash it!
Tell us about one of your favorite collaborations.
We did a series of repurposed totes for the Hollywood Bowl (one of our favorite places to go!), all made from salvage street pole banners. In total, collaborating with the LA Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl, we have saved and transformed over 1,000 street pole banners. These banners cannot be recycled or reused in advertising, so it is critical to find another use for them.
What’s next for Rewilder?
We are about to launch a new material – high tech and active – and are currently experimenting to see what shape this will take! Stay tuned for more…
What is your most prized possession and why?
We absolutely couldn’t live without our nursery, which we built adjacent to our design studio. We both had babies in year two of Rewilder, and had to figure out how to have the babies and the business. Now our babies are a constant reminder of our mission and philosophy – protecting our planet for future generations. Thinking about the life cycle of materials, and where these materials will end up (not in the landfill!) is a question that we ask ourselves every day. We hope you will too.