What makes a favourite item of clothing? The fabric: is it soft? The cut: is it flattering? Is it your favourite colour, or do you like its logo, slogan, or other details? Did you buy it, first- or second-hand, or did you once “borrow” it from a friend? The average person gets through many clothes in their lives: some we grow tired of and some we treasure long beyond their worth; there are also those we’ll leave behind when we’re gone.
Kirstie Eells is a designer who makes new clothing out of the ‘unwanted, unsellable, undesirable’ for her brand EELLS. Discarded clothes are taken apart to provide material for new ones, remade through patchwork. Her signature pieces are long-sleeved t-shirts, but there are also chore jackets, tote bags, denim pieces, and tailored trousers. Eells first started using things discarded by others when studying at the Royal College of Art: ‘[T]here was a hotel that was being renovated and they had loads of stools outside. So I went there and stripped the stools of the green leather,’ she explains, ‘I wanted to use leather but I didn’t have the money to buy the skins.’ The patchwork t-shirts, meanwhile, were inspired by unsold charity shop t-shirts that she initially bought to use for toiles (the practice versions made before creating a final garment), but after seeing what she had to work with, she thought: ‘Let’s see what the patchwork does; let’s see what we can do with it, because […] the colours are really interesting.’
Developing her technique required some trial and error: it is harder than it looks to make something like a t-shirt. There are elements that define a garment – the material and the construction methods, for example – and you have to understand these fully in order to make your own. The investment in the process has been worth it. Her patchwork t-shirts have the ease and evergreen qualities of a favourite basic, yet feel more special. (What’s better than a favourite t-shirt? One made of twenty once-loved t-shirts, perhaps?) The construction is beautifully considered, with edges left raw and everything zig-zag stitched together in contrast thread, and details such as hidden striped panels glimpsed between the patchwork of tonal jersey, revealing themselves as the wearer moves. Those who buy her clothing – including fellow designer Helen Kirkum, whose reconstructed footwear shares a similar ethos – feed back that they remain wardrobe favourites for far longer than other fashion items. ‘I think people who buy my clothes have a similar consideration to garments that I do,’ Eells says. ‘[I]t isn’t maybe a specific person; it’ll be more the nature of how they look after their things.’
Upcycling and reuse are now familiar concepts; it’s a sensible approach when the planet is suffocating under an excess of waste, but inevitably many are simply cashing in on a trend. Even though sustainability is inherent to Eells’ brand, she does not want to lead with this. ‘I’d rather you buy it because you love it,’ she explains. That said, the remade nature is clear in the garments’ patchwork, and Eells also celebrates and foregrounds the construction: ‘I love that you can see what someone’s done, and you’re like, “I understand how that’s gone together.”’ ‘A lot of the time [designers] are like, oh let’s just use colour-matched threads so you don’t have to look at it, and it’s like, well why would you not want to look at it?’ Quality construction, she feels, need not be ‘sterile’ – lacking evidence of the hand that made it. Instead Eells’ clothing has a wealth of history legible across the surface; the garments tell their own story.
One collection titled ‘Assemble for Memory’ has a more personal history, having been made from Eells’ late-grandad’s clothing. It felt a fitting tribute to the man to give new life to his much-loved wardrobe after he passed. ‘He was a really sharp dresser, and everything was beautiful,’ Eells says. She worked with items that triggered memories: a cream suit worn on his seventieth birthday, or a yellow one that came out regularly despite prompting laughs from the family, comparisons made to Jim Carrey in The Mask.
Coinciding with a difficult time during the pandemic, with opportunities scarce and isolation rules meaning she spent a lot of time alone in her studio, the process of working through memories of her grandad also became a period of personal reflection, including self-doubt, coming out, finding new love ‘and pretty much everything else in-between,’ Eells said. The collection became testimony to both her grandad, and to this period of her own life.
A number of these items are too precious to sell but have inspired new pieces and ways of working, and perhaps, as the ultimate tribute, she now wears these garments herself: his favourite yellow suit now her favourite trousers. Eells’ garments preserve something of lives lived, of the hands and bodies that wore and worked at them, remade for a new generation of wearers to add stories of their own.
– Sophie Tolhurst
Sophie Tolhurst is a London-based writer and editor interested in art, design and fashion. Her writing has been published in Disegno, Frieze, and FX Magazine.