Rebecca Rivera: Sustainable Maker + Designer
In 2016, fashion designer Rebecca Rivera saw a documentary called The True Cost, and she immediately changed the way she designed for her label IRISHLATINA. Learning that fashion is the 2nd largest polluter in the world, Rebecca refused to contribute to the problem. Considering that the average American trashes 70 pounds of textiles each year, she decided to make new clothing from old clothing. She sources post-consumer garments from secondhand stores or warehouses, and treats them just like she would new fabric. She uses her original patterns to create new designs, while simultaneously keeping clothing out of the landfill.
IRISHLATINA is a sustainable clothing brand offering seasonless pieces made from post-consumer products. Keeping clothing out of landfills by using it to create new designs, and by producing under a “slow fashion” model, IRISHLATINA strives to make a positive impact on the fashion industry for social and environmental improvement.
Make Muse: What peaked your interest in sustainable fashion? Did you have an interest in fashion first or sustainability first?
Rebecca: I’ve loved fashion since I was a little girl. I would draw and paint a lot. I’d play dress up, and play with paper dolls. But I was also very concerned about the environment. I hated the idea of a duck getting tangled up in ocean debris, and I couldn’t stand to see trash on the ground. So, the marriage of fashion and sustainability was perfect for me. I always loved designing and creating, but once I turned IRISHLATINA into a sustainable brand, it truly became fulfilling.
Make Muse: Can you describe the effect of the fast fashion industry on landfills?
Rebecca: The average American trashes 70 pounds of textiles each year. The term “textiles” includes clothing, curtains, bed sheets, etc. About 95% of these textiles could be recycled in some way. What a waste! To put it into perspective, a denim jacket can take 10-12 months to decompose in a landfill, and those lycra leggings we love to work out in can take 20-200 years. Our clothing just isn’t decomposing at the same rate that we consume it. We’ve got to stop thinking of clothing as disposable.
Fast fashion companies are bringing new items onto the sales floor every week. The goal is to keep the consumer coming back for more and more, while simultaneously making them feel “off-trend” almost immediately.
Make Muse: How does IRISHLATINA promote slow fashion?
Rebecca: After learning that fashion is the 2nd largest polluter in the world, I had a good cry, and then I decided to do things differently. I wanted to reduce the waste problem, not contribute to it. IRISHLATINA garments are made from secondhand clothing. I source unwanted clothing from thrift stores and warehouses and use it just like I would use new fabric. I use piecing and quilting techniques to create my own textiles and produce original, one-of-a-kind designs.
I’m also a firm believer that seasons and trends contribute to the waste problem. Designers should produce when they feel moved to do so, not in order to meet some deadline set by the “fashion calendar”. IRISHLATINA collections are also “seasonless”, because let’s face it, just because it’s sunny and warm in one part of the world, doesn’t mean it’s sunny and warm everywhere.
Make Muse: What is the aesthetic style of the brand IRISHLATINA? What is the muse for your designs?
Rebecca: The IRISHLATINA aesthetic is really rooted in fun. I want people to have fun wearing my clothes. Women's Wear Daily described my customers as “Millennial women who consider themselves ‘woke’ activists”, and I can’t say that I disagree. Overall, the IRISHLATINA woman values quality over quantity. She is unique and wants clothing that showcases that. As for a muse, I look to the women in my life. Even my models are my friends, or friends of friends. I love “real” women.
Make Muse: How did your career in design begin?
Rebecca: My senior year of high school, I asked my mom to teach me how to sew. (She always made us the best Halloween costumes.) It was that year that I decided I wanted to pursue design. I originally got my degree in Fashion Design for the Theatre. I was a musical theatre kid growing up, and I found that while I loved performing, I knew I didn’t want to become an actress. I was more drawn to the costumes, and makeup, and wigs. After graduating, I decided to study fashion design. I visited 5 fashion schools in Italy before finally deciding on the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Make Muse: What has been your greatest struggle as a woman in the fashion industry?
Rebecca: Luckily there are many women in the fashion industry. I’ve had the pleasure of working for and with some incredibly talented, and driven women who set a great example of hardwork and strength.
I don’t think the struggle comes from being a woman in fashion, but a creative woman in general. And I don’t think the biggest threat is male, I think it’s women themselves. Women can have a hard time praising each other, as if praising someone else’s strength makes you weak, as if acknowledging someone else’s beauty makes you ugly. Women can be the worst to each other, and it’s born from insecurity. I try to surround myself with confident, supportive women. Any industry could benefit from that.
Make Muse: Have you noticed any persistent standards that exist for women in the fashion industry that unfairly do not exist for men?
Rebecca: As far as beauty standards go, I think the fashion industry is in an awesome place. More and more companies are considering “plus size” or “curve” models. And more companies are casting non-traditional looking models as well. I think there is a desire for uniqueness that was never there before.
But as far as labor is concerned, approximately 80% of the world’s garment workers are women. Typically it’s a man who runs the operation. And is pay fair? Are these women being overworked? I encourage you to watch the documentary The True Cost and check out FashionRevolution.org to find the answers.
Make Muse: What is the story behind your brand’s name, IRISHLATINA?
Rebecca: IRISHLATINA is named after my mixed heritage. I am half Irish, half Mexican. And just like this unexpected mix, I am influenced by a mix of cultures in my design: Youth Culture, Skate Culture and Hip Hop Culture to name a few.
Make Muse: What has been your favorite collection to create for your line?
Rebecca: My WASTE NOT collection was my first collection made from secondhand clothing. I showed the collection at Los Angeles Fashion Week in October 2016. Although I love all my past collections, this one really gave me my voice.
Make Muse: How do you live a sustainable life yourself, outside of creating IRISHLATINA?
Rebecca: Aside from always carrying a reusable bag with me as well as a reusable water bottle, I try to be mindful of where I spend my money. I shop at grocery stores that carry products that I respect and trust. I love shopping at thrift stores to get my shopping fix, as well as the materials for my business. I donate often as well. I also rarely wash my clothing. I know, gross! But not only is it better for the environment, your clothes last longer too. I’m also a recycling psychopath. I’ll straight up pull things out of friends and family members trash cans if I see that they should be put in the recycler.
Make Muse: How do feminism and sustainability intersect, in your opinion?
Rebecca: I think “Feminism” and “Sustainability” are both big buzz words right now. My hope is that someday they will both be commonplace. Every human should be a feminist and every fashion designer should practice sustainability in some form.
Make Muse: What do you believe is the future of sustainable fashion?
Rebecca: There are so many wonderful new developments in textiles. They can make leather from mushrooms and pineapple leaves. They can turn apple and orange peels into fabric. The technology will always be advancing, which is great, but deciding how to limit our waste is just as important, if not more so.There are designers making textiles out of old fishing nets, or using the surplus fabric from another design house to create their own designs. Or, using old clothing to make new clothing, like IRISHLATINA.
It really comes down to the consumer. The consumer has ALL the power. Companies want to make money, so choose wisely where you spend your money, and fashion companies will listen. And be inquisitive! We all want to know which farm-raised our chicken, or if our tomatoes were grown without pesticides, so why aren’t we wondering where our clothing came from, how it was made, and who made it?
Make Muse: What do you hope to be doing in 5 years? What are your goals for IRISHLATINA in the next 5 years?
Rebecca: You can bet that in 5 years, I’ll still be creating. Aside from calling myself a “designer” or an “artist”, I really identify as a “maker”. I love making things. I am going to continue to grow my brand and expand my reach. I envision IRISHLATINA in Japan, Australia and the UK. And I’d love to team up with other sustainable creatives in the U.S. America is so behind on the topic of fashion sustainability, and yet we’re at the top of the list when it comes to producing the most waste. I’d love for IRISHLATINA to be part in changing that.