Cheryl Pagano, The Highlands Foundry
All photographs are property of The Highlands Foundry
“Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them,” according to Marc Jacobs, who knows a thing or two about style. Whether you take his words literally or more emblematically, you can apply them to the art of upcycled fashion.
Upcycled clothing has always been favored by a certain sector of the fashion establishment; from the girls who wear their grandmother’s Chanel Bouclés with punk-rock pins (Granny is so not charmed), to crafty savants who hunt down flea-market treasures and remake them at home, rethinking, uplifting, and modernizing high-quality fashion treasures is a heady skill with which a select fashion forward have long blazed their own path.
But recently the notion of upcycling has become more mainstream as evidence of the perils and costs of fast fashion mount.
Chic-but-cheap clothes can have an enormously detrimental environmental impact. According to various alarming reports, more than 60% of the fabric fibers used in clothing now are synthetic, which is another way of saying, made from fossil fuels. About 85% of textile waste either ends up in landfills (the synthetic portion will never decay) or is incinerated, with atmospheric pollution being another environmental concern.
There’s also the alarming human cost. According to the International Labour Organization, 260 million children are employed around the world, 170 million of whom are at jobs too young or in environments too dangerous for them to be ethical. Many of these laborers work in the fast fashion supply chain, making garments to satisfy the bottomless need for fast fashion in the U.S. By 2025, Americans are expected to spend $390 billion on clothing.
Recently, we sat down with Cheryl Pagano, the visionary behind the upcycled apparel and home décor company The Highlands Foundry, to learn more about her passion for fashion and business philosophy.
New York Makers: How did you come to be passionate about textiles, and where did it lead you before you launched The Highlands Foundry?
Cheryl Pagano: My mother taught me to sew when I was about six years old. She sewed all the time, making me dresses, Halloween costumes, and making my Barbie clothes. I think this was a huge influence on me. Then later, in high school, I would go to the Goodwill and buy coats and come home and rip them apart and sew something new. No one else was doing this, I just had a desire to recreate things into something new.
Plus, my grandparents were antique collectors and would sell their antiques at flea markets every weekend. This was a side business for them as they just loved doing it in addition to their normal jobs. I was constantly going to flea markets and started to love and appreciate antiques at a very young age.
I decided to enroll in the fashion design program at the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science so I could pursue a career in what had become a lifelong passion. I graduated in 1989 with a Bachelors of Science in Fashion Design.
NYM: So what did you decide to do when you graduated?
CP: My first real job was as a menswear designer at Ralph Lauren for three years. This really cemented my love for vintage clothes and textiles, while helping me to apply it to modern styles. It also underlined my appreciation of all things with a heritage and soul to them. I left for a time to work at Abercrombie and Fitch as a senior designer in menswear, but I returned to Ralph Lauren later, then explored children’s fashion at Gap, where I worked my way up to vice president of design.
NYM: What inspired you to do your own project?
CP: My business started very organically. It wasn’t even planned. I was on a research trip in LA and bought a bag for myself made from vintage bandanas. I started to use the bag constantly and thought, ‘why aren’t there more cloth tote bags out there?’ So I started my own line of tote bags made from vintage textiles that I had accumulated over the years.
NYM: Your line involves a lot of ancient textiles. When did you first start learning about them and is there a particular period or region of the world you're interested in?
CP: In college, I began taking classes that explained the mechanics of textile fibers, construction, and weaving. But I didn’t fully develop the knowledge of textiles until I needed to buy them for inspiration when I worked at Ralph Lauren. I would meet with textile dealers to spend hours combing through their collections to find what we needed. We bought a broad range of textiles from vintage tie stripes, Ikat prints from Bali, South Western Navajo patterns and blankets, hand-painted Chinese batiks, the list goes on. It was a true education for me and I still love all of these types of prints and textiles today.
NYM: Does the creative process begin with a piece in mind or material you find?
CP: My process really starts with the textiles. I hunt for new textiles at flea markets, as well as buy from several textile dealers. I also buy vintage denim, workwear, and military clothes that I use in my designs. Once I have a lot of textiles around me, then I start to pair them together to create new things. In addition to tote bags, I make pillows and tops and jackets all using vintage textiles. I don’t sketch out my ideas first, instead I drape the fabric on my dress form or combine them together on my cutting table. If I work a full day, I might complete two jackets. It’s a long process that takes time and patience. This also doesn’t include the time it takes to find the textile, wash it, and repair it, if needed.
NYM: What is your favorite item right now that you created?
CP: My favorite pieces to design and make are my jackets. I like developing variations on this classic Haori (Japanese style jacket) and long duster jacket by changing the fabrics used. I work with a lot of vintage Indigo textiles that come from various regions like African indigo cloth, Chinese batik, Hmong Ikat from Vietnam, and Japanese Boro cloth. They are all indigo-based textiles, but look drastically different. I love combining these different textiles together to create something unique and different.
I also recently started to use vintage Civil War era quilts that I found in Pennsylvania for my jackets. It’s like coming full circle back to the flea markets where it all started as a child.
NYM: What are you most excited about for next year?
CP: I’m excited to continue to grow and challenge myself in the next year to create new ideas. I really want to start to mix more military and surplus influences into my work mixed with the indigo. I have always been inspired by military clothes and want to explore this further.
NYM: Do you have any style mentors?
CP: I have lots of style mentors and people who inspire me, especially Georgia O’Keefe for her living in, and being inspired by, the desert life of Santa Fe, her interior design sense, simple fashion sense, and love of artifacts from her local terrain. My husband and I aspire to do the same thing one day in the future. To live in the desert and create our work. I’m also inspired by other small brands that are creating really amazing things one at a time with their hands.
NYM: Upcycling and avoiding fast fashion has become a cause for a variety of environmental and humanitarian reasons. Is that part of what draws you to this form of fashion creation?
CP: I think it’s really important for everyone to do their share and contribute to help our environment. I feel really good about my way of designing and reusing textiles and clothes that might otherwise end up in a landfill. However, for me, it’s also about celebrating our past, our history of textiles, and the skill and craftsmanship it took to create these textiles. A lot of the time with no design degree or schooling, but rather passed down from generation to generation to learn how to weave, dye, sew, quilt, and create.
I hope I’m helping to continue on this way of designing and creating, and found a way to share it with others. I tell my customers they are getting an heirloom piece that they should love, mend if needed, wear with care for many years, and then pass down to someone else to enjoy and do the same.