There’s been a ton of buzz surrounding the G-Star Raw for the Oceans capsule, which uses denim made partially from recycled plastics: Pharrell Williams is attached to the project; the fall collection won the Grand Prix in the inaugural product design contest at Cannes this summer (that collection is now available online); and a few days ago, at the start of New York Fashion Week, Pharrell unveiled the second collection with models poised in a powerful, marching-band formation behind him. The press went wild.
The quieter, but no less important, person in all of the above is Tyson Toussant, co-founder and CEO of Bionic Yarn, which provides G-Star with the denim that makes the Raw for the Oceans collection so special. It’s Tyson’s technology that turns ocean plastics into thread-like fibers that can then be wrapped in cotton and woven into denim. (He and his partner Tim Coombs actually have the ability to do this with any plastic – and have done so for sport lines like Moncler and Adidas – but for RFTO, they use ocean waste only.) It’s really cool.
The meeting of Bionic and G-Star happened during Berlin fashion week last year at an event hosted by the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans. On the panel discussing ocean pollution – a problem that tragically effects marine life, and all of its supporting eco systems – were Toussant and Coombs, Fabien Cousteau, actor/director/producer Fisher Stevens, and Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, to name a few. “We showed the fashion industry a practical way to relieve some of the stress we put on our environment – a business model that could turn waste into a something of value, with a margin built-in to support the clean-up crews,” Tyson told us. “G-Star was in the audience and was the first to react.”
What’s come of their partnership is a collection for men and women curated by Pharrell that blends G-Star’s signature street wear aesthetic with Bionic’s innovation, which is undetectable, BTW. Caps, jackets, and jeans made of Bionic denim look and feel like any other. We sat down with Tyson to learn more about how Bionic works, what the end goal of an ambitious ocean clean-up really looks like, and where the denim industry can help.
What do you think makes Bionic Yarn and G-Star Raw good partners?
The G-Star design team is made of innovative people who make jeans. That’s how Tim and I see ourselves. We’re innovators who happen to turn recycled product into yarn, and now into denim.
What have you learned about denim and designing jeans through your involvement in this project?
That there are so many different ways to approach it.
How did you approach it?
There were a lot of restraints. For us, denim is a vehicle that helps recycle plastic that’s been removed from the ocean. But while it’s specifically that, it also has to perform and look the way people are used to. To meet those two requirements, we had to think outside the box.
What did you learn from Pharrell working with him?
Pharrell really turns into a student of everything that he is a part of. He puts himself in a place where he can learn as much as possible, and then when he speaks you can tell that he was present, he was listening. It creates a flattening affect. Someone who is a big celebrity like him usually comes with unnecessary ego, but I’ve seen Pharrell treat everyone from Bill Gates to the doorman of a building the same. And I think that’s what makes him a leader.
What do you think you taught G-Star?
To take chances.
I SEA YOU Denim caps for guys and girls from the G-Star Raw for the Oceans collection ($70); Shop more looks below.
When you look at the fall line, and spring ’15 coming up, what do you see?
I see a long way to go. I’m reminded that taking care of our oceans, of our environment in general, is not the responsibility of the government. As business people, as regular people, we can figure out everyday ways to take better care of the planet.
As always, there’s the question of expense. How difficult would it be to turn the machines we use to make textiles today into machines that make textiles out of recycled materials?
It’s really just about reconfiguring existing machines and adding attachments. The cost of retooling is worth the investment.
What about stretch denim? Can you do that?
Yes. We can add stretch. It’s not all or nothing. It wouldn’t be a business if we didn’t have both – an environmental component, and the ability to give people what they’re used to. The plastic is in between the cotton fibers that you want to feel, and we can sandwich those plastic fiber with elastic or Lycra.
What do you say to people who are unsure of wearing jeans made of recycled plastics?
Polyester and a recycled plastic are basically the same thing in the polymer form.
So, if every denim company in the world started using Bionic Yarn denim, could we rid the ocean of plastics? Do you talk about doing that?
No. We have a long, long way to go before we do that. The more I understand this project – it’s symbolic. It’s about being a part of a line of thinking that is raising awareness. And who knows, depending on the way things are trending and the way that we’re all digitally connected, it really just takes the right presentation and alignment of certain things for something like this to have a domino effect on surrounding industries. That’s what I’m hoping will happen. I’m hoping that a simple everyday thing like denim that almost every man on Earth wears could be the first domino.