Siri Johansen on why one person’s waste is another one’s treasure

The Norwegian-born knitwear designer Siri Johansen worked at Burberry and Kenzo before starting her own venture. Waste Yarn Project takes unused yarn and find new ways to utilise it.

Interview OLIVER DAHLE Photography RÉMI PUJOL
30 Aug 2023

— I never really had a strong urge to start my own brand. It happened a bit by chance. During my time working with Burberry, I met Sebastian Maes, my co-founder of the Waste Yarn Project. A few years later, when I was at Kenzo, he started his own production company in Shanghai. He had clean white offices. So whenever I would visit I would see how quickly the accumulation of leftover yarns happened. It was very visual when I saw an empty office become full of boxes of yarn. ”What’s all this yarn? Why aren’t you using it?” It wasn’t possible to utilise the yarns on an industrial level because of the small quantity, and too many different types of materials and colours. To utilise the yarns, Johansen and Maes had to come up with a new way to create the garments. This led them to an unusual design process that creates garments by chance, making each product unique.

— We call it the wheel of fortune. The knitters didn’t want to make a choice on what yarn they were picking, because they didn’t want me to say it was wrong. We realized quickly that it needed to be someone telling them what to do.

Siri Johansen.

— They spin the wheel and they have all the different technical information needed to make a jumper. I think it’s often a problem when you work with excess, that it ends up not looking very expensive or nice. At the end of the day, I just want to make beautiful luxurious products.

Was that a problem, in the beginning? Overcoming the feeling of not creating a luxurious product?

— I never set out to run a sustainable company; that wasn’t on the agenda. That wasn’t my focus. I was focusing on making a nice product. After we launched, we’ve consistently been put in the bracket of sustainable fashion, which I’m struggling a bit with. Fashion isn’t sustainable.

How, then, do you define sustainability?

— I think about it in how we are conscious about what we’re doing and the materials that we use. It was frustrating to see all this material go to waste. It was interesting to find solutions to these problems that the fashion industry creates and how we can solve those problems.

In terms of sustainability, do you think that brands today are trying to overdo things rather than just finding an easier solution?

— For sure. If they just look at how much leftovers they have or how they just change these two things, that would help enormously on X, Y, or Z. At these big companies, there are almost too many people and they all have very specific roles. The fastest way to get somewhere is often not the best way, especially not if you’re trying to do it in a more conscious, sustainable way.

You work in a very particular way. What would you say have been the toughest challenges in doing this?

— When I was at Burberry and working on the show line, there was no price restraint. You can do anything. But that’s less interesting to me. I think you come up with more interesting designs and solutions when there’s a limit to what you can do. It’s all the other things that are challenging, like running a company. Those things I find more challenging.

Since you have this restraining system, how do you make the product that you actually want?

— Since you can’t choose the colours, or the material composition, you kind of design a system for that to work. It’s a mix of many colours and I’ve tried to maybe make the styles like a blank canvas to the textile, so they work nicely together. I also think a lot about making things that people will wear, not these fantasy shapes or impractical garments.

How do you see working on more advanced systems, maybe AI, in the future?

— I’m super into that. It makes a lot of sense in the process and how we’re thinking about things — like sorting yarns, because it’s very manual. We recently started testing on electronic machines, and then it makes sense that you can put everything onto computers that would sort the yarn for you. That’s kind of how I see the future and how we can scale up.

Do you see yourself today as more of a designer or more of a product developer?

— Both. I’ve been a designer for so long, and being a product developer is much more interesting. I’m learning more. I think that’s also because I stopped learning in the end I just felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. The seasons come and go and you just kind of end up in the same… I don’t know. I stopped learning.