The recent wave of shopping at small businesses has gotten people excited to find underground brands to support. We got to sit down with Onea, founder of Silphium to talk about sustainability, ethical practices, and the possible future of the fashion industry.
Based out of a little apartment in Brooklyn, New York Silphium is a one-person operation with a simple mission: to develop narrative works for her clients by utilizing materials already present in the world. The founder Onea (Instagram: @oneaclare) scours eBay and Etsy and donated vintage materials from all eras.
Onea taught herself to sew on a German 1980s machine given to her by the woman she was renting a room from in Berlin. She utilized her degree in art history to begin altering existing pieces and then moved onto designing clothes, most of which were "sculptural and costume-y". She shared these pieces to her Instagram – “at first I didn’t wanna sell anything! I was so attached to every piece I made”. After moving back to New York in 2018, she partnered with Café Forgot – a small brand retailer – for a mini collection drop. Onea worked on it while living with her mother, on her grandfather’s old Singer sewing machine before later buying her own “shitty automatic machine” a year later.
Every piece on the Silphium site is made by hand with many unique, one-off items featured prominently and typically created on a made-to-order model. When asked about increasing production through a factory, Onea said she wasn’t interested:
“I don’t have a technical background in fashion design, so I don’t feel the same pressure to drop an entire collection and enlarge manufacturing. Working with my hands is every bit a part of what I do as a mission statement might be.”
Despite not having an academic background in fashion, Onea’s job at TOTOKAELO, The Webster, and a handful of other small brands have supplied her with enough knowledge of the industry to be able to successfully navigate the complicated world of clothing production. Seeing the ins and outs of fashion made her more interested in sustainable processes. She pushed to implement these practices at her job but found it very difficult:
“Sustainability is not sustainable for a for-profit business model… Take the shift to bio-degradable packaging as an example. Large businesses and fashion houses have sustained themselves for so long without a need to turn to or ever consider sustainable packaging options. So why would they [start now]? It’s absolutely frustrating.”
While sustainability isn't the selling point of Silphium, it comes across as a pillar of the brand. Scrolling through the site it is evident that Onea puts a lot of thought into the way the clothes are made and what happens to the waste produced from her process. Textile dyeing is the second-largest polluter of water, yet even ethical companies utilize synthetic, uncompostable dyes while getting to claim the sustainable label. “Language around sustainability is very exploited”, Onea pointed out, “There are practices you can implement in your work that encourage repurposing, natural fibers, etc. but if we’re going to understand the need for a radical shift, we’re going to see a true circular production method. I’m talking sheep, land, weaving your own materials, dying your own materials, and creating small production lines. But I don’t know if we’re ready for all that.”
Through researching traditional dyeing methods, Onea found that natural dyeing isn’t only compostable but uses far less water as there’s no need to rinse out excess dye from the textile. Her favorite to work with is black walnut husks, which give her clothes an “auburn, brown shade” – a signature of many of her pieces. “The history of natural dyeing is overlooked. Recently I’ve been doing a lot of shibori dyeing – a traditional Japanese dyeing technique.” This is done by tying up the garment and dipping it into a natural dye to create a beautiful pattern.
The current trend of sustainability has shown the amount of brands ready to capitalize on the movement without fully thinking through the way their production affects the environment. Onea delves into this deeper:
“I was on the Acne Studios website – I’ve loved their pieces for a long time – and noticed that in their new arrivals they have two new styles that use Applique techniques to repurpose materials from previous seasons. Yet, the overwhelming majority of their fabrics, techniques, and processes are harmful. They’re not doing a 180 shift, they’re looking for a market share in the sustainability trend.”
This can be a serious problem when there are people trying to incite real change in the way clothing is consumed. “It’s gonna become more profitable for more brands to become sustainable. It became trendy to support small businesses and sustainability is on a similar level right now. If you are under that category, you have more reach because people have more interest in it. I hope that it sustains itself, and there’s longevity to it.”
If you were to create an ideal fashion industry, what would it look like?
“I think small brands are the future. I think variety in brands (having streetwear, vintage) is not inherently bad and the fact that it exists is something I like about the industry right now. I would throw tantrums when I was three years old because my parents wouldn’t let me dress myself. Fashion is a way to develop identity. The only issue with variety can be excess. If you have excess, you can’t be sustainable. My friend Liv Ryan does three styles at a time. Right now, it’s a cotton jersey shirt, a denim sweatshirt, and a denim pair of pants. They’re dope and sustainably sourced. People go to her because they want that specific style, they don’t go to her for a pair of slacks and shoes and blouses… Fashion shouldn’t be limited in its visual culture, it should be limited by the quantity produced. In my mind, a huge contributing factor to why brands overproduce is competition. They want to produce the best black trousers, but that’s counter intuitive. We should support brands based on what they do best, not on who is doing the ‘best’. I want integrity and strong DNA in fashion, and I think others want the same.”
Onea is currently working on new shirt patterns and collecting additional materials to create garments with. The site has many pieces that set it apart from other brands, "I had a lot of fun making the Lilith pant. I used a linen antique table cloth that I found on Etsy and developed a pattern based on a pair of carpenter pants. Linen is one of my favorite fabrics to work with. The hardest part was aligning the embroidery on the table cloth."
Silphium's distinct designs make it easily recognizable but Onea isn't interested in overcapitalizing off of that:
"I feel like I’m very averse to the idea of being a brand but I have a label and a brand name so that might sound weird. I want my work to constantly be changing and not necessarily tied to one category of thing. I think part of me wants to work my way back to my sculptural pieces."