• Dayna Tohidi

How to be a sustainability design director

The short answer; ask for the job title

PINKO's sustainability design director, Patrick McDowell, poses in a look from his second "REIMAGINE PINKO x Patrick McDowell" collection, displayed in Selfridges, April 2021. © PINKO

Patrick McDowell – a London-based fashion designer from Liverpool – is nothing short of resilient. He went from failing his first year at Central Saint Martins to getting nominated by the editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour, for the Stella McCartney for Today award. The 25-year-old speaks to Plaster about his experience as a working-class fashion design student, creating his own opportunities and reimagining PINKO’s archive under his latest role as the Italian brand’s sustainability design director.

When did you first become aware of circular design?

When I was 13-years-old, I made a new school bag out of an old pair of jeans because my parents wouldn't buy one for me. Since then, I've continued to make clothes and accessories from scraps, end of roll fabrics, and discarded clothing. From a business point of view, it's common sense to recirculate materials; over time, you gain financial revenue by upcycling old stock into new products.

In June 2018, you graduated from the bachelor's degree in womenswear at Central Saint Martins. Can you tell Plaster about your experience?

I went to university after completing my A-levels, whereas most people do a foundation year first. I thought I was ready for it, but I found the first year incredibly hard. It got to the point where I nearly quit. In fact, I failed my first year, which is important to say because people don't talk about their failures enough. I'm from a very working-class background, so I didn't have money to eat, let alone pay models for fittings, and at one point, I was juggling three jobs alongside my degree.

Things started to improve in my second year after I accepted who I was and used that as a starting point for my work. In my placement year, I interned with the mainline womenswear team at Burberry, which prepared me to go back to university and make my graduate collection. Luckily, I received the British Fashion Council's Hardship Fund in my final year, which meant I could do one job instead and focus most of my time on my collection.

"Climbing Family" – Patrick McDowell's final collection for Central Saint Martins, June 2018. © Patrick McDowell

Swarovski and Burberry sponsored your graduate collection, titled “Climbing Family.” How did you gain these sponsorships?

I wrote a letter for Christopher Bailey [Burberry’s former chief creative officer and president] to thank him for the paid internship, explain my financial circumstances, and request to use studio waste for my final collection. As an example of what could be created, I made his daughters’ bunny rabbits out of Burberry's scrap fabrics. Luckily, he replied and gave me entire fabric rolls, which was far more generous than I expected.

As I came second place for Swarovski’s final year student scholarship, I emailed to ask if I could use their discarded crystals for my collection. Again, they replied and said they were thrilled that I wanted to upcycle their crystals. The reality is that many of these big businesses have lots of materials that they can’t use, so you're actually doing them a favour. I've always sought to create my own opportunities, so I'm constantly shocked by people's passiveness. If you wait for everything to come to you, you'll be waiting a very long time.

How would you compare the person you were before studying at Central Saint Martins to the person you became after graduating?

Before I went to university, I was selling bags in the thousands, so I went in thinking I was somebody special. However, the reality is that I was a big fish in a small pond back home in Liverpool, and I became a small fish in a big pond at Central Saint Martins. It definitely humbled me.

What was going through your head when Anna Wintour nominated you for the Stella McCartney for Today award, and what impact did her endorsement have on your career?

I was in a complete state of shock. I had gone back to Liverpool to have a break for the weekend and was just about to eat dinner with my friends. The video Anna Wintour made to announce her nomination really validated me as a serious designer in this industry. She has been an inspiration to me since I was a teenager, so it meant a lot to me.

In February 2021, you became PINKO’s Sustainability Design Director. How did this opportunity arise?

Before the pandemic began, the brand asked me if I could help them create their first “REIMAGINE PINKO” capsule collection using unsold pieces from previous seasons. In the Summer – during that gap when we could travel – I went to Italy to make it. As the collection was successful, they offered me a permanent position at the company. I actually asked for that job title; it’s the first of its kind at PINKO and also in the fashion industry, as far as I am aware.

Do you also have input in the brand’s main collections?

The idea is to start with the capsule collections and gradually merge them with the main collections to create an integrated, sustainable offering across the whole brand. Some people see that approach as problematic, but the reality is that companies are driven by profit and have shareholders to please. PINKO could be doing a lot more, but it is doing more than other brands. Also, it’s essential to keep in mind that these things take a lot of time, education, and adjustment.

Patrick McDowell stands alongside PINKO's founders, Pietro Negra and Cristina Rubini, and their daughters, Cecilia and Caterina, in the brand's archive where the first "REIMAGINE PINKO" capsule collection began. © PINKO

Can you give Plaster an overview of the design development process for the first “REIMAGINE PINKO x Patrick McDowell” capsule collection?

After we looked at what was available in PINKO’s clothing, fabric, and trims archive, we did the maths to see how much of each could be combined to reimagine the pieces. Conveniently, the brand has an on-site warehouse which made things easier as everything we needed was already in one place. Then, we developed the samples with the PINKO’s talented atelier, who finessed the final collection.

The second capsule collection, launched in April, includes an upcycled military jacket originally designed by Giorgio Armani. Why did you step outside of PINKO’s archive this time around?

We sourced the military archival pieces from a company that is under the same ownership as PINKO. It made sense to work with a new type of base to explore how far we could push “REIMAGINE.” I think it's so important to keep trying and experimenting with new ways of working.

How are you currently dividing your time between PINKO and your eponymous brand?

Things change all the time and every day is different. I just launched a new collection under my own brand, which took up a bit of time over the past few months. Sometimes I'd like to have a bit more structure, but I'm so grateful to be doing these kinds of things, especially in the middle of the pandemic. The last 12 months have been very unexpected and strange, but I always think that it's how you respond to the challenges life throws at you that build your resilience.

Based on your experience with PINKO, what is the key to a successful brand x designer partnership?

Don’t shove your ideas onto a brand. I'm very aware that I am a foreign body in this situation, and I think they found that quite refreshing. The other thing to keep in mind is wellbeing. We talk about sustainability in the sense of fashion, but I think it's vital to look at it holistically from a lifestyle perspective too. If I am not eating well and sleeping enough, I won't bring the best version of myself to work.

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