Samudra’s life as an eco-designer and environmental activist. A portrait as told to Punya.
Readers of Osho News already know Samudra from the announcement of her soon-to-be published book Trash is Treasure. Today she tells us her story.
Britanny (France) – Origins
I grew up in Finistère (‘Land’s end’), the most western part of Britanny, France. My parents had many practical skills and were conscious about not wasting anything; they thought twice before they went and bought something new. At home we mostly used things that were at hand; as a child I created my own toys and remember making a bed for my doll from a cardboard box. Nowadays recycling is a fashion trend, but back then it was my only option. Whatever could be re-used, we used again. Not only did it help save money for things that had an alternative but it also gave them a new life.
I moved to Paris to study art history at the École du Louvre and Danish at the Sorbonne. There I became an activist for the environmental organisation ‘Robin Hood’, where the focus was on tropical wood, nuclear issues, hazardous cargo at sea and suchlike. For this organisation I developed and produced recycled items that were sold in their shops. It was the start of my career as an eco-designer. After graduating, I moved to Denmark and kept working for environmental organisations and environmental protection groups.
It eventually dawned on me that everything is connected. If I want to protect the rainforest, then I should certainly not buy furniture made from tropical wood. Simple equation: no buyers, no demand, no market. I understood what the words “we are one” mean: we are the trees, we are the ocean, we are the earth, we are the rain. We are the air we breathe. I understood that if any of these are badly polluted, then my veins, my skin, my stomach, my whole body, my whole system will be affected.
Amsterdam – Art d’Eco
In 1998 I moved to Amsterdam and founded Art d’Eco, both a workshop and a shop. There I produced and sold a range of stationery made from used materials, like floppy disks and X-ray photos as covers for spiral notebooks. Then came clothes and items from used textiles like mail- bags, which in those days were still made from linen and hemp. At the end of my stay (I was burnt out after a year) I organised an eco-fashion show at the local organic market.
Ukraine – Eco-Design
In 1999 I was invited by the organisation 4th Block to come to the Ukraine because they had heard of my eco-fashion show in Amsterdam. They wanted me to prepare a fashion show as part of their international triennial exhibition of eco-posters (posters and graphics on environmental issues).
While preparing the collection I met a couple who were both tailors. Soon afterwards they joined my company and together we expanded our fashion lines. None of us has been to a design school – we learned everything on the job.
From the start we decided on a clear code of ethical conduct: to recycle unwanted textiles from different sources. We design, manufacture and produce clothing, stationery and articles for the home (lampshades, place-mats, cushions, pouffes, ottomans, carpets), all items that are 100% recycled with respect for both environment and workers. Our items are produced in a small Ukrainian village where we take the needs of the inhabitants into account. What does that mean in practical terms? A good example is that in summer the villagers have to take care of the crops, so they only work for us in wintertime. A lot of women were unemployed, but now they work for us from home and at the same time they can take care of their children. We take the concept of ‘fair trade’ very seriously. We consider all aspects of trade and pay attention to the lifestyle of those who work for us.
The inspiration for our creativity is determined by whatever is available on the second-hand market at that particular moment. We used to produce a lot of accessories and items for the office. Sometimes we are lucky to find wonderful things at flea markets, in second-hand shops or skips. We collect things that nobody wants any longer or that look useless at first glance: old telephones, bed-sheets, gutted teddy bears, the remains of a parachute, old towels, military shirts, used canvas sacks.
Entire loads of illegal CDs and DVDs were often confiscated at the Ukraine border. Whenever we managed to get our hands on them we turned them into elegant covers for notepads. The same goes for old floppy disks, used telephone cards and discarded vinyl records. With a little creativity all these strange materials could be recycled and given a new life.
We distribute our goods by taking part at international trade fairs or through agents in Europe and Japan.
New Zealand – The ugly becomes beautiful
Shortly after arriving in New Zealand in 2007, I heard of a competition for art pieces created according to the concept of ‘zero carbon footprint’. As I was still living out of my suitcase I had no raw material at hand. However, I then noticed how much food packaging had accumulated in the garbage bin… which is how my first garment made out of used food wrapping was born. I won the Junk to Green Funk Art Competition (Trade Aid) award with it!
Since then packaging material has become a new source for my designs, a new raw material for my creativity.
India – Woven plastic
While travelling through India in 2009 I saw the ever-growing amount of garbage that Indian families produce every day. In the past waste had been organic, but now it’s primarily (synthetic) packaging, like those very thin plastic bags that cannot even be re-used.
While working with craft organisations in India I was contacted by a community of artisans in Gujarat. They asked me to address two problems: the high unemployment of their weavers (they have to pay in advance for their raw materials before selling their products) and the nuisance of thin plastic bags all over the place.
I came up with the solution of creating woven items from these plastic bags. Women collect the bags from the streets, wash them with soap and water and cut them into fine strips. The weavers then transform them into place-mats and carry-bags.
Our first order came when the five-star Dune Eco Resort near Puducherry, where I was doing an art residency, asked me to outsource place-mats for their restaurants. The connection was quickly made! Not only are the orders renewed every year but these products are seen by clients from all over the world.
In 2012 a prestigious award came out of the blue: I was granted the European Cultural Kairos Award, funded by the A. Toepfer Foundation, to honor my ‘creative visionary revisiting what’s already there’. The idea behind the Kairos Award is to give recognition to unknown artists, writers, musician, poets ‘at the right moment in their lives’. It has nothing to do with career achievements, it is ‘not just another prize’ for someone who already has other awards. Their criterion is ‘to make a difference in the cultural scene in Europe’. The prize money was 75,000 Euros. More…
‘Was da ist’ – Exhibiton in Hamburg
The Kairos Award was more than just a welcome stash of money; it also got attention for my work. The Museum für Kunst & Gewerbe in Hamburg invited me to prepare a personal retrospective exhibition. We named it ‘Was da ist’ (‘What is here’). It opened in March 2012, the same day I received the Kairos Award. The exhibition, which ran for 2 months, was visited by all the local schools and attracted a large number of visitors.
Much publicity was generated, with numerous printed articles (such as in Brigitte Woman in 2013) and TV reports (3sat, 3zeit, NDR and Arte), and new kinds of projects started to come my way. One of these projects was the Lavera Fashion Show in Berlin.
Berlin – Opening of the Lavera Fashion Show
I was now living part of the year in Berlin and the rest of the time in Rimini. I received a commission from the German cosmetic company Lavera, famous for its line of organic cosmetics. My briefing was to create red-carpet dresses to be worn by celebrities for their catwalk show, made out of Lavera’s branded, but obsolete, packaging foil. More…
My biography – Die Mülldesignerin: Wie Katell Gélébart die Welt verändert by Christine Eichel
At the Kairos Award ceremony I was approached by a journalist. She told me that she was fascinated by what I was doing and by my nomadic lifestyle, and offered to write my biography. The book was published by Scorpio a year later, in February 2013. Full of colour photos, the book covers my work in a way I am happy with. The title of the book, available in German, is The garbage designer: How Katell Gélébart changes the world. amazon.co.uk – amazon.de
New products – Eco Ballerina and IT bags
Now that I had money to invest I thought of creating a new line of products. The market is full of recycled accessories such as bags, but where shoes are concerned the market is virtually non-existent. Besides, so-called eco-shoes are either very expensive or ugly, not attractive, feminine, or sexy! In Italy I learned from a professional shoemaker how to make ballerinas so I developed a line of light shoes. These are manufactured in our Ukraine workshop using second-hand fabric for the top: old jeans and army clothes, used kimonos, curtains and sweaters and so on. Ours is the first shoe in the world that I know of which is 90% re-used and 100% recyclable. The sole is made of compostable natural rubber. More…
The second innovation was two different designs for handbags made from food packaging. I called them IT bags because they are now a ‘must’. Food packaging is the ultimate waste that we all produce every day.
Hamburg – TEDx Talk
Riding on the wave of publicity due to the Kairos Award and the book about my work, I was invited to speak at TEDx in Hamburg in June 2013. I called my talk ‘Trash is the Gold of Tomorrow’. It was a beautiful experience: I learned to tell my story in an inspiring way in only 18 minutes. Being on TED took my message to a global level.
Video project – Don’t waste the waste
As far back as 2012, Tobias Kavelar, a freelance journalist/cameraman, started to shoot for a 45-minute documentary about my lifestyle and vision. He followed me everywhere, to the Ukraine, Italy and France. So far he has put together a video trailer to generate funds for a full documentary. The title will be Don’t waste the waste.
Playful dresses from plastic bags
I found yet another solution for the one waste product – all those plastic bags – that causes so much damage, especially to marine life. It is one way for me to address this issue. The plastic bags are shredded into 1 cm strips to create fringes. These are then stitched to a base of used fabric, such as bed-sheets. The result is stunning! I even made a wedding dress out of 40 white plastic bags. It is a one-off garment that can be disposed of with a clear conscience.
Book project – Trash is Treasure
I spent most of 2014 writing my book. So far there has been nothing about my vision in English and I wanted to change that. I talk about these three topics: eco-design, modern nomadism and conscious living. It is currently being edited, but I am still looking for a publisher. I hope it will inspire others to also follow their passion. (See our article: Trash is Treasure – kickstarter.com)
Article by Punya based on an interview with Samudra (Katell Gélébart) – katellgelebart.com
‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’ – A presentation of Samudra’s (Katell Gélébart) memoir
Autumn in Kharkiv – An excerpt from Chapter 12 entitled ‘Ukrainian partnership’
Fashion made from trash? – Excerpts from Samudra’s book ‘The Freedom of Having Nothing’ – Moments in Tokyo, Milan and Hamburg