Queen of recycling who converts rags to riches: Janette Swift tells Rose Rouse how glamour and green ideas can be combined
Monday 22 March 1993
Skips, car boot sales, markets, friends with restaurants - they all provide rich, yet cheap, pickings for the woman dubbed the hip queen of recycling. Ms Swift first appeared on the London scene in 1988 as the instigator of a recycling art group called Reactivart. 'I got excited by environmental issues in the States in the mid-Eighties,' she says, 'then I came back to Britain where no one was interested.'
Reactivart, a loose collective of about 20 people, held its first art show in Kentish Town. 'There were collages from bus tickets, a living moss jacket and old bits of wood painted in different colours,' she says. 'The art was crap but the enthusiasm was great.' Determined to get young people excited by the environment, Ms Swift made bizarre latex jackets - out of plastic bags stuffed with bedsheets covered in emulsion - which had memorable labels like City On The Shoulders.
More art exhibitions and fashion shows followed. 'At first, well-known designers rejected the idea that fashion and the environment could be mixed,' says Ms Swift. 'However, we finally had a fashion show at the Empire Ballroom where designers like Rifat Ozbek and John Richmond contributed. The trouble was, people thought I was making lots of money out of it. I wasn't. I got meningitis and had to stop.'
Undeterred in her basic recycling and fashion philosophy - that it is possible to recycle and still be trendy - she decided to approach Oxfam. 'My idea was to open a shop run by fashion students where all the clothes were recycled, the prices were cheap and all the money went to the Third World,' she says. Thus NoLoGo, an Oxfam project instigated by Ms Swift and funded by the charity, was born in Marylebone High Street in 1991.
Having transformed the shop using her considerable talents of persuasion - electricians worked for nothing, local companies donated materials and there were those familiar Italian plate mosaics on the walls - NoLoGo featured a mixture of one-off designs created from old and hand-picked, second-hand clothes. It was a great success. Last year, NoLoGo made pounds 25,000 for Oxfam.
One of the keys to this success was Ms Swift's eye for what is going to be the next big fashion fad. 'I used to go up to the Oxfam factory in Huddersfield and pick out material for the designs,' she says, 'then we'd turn it into flares or long dresses.' Customers attracted to their originality, low prices and the fact that all the proceeds go to Oxfam, include Annie Lennox and Emma Freud.
A second NoLoGo opened in Ganton Street, off Carnaby Street, at the end of last year. And Ms Swift's success has given her the confidence to try broadening her horizons to include television. 'When I started five years ago, no one thought it was possible to combine fashion and the environment,' she says, 'now I want to get the message to a much wider general public.'
Ms Swift sees herself presenting a show which will tell people how they can beat the recession cheaply and inventively. 'I want to tell single mums with two kids,' she says, 'that there are ways of making money out of nothing, ways of making your home glamorous without going to the Conran shop.'
As we talk across the kitchen table, she is making up elaborate beaded chokers and necklaces to sell to the totally trendy Janet Fitch shop in Old Compton Street. The beads have been found over the years at jumble sales and the wire was bought at a car boot sale. Had she learnt these skills at college? 'No, a friend taught me,' she says, clipping off a bit of wire.
One day a week, she teaches sewing to 16- year-olds at North Westminster High School. 'What I really want to do is make them see how easy it is to make clothes,' she says. 'Often I undo all their wrong seams myself, so they don't lose their enthusiasm.' She used to watch her aunts sewing and by the time she was 10 she could knock up a pair of trousers. 'Even now, I'm very impatient,' she says.' If I can't finish a dress in an hour I don't want to know.'
She uses her skills when making clothes for herself. 'My leather trousers were pounds 1 in a jumble sale. I chopped out the pockets, took the waistband off and turned them into hipsters,' she explains, 'and my jumper is made out of four different sweaters which have been cut up and sewn together in patches. I particularly liked one children's jumper so I took a house and some flowers from that. It took me an hour and I have to wash it by hand.'
This multi-jumper look has been all over London this winter, especially since the arrival of 'grunge' on the fashion scene. Ms Swift was doing it five years ago. And to prove it, she runs into the bedroom and grabs a horribly colourful jacket with a wild Seventies pink woollen collar. It was photographed for Elle back in 1988. 'All my friends were nearly sick when I made it,' she says, 'they thought it was hideous. But they're all over the place now.'
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