Hearts on sleeves to save a world from fashion

Lauren Shanley's exquisite, increasingly sought-after garments are made from recycled fabrics and other bits of jumble. Shan Senofield reports
"Whatever you do, don't describe my designs as patchwork," says Lauren Shanley, in her shop at Gabriel's Wharf, amidst the most extravagant fabrics seen this side of Jaipur. "Patchwork" is not a word that you would associate with these fluent, luminescent outfits, which swathe a growing number of Londoners. As well as clothes, the shop is crammed with bags, jewellery, mirrors and hats made from scraps of recycled materials and Quality Street wrappers. The unmistakable feel of the subcontinent comes from her many trips to south-east Asia and India.

Between towering piles of fabric, Lauren sits at her sewing machine resplendent in a jacket she has created from tangerine curtain material. Behind her hangs a collaged and appliqued miracle, tiny angel faces peeking from behind silver embroidery. It is a coat. These brilliant three-dimensional works of art are conjured from bags of jumble and scraps of ancient fabric.

"I once found a huge bag of linen and lace hankies at a jumble sale and made someone's wedding dress from them. It was probably an old lady's lifetime collection," she says. "The dress was very full and layered, and I embroidered it with silver thread."

She recently made a dress with a purple-and-green cape for a society wedding at the Dorchester. "I sometimes make the groom's clothes, too," she says, nodding towards a glorious waistcoat with a collage guitar surreptitiously sliding over the shoulder.

As the sign on the shop window says, Lauren is "committed to recycling". She creates most of her fabrics by transforming donated velvets, chiffons and Fifties curtains in the four steps to uniqueness. She starts with rectangular panels of materials which she collages, embroiders and appliques, finishing the elaborate process with gold or silver threads. Most of her commissioned work is made from these recycled materials. Customers, or "well-wishers", donate their satin and brocade curtains or bags of jumble. An Irish lady once sent a packet of original multicoloured Twenties chiffon scarves.

The friendly atmosphere of the shop and its Aladdin-ish feel encourage people to stay and chat - often for hours. Lauren has discovered that many of her customers buy her clothes when they want to change their lives. "Colour is energy," she explains, "and it's so grey out there."

She waves towards the filthy Thames. "Colour allows us to make a strong statement about ourselves and fight against a society that tries to push us into all being the same. There is a definite body politic in my work. I'm into things being comfortable, so they're often soft and drapy. I'm often asked to make things for people who have difficulty getting what they want in standard shops."

Her customers range from teenagers to much older women, from students to lecturers, from pregnant brides to radical feminists. They are all people who want styles that can't be dated, and look better with age. "The clothes look better after people have sweated in them and made them lumpy. They become heirlooms."

As an artist in her native New Zealand, Lauren was always environmentally aware, and particularly interested in recycling. She collected and dyed rope and other organic rubbish from the beach, and later made wall hangings and soft sculptures which gradually evolved into clothes. She passes on her recycling philosophy by giving lectures and exhibitions, and doing workshops with school children.

Lauren's belief in the importance of recycling is part of a growing awareness about our responsibility to the environment. Rob Harrison, for one, is pleased to see designers such as Lauren Shanley reusing fabrics. As a spokesperson for The Ethical Consumer, a Manchester based magazine, Rob shares Lauren's concern about the effects that clothes production have on the earth.

"It is a world-wide problem, having a massive impact on such things as water pollution from the bleaching and dyeing, land use for cotton instead of food crops, and pesticide poisoning."

He produces a litany of ecological evils. Cotton plants alone, for example, use up 25 per cent of world sales of pesticides; nylon production may account for half the emission of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide in the UK. Heavy metals such as lead and titanium, used to fix colours, are toxic; some dyes are thought to be carcinogenic; and sheep-dips for wool may be poisoning our farmers.

Those of us who are not thrilled at the thought of noble nudity, however, may rest in the conscience-freeing notion of recycled clothing. "Globally," points out Rob Harrison, "recycling fabrics would cut these damaging effects on the environment by half."

Most of Lauren's work is now commissioned, but she also has ready-made garments hanging in the shop. Usually made from one piece of material with some stitching and embroidery, these waistcoats, trousers and jackets are none the less shimmering and incandescent. The jackets start off at around pounds 50, increasing in price according to how much work is put into them. The commissioned clothes are more expensive, starting at about pounds 200 per garment.

Price is based on labour alone, as Lauren does not charge for recycled material. Her most expensive coat, a radiant, iconic, embroidered vision, took about 100 hours to make and cost pounds l,500. Her cushions and bags are around pounds 30, and she also sells work by other jewellery makers and artists, including some particularly disturbing but enchanting brooches in the shape of cartoon girls.

Always an artist, Lauren doesn't like the idea of anyone else creating her fabrics or clothes. Each garment has her individuality and philosophy sewn into it. To relinquish this sense of ownership would endanger the idea of what a Lauren Shanley piece is. Because of this, there is a waiting- list for commissioned clothes, which can take anything from a couple of weeks to several months to make.

Lauren Shanley can be contacted Tuesday to Saturday, 11am to 6pm (0171- 928 5782). An exhibition of her work will be held on 28 April. It is called 'Doris Day goes to India' and will be held at The Inner Space, Whitechapel Pottery, London E1, from 7pm. Tickets pounds 10, (includes food and drink) can be ordered in advance.