In conversation with Lē Matthew, designer, artist, musician and the founder of Degrade label.
Heads up: This blog post contains gifted items. However the brand has not asked or intervened in the content of the blog in any way.
Degradability in nature exists for a reason.
Yet, degradation does not mean disappearing, weakening, or diminishing. Quite the opposite, it means changing and transforming. Everything has its place in the ecosystem, and over a longer or shorter period, it transforms into something else. Rain from the sky becomes a part of an ocean. Plants turn into the soil for a new life, and carbon in the air becomes oxygen. And so much more.
In Earth’s ecosystem, everything is interconnected, and nothing gets wasted or goes away.
We can clearly see what happens when we interfere with this cycle of degradation. Fashion, unfortunately, is one of the leaders in a business model where we create things that cannot integrate back into our lives but instead simply become a waste. At this point, fashion has significantly contributed to the emergency we otherwise know as climate change.
Still, every April, I feel hopeful for Earth Day and Fashion Revolution Week.
This year, I am honoured to wear a token of this hope: a beautiful custom-made necklace by Degrade.
I will explain.
Why should fashion go circular?
Even though fashion has an incredibly problematic relationship with our planet, there are people and brands challenging that.
Rather than simply continuing to take away from resources, some are radically changing the way we interact with materials and this planet. To me, that’s the real hope.
A Brooklyn-based label Degrade is undoubtedly one of those brands. Degrade is both an art project and an advocate for circularity in fashion. Through experimenting, exploring and curiosity, they are rethinking how we use materials and textiles in the fashion industry.
“Us artists are an asset to this world. We observe, listen, and feel this world deeply. When I started studying the world closer, I became interested in systems within which we all live and work”, Lē Matthew, the founder of Degrade, told me at the start of our conversation. Despite our conversation happening online and at a distance, I could right away feel Lē’s passion and deep thinking they do through their art. I wasn’t wrong.
Growing up in Lagos, Nigeria, Lē has seen the silent and damaging effects of fashion waste: “It didn’t take me long to realise that our fashion waste ends up in Africa, creating countless problems and flooding the ecosystems and local infrastructures. I did not want to allow that. So, I started doing experiments with materials.”
For Lē, starting Degrade meant taking circularity in fashion seriously. To prevent waste from happening, they understood that circularity begins with design. So, Lē took their learnings from art and multi-disciplinary approach to re-design how we make, wear and dispose of jewellery and accessories.
Jewellery that biodegrades
Degrade uses only locally sourced and organic materials in its designs. Everything is limited edition, depending on the availability of materials. The necklace I received has three delicate rose petals that create a beautiful pop of colour. But degrade has collections with other flowers, citruses and herbs.
With no acrylic, plastic or resins used, Degrade pieces will biodegrade over time. With proper care, their jewellery can last up to 9 months or even a year before starting to change. After this, you can remove the organic parts, break them into pieces and put them in your home or communal compost. The biomaterial they use is also an excellent soil fertiliser!
Just as it takes time for the material to break down, Degrade takes the time to make each piece. Lē explained that, though biodegradable materials are exciting, the principles of slow and mindful fashion are at the label’s core. Sustainable materials are a great thing, and Lē certainly hopes to work with more materials in the future, expanding into other wearables. Nevertheless, if we don’t slow down and reduce our overall production, we cannot expect fashion to become more sustainable.
That is why every Degrade piece is handmade carefully and slowly. Degrade also encourages people wearing their jewellery to take good care of it and dispose of it properly. After three months, they even follow up with each customer to see how their pieces are doing and give any additional tips on caring for them.
They go beyond this too.
For example, Degrade was invited to hold a workshop in New York’s Museum of Art and Design (MAD) this June. At first, Lē thought about sourcing the organic material for this event. Then they realised that a floral exposition in the MAD museum was happening just before the workshop. Instead of looking for new material, Lē decided to reuse the flowers from that exposition.
“We don’t throw away things just because we used them!” they told me when discussing their plans for the summer. Whenever possible, they are trying not only to use organic and biodegradable material but also things that are otherwise considered waste. They believe this to be a true circularity.
Memories that degrade
Apart from creating unique and limited-edition pieces, Degrade offers custom-made projects too.
“We do custom-made designs for an important reason. As a brand, we are selling more than a nice design. We offer to capture something personal in our work. I really enjoy getting to know a person I’m designing for”, Lē said.
They often incorporate flowers or stones meaningful to a person who will wear the jewellery. Diving deeply into each personal story, Degrade looks for the connection between personal experience and the material world. They literally capture memories and moments of somebody’s life into organic materials. For me, they turned the hope I feel from my work in ethical fashion into a simple but effective necklace. It was a perfect birthday gift too!
Unlike other techniques that are trying to preserve our memories forever, Degrade allows them to, well, degrade and transform into new life and new purpose.
It gives a whole different meaning to the things we wear on our bodies, doesn’t it?