Dr Carmen Hijosa, a role model for women researchers and fashion pioneers, is not only introducing us to a new material Piñatex™, a breakthrough in the sustainable textiles industry and also in the niche of vegan fashion, but she is doing it mighty so, over the age of sixty. I’ve me Carmen in London, and hugely enjoyed the presentation of her project; her enthusiasm and energy was that of a girl who is still exploring the world. I wanted in this interview to get to know better not only Carmen the successful researcher, but also Carmen, the woman, and Carmen, the Madonna of Vegan Fashion!I have always been self-employed. My first company, which was based in Ireland, designed and manufactured leather goods for the home and export market, supplying key accounts such as Harrods, Liberty in London and Takashimaya in Japan.
As a result of the company’s achievements and reputation, I started to do design consultancy for World Bank and the EU, working in South America, Asia and Europe for several years. One of these appointments brought me to work with the Design Centre Philippines in Manila, the brief being to help upgrade the design and manufacturing of leather goods aimed at the export market. This work brought awareness of the need to look into the development of alternative materials to leather, using local skills and sustainable raw materials
.The result of this research work, which culminated in a PhD in the Royal College of Art, London, has been the development of a unique new textile, called Piñatex.What were your studies back in Spain? How did you get involved with design and leather goods?
I left Spain at 19 and I have been working and studying ever since. My first company, manufacturing leather goods was set up alongside with my then husband as a way to survive while studying and living. It became a good company and the products were considered some of the best at the time. My academic education also started in Ireland, where I did a degree in the National College of Art and Design in textiles, when I realised that I wanted to change from leather to more sustainable materials.
Give us the names of a couple of your favourite fashion designers of yesterday and of today.
Yamamoto is one of my favourites today and yesterday. Miyake is also one of my favourites. I admire designers that do not follow fashion per se, are innovators in their use of materials and technologies.
A woman in innovation
What was your dream job when you where a young girl? Did you see yourself doing what you do now?
Of course not! My dream was to break free from the traditional way of living in Spain at the time – so I wanted to learn languages and travel the world. This was the reason I went to Ireland first, to study English and travel
You were a candidate and you have won many prestigious prizes for your work as an innovator and for your product. What advice would you give to women out there that want to combine success and embrace sustainability, as well?
My advice is that success needs to be intrinsically related to being a human being with responsibilities: social and ecological – we only have this world and even if it sounds a bit cliché – whatever we do we need to be responsible for the consequences of our actions. To me success is not about ourselves being seen as special – it is about taking our status and position in life and using it for the benefit of the whole. And by the way – I don’t see myself as a success just an entrepreneur with a vision!
You decided to go for a PHD in textiles after the age of 60. That is a brave act, an act of a true polymath. Do you believe in long-life learning? How can it change women’s lives?
Of course I do believe in long-life learning! It is not about being brave really; it is about being very stubborn and not ever thinking that you cannot do whatever you want to do. It is about mastering enough will to move that first step, whether it is to join an evening class and do something you always wanted to do, or to embark in higher education, taking the risks that this usually entails – financially and emotionally.
I do believe in learning continuously – in fact, as we become wiser with age it is much more satisfactory and it does indeed change our lives – we become more sure of ourselves, acquire more knowledge to stand for ourselves and this really can start a transformation that any woman that has embarked in this would be able to acknowledgeWere you expecting the success that Piñatex is having in the long days of research & development?
At the back of my mind yes, – however on a daily basis, it is a long and lonely road, with lots of ups and downs and only a strong determination and will to do something good and useful kept me going.
When was it that sustainability started being an important element for the product you were developing?
In the late ’90s, I was asked to go to the Philippines to update the leather fashion export markets – at the time I had a company in Ireland manufacturing leather goods.
However, when I arrived there and started to research the leather manufacturing processes and see their ecological consequences, I started to look at what the country had that may give me the opportunity to develop an alternative to leather. Then sustainability came to the fore as a necessity to solve the social and ecological issues I was encountering.
You are coming from a background in trading luxury leather goods, is that right? How does that background help you in your current sustainable project, if it helps you in any way?
Yes, it allows me to understand the complexity of the fashion industry, its needs, problems and solutions.
How easy was it to collaborate with locals in the Philippines and find ways to incorporate or change their artisanal techniques in a more sophisticated production line? Do you speak the local language? Is the production of the pineapple mesh in the Philippines helping and empowering the local community?
When you go to work or in a fact-finding mission into a new country, you do not go with the idea of changing the local ways but rather on how you can join their skills with yours and develop something new out of that new relationship – collaboration comes from sharing and mutual respect, time and humbleness to learn from others. This way, collaborations become fruitful to both sides.
In the Philippines most people speak English, and when not, I had translators with me.
Yes the pineapple mesh is starting to make ripples of changes in the local communities; however, we are just starting to upscale which is very difficult so the struggle goes on really.To date, Ananas Anam has made around 3,000 metres of Piñatex and has the capacity to create up to 100,000 metres per month. Would you like this number to be increased according to popular demand? What’s the size you want Ananas Anam to reach? Is an ethical corporation a model that can evolve from the needs of our times?
Yes it is possible to enlarge our production in different parts of the world. We would like to see Ananas working with all kinds of companies and to arouse the interest of different kinds of industries (fashion, automobile, furnishings…). We are still a start-up company starting to upscale – come back to me in 3 years time for this question!
At what phase is Piñatex these days? What are the next steps of this exciting project?
The first products made of Piñatex are currently launched on the market. Our projects are to enlarge the production of Piñatex and to further the development of Piñatex in terms of colors, prints and other options with ongoing R&D.
About the Author
Stylianee is an ethical fashion evangelist, among other things. She is passionate about all things sustainable, ethical and conscious and apart from raising awareness and advocating on upcycling, recycling, swapping, mending (not necessarily in this order) these days she is working on the launch of her sustainable fashion brand. Organic cotton, natural fabrics and smart design will do the trick.