At the ALC Apparel reception desk is a framed quote by the label’s founder, Amanda Laird Cherry: “Those who think of clothing in terms of this or next season’s fashion are missing the point a little. The fabrics and cuts we wear tell us about our society.”

I visited the Durban studio, days before SA Fashion Week AW20 where designer Brendan Sturrock, patterncutter Linda Peters, brand manager and designer Zweli Giampietri, and creative assistant Victoria Raw take me on a tour, show me the new collection, explain the production flow and label philosophy to me. First is an introduction to the women’s wear AW20 which showed on 25 October in Johannesburg, 17 years since Amanda’s first collection showed at SA Fashion Week in 2002.

This collection is an ALC Apparel x Gumtree collaboration. There are the classic ‘seasonless’ colours, black, white, navy and olive with some khaki, maroon, rust and touches of chartreuse. Half the designs are reconstructed secondhand clothes sourced from Gumtree, the online marketplace for secondhand goods. The other half is new season designs. Brendan says the upcycled garments fed inspiration for the new collection.

I spot a magnificent-looking garment on Brendan’s cutting table. He explains that the floor-length jacket is made from upcycled denim garments. I recognise the different parts of pairs of jeans and denim jackets. There are waistbands, pockets, side seams…. Not only has the team made a new fabric by stitching the upcycled fabric pieces together, the garment consists of several separate panels, which are tied together with navy blue ribbons. The wearer can change up how to wear the garment. Its length can be shortened, the sleeves can be shortened or removed, making the coat a versatile long-term investment.

“We started off with the denim, cutting it up to make a new fabric. As we cut out these panels, we took other scraps to add to the fabric. Things grew and shrunk, as we cut up garments and made new ones,” says Brendan.

A dress designed by draping and piecing together three or four shirts including a Calvin Klein one, hangs on a dummy mannequin. The sleeves are embellished with flares cut from the two sides of the front of a shirt: the button and buttonholes side.

Brendan who has a background in made-to-measure design says: “Deconstructing and reconstructing secondhand garments really excites me, because I love how clothes are made”.

Amanda won the Changemaker Award at the recent Twyg Sustainable Fashion Awards. The judges were impressed by her 23-year-old label’s long-term commitment to reducing textile waste, upcycling, supporting local artisans and using local fabrics. Kelly Fung, one of the Twyg judges says: “Each step in the production process demonstrates a considered and consistent commitment to ethical fashion practices, without ever compromising on the dynamic aesthetic of their collections.”

Largely a retail brand, ALC Apparel has a strong design ethos. Brendan says that considered details differentiate it from a commercial brand. These details keep the label relevant, current and exciting. The design team works on styles that transcend seasons and can be dressed up or down for different occasions. Zweli says: “We create collections that are retail-ready in an expressive avant-garde way.”

Director of SA Fashion Week, Lucilla Booyzen, says: ” From the start Amanda’s collections have been distinct and unique, and she has always designed with innovation and sustainability top-of-mind.”

ALC Apparel employs 28 people, including Logie Padiyachee who has worked with the label since it launched. In addition to its in-house team, the brand outsources to all-women owned companies in Durban. To minimise waste, patterns are digitally captured. In the award nomination, Zweli explains that instead of using a manual process to lay pattern pieces they use an external company to digitally capture patterns and calculate the most efficient way to place the pattern pieces. This minimises the size of the offcuts in between pattern pieces.

While I walk through the sewing room, the staff breaks and moves into a designated room for tea. The machinists work in two teams. One focuses on making new samples, the other makes the final product for retail. A sample is a quality example of a garment for the production team.

Most of the studio and sewing area is open plan, with glassed-in offices for managers. There is a store room of rolled-up imported fabrics and metres of locally-made ShweShwe from Da Gama Textiles in the Eastern Cape. Like most South African labels, ALC Apparel finds the fabric supply chain challenging and relies heavily on what its fabric suppliers stock. A large percentage of their seasonal buy is Tencel and Linen.

There is another storeroom for Amanda’s archive and patterns. A few rails of overstock will be dyed or upstyled for later retail after the end-of-season post mortem.

This season, over and above working on the new collection, the studio has made ten garments to sell on Gumtree. The point of the collaboration is to change people’s perception of secondhand clothes: “It’s okay to buy secondhand. It’s okay to treasure pre-loved clothes.”

When I leave the studio, I reread Amanda’s quote: “Those who think of clothing in terms of this or next season’s fashion are missing the point a little. The fabrics and cuts we wear tell us about our society”. Her story this season is clear: she is telling us that society is rethinking how to make clothes and how to consume them.

Sustainability practices adopted by ALC:

• Patterns cut to reduce waste
• Larger unused offcuts are used for new product development, patchwork garments or small accessory items, such as purses, tote bags and belts
• Medium-sized offcuts are used in runway shows
• Smaller offcuts are donated to the Hillcrest AIDS Centre (HACT), for making toys and various craft items that are sold to benefit this non-profit organisation
• Create tran-seasonal, easy-to-wear apparel that can be dressed up or down for different occasions
• Colours are trans-seasonal
• Silhouettes aren’t generally trend-driven
• When the label does occasionally have fun with creating garments, footwear or accessories that are trend-orientated, it approaches this design process in a way that the final product is intended to last longer than one season.
• Styles are classic and accommodate for a variety of shapes and phases in peoples’ lives
• Wash care instructions are on every garment sold: cold wash, cool iron, do not hang in direct sunlight, do not bleach, do not tumble dry.
• Quality is a focus at all stages of development and production process
• Partner with nearby producers, to raise the skill level in the local industry Work with crafters to elevate their work in a way that is wearable and contemporary
• Mentor and train unskilled staff