Our mission is to eliminate plastic waste from the fashion industry
Former global creative director of Adidas and current Co-founder of UNLESS, Paul Gaudio is known for his creative product and sportswear design contributions. In an interview with Fibre2Fashion, Gaudio talks about the sportswear industry and its contribution towards sustainable creations.
Fibre2Fashion: Can you walk us through your teenage days and internship period?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, US, and along with playing sports, I was fascinated with all things mechanical and creative. From building things, to art, fashion, music,etc and the way those things were all interconnected. I was always trying to design and make things from graphic tees and customised sneakers to skateboards and even prom dresses. That led me to design school at Carnegie Mellon University where I studied industrial design. My first internship was far from glamorous, working as a student for a local design firm mostly doing grunt work around the studio. I didn’t really start my career until I graduated and joined another industrial design firm in Pittsburgh, where I worked on medical products, transportation design and even scientific equipment. It was hard work, had a lot to learn and a lot of responsibility thrown on me at a young age, but it somehow felt like I was getting paid to do what I’ve done for fun, so I loved it.
F2F: What sparked your interest in creative design, and how would you elaborate your journey?
My grandfather had a small business refinishing and reupholstering furniture. I spent a lot of time in that shop, as a little kid, playing around with the tools, materials, fabrics and colours. I don’t know if that’s where my interest started as much as how my interests were nurtured and developed. I was always drawing and building in my spare time. I guess I always loved the idea that you could make up your own ideas, create your own realities, build what you couldn’t buy…or even just pretend to do that. It wasn’t something that I was intentional about, it just came naturally, the same way your taste in food or music does. It just felt good, so I did it.
F2F: How did the idea for wearable tech and responsive products emerge to you?
I think we were just excited by the possibilities of marrying the physical and virtual worlds. The wearable tech (or IoT) space was just starting to develop, and we saw the opportunity to use that technology to help athletes progress in their journey to get better. Technology should serve humanity, and we imagined a world where on-body sensors and wireless communications could provide real-time feedback and coaching to athletes, trainers or even regular people who don’t have access to coaches or training facilities. As a designer, the challenge of integrating technology into your sporting, or even daily life has always fascinated me, so personally this was also a very interesting territory to work in. It’s not mandatory, but it’s great when you get to work on things that you have a curiosity about or a clear vision for.
F2F: Do you believe in the concept of sustainable creation? How viable is sustainability in the sportswear industry?
I think the idea of sustainable creation is more than a belief, or an act of faith. It is a fact, a necessity, a challenge, and also an opportunity. As for how viable it is, that’s a different question. It is not viable to think that the industry can simply flip overnight. It is viable for industry thought leaders to continuously look to improve all aspects of sustainability within their value chain. With growing consumer demand, increasing legislation and regulation, the industry is starting to pivot, and will need to continue to do so. Start-ups and pioneers in labs all over the world are working on new technologies that can (and should) disrupt the status quo. New material and process innovation is the way to solve the sustainability challenges we face – land and water use, human rights, plastic waste, pesticides, deforestation, carbon footprint, etc.And it’s not only because we have to address the problems our industry creates, but also because there is opportunity for growth and progress. It is a really exciting space right now with billions of dollars of investment being poured into it. Big brands only need to see this as an opportunity and not as a burden. Plant-based technologies that eliminate petrochemicals and plastics, that eliminate ethical conflicts and habitat destruction, are real, and the big brands can help drive those solutions to scale.
I also think it is helpful if we stop talking about “sustainability” so broadly. Sustainability covers many areas, and this can be both confusing and intimidating to try to tackle the whole thing at once. There are many aspects of sustainability, some mentioned previously. It’s best if industry leaders and pioneers pick their battles as this is a war with a thousand fronts. Carbon footprint, plastic waste, ethics, etc. Pick your battles and win them.
F2F: How can collaborations with brands and celebs affect a brand in terms of design and sales?
Collaborations are a well-worn way to create excitement and to add dimension to a brand. It is important that each party in a collaboration bring something unique and complementary to the party. The best collabs lead to new ideas that either party would not, or could not, have done themselves. Collabs with celebs, especially those with their own creative point of view, or with their own sense of purpose are especially powerful – and of course, work best when their values and views on the world are aligned with yours.
F2F: What are your thoughts on designs being copied?
There is a difference between plagiarism and inspiration. It is impossible to “unsee” something once it’s put out into the world. Anything created will leave its mark on consumer preference and will influence designers. Everything created is in some way influenced by everything already created. I think this is healthy as long as something new and better is born from the previous work. I also think referencing design history or even design in the moment can be valuable, as it becomes a precedent when making design decisions. That precedent may, or may not, lead a designer to do what was done before and may help them to “zig” when the rest of the world is “zagging”, leading them to new and untapped territories or solutions.
On the other hand, I despise when a brand or a designer blatantly rips off the original work of another. Simply copying something and putting your brand or name on it isn’t cool. So much investment, effort and passion go into creating something new, so taking credit, or making profit from the hard work of others is just not ok.
F2F: Are there still boundaries between sports clothing as everyday clothing, and high fashion?
Less and less, but honestly people have been wearing sports gear for casual use as long as I’ve been alive. Over the last few years, sportswear has completely bled out into all parts of fashion. Partly because of the comfort, but also because of the innovation, and energy that the sports world can generate in society. But like everything, these trends evolve, ebb and flow from year to year and you are already starting to see the influence of sportswear on the runways dissipate. This will eventually trickle down to everyday fashion, but for sure we’ve been living through sportswear’s biggest moment.
F2F: According to you, what are the three things that sportswear brands need to work on?
1) Diversity and inclusion in the boardroom, in the C-suite, in management positions and across the employee base, 2) Taking environmental (cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-cradle) responsibility for the products they manufacture and distribute and 3) Driving and scaling sustainable and ethical material and manufacturing process innovation, including near-shore and on-shore production.
F2F: Tell us about your few favourite projects that you did?
I’ve been lucky to work in several industries and on many exciting projects through my career. I am a builder and a starter, more than an operator or manager, so I always enjoy the projects that require building something from the ground up. That could be a product, a brand, a new business or even organisation and processes. One of my favourite projects was designing the all new (in 2002-2006) Norton Commando and attempting to restart the company after nearly 30 years. Re-birthing an historic motorcycle brand and designing the new motorbike from scratch, all while attempting to build a capable team, set up a dealer network, build a community of followers and secure investment for production was a career highlight.
I think our newest venture UNLESS is another great example of something that really excites me. Making 100 per cent plant-based footwear and apparel with zero plastic or petrochemicals is an exciting challenge – and is the unlock to building product that can be harmlessly returned to the earth at the end of its useful life. Send it back to us and we will compost the product safely – no landfills, no microplastics or toxic chemicals leaching into the environment and no toxic emissions from incineration.
F2F: What are you working on currently and what are your forthcoming plans professionally?
I am a co-founder of a plant-based, zero-plastic waste streetwear brand called UNLESS. We are specifically focused on first creating amazing products that are inspired by the lifestyles and attitudes of our home-base here in the Pacific Northwest and Portland OR. Our products – designed from the elements, for the elements and to harmlessly return to the elements – draw influence from skate, workwear, outdoor and cold-water surf. We believe that people shouldn’t have to compromise their values to look great, so not only have we eliminated plastics and petrochemicals from our materials palette, but also offer free take-back of all UNLESS products, where we will safely return it to the earth through our own composting process.
Creating fully biodegradable products is of course a challenge as most fabrics, trims, labels, sewing threads and components in footwear and apparel today are made from plastics. We’ve had to develop partnerships for new materials, as well as build a plant-based supply chain that can support our end-of-life solutions. It is very early days for us, we are only just beginning to get some of our product out into the world, and plan to have a head-to-toe offer by the FW22.
We are looking for a better way to create products, looking to create better choices for consumers who care as much about the environment as they do about looking good. Our mission is to eliminate plastic waste from the fashion industry and the best way to do that is to simply show people that you can and invite them to join you on your journey.