Sustainability at Pitti:
Edition 100
Patchouli_Studio’s Andrea Zanola Is Our Kind of “Knit Freak”

Sustainability at Pitti is a series of interviews that celebrate fashion’s climate-conscious innovators. By providing a platform for the designers that put sustainability at the core of their brand, we hope to inspire and lead a wave of change within our industry, helping us all to push for a better future together.

For a brand that launched just over a year ago, Andrea Zanola’s Patchouli_Studio is already setting the bar for what a responsible fashion brand looks like. Not only is his knitwear truly beautiful — the aesthetic sitting at an intersection between ethereal and grunge — it’s all created with an ethos that puts climate-conscious practices at the forefront.
“Only a year old?!” says Zanola when we congratulate him on Patchouli_Studio’s first anniversary. “It feels like a lifetime already!” That it feels like eons since his May 2020 launch is probably not surprising. The globe as a whole has changed significantly over the last year and his own world has changed dramatically, too — parting ways with larger brands like Salgari, The Woolmark Company, Zegna Baruffa, and Ermanno Scervino to go it alone and carve his own path within the industry. 
We recently sat down with Zanola to discover more about his mindset, design approach, and all things Pachouli_Studio. 
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and why you decided to launch your own brand? 

I thought long [about] whether to go solo. I asked myself: “Do we need another brand in such an overcrowded industry?” Honestly, I think not. However, I felt the need to do something different. I was lucky enough to work for a couple of luxury brands here in Italy after graduation. I learnt a lot and I will be forever thankful for those experiences. When my last job contract expired, I realized something was wrong, like something was missing. Working in fashion has always been my dream and I wanted to do something more aligned with my personal values, so I decided to start Patchouli_Studio, [under] my own conditions. 

I don’t think of Patchouli as a brand, I like to think of it as an ongoing project, my professional commitment to try to make the best out of the huge amount of waste produced regularly by the fashion industry. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. 
Can you tell us about the concept behind the collections you will be showing at Pitti — ‘Natural Habit’ and ‘New Beginnings’?

I decided to show my favorite pieces from each collection plus some new special garments that I’ve been working on lately. I don’t design with a collection in mind; I always design garment by garment [and design them to last]. My creative process is like a flow, it’s extremely instinctive and consequential. Lately, I have been focusing on the idea of going effortlessly back in time, taking huge inspiration from my grandparents’ vintage summer-ish attire, with a special Patchouli touch. They would have been great brand ambassadors. 

What has the experience of launching a new brand been like so far, especially considering you started during a global pandemic? 

Hectic! Launching a new brand was not easy at all, considering that my team is, well, just me. But being in a global pandemic was not a break for my inspiration and creativity; being forced to stop put me in [the appropriate] condition for realigning my priorities. [It was] a truly challenging process but I believe it was worth it. Stressful times can really bring the best out of me — while most were baking, I was ferociously knitting. 

Since May 2020, I’ve talked and collaborated with many incredibly talented people that share the same passion and enthusiasm for being environmentally good. Among all, I can’t help but mention Chris Burt Allan and Mr. Christian Lacroix, the nicest people I have ever met. They delivered authentic support that has truly been a boost for my project. 
Your knitwear is incredible. Can you talk us through your production process? How long does it typically take to make a piece? 

Knitwear. Is. Just. Amazing. The fact that a single simple yarn can be knitted into the most amazing textures, shapes, and colors has always been fascinating to me. One of the most time-consuming aspects of my production process is sourcing materials that align with my values. Once I have collected them, unraveling all the wasted swatches and samples takes forever. I am a knit freak. I knit and crochet everything by hand, so it takes some time [but] I love the creative process and I am committed to producing the most well-refined garments, inside out. 

One of the garments I am most proud of is a crocheted sweater from Natural Habitat. The main theme of the collection is the Ocean, which plays a fundamental role in supporting life on earth. I designed and crocheted a seamless garment to convey the idea of fluidity. It took over 50 working hours to achieve a smooth, well-refined, and visually appealing outcome. The sweater, as per the all collection, has been crocheted using fully recycled fibers only (cashmere, alpaca, nylon). 

I really like to collaborate on bespoke knitted garments as well, I love hearing new ideas from customers [and create] their dream sweater. I like the idea that the customer gets a garment they love and identify with completely. 
Your work incorporates deadstock and market-sourced fabrics that are often either vintage or damaged. Does the fabric you find inform a garment’s design rather than the other way around? 

Totally. My goal is to knit the best out of what I can find. Whenever I ask a knitwear factory or spinning mill to support Patchouli_Studio by supplying wasted materials I never ask for a particular color, texture, or composition. I let them decide what’s best for them. I love the feeling of never knowing what I am getting. Every time it feels like Christmas. 

Patchouli_Studio stands for no discrimination in terms of gender, size and color. It can be applied both to our community and to the materials we use. The most important thing is to avoid those wasted materials [from getting unnecessarily] incinerated, which is how it works in Italy. 

Does this also mean that each piece you create is one of a kind? 

Pretty much. I think that the idea of the “one of a kind” is mind-blowing. It’s currently the closest thing to original couture garments [and it’s] definitely more affordable. It’s surely a risky business strategy, but it works. I think that being one of a kind makes the garment more special and so it reduces the chance to leave it hanging in the closet. 

For example, my most requested garment has been the uneven striped cropped vest — once I’ve found the right proportions and shape, I start knitting with different yarns and colors. There are never two identical vests, always the same general colorful vibe but never exactly the same vest. 
When you’re not working with deadstock or second-hand yarns, where do you source from? What is your selection process like? What do you look for in a yarn supplier? 

I always look for 100 percent natural and organic fibres or recycled ones. I also look for their environmental and traceability commitments, fairness, transparency, and reliability. Some of the new garments I am going to show at Pitti Uomo have been knitted using materials provided by IAFIL, which is a yarn company based in Milan that pays great attention and commits major resources to nature and environmental protection.

What made you decide to use “Made On This Planet” rather than the traditional “Made in Italy” label? What message are you sending here? 

What makes a garment special, extremely well done, and refined is 100% the person who makes it, period. No matter where he/she is located or he/she is from. When you love what you are doing and you are putting a lot of passion and effort in what you are doing to me is already high quality. You may like it or not aesthetically, but it’s high quality. (This is not meant to diminish the Made in Italy quality trademark!)

I like the environmental activists’ motto “think globally, act locally” as a way to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities and cities. It is so powerful. I thought it would have been the perfect way to express the core of Patchouli_Studio. 

What are the biggest obstacles you face as a designer in regards to creating responsible collections? 

It is extremely hard, if not indeed impossible, to be completely sustainable in the development of a fashion business. We have to face the truth. Also because the definition itself of sustainability is up for interpretation. Once you have come to terms with this, the biggest obstacle is to find the right environmentally positive balance between what you are doing and the environment itself. 

How do you feel about the industry’s current sustainability efforts? What change would you like to see? 

This is a complicated topic; we could discuss current sustainability efforts for hours. Who did what, was it greenwashing, was it just marketing, are they really thinking about a healthy planet? The future will tell. 

The entire fashion system is based on the idea of consumption, creating collection after collection with garments that are almost out of fashion the moment you see them on the catwalk. We have also to face the fact that there is a lack of cultural knowledge about sustainability in fashion and there are no strict specific guidance rules on what to do or what not to do, what is acceptable, and what is not. I have the feeling that most of the people would think of sustainable fashion as wearing hemp or organic cotton and no real leather. But there is a whole world out of that. 

Generally speaking, I think that it is great that big companies and huge brands are putting so much effort, time, and money to adjust their supply chain, marketing strategies, and CSR (Climate Social Responsibility) in a more sustainable way both for the workers and for the planet. It’s a huge billionaire business so it will take some time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but over the last year I have seen a significant improvement in regards to sustainability. 

Do you have any top tips or words of advice for brands and designers looking to be more responsible in their work? 

The best advice I could ever share, if ever, is to keep it simple. Sometimes it takes nothing to be nicer to the planet (and the people!). Acting sustainably should be the norm and an authentic response to living in connection to the natural environment we live in. As a gold medal overthinker, I would also advise not to overthink — ask, be curious about sustainability, and feel the natural flow. You can live the life you love, or you can love the life you live.

Explore the collections, contact the brand, request an online appointment, and much more.