Burke Residency 30: LOTI

Written by Emma Olson


Posted on November 07 2023

EMMA: You launched LOTI in 2021, can you tell us about your journey to having your own upcycled design studio?

LOTTIE: The summer of 2017, I made the move to Los Angeles to finally start my career in the world of fashion. My previous internship experiences with corporate giants like Banana Republic and Ralph Lauren had already bursted my very naive “working as a fashion designer is a very hands-on and creative role” bubble, so I knew that landing a designer role for a contemporary fashion brand would grant me access to a mildly creative job that had financial security, insurance, and a relatively balanced 9-5 work routine. As I saw my non artistic friends work (and hate) their jobs in places like Bank of America and JP Morgan, I was happy and prepared to accept this mildly creative, designer life. Even though most opportunities I explored didn't even meet these criteria,  that's not the reason I decided to leave.
My departure was prompted by my inability to accept the prevalent attitudes in the industry, such as "that's just the way it works" and "we can't change that." These responses were the norm when I raised concerns about the transparency aspects of our clothing production and why we weren’t auditing the factories we worked with even though we knew many factories in China and Vietnam worked under horrible conditions. Even ideas that could benefit both business and society, such as promoting equity and inclusiveness in the workplace, were met with discomfort and irritation. The grave consequences of our clothing on the health of global communities, their livelihoods, and the environment were often dismissed, making me feel like an unwelcome insolent child within the industry's profit-centric bubble. Because of this, even when we, the design team, were allowed some creative freedom, the garments we created seemed devoid of soul, and this void was palpable. It was perplexing to me; I knew I wasn't working at a place like Forever 21, so why did it feel that way?
Lottie Bertello founder and designer of LOTI Studio
The pervasive influence of fast fashion had infiltrated every nook and cranny of the apparel industry, even within brands that weren't typically associated with fast fashion. The rules governing cost, convenience, speed, and quantity had been irrevocably altered. It was as if the fashion industry had been whispering, "Abusing “back house” workers (sewers, cutters, packers, dyers, etc.) and churning out endless single-use clothing is “just how things work." For the longest time, few were willing to listen, until some voices finally rose to challenge these norms.
The rise of fashion activism, fueled by the power of social media, compelled the industry to confront its practices. No longer could it hide from the unapologetic calls to action from voices like Venetia La Manna, Leah Thomas, and Aja Barber. I’d catch myself thinking-screaming “YES” whenever @greengirlleah would point out something I was seeing happening IRL at my workplace.
Across the globe, communities in places like the USA, China, Vietnam, Peru, and India are being squeezed to their limits to produce disposable clothing at an alarming pace. The industry has become reliant on the oppression of thousands of mostly minority workers to produce a seemingly endless supply of products from finite resources. Nothing about this makes sense now or made sense then, and my once-passionate interest in creating clothing turned into something that made me feel ill.
The only place where I continued to enjoy my interactions with clothing was in thrift stores. There, I knew I wasn't participating in the consumption of "new product," and I wasn't falling prey to the manipulative tactics employed by large corporations to drive seasonal buying frenzies. Then, the pandemic hit, and I saw it as an opportunity to figure out whether I wanted to completely leave the industry (I was also intrigued by law and comedy) or create something entirely new. If I were to embark on a new venture, I was determined that it couldn't be just another brand churning out more new clothes, I could learn from my previous work experience on how NOT to do things. My non-negotiables, which are making everything waste-based, always creating slowly and responsibly and never being afraid of doing things differently, ended up being the seeds that have now grown into what LOTI is today. There is still plenty more tending and watering to do.
Model for LOTI Studio

E: There's a respect for objects that last that feels inherent to the brand - your seamstress Luz even works on a vintage Singer machine that's been in her family for three generations! That respect feels unfortunately rare in a world of easy, cheap, disposable goods. Have you always had that respect, and how do you think others can cultivate it for themselves?

L: I wish I could say that I've always held that level of respect, but honestly, that wasn't the case. It's challenging not to prioritize convenience and the desire to "fit in" in a world that often glorifies those ideals. This addiction to convenience can easily overshadow our natural curiosity to pause and reflect on how the speed, low prices, and product availability can coexist seamlessly. We need to question how this affects us and the world around us.
How many times have you purchased something only to find that you don't even want it when it arrives? Businesses are producing more than we can reasonably consume, and they employ marketing strategies to push us to buy even more. To justify our excessive purchases, items must be cheap enough for us to convince ourselves that it's okay to buy them, and we don't need them to last because they cost the same as a cup of coffee. When they eventually "break," we just donate them. We don't take responsibility for the sheer volume of single-use clothing we accumulate, as we can dispose of it guilt-free by donating to goodwill. I'm certainly guilty of this behavior, and it applies to home goods, food, and all other "fast" industries. However, I drew the line when it came to textile-based products.
Growing up in Peru, where textiles play a crucial role in the economy and culture, instilled in me a deep appreciation and respect for textile goods. I pursued a degree in this field, with a BFA in Fashion Design and a minor in Fibers. Once you understand the labor, time, and resources that go into creating a quality textile, a $30 shirt just doesn't make any sense from a mathematical perspective. Even though the world might be convinced that's the right price for a shirt, this logic falls apart upon scrutiny.
To "cultivate" this respect, you can either take the knowledge route or the commitment route. If you're eager to learn, books like "Consumed" by Aja Barber or "The Conscious Closet" by Elizabeth Cline provide excellent starting points. If you recognize that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry globally and wish to take responsibility for your choices, commit to buying clothing that you will genuinely care for and properly dispose of when the time comes.
And, on a side note, Luz is truly exceptional; she's not only passionate about crafting with her hands but also incredibly skilled and creative. Currently, we're dedicated to perfecting our upcycled tie products, but I can't wait to collaborate with her on other projects in the future. Luz es la mejor <3.
Luz, seamstress for LOTI Studio

E: You upcycle natural fibers exclusively and have given interviews discussing the sustainability of fabrics, how do you think non-natural fibers may be best cared for, upcycled or recycled? Where do you find your natural fibers that are used in LOTI garments?

L: Natural fibers undeniably offer a more environmentally friendly and body-friendly alternative to synthetic materials like polyester; but assessing the overall sustainability of a textile or garment requires a more comprehensive perspective. Sustainability in textiles goes beyond the material itself; it encompasses the entire supply chain involved in its production. That said, there's a straightforward rule to follow: "Say no to new plastic" – this includes materials like polyester and nylon. The adverse impact of plastic on oceans, landfills, and human health (both externally and internally, as microplastics are a growing concern) makes it a safe choice to reject new plastic. Just remind yourself by wearing polyester garments, you’re literally wearing oil and chemicals. Plastic, like fast fashion, exemplifies a design flaw that offers a cheap, convenient solution to easily produce a vast quantity of products. Visibly, the planet pays the price. Invisibly, we do as well. 

The food industry  (ex. organic, farm- raised) and the beauty industry (ex. Clean, ethical, vegan) are just a glimpse of what hopefully lies ahead for the fashion industry's future.  It's becoming increasingly evident to the general public that being conscientious about what they consume and apply to their faces is essential. The next frontier is extending this mindfulness to what we put on our bodies.

It's important to note that not all textiles made from natural fibers are automatically "sustainable." I firmly believe a sustainable fabric should meet 3 specific criteria:
Ethical production (fair wages, safe working conditions, limits on overtime),
Responsible use of non-renewable natural resources,
Low environmental impact at the end of its life cycle.

Production for LOTI Studio

Recycling polyester fibers is relatively easier due to existing plastic recycling systems. Most people in the USA show resistance when it comes to changing habits towards a more sustainable future. Recycling is one of the few accepted practices we engage in because the government had to step in and “normalize” it. Even though the government should be significantly more involved in passing bills restricting the abuse of people & planet, they haven't. So the fact that they spent so much time and money pushing for recycling should paint a picture of how dire the plastic issue really is. Upcycling on the other hand, is much more difficult, takes a lot more time and cannot be done in massive quantities at once. This makes upcycling much less profitable, which is why more clothing brands tend to go the recycled route when looking to enter the sustainable space. Brands can just buy yardage of a recycled textile, market themselves as a sustainable brand, and conduct business as usual without ever addressing what the industry is asking for, which is LESS product made MORE responsibly (See H&M's “conscious” collection).

At LOTI I've sourced our materials from various outlets, starting with 100% cotton men's dress shirts that I personally collected from goodwill outlets during the pandemic. I managed to gather over 1000 shirts, which I brought to Perú for our first collection. I realized it would be counterproductive to transport the material from the USA to Perú and then bring back the finished garments to the USA. While Perú does not have a second-hand industry (in itself, this is very positive, but the root of it comes from most of the population not having a disposable income), it boasts a thriving apparel/textile manufacturing industry. Where there's clothing/textile production, there's textile waste. We now collaborate directly with factories in Perú that use premium Peruvian textiles like Alpaca wool, Merino wool, and Pima cotton, collecting their fabric scraps, remnants, and leftover yardage. Additionally, we upcycle 100% silk ties sourced from second-hand shops in LA, as they are small enough for me to carry when I travel to Peru.

 Model for LOTI Studio

E: Greenwashing feels ever-present as companies continue to produce fast and cheap goods that claim to be sustainable but are still ultimately contributing to the ongoing apparel and textile waste going to landfills. Even further, upcycling as an "aesthetic" has been a "trend" through the years, sometimes even mimicking the look of an upcycled garment but actually being completely new. How do you push back against greenwashing as a business owner, designer, and consumer?

L: See answer above on how large brands use easy gimmicks, like recycled textiles, as a way to claim sustainability and make more garments (aka more profit). If a brand is overproducing and refusing to stop, it is fast, making it FAST FASHION.  It’s time for us to use common sense when evaluating brands that claim sustainability. The Good On You app is a great resource for quick no BS information on most well known brands.

I wish I had a better answer to how we push back against greenwashing, but honestly I think the best way I’ve found is to just push LOTI forward. I try to give all my energy to LOTI,  rather than getting frustrated and caught up at how these other brands and businesses are diluting the beauty of mindful making, let alone upcycling. This is easier said than done. But I remind myself they will never be able to do upcycling the way we do, because their price structure does not allow for it. We try to share as much behind the scenes as possible so you, the consumer, can see the realities of what it takes to make clothing, including the making of the textiles themselves. Wearing a LOTI item is wearing the change you want to make in the world. There is an exchange of mutual inspiration that happens with our community. We see how there is an ever growing group of people pushing towards inclusivity, diversity, responsibility, sustainability and advocacy in their own industries and so we want to make clothes they can feel empowered in when fighting for a better future- garments that make you so proud you can’t help but stand extra tall. Most of us operate on the mindset of being proud of getting something for cheap because we have been tricked by fast fashion into thinking spending a decent amount of money on clothing is frivolous. This must change, as someone is still paying the price. Change takes time but I wouldn’t be working on  LOTI if I didn’t think it was possible.

 Model for LOTI Studio

E: You're also the Textile Specialist for the Peruvian Government in the West Coast here in the States, what does that work look like and how is it interwoven with LOTI?

L: Yes I am :). The whole thing has been an unexpected but really great opportunity. Initially, I reached out to the agency to explore the possibility of applying for a grant or getting information on small business assistance for LOTI. However, after a very lengthy conversation about my background, my experiences and even why I moved from Peru to the USA, my current boss informed me that there were no grants available BUT that he had a job opportunity in mind that he believed I'd be a perfect fit for. I've been working in this role for a little over two years now, and it's been an enriching experience with its fair share of ups and downs.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this position has been the opportunity to really get to know a wide range of Peruvian factories, from the massive operations to the smaller, specialized ones. I've had the chance to learn about their unique strengths, challenges, and aspirations for their futures. I thrive on human connection and these very real and raw conversations have allowed me to connect with these incredible business owners in a much deeper and impactful way. Much of my job centers around connecting American brands with Peruvian factories, with the aim of shifting some (or most hehe) of their business to Peru. It's a task that's both straightforward and challenging. Once I convince them that Peru is worth taking a look at, it’s easy because of the exceptional quality of the textiles and the warmth of the factory owners; but it’s also challenging due to intense competition, limited access to brands without prior connections, and the language barrier between the brands the the factories once I’m out of the picture.
Another significant component of my role involves organizing "Peruvian pavilions" at textile and apparel fairs, such as LA Textile or Magic, and supporting the Peruvian factories we invite to exhibit at these events. Both my work in this role and LOTI are interconnected, benefiting each other in terms of opportunities, networking, and ongoing learning experiences.
Model for LOTI Studio

E: How do you see LOTI shifting as the brand continues? How do you see the fashion industry shifting?

L: As we continue to evolve as a brand, our primary goal is to maintain our current ethos while growing at a measured and deliberate pace. We aim to expand our team in Peru and provide additional resources and amenities to our employees ( we currently only have one full time seamstress, just to paint a picture of how “big” these dreams are for where we’re at currently) and the local community. In this regard, I draw lots of inspiration from the innovative approaches taken by brands like NISOLO, a leather goods brand that owns a factory in Trujillo and Joanna Ortiz, that has a series of “talleres”  in Colombia. They have established in-house, all-encompassing studios that offer not only workspace but also facilities for their teams and the surrounding community, including childcare services, free educational and training programs, and really beautiful recreational areas. I dream of creating a space where we can PAY people to learn,  working the same way a job would but they get to choose what set of skills within textiles they’d like to learn. Many families who move to Lima with the hopes of better job opportunities for the parents and a better education for their kids are quickly trapped into a survival cycle that forces them to take any job they can get as they are now faced with much higher costs of living. We should all have the freedom to LIVE rather than SURVIVE. 
On the front of waste reduction, my vision is to upcycle a significant amount of fabric to alleviate factories from producing excess waste. We plan to implement comprehensive systems to track these numbers and their real-time impact on the environment. It’s important to me to find ways to start normalizing a mindful way of working in the industry, and push brands whose business models rely on unethical making and irresponsible resource management in order as their only way to  make a profit to finally close their doors While I acknowledge the challenges, I cant help but to feel optimistic, as I see more and more people embracing sustainability as a way of life (reminder that sustainability cannot be bought). However, it's also undeniable that we witness the rapid rise of” super mega faster than the speed of light fast” fast fashion giants like Shein, outpacing even the original fast fashion players. This is concerning, but deep down, I envision a day when, collectively as a planet, we will kindly decline their products because we refuse to support exploitative practices AND and therefore we don’t, and never will, support them again either. Besos!
Model for LOTI Studio



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