Atelier & Repairs Writes New Stories for Old Clothes
Los Angeles/London-based Atelier & Repairs is an emerging business and disruptive force in the fashion industry, aiming to slow down the rate of production and of waste. I recently sat down with company founder and industry veteran Maurizio Donadi to learn more about his business and the 180-degree turnaround it took for him to invent a new way of making clothes.
SM: You worked for some big names in conventional fashion: Ralph Lauren, Armani, Benetton. Then, after 35 years in the business, you started Atelier & Repairs. What was it that prompted you to make such a drastic change and pursue a small business focused on repair?
MD: It was always uncomfortable to reach a certain level of sales [when working for the big brands]. I was paid to deliver certain goals, and I always took that very seriously. As you age, you question more what you do, and you think about your place in the industry, your contribution, and the choices that you make. Four years ago, I decided not to work for other brands but to [start a new enterprise] with my wife [Marisa Ma]. The idea was to do something that felt right, and I always feel good about transforming… We decided “Let’s not produce. Let’s shop for stock instead.”
Donadi observes, “Our customer—and the public in general—has everything they need at home. But there are certain objects that speak to them.” Atelier & Repairs aims to satisfy their customers’ need for the new by providing them with things that are old. In doing so, they’re creating a more sustainable model and, at the same time, bringing more uniqueness to the fashion world. “Our commitment is to produce pieces that are different from each other,” declares Donadi.
Their unisex product line is composed mostly of de-commissioned military uniforms and salvaged work clothes. A Desert Storm-era, night-camouflage coat sits alongside a French worker’s jacket. What these pieces have in common—besides being recovered from the secondary market—is real-world wear, rather than factory-created distressed effects. Atelier & Repairs adds patches and embellishments to the existing “flaws,” bringing more interest and, they hope, years of wear to their garments.
As to the appeal of military clothing, Donadi explains: “They are produced to really protect from extreme conditions… When I put on a pair of pants from almost any army in the world, it uses the best fabrics, the latest technologies. To me durability is luxury.” But Donadi and his team pull these remnants of war decidedly out of their earlier context. “I want to make sure every pair of military pants that we transform is not ever used for war again. We want people to know they have become pants for peace.”
Reflecting on the new direction of his career—from big brand to small atelier—Donadi shares: “Big companies have a very difficult time incubating new ideas. [Inside larger brands] you’re always headed in the same direction, and the rules are inflexible. Now my decisions are based on emotions… It feels good. It’s like a small rainbow after a big storm.
SM: Scaling always seems to be a challenge with repair. If you wanted to produce 100,000 pieces a year, could you?
MD: It would be very difficult to do 100,000 units different from each other, but I think it is possible… But maybe companies should be smaller. You can be more creative and innovative when you’re small.
SM: Do you face other challenges as a repair-based business that people might not realize?
MD: Usually excess [surplus] is dirty, so it needs to be washed, reconditioned. Then you have to think what to do with it!
SM: You just launched an e-commerce site.
MD: Only four weeks [ago]! We wanted to feel the pressure of being public. We’ve gotten a lot of interest. And there’s a lot more product coming. We are sourcing now for different price points, lower and higher.
SM: I understand you ultimately want to offer alterations and customizations, as well as your product line, in a number of locations. Is A&R going to be the Starbucks of repair, with a shop on every corner?
MD: We will never have [thousands] of locations, but we want to open wherever there is excess. I know there is a lot of surplus in Japan, so maybe we should open an atelier in Japan for a local community.
SM: I noticed you use Japanese textiles quite a bit in your pieces.
MD: We have a series of French workwear jackets from the 1960s. We repair them with Japanese boro. So we have a jacket from the 60s and maybe an 80- to 90-year-old Japanese fabric, and we create a French-Japanese story.
SM: Do you ever miss the old days? The glamour? Not having to worry about being sustainable?
MD: I loved every second. And it made me what I am today. I’m thankful for what I was exposed to. But it would be very difficult for me to go back. I might not be always be 100% right, but I am always looking for what’s next.
SM: What does the future of sustainable fashion look like to you?
MD: How to be innovative in fashion in the future to me is very simple: No limits on creativity but a lot of limits on the amount of merchandise produced.
Reflecting on his still young venture and what it might mean for the rest of the industry, Donadi is humble but hopeful. “It is a grand mission, but we need to start somewhere… Everybody needs to do a little bit, and this is my definition of a little bit.”