When you’re an 11-time world champion surfer, an affinity with the ocean is a given. But even as a child, Kelly Slater says he often wondered about the provenance of his clothing. Although the questions that consume him as an adult today are a little more sophisticated, as the face and founder of his own menswear label, Slater is finally able to get some answers. “What if there was a better way to create clothing?” he asks in a video for Outerknown, which launched as part of the Kering luxury conglomerate in 2015. “What if there was a way to use fewer resources in manufacturing?” The responses to both, Slater discovered, lay with Aquafil, an Italian company that creates a regenerated fiber known as Econyl from recovered fishing nets and other bits of nylon waste.
Aquafil proved to be the ideal partner, since it allows Outerknown to take a problem like ocean debris and turn it into wearable items such as jackets and board shorts.
According to a 2009 United Nations report, an estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets litter the world’s oceans. Birds, dolphins, sharks, turtles, and other marine animals who become entangled in the nets often starve to death or drown.
Transforming death traps into feedstock isn’t all that Econyl has going for it. The fiber is also, per the firm, “endlessly recyclable,” which means that scraps can be broken down and reengineered into new yarn without sacrificing the quality and performance of traditionally manufactured nylon.
“By collecting the fishing nets that are regenerated into Econyl products, we lessen our environmental impact while also cleaning up the oceans that we love so much,” Slater said. “And that unique commitment to sustainability is central to who we are as a company.”
Outerknown isn’t the only fashion brand that’s mining fishing gear for materials. Aquafil is working with Speedo to create closed-loop swimwear from the company’s own off-cuts, as well as with Levi’s on a line of Econyl-based jeans.
Other companies that are adapting ocean trash include Bureo, which has a range of sunglasses made from reclaimed fishing nets; G-Star Raw, whose “Raw for the Oceans” denim collection incorporates plastic litter; Ecoalf, which is upcycling ocean-trawled plastic into textiles; and Adidas, which created the world’s first sneaker made from illegal deep-sea gillnets.