An antidote for fast fashion

Fiorella Castro with her daughter Tatiana at UTS

Photo: Fiorella Castro with her daughter Tatiana at UTS

Fiorella Castro comes from a big UTS family and is building environmental sustainability into her line of swimwear.

Fiorella Castro makes bikinis from plastic that might otherwise have ended up in landfill, targeting a rapidly growing market of environmentally–conscious fashion consumers.

After a 20–year career in fashion, the designer launched a new swimwear label last year using a high-performance Italian fabric made of recycled plastic. She sees her brand, Seapia, as an antidote to fast fashion.

“Mass production creates a lot of pollution,” says Castro, pointing to the use of pesticides in fibre production and chemicals in textile manufacturing. She is aware that the industry also has some unethical labour practices. “There are a lot of those things in fashion that are not desirable,” she says.

Castro’s base fabric combines 22 per cent Lycra and 78 per cent Econyl, a polyamide made from rescued plastic. It is naturally breathable, has moisture wicking properties and a high UV filter. Her collection is sewn in Sydney’s inner west.

The business is also something of a family affair. Her husband has a marketing background and helps with financial management.

“He does a lot of the bigger picture stuff, like forecasting,” she says. “He’s the one making me do all the cash flow spreadsheets and all the money and numbers. It’s essential, but I need someone to be there to push a little bit.”

Castro’s cousin Eduardo Wolfe-Alegria, a visual artist, creates the fabric’s prints. Wolfe-Alegria lectures in UTS’s Visual Communication and Fashion departments and is a UTS graduate too.

Her daughter, Tatiana, encouraged her into swimwear. Currently studying civil engineering at UTS, she is an enthusiastic water polo player and ocean swimmer, but she struggled to find swim costumes that were attractive but also functional for playing water sports.

Castro grew up in Costa Rica and learned to sew when she was eight years old. She remembers sewing a red dress with colourful polka dots by herself on her mother’s sewing machine — and also recalls an accident when the needle went right through her thumb.

“It was siesta time, my mum was sleeping, and I was trying to pull it out. Of course it didn’t come out. And then it hurt,” she says. “I always liked fashion, like every little girl, but I never thought of making it a career.”

Castro moved with her family from Costa Rica to El Salvador, but they were caught in the midst of the civil war there in the early ’80s. As a result, they relocated to Australia, where her aunt and cousin (Wolfe-Alegria) lived when she was 14.

After high school, she started pursuing food technology before deciding to turn her childhood sewing passion into a career.

"It was lots of sleepless nights just trying to finish things. What I liked about it was it taught you intelligent design, how to approach things, and how to go about creating"
– Fiorella Castro

“I came back to fashion, and I thought, well, there’s UTS, where I can study something that I like and they train you for the workforce,” she says.

She particularly enjoyed the first year at the UTS Balmain campus, where she learned art history, life drawing and marketing.

“It was lots of sleepless nights just trying to finish things. What I liked about it was it taught you intelligent design, how to approach things, and how to go about creating,” she says.

In 1993, Castro won the best menswear collection from among final year fashion students from UTS, the Whitehouse Institute of Design and TAFE. The prize was a year’s internship with six different fashion houses.

Jobs followed in menswear and then womenswear in London, before she returned to university to do a postgraduate degree. This time, she left Sydney with her husband and daughter to study a master’s degree in fashion design at the Domus Academy in Milan, one of Italy’s top-rated private fashion colleges.

In 2002, Castro won another design competition and landed a job as a designer for department store Coin near Venice with a woman who had worked for Prada. But she returned to Australia and focussed on design work for boutique fashion houses in Sydney.

Now that she has launched her own label, she’s also taking steps to embed environmental awareness across the brand. “We’re developing plastic packaging that’s made of 90 per cent plant material,” she says.

Castro also wants to keep her production in Australia, whereas many other clothing brands have moved their manufacturing. “They’ve left a lot of manufacturers needing work here,” she says. “They have a workforce and it’s an opportunity.”

Her advice to young fashion entrepreneurs is to focus on being a designer first and hone your creativity, but also develop business skills.

“One thing that I overlooked was the commercial part of it,” she says. “I did a small business course a long time ago that involved cash flow sheets, profit and loss, all that kind of boring stuff. But that’s important if you want to have your own business.”

Story by Melinda Ham
Photography by Kevin Cheung