From old to new – the Viennese upcycling design label gabarage conjures up sofas out of decommissioned escalators and turns soccer balls into glamorous Life Ball costumes. The focus is not on the environment but on people. Victoria Kadernoschka explains how gabarage has been uniting different life cycles for 14 years and how upcycling can be easily combined with couture.
You upcycle old products and design new beautiful things. Recycling and upcycling – what is the difference?
That is easy to explain. For recycling, take an old glass bottle. You return it to the supermarket where you purchased it and the same glass bottle becomes a new glass bottle. That means, the product remains one and the same, made from the same material. With upcycling, the point is to re-use old materials. Meaning canvas or in this case old books or various products which have been decommissioned and are now being valued up. There is a new interpretation of the product, of the material and it becomes a completely different, new product. Staying with books for a second: we make lamps or stools out of books or Christmas tree decorations made of old book pages. The classic everyone knows: Bags made from truck canvas. We also combine canvas and fabric. This is about an upvaluation and the creation of a new high-quality product to increase the life cycle of the material.
The majority of the new products is made out of old products, and yet you also use new materials?
In one instance, we used old uniforms from the armed forces. Old materials which are still of great quality but the zipper was broken in many cases. This item would normally be thrown out while we still reuse it. Fabric manufacturers provide us with discarded rolls of fabric which can no longer be sold because the color will not correspond to the latest fashion trends in the following season. And we then reprocess these materials. We really do try and only use discarded materials. What we then purchase new is a zipper because using the old one would reduce the quality of the product. We try to ensure a very high degree of quality and that can simply not be done with an old button or zipper.
What is behind the name “gabarage”?
What is behind the name? We are not simply an upcycling company but follow the guiding principle of giving everyone and everything a second chance. By “giving everyone a second chance”, we mean that we have also hired people in our workshops and sometimes in sales as well who have a history of addiction. For many of these people, it is difficult to re-enter the professional world after a successful therapy. We provide them with a chance to gradually enter the working world again, limited to a period of one year.
Is that what you understand “people at the center of all actions” to be?
For us, people are always the focal point and we always communicate the fact that there is a person behind each product we sell. A person who created this product from start to finish with his or her own hands. There actually is craftsmanship behind the product, created by a person, in the middle of Vienna.
Why do you think it is rare for people with less “streamlined” résumés to be given with another chance?
Nobody should be accused of the fact that she or he would rather employ somebody with a traditional résumé. Our model is simply to give people a chance who may have made a mistake or two in the past, someone who did not finish a professional training because she or he was suffering from a chronic addiction. It happens. It can also happen that somebody does not finish school because it “currently does not really fit into my world view”. But this life can still very much turn into something. With less “streamlined”, we mean that every life can be dealt a blow. Or perhaps someone who comes from a family that was not able to provide the loving home we would want everyone to have. Those things will always affect your career.
How do you establish contact with these people?
We have an offer with a very low threshold. And we have been around for 14 years. We are well-known in this social arena. People about to complete their addiction therapy are of course looking to prepare themselves for “the life after”. They are supported by therapists and social workers and sometimes, our name comes up. People then simply call us, apply over the telephone. And once spaces open up again, a normal application process is initiated as we all know from our own experiences.
Everything started 14 years ago – how did it exactly start?
Our chairlady is a trained social worker and worked in a low-threshold environment with people who were addicted to illegal drugs. It became clear during her work: there are therapy options but what happens after that? There was not much of an offer in that direction. Back then, there was a EU initiative which was also implemented in Austria. It was called “drug addicts at work” and it was during the course of this campaign that our chairlady wrote the concept for gabarage. This was about re-integrating people with an addiction history into the workplace. Naturally, everything started very small. Now we are more than 30 people. Back then, we were approximately five. So it gradually grew. The need was there, as was general interest. What was difficult at the beginning was to place people with a history of addiction at the center because it is not a “sexy” topic. People have been stereotyped and marked but that is exactly what we are working against. We try to reduce stigmata. And upcycling was not as hip back then as it is now. Now it is practically part of good manners. Back then, we had to explain quite a bit and were sometimes laughed at for what we did. But: Staying with it, pursuing the issue and investing energy has really paid off.
Upcycling Couture is one of your lines. Is there no inherent contradiction between old products and glamour?
Not in the least. You can see on our web page that we made costumes for the Life Ball 2013 and 2014, for example. Life Ball costumes are well-known. They are beautiful and they sparkle. They are supposed to express joie de vivre. And there is no contradiction when they are made of residual materials because they can be easily pimped. The outfits for 2015, which we made for the district leader of the sixth district, Markus Hummel and his husband, were made of old soccer balls and a surplus of manufactured plastic cutlery which had been discarded. Overall, they were very beautiful, totally awesome, golden costumes. We made a total of six costumes for the ball and all of them were among the top hundred selected on the large stage. So no, there is absolutely no contradiction at all.
How did the cooperation between your brand and the Life Ball start?
Well, HIV and Aids which are the central topics addressed by the Life Ball, are also reflected in our work. For example, it is possible to become infected with HIV by using dirty syringes when consuming illegal drugs. That may not be the pretty, glamorous side but this illness is everything but glamorous and pretty. Which why it is great that there are initiatives like the Life Ball. It fits perfectly. We will try to participate again next year, and I am assuming that it will take place next year again. However, this is all based on our own initiative. For balls specifically, we have a different cooperation partner, the Diversity Ball. This ball deals with the topic of diversity on a wider and larger scale, and we have been cooperating quite well for two years now. In times like these where society is threatening to completely divide, we may have to take it to a higher level when it comes to diversity.
Is there a person for whom you would love to design something?
That question was too quick. Of course we would love to outfit a famous person who does not simply make an appearance as brand ambassador but as an idea ambassador as well. That is our wish, to be able to do that sometime. But there is nobody specific I am envisioning right now.
What is the product which truly embodies gabarage?
Our line has developed from rather trashy to more high-quality design. 14 years, of course people and ideas develop, and that is good. One product we have always had is the shoulder bags made from canvas. One product with which we have been largely associated during the last two years, also because we often integrate it into events, is our escalator furniture. For the book lamp, we received the MAK design award a few years ago. The traffic light glasses are quite popular as well. You notice that everybody loves them when people come into the shop. Products at which people look and say: “I would love one and I know that only you sell this” is the vase made out of a bowling pin. That is an all-time classic about which people often ask because they know only we sell it.
Considering the fact that you deal with discarded products on a daily level, how has your private approach to ecological issues changed?
It most definitely has changed. It is not like I start to do crafts at home and begin to design but I do go shopping with a different focus. For example: I think it is great that paper bags are available for fruit in the supermarket. You can choose between plastic and paper. That is great. I also try to shop for delicatessen or cold cuts with my plastic bowl, as my mother did. I try to not have it packaged but put it into my bowl immediately. It sometimes goes so far that I will buy jelly in a jar because I can reuse the jars. For example to store Q-tips. There are plenty of ways and means. I think it is mostly about a conscious way of handling resources. I try to sort out my clothing so that I end up shopping less. And with our designers, I will discuss it: “I have this outfit and that outfit – is there any way to combine them in a different way?” Our way of thinking has definitely changed immensely.
You also cooperate with large companies to expand their product cycles. What does this kind of cooperation look like exactly?
There are different degrees of cooperation. For example, in the most recent past, we cooperated with the Viennese City Hall. They have gigantic posters made of mesh canvas and we reworked them as merchandising products. Meaning, they now sell it in their shop. Bags, small wallets, whatever you may need for a concert. Other companies have too much canvas and are looking for Christmas gifts for their staff. We then make small goodies, such as keys, bags or cell phone sleeves. Another company manufacturing pacifiers had lots of soothie strips left over. We then organized a workshop for mommies where we made Christmas decorations out of these materials. We do quite a bit: from fixed products to workshops and team-building events. And with neubau eyewear, we are designing something completely new. I am so curious myself to see what our designers will do.
Which gabarage products do we find in your home?
To quote my sister: “Your apartment looks like the gabarage shop”. I basically live in a second show room. I wear a lot of jewelry which we produce. Not for professional reasons but because I really like it. I have a lot, cell phone bag, laptop sleeve, shoulder bags quite a bit. Unfortunately, I have no furniture yet but my apartment may be a bit small for that. Which is why I have office accessories and jewelry – and plenty of it.
By Maximilian Straubmüller, Photography by Zara Pfeifer