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    Kristine Upesleja, 64: Leader in Innovative Textiles

    None of the myriad challenges life threw at Kristine Upesleja — stage-4 cancer, broken marriage, single motherhood in a foreign country — stopped her from carving out a new career and life purpose. Now she's leading the way in innovative textile research.

    When I first heard of Kristine, it was about her work in textile innovation and sustainability that caught my attention. But what really got me focused,  was her personal story of resilience and drive. She is a two-time stage-four ovarian-cancer survivor. In her early 50s she found herself at absolute zero with no job, marriage broken, life-threatening health issues and living in a foreign country. But what she had not lost was her drive, her curiosity and her sense of capacity. She is an overcomer.

    Kristine is now a world-renowned expert in a field very much of the moment, and which she created: innovative lab-grown textiles. Living in Los Angeles and flying around the world doing consulting on materials’ sustainability, teaching at Arts Center, creator of an entire department at FIDM, and working with Project Runway, this is a woman who is anything but retiring. She is at the peak of her power, at the forefront of a rapidly innovating sector, and teaching younger people about it. When we say hard is not impossible, this is what we are talking about. From absolute zero to now world-renowned authority.

    How old are you? Where are you from?

    I’m 64, Latvian, born in Germany. I moved here in January 2000.

    I understand you created a new field of study. What is that?

    It’s the study of new ideas and developments in the textiles and materials world.

    Speaking in Japan

    What is it that you are doing now?

    I’m the founder and manager of the Innovative Textiles & Materials Department at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles. This department meanwhile hosts the biggest innovative materials collection at a US college. The collection contains garments made from coffee grounds, orange peel fibers, milk proteins, and coconut husks, or garments made on a 3D printer, shoes made from mushroom and corn, and wearable technology.

    I also created a class that I teach at Art Center in Pasadena which is called WEARABLES: Material Futures. Students explore new materials and processes such as food fibers, ocean plastics, and materials grown from kombucha tea.

    From Costume Design to Innovative Textiles

    Why did you decide to do that?

    I used to work as a costume designer, mostly for opera, theater and a bit of film in Europe. When we moved to LA, soon I learned that LA is not a theater city, at least not a very innovative one. Very traditional theater productions didn’t excite me. I never was interested in the movie production process. I love the real being-in-the-moment experience and life-on-stage moment that makes theater so adventurous. So what was I supposed to do? My love for textiles, materials, and fashion has always been in my DNA. As a costume designer I used to dye, pleat, cut, sew, print textiles and manipulate materials with different tools to make the costumes look more exciting.

    Through a friend, I learned about a job opening at FIDM/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA as a textiles specialist. A whole new experience. I was slowly transferring into researching and lecturing. One day I had my a-ha moment which changed everything. In a magazine, I saw the picture of a raincoat that could be transformed into a blow-up mattress. It was a conceptual design and was called ‘Urban Survivor.” The idea and concept behind it struck me. I started to research innovative garments and textiles and a whole new world opened up to me.

    Persevering in the Face of Doubt

    Since it didn’t exist before, there must have been a lot of resistance to your idea.

    Nobody understood what I was doing and people thought, “Oh, this is crazy…growing materials from cellulosic bacteria and red wine? What for?”

    Nobody took it seriously and didn’t believe that one day we will be growing our garments in the lab. Thanks to the vision of my former boss, the library director who let me do whatever I wanted to do, I was able to move forward and create this unique department with its unique collection. Still today I notice that people are not informed, neither what toxic impact the fashion industry has on the environment nor about the actual transformation of the mindset in the fashion and design industry.

    How did you overcome that?

    I guess it is just your gut feeling when you know that something is right and that you’re on the right path. My passion for materials and processes is the main driving force. Today’s awareness about sustainability and how we can change the world proves to me that I am right and that I was moving in the right direction. Also, many of the professors and students at the college encouraged me and showed their interest to learn about the new materials. When I saw that I inspire young people to think outside the box I knew I was right.

    “From the moment I landed in LA, my entire life fell apart”

    There were also some very serious health issues around that time. Could you share with us what those were, and how you were feeling back then?

    I’m a two-time stage-4 ovarian cancer survivor. Only 5% of women survive it. I was told that I had 6 months to 2 years to live. It wasn’t a smooth road at all at the beginning when I moved to LA. I came to this country without a working visa. I was allowed to stay here due to my ex-husband’s working visa, but not allowed to work. I left my well-paid job behind and had nothing here. From the moment I landed in LA, my entire life fell apart. Besides cancer, my marriage fell apart, no work, no money, my mum passed. No perspective at all. And I had to take care of my 9-year-old child. Piece by piece and with the help of amazing people in my community I put the puzzle back together. Today I am a US citizen and well-respected expert in my field, a new field that I created with my survivor skills.

    …So here I am! 17 years later.

    At the Leading Edge of an Innovative Field

    Sustainable fabrics looks to the future.

    Now you are in your sixties and at the leading edge of a highly innovative field. How does that feel?

    I still can’t believe it and I want to do so much more. I enjoy that my expertise is valued abroad and in the US. I traveled to Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Latvia to lecture on new innovative materials. Right now I’m working on two major projects and hoping to find sponsors for a groundbreaking materials lab.

    Rewards of Teaching

    You are also teaching young students, leading them into this new, emerging field. How does that feel?

    The best reward for me is to experience the excitement and curiosity of young students. I feel happy when I have an impact on their future professional development and career. I love Art Center students and how they experiment and explore new materials. Most of them are product development students and have no relation to the fashion industry. They do have a completely different approach which I love. The results are bold and exciting objects made from food waste, plastic trash, or kombucha tea. Sometimes there’s resistance at the beginning because it’s something new and unknown. It doesn’t fit into the regular developing process.

    Fashion and apparel in general intensely resource consumptive, and terrible waste generators. Can this make an impact?

    If you talk about new fibers, I’d say absolutely! Imagine that one day we will be growing our fibers and textiles in the lab. The fast-fashion industry has created major damage to the environment. Can we move away from fast fashion? I don’t think so. What we need to change is the material choice from the very beginning AND the way how to process it. Make sure that we use materials that can be reused or recycled at the end of the life cycle and don’t sit in landfills for the next 200 years.

    The garment industry is watching.

    High-Performance Grown Fibers?

    I think of high-performance textiles as all being petroleum-based. Are there grown fibers that can compete?

    We’re not there yet but soon, I hope. Innovative company Circular Systems has developed certain technologies on how to transform food crop waste into yarn and how to develop a new high-performance yarn called Orbital™. It is a revolutionary new yarn technology capable of producing high-performance yarns using recycled fibers. The resulting yarns have low pilling, high strength, wicking, and fast dry, and abrasion resistance.

    They are still a bit more expensive than traditional fibers such as cotton and polyester. Tencel and Modal, made from beechwood and eucalyptus trees, meanwhile have a similar price range as traditional fibers. However, the very new fibers, such as orange peel, are still not available for the mass market, which is a big disappointment. It’ll take a while but they are on a good path.

    People think of the issues you are involved with, fashion, sustainability, plant-based processes, as being young-people centric. What do you say to them?

    Yes, it is young-people centric and it’s a good thing. Finally, we’re waking up! However, it should become all people’s centric. Old and young. We baby boomers have a responsibility to clean up the mess that we created. We are drowning in plastic and our appetite for fast fashion has created a big mess.

    Innovative Textile Companies

    I understand Stella McCartney is doing something with yeast-based yarn. Help me understand what that is about.

    Stella is collaborating with one of the most exciting science companies called Bolt Threads. This company explores the possibility to grow yarns from artificial spider silk and yeast, and create bio-fabricated leather made from mycelium, the roots of a mushroom, in the lab. The materials are called Mylo and Microsilk. Both have been used by Stella McCartney. Another bio-fabricated leather made from collagen, the main ingredient in animal skin, is Zoa, developed by the “mother” of the biofashion/biocouture movement, Suzanne Lee and company Modern Meadow. THIS is the future!

    There is also something we have heard about Ferragamo and orange peels. What are they doing?

    Salvatore Ferragamo teamed up with a company called Orange Fiber in Italy. This company has developed a technology that transforms orange peel fibers into a yarn. More than 700,000 tons of orange wastelands on landfills in Italy alone and release methane gas. Food waste has become a major issue as well because we produce too much food (who would have thought). Food waste sits in landfills and releases methane gas which is toxic. Ferragamo has always been innovative in the past. Their collaboration with Orange Fiber has brought them back into the spotlight. Orange Fiber also collaborates with H&M.

    Project Runway

    What’s the story with you and Project Runway?

    I was invited by the producers of Project Runway to be part of their web series on Bravo TV. I was an expert talking about sustainability, technology, and dyeing processes. You can watch the 3-minute segments online on Bravo TV.com under Project Runway Clips ‘Science is Fashion.’ So happy that PR starts paying attention and tries to educate young designers about the challenges in the tough fashion industry. It is not about just looking cool and hip; no, fashion is science-related.

    We know your actual age, but what age do you feel like you are?

    Well sometimes 20, 30; repeating the same mistakes, haha, I have the feeling that I haven’t changed much but, of course, the mirror keeps telling me a different story. I still love to dance and go out and party, love hanging out with friends.

    Help Build the Future

    What are you next investigating? Anything out there you want to read about, research, investigate?

    I’m working on two major projects and looking for investors. One is about an interactive, innovative materials lab that I’ve planned 10 years ago. So please, anybody step forward if you’re interested in education and the future of our planet and help me build it.

     

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    David Stewart
    David Stewart
    David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

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