Hong Kong designer Toby Crispy used to own three floor-to-ceiling closets stuffed full of clothes, with more pieces lying around her home in red-white-blue nylon bags and paper bags.

Toby Crispy Slow Stitch Nomad
Hong Kong designer Toby Crispy. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But after witnessing first-hand the waste and exploitation created by fast fashion, Toby decided in 2013 that she must stop being a “problem maker” and left her job as a design manager at French label agnès b.

“Everyone in the industry was exploited. Every position in that food chain was working overtime,” the designer recalled in an interview with HKFP.

“The designers’ creativity was not respected, because big and small brands would use very cheap methods to copy each other’s designs. It was really problematic,” she added.

To counter the rapid mass production of cheap clothes, Toby started her own upcycling label, LastbutnotLeast, in 2013. Ten years on, the design now promotes sustainable fashion campaign under the name “FashionClinic by T.” She hopes to launch a collection of what she describes as “wearable stories,” featuring embroidery inspired by memories of Hong Kong and hand-sewn by members of the public.

Slow Stitch Nomad
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The needlework has been collected through her community art project, Slow Stitch Nomad, since 2020. Through an exhibition – planned for the end of this year – the designer said she aimed to refashion unwanted garments in danger of becoming landfill into works of art that embody personal stories linked to the city.

‘Brainwash’

The slow stitch initiative is part of Toby’s decade-long effort to promote sustainable fashion in Hong Kong, where 404 tonnes of textile waste were dumped on a daily basis in 2021.

The designer, who has worked in the fashion industry for around two decades, said one of the greatest obstacles in countering fast fashion was educating the public about the value behind each piece of clothing and what counts as a quality item.

Many people have been brainwashed by fast-changing fashion trends into thinking that clothes can be made easily with machines and should only cost a little, she said.

Slow Stitch Nomad
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“But as someone who makes clothes, I think dressmaking is a skill that takes a lifetime to master. Even the workers in fast fashion production are all well-trained. You can’t make a piece of clothing perfunctorily.”

Toby understood that she must change people’s mindsets about clothes and count on them to influence their friends and family to uphold sustainability in fashion on a societal level. It was what inspired her to start organising workshops for the public and encourage them to pick up what she saw as a basic life skill – sewing.

Stories told in stitches

Her most recent workshops were held at Oi!, a government-managed art space housed in the former clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club in North Point. The designer would spend two hours teaching participants four basic stitches and ask them sew the word “love,” with each letter showcasing one stitch style.

Slow Stitch Nomad
Stitching works produced at Toby Crispy’s Slow Stitch Nomad workshops. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The repetitive movement of sewing was not only “meditative” and “therapeutic,” it also helped train Hongkongers accustomed to a fast-moving life to improve focus, Toby said.

People were asked to bring along a photo evoking personal and collective memories of Hong Kong. Toby would help sketch the design on recycled fabric attached to an embroidery hoop, before giving the participants two weeks to a month to complete the sewing.

One woman based her embroidery on a photo of her son leaning against a life-size Ronald McDonald statue in 2004, saying it recalled a happy moment from his childhood. Her work also paid tribute to the fast food chain’s signature decoration, which has become a rare sight in the city as old branches have been refurbished or shut down.

There is thought to be just one clown sculpture remaining in the city, at Shek Wai Kok Estate.

This was a classic example of the kind of nostalgic story Toby sought for her upcoming collection. Another workshop attendee sewed on the iconic Mister Softee ice cream and its red and blue teardrop-shaped design, inspired by fond secondary school memories of enjoying it on graduation day as a treat from the principal.

Slow Stitch Nomad
Stitching works produced at Toby Crispy’s Slow Stitch Nomad workshops. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The designer was surprised when a participant travelled all the way from the outlying island of Cheung Chau to attend her class. She later found out that the woman was undergoing cancer treatment and wanted to transform a photo she took with her grandmother in 1979 into a work of embroidery.

“She said she may leave this world soon, but she really wanted to leave a record of her story ,” Toby said.

Fate of tailors ‘critical’

Promoting stitching to the general public not only served as a foundation for sustainable fashion to bloom in Hong Kong, it was also part of Toby’s bid to turn around the fate of local tailors – which the designer said was hanging by a thread.

Most tailors are over 50 and very few younger people are willing to join the industry because they fear not being able to make enough money. “Perhaps in five year’s time, you can’t even find someone to hem your pants,” she said.

slow stitch nomad toby crispy
Hong Kong designer Toby Crispy. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

People should learn how to make basic dress alterations so they don’t throw away clothes when only minor repairs, such as replacing buttons, are needed.

Setting her sights on designing new garments with the storied embroidery works later this year, Toby said she hopes the participatory nature of the upcycling collection will make a stronger impact on the community.

“No matter how good my work is, people may only feel touched for a minute, a day or a month at most. But when everyone takes part, the engagement and zest will be much greater.”

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.