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Strong, sustainable, and stylish: Meet Malta’s new underground fashion queen with a purpose

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Thrifting and second-hand clothing tend to have a bad rep locally. Yet Sarah Portelli, creator of Prinjolata, Malta’s first green fashion show, is here to prove that sustainability is truly fashion’s strongest (and sassiest) asset.

There’s an introverted aura lingering around February’s last Saturday evening. Not much seems to be going on in central Malta despite it being Carnival weekend, yet the main room in San Gwann’s new art hub Klabb Hawaj is infused with modest anticipation and a waft of apprehension; Prinjolata, Malta’s first sustainable fashion show, is moments away from its debut. Two hours and five fashion exhibits later, the raucous cheers of the crowd — which has grown threefold during the course of the event — are now echoing across the San Gwann skyline.

‘I’m used to 50 people clicking on the attend button, then 20 showing up. This has been amazing. Thank you!’ Sarah Portelli, owner and designer of Patchwork by is-Sinjurina and the mastermind behind the event, enthuses to her raucous 200-strong audience. A couple days later, Sarah is still reeling from the success of it all. ‘The outcome was honestly a bit of a surprise. I didn’t expect the turnout to be as good as it ended up being,’ she confesses.

Is-Sinjurina u l-Prinjolata

Sarah, or is-Sinjurina as she’s also known, has been interested in fashion since infancy. You guessed it: a measuring tape is what she selected during her quċċija (pronounced ‘ooch-chee-ya’ – a Maltese tradition to predict a baby’s future career, held on the child’s first birthday), and what a prophecy that turned out to be. As a child, Sundays were spent devouring the free fashion magazines that would accompany the London Times, off of which her first designs came to life. 

Over the years, Sarah set herself the task of mastering the art of needlework, which she has achieved almost entirely on her own. While 2020 was a write-off for most of us, Sarah was in for a big adventure, having won a scholarship to study garment construction and pattern making in Florence, Italy’s epicentre of culture and art. Looking back, Sarah refers to her time as a student as an ‘overall amazing experience,’ yet she confesses that it also permanently impacted the way she operates within the industry: ‘while there, I was made aware of how prevalent elitism as well as other toxic traits are within the industry and are almost encouraged,’ she explains. Sarah decided to take a solid stance and combat this from the inside out: she converted this disillusionment to motivation and successfully set up Malta’s first sustainable fashion show.

‘I wanted to create an inclusive environment that didn’t have some invisible barrier of entry preventing people from participating,’ Sarah explains. Indeed, models on the night represented various genders and sizes, with the fashion activist adding that this vision had been clearly outlined when a call for models was released. ‘My guiding principle within the industry is to fight for equality on all levels,’ she affirms.

Sustainable Fashion

Sarah narrates that in recent years, a significant number of brands have chosen to focus on equality by offering better size ranges and curating more inclusive marketing campaigns, among other methods. Although an encouraging switch, change seems to have been focused only at a consumer level; prevalent issues within the fashion industry’s supply chain have remained largely ignored. Amongst the things that need improving, transparency in relation to supply chains is at the top of the list. The #PayUp movement has been slowly gaining traction online, with activists campaigning for an end to the long-term exploitation of garment workers in third-world countries.

Misinformation is also rife: ‘Greenwashing needs to be combated and replaced with effective pro-environmental policies, and ultimately production of new garments needs to slow down,’ Sarah insists. The latter seems to be far from reality, with Sarah explaining that the fashion industry continues to be instrumental in convincing the average consumer that purchasing a brand new dress for €5 is reasonable, despite it falling apart after one wash. In reality, fashion has only become unsustainable over the past few decades: ‘Before then, people approached fashion in a completely different manner; garments would be lovingly repaired time and time again, then recut to reflect contemporary trends.’ 

‘Historically speaking, clothing was never viewed as a disposable commodity; second hand markets were thriving industries, and when clothing was no longer fit for use, there were theatre companies and rag and bone collectors ready to take on those scraps.’

‘The industry is responsible for helping us relearn that clothing isn’t a disposable commodity but something we should cherish, use, or pass on to someone else to wear for decades to come,’ Sarah insists. While the thrifting trend has gained popularity abroad in recent years, Malta’s stance remains tepid. The fashion designer and activist is not disheartened and acknowledges that warming up to the concept is a time-intensive process. ‘It takes a lot to combat the endorphin rush you get when you find a good bargain in your size,’ she concedes. ‘However, things are improving, younger generations are more acutely aware of the issues within fast fashion and are making efforts to improve their buying habits.’

Sarah firmly believes that the most sustainable wardrobe is the one you already have: ‘If we just stop to appreciate the things that we already own and experiment with new ways of styling them, that’s already an incredible step in the right direction.’ Second-hand clothes shopping, thrifting, or clothes swapping are also other great options to adopt a more sustainable wardrobe, despite the chances of limited size availability. Local creatives have also risen to the call, with a number of green fashion labels popping up across Malta and Gozo: ‘These sustainable fashion brands will always cost more than your standard fast fashion brand, but ultimately the goal of these brands is to provide consumers with garments that’ll still hold up after more than just a season.’

https://www.instagram.com/p/CafR8lrsdZe/

Back to the Catwalk 

Going back to the fashion show, Sarah explains that her goal had been to ‘create an event that could serve as a genesis for a collaborative community of individuals who are all fighting for the same goals.’ Indeed, a healthy number of local labels joined forces to provide the success that was Prinjolata: Sarah’s Patchwork by is-Sinjurina collaborated with vintage and thrift brands Vogue Xchange and Lady Kitt Vintage, upcycled clothing label Creative Creep Brand, and sustainable fashion brand Zowij Makes. They were also joined by jewellery brands My Shoes Abroad, Practically Cult, and Ocean and More Jewels, as well as Bits n Denim, who provided the models with upcycled denim handbags. 

With the big questions asked and answered, one major query remains: when can we expect a sequel to Prinjolata to hit our Facebook feeds? Sarah acknowledges that following the show, members of the audience ‘ almost immediately asked us about when the next show will be,’ and tentative plans are already in place. While no dates are set yet, Sarah is considering expanding a future event to include a sustainable fashion fair. ‘Hopefully we can invite more small brands who share our community ethos to participate in a future edition of this event,’ she enthuses. And last but not least, will it be presented by the funky, fresh, and funny Emma, who stole our hearts during the event? Guess we’ll have to wait for Malta’s second sustainable fashion show to find out. 

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