Creativity in Constraint

Shelly Xu’s Take on Zero-Waste Fashion, inspired by Japanese Design

By Julia Le

Made to fit a variety of body types and sizes, the dress flares out widely at the bottom, and also features a hidden pocket.

Made to fit a variety of body types and sizes, the dress flares out widely at the bottom, and also features a hidden pocket.

In the increasing landscape of sustainable fashion, complexity comes in contradiction, as designers bend the rules of consumption in order to address environmental concerns. 

While more and more collections are being made of recycled water bottles and other innovative textiles, finding solutions in reducing waste is a challenge in an industry that benefits from producing more. The emergence of zero-waste fashion is a reminder of traditional pattern-making and design—the normalcy of resourcefulness in using what already exists, and finding ways to limit production waste as much as possible. 

Shelly Xu, a New York City-based zero-waste fashion designer and current Harvard MBA student, is doing just that in challenging how to design for circularity, and how sustainable fashion can be built for scale and accessibility. In Xu’s exploration of zero-waste design, her multidisciplinary background has enabled her to create designs which are intentional, creative and analytical—drawing from her many inspirations along the way.

Shelly Xu modeling her own designs in the exploration of the color, red.

Shelly Xu modeling her own designs in the exploration of the color, red.

A design in exploration of the color, red, this trapeze dress features an elastic neckline in lieu of a zipper to easily slip the dress on

A design in exploration of the color, red, this trapeze dress features an elastic neckline in lieu of a zipper to easily slip the dress on

Back home in China, Xu recalls a rather humble upbringing. Her family didn’t really have much, but parents always worked hard to ensure their daughter had a good education. Xu’s parents were professors, and Xu grew up “always feeling like there was more to learn, and to never take anything for granted.”  Frugality was a part of their everyday life—everything that was bought was completely used, and nothing was ever thoughtless discarded. They were extremely resourceful with what they had, and it was the sort of thinking that encouraged Xu to make new clothes for her Barbies from old fabric scraps, corn husks and dried flowers when she was young. When Xu’s family moved to Japan, she began learning the language and culture, and cultivating a deep admiration for Japanese craftsmanship over the years. In the midst of tsunamis and earthquakes, and due to limited resources as an island nation, Xu felt a connection to the amount of thought and focus on quality that was so prevalent in their design.

In Shelly Xu’s project,  Designing Efficiency , the designer makes three dresses from one bed-sheet, with zero waste.

In Shelly Xu’s project, Designing Efficiency, the designer makes three dresses from one bed-sheet, with zero waste.

Still, it wasn’t until Xu enrolled in Columbia University and moved to New York City that she was truly able to pursue design more seriously. She was fascinated by the open-mindedness of her peers, the diversity of opinion and freedom of speech—the safety of expression and energy she felt engulfed in by living in the city. During her freshman year, as a special birthday present for her friend, Xu decided to create a dress made of folded and layered newspaper. Seeing the joy it sparked in her friend when it was presented, Xu’s interest in fashion was ignited with the mission to bring happiness to people through something she felt was so simple: quality design. From this project, Xu continued to experiment with other recycled materials, as well as everyday household goods such as garbage bags, umbrellas and notepads. Xu enjoyed the concept of how much her designs could be pushed, given the limitations of a medium, and the opportunity play around with alternative forms and shapes in contrast to traditional draping. 

Example  pattern  for Japanese kimono.

Example pattern for Japanese kimono.

When Xu began shifting to fabric designs, she carried this idea of utilizing up-cycled materials to reduce costs and environmental waste through the influence of Japanese design.  “While technical fabrics or process[ing] are inspiring, they lead to higher costs, and are not as accessible. Saving fabric saves costs, and diverts textile waste from the landfill.”

Unlike most sewing patterns which leave around 10-30% of excess fabric from production to landfill, Xu’s designs incorporate patterns that use 100% of the fabric, so that none of the material is wasted.

Her patterns draw inspiration from the traditional design of the Japanese kimono: one of the oldest zero-waste designs, dating back to the Heian period (794-1192), over a thousand years ago. The kimono is traditionally cut using straight lines from a single bolt of fabric. There are no buttons, or zippers, and all the fabric is utilized so that no scraps are left behind. Designs are created based on the flow of the silk, and since the same fabric can have a different design on each side, there is no distinct front or back of the fabric. If the colors on one side begin to fade, the kimono silks can be flipped inside out so the other side is visible. Historically, kimono were often taken apart for washing, and its main panels were resewn by hand. Because of the geometric method of construction, as measurements are not needed to fit the curvatures of a body, the kimono can easily be taken apart and tailored to fit multiple wearers, or reconstructed to replace damaged panels.

To ensure circularity in all of her designs, all of Xu’s materials are sourced locally within New York from upcycled materials. Her primary source is FabScrap, which sells reclaimed dead stock fabric, which would have otherwise ended up in the landfill. Because the materials are limited in what and how much is available, there’s constraint in what can be selected to fit a design. Shelly studies the fabric for stretch and drapery, and considers what pattern could best fit the material. Back in her studio, on a small wooden figurine, she cuts out designs on paper, creating origami-like pieces placed on the make-shift miniature dress form. While the designs and paper forms don’t precisely translate to the final product (as it doesn’t account for how the fabric drapes), it still allows Xu guidance in the final product without having to create multiple prototypes. Like the kimono, all her designs utilize up all of the fabric, and the pieces are designed with the intention of being disassembled at their end of life, and reassembled into something new again.

A series of Xu’s sketches, including original designs and inspiration, as well as some of the patterns and paper-folding technique she uses in planning her designs.

A series of Xu’s sketches, including original designs and inspiration, as well as some of the patterns and paper-folding technique she uses in planning her designs.

Xu in her studio making adjustments to one of her current pieces, featuring straight lines more aesthetically similar to the Japanese kimono, which much of zero-waste technique is based on.

Xu in her studio making adjustments to one of her current pieces, featuring straight lines more aesthetically similar to the Japanese kimono, which much of zero-waste technique is based on.

The jacket features visible seams to provide structure, and emphasize the deconstruct-able nature of the piece.

The jacket features visible seams to provide structure, and emphasize the deconstruct-able nature of the piece.

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As Xu currently creates all of the designs herself, and most of the pieces are made-to-measure to be inclusive to all sizes, the next steps are in how zero-waste pattern-making can be made to scale. As a freshman at Harvard Business School this fall, Xu is working towards her ultimate goal making zero-waste fashion accessible, through mechanical engineering solutions to automate the sewing process of zero-waste pieces from start to finish. 


In the midst of her entrepreneurial pursuits, Xu’s duality of creativity and strong business acumen makes her story an exciting one to follow—with a multidisciplinary view developed through her experience in working for some of the biggest names in consulting, tech and luxury fashion. From McKinsey to Facebook and Prada, and now as an entrepreneur and student again—it’s exciting to see what comes next.

For Xu, intersectionality exists in “how much an industry can be shifted if it can be combined with others, and how much innovation actually happens at the intersection, instead of [within] just one.”

For Xu, every design is an opportunity to combine fashion with technology and business in working to produce designs that are better for the planet. In a culture in which disposability has permeated everything we consume, down to the clothes we wear, returning to traditional methods and finding innovations in existing practices is at least a step in the right direction.

Xu’s complete zero-waste look.

Xu’s complete zero-waste look.

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Photography by Joe Thomas