In Part I of this interview, Celeste Tesoriero, founder of Sonzai Studios, opens up about her childhood in nature, career as a fashion designer and journey to becoming a Sustainability Consultant.
This interview was created for Berlin-based publication and podcast, Advance Copy. Advance Copy documents conversations with philosophical brands and individuals, sharing pragmatic ideas to inspire industry change.
Advance Copy: Hi Celeste welcome to Advance Copy! I wanted to start by asking you about your background and parts of your childhood that you think have perhaps influenced you to choose fashion. What you were like as a kid, were you creative?
Celeste Tesoriero: I relate my interests, my passion for sustainability and my love for the planet back to my mother. We grew up in the bush surrounded by nature and her love for nature was driven into me so I think the way that I saw the world was through her eyes. I’ve only realised that now as an adult looking back on this path of fashion design and sustainability and I think I can relate it to that childhood being in nature.
AC: How did this develop into you picking fashion? It feels counterintuitive, growing up in nature and being far away from the world of glossy magazines and luxury boutiques. What was that entryway for you?
Celeste: Maybe that distance from it created the allure in the first place because I wasn’t surrounded by fancy things. We grew up quite minimalist and we didn’t have much money so girls in glossy magazines were this other world that I didn’t know anything about. Possibly there was a part of me that wanted to be a part of that world. But I was always creative growing up- performing, singing, dancing and drawing. I had this zest and passion for creativity in every little aspect but I didn’t know which channel to drive it down or where I would end up.
I was studying for a Diploma in Entertainment Design where we did every sort of design from set design, prop design, product and graphic design, illustration and then fashion was just one of the modules within that. During the fashion course, I instantly fell in love. After studying for a year I was offered a job as a fashion designer for a brand that I loved growing up and from there I learnt on the job.
Celestes home and studio. Portrait by Leif Prenzlau.
AC: How did those dots join together with you flying all the way to London?
Celeste: As I was wrapping my own label- an ethical and sustainable brand which I had for five years, I decided that I wanted to see what the top of the food chain looked like in fashion. That was one of the things on my bucket list that I hadn’t done yet which drove me to London. The funny thing is that it was my work in sustainability that got me a job (in London) it wasn’t my fashion design skillset.
AC: Was it in Indonesia that you learnt more about sustainability as part of the fashion industry?
Celeste: My lightbulb moment with the production of fashion and how hard that is on the planet and resources happened in Bali. I had already worked for brands for about six or seven years and had never thought about what the full supply chain looked like. I worked a lot with China and factories that were very efficient but I’d never asked those questions before.
I was in Bali and when my production was running late I needed to go to the dye house region to find out what was going on. The smell of chemicals nearly knocked me off my motorbike and instinctually I thought, “I can’t be inhaling this.” I looked to my left and children were playing in the waterways on the side of the street, an old man fishing and families were living here. This was the moment when I thought, “I don’t even want to breathe this in and people are living with this in their waterways and their air, and I’m a part of that problem because I’m producing here”. My lightbulb moment for sustainability happened in Bali and then it was a rolling effect from there.
Images from the natural dye house Celeste used for her brand, after learning the detrimental effects of chemical dyes on the community and environment.
AC: Could you tell us about the time you spent in England where, I believe, you honed in on your skills as a sustainability strategist and consultant. What effect did these formative years have on you?
Celeste: I was the Sustainability Manager for Roland Mouret, the first they had hired. I got to work with the CEO and Roland on creating their short and long-term strategies... This encompassed everything from the design fabrications, how we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint, what recycling we are using, what we are doing with our fabric scraps through to what is happening in our packaging process. I was thrown in the deep end and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
As part of that role, I got to be a part of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Committee. That was round table discussions with all the sustainability managers from brands like Vivienne Westwood, Kering and powerhouses like M&S. That was my moment of witnessing what the top of the (fashion) food chain looked like in a sustainability sense. Here I was sitting at a table where we’re on the same level, have the same knowledge and are trying to find solutions to the same problems.
I moved back to Australia with that experience and started to get approached by brands in Australia and New Zealand that needed help with sustainability. They knew me from when I had my brand and knew the work that I had done in the field. I think it’s a nice angle to come from because I can talk to directors and understand them at a deeper level of someone who has had a label.
AC: These experiences have cultivated in what is now your own sustainability consultancy, Sonzai Studios. How would you describe your approach to helping clients each one with a set of diverse needs?
Celeste: My core idea for Sonzai Studios is to help brands on any scale do better, communicate their progress and plan for the future. The services that can include are bespoke to all of my clients but there are three broad sections. The first is strategy- creating roadmaps and advising on how to be more sustainable throughout the whole supply chain over the three sustainability pillars: environmental, social and economic. Second is communication, because it’s important to talk about sustainability in an industry-relevant way and I work with people to make them feel confident to do that. One of the problems we see in the fashion industry is that people don’t want to put their hand up even if they are doing good because they’re afraid of the backlash. The second section is education and staff workshops because the best instigator for change is to empower your staff. There are good ways of getting them excited about sustainability and if you want your strategies to be successful, you need them to care.
“The best instigator for change is to empower your staff.”
Going back to your question about how it all pieced together from different parts of my career: the way that I came at (Sonzai Studios) was “I have had a brand, so if I got to this point and needed some help what would I need and how would I want someone to help?” What I love is coming into a company and giving them a structure, and tangible tools that they can use on their journey. Talking about sustainability is a rabbit hole, you can talk about what you want to do for hours but getting that into tangible goals or detail - that’s part of the challenge.
Note: This copy has been reduced from the original article. You can find the full interview on Advance Copy .
Looking for sustainability help? Email Celeste directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org