Behind The Design: Our Collaboration With The New Denim Project

Madewell x The New Denim Project Square Pillow, Rectangle Pillow and Rug.
Madewell x The New Denim Project Square Pillow, Rectangle Pillow and Rug.

What do ’70s patchwork style, coffee beans and a family textile business in Guatemala have in common? Our superexciting capsule collection with The New Denim Project, that’s what. The sustainable changemakers take leftovers from mills then upcycle them into brand-new fabric—and yep, their own manufacturing waste gets turned into compost for coffee beans. We chatted with the brains behind it all, sisters Arianne and Joanna Engelberg, about their process, the collab and taking things slow.

First off, tell us about your backgrounds and how The New Denim Project got started.
Arianne: We’re the third generation working in the textile mill our grandfather founded in the ’50s. Our backgrounds aren’t really in textiles, we worked in design and journalism, but it must be in our DNA because we ended up working with our father in the factory. We soon realized that the system for creating textiles didn’t really make sense—and found out that it’s the second largest source of industrial pollution. It shocked us and also opened our eyes to opportunities for change. That’s why we started The New Denim Project five years ago.
Joanna: Our dad was already working on recycling and experimenting with scraps from denim factories, which we thought was super fascinating—so we decided to look at the production side more closely.
Arianne: One of the challenges we had was getting closer to a circular economy and closed-loop system. We needed to figure out what to do with our factory’s waste. Guatemala is a very rich agricultural country, especially when it comes to coffee, so we started conversations with coffee farmers and they agreed to take donated waste, mix it with compost and use it as fertilizer to grow their crops. We believe in the power of human creativity to change the way things are done. When we started working in the textile industry, everyone was telling us, “No, that’s not possible, no one is going to buy recycled, it’s lower quality”—we ignored those comments and decided to just try! Thanks to this venture, the factory is still alive.
Joanna: We’re all accustomed to thinking in a linear way—everything is born and everything dies. But by changing linear systems into something collaborative and circular, where nothing ever dies, everything just feeds something else. Waste is not waste until we waste it.

Say more about that—how have you adapted the manufacturing process based on what you’ve learned?
Arianne: The main source of our raw material comes from cutting tables at denim factories. We collect those scraps, grind them back into fiber and re-spin it into a wide variety of yarns, then the waste goes to the coffee farmers we mentioned. It takes a little longer than the usual spinning process with imported, virgin cotton, but if you think about all the resources you’re saving—water, energy—it’s massive. We save 20,000 liters of water for every kilogram of recycled material.
Joanna: Exactly. There’s no need to use virgin material if there’s so much already floating around—why not build a system that is able to collect it, process it and upcycle it into beautiful clothes like the ones we’re launching now?

Yes, let’s talk about those clothes! How has the collaboration been?
Arianne: It’s been so amazing to work with Madewell because the team genuinely wants to have a positive environmental and social impact. Then you have the creative talent which just takes it all to another level.
Joanna: I really loved seeing what the team dreamed up with our fabrics. We always have ideas of how the final products will look—but this collection really surprised me.
Arianne: Yes! That long quilted jacket? It’s so beautiful!

Props to you and our design team, for sure. What’re you most excited about for The New Denim Project moving forward?
Arianne: Our goal hasn’t really changed—we don’t envision becoming this massive, upcycling monster—but we hope to continue changing people’s mindsets and growing sustainably through collaborations like this, slowly and organically.

Thanks, Arianne and Joanna. Shop the feel-good capsule right here.

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