A hip-hop and sustainable fashion love affair: Introducing the tracksuit club
By Elisheba Akalawu
Having a ‘sustainable lifestyle’ can feel a bit like a buzzword statement these days. Everyone is doing it, seemingly, talking about it and in most efforts to appear ‘sustainable’, are condemning the fast fashion industry. But how often is it that we’re encompassing these values every moment of every day? Janek Bonasewicz, creator of Berlin-based brand The Tracksuit Club, is one of those people who doesn’t just want to use sustainability as a cool, flashy branding technique. It is what he wants his brand to embody wholeheartedly; from ethically sourcing recycled plastic materials, and having a clean operation out of Europe, to establishing a social network where creatives can come together to develop their mindsets and to discuss, learn and share their talents.
TTC, a year and a half in the making, was born out of Janek’s hunger to find the perfect tracksuit and to really cultivate a new mindset in people when it comes to living a sustainable lifestyle, with influences from 1970s New York Blackout, his Hour Zero collection aims to push boundaries by showing people that you can be stylish and sustainable, without having to compromise on quality.
I had the pleasure of chatting to Janek about The Tracksuit Club and all the brand has to offer on and offline. Make sure to check them out on instagram @thetracksuitclub.
What sparked the idea for The Tracksuit Club?
I wanted to build a brand that made the perfect tracksuit, and in that process of looking for the best materials and fabrics, I got into sustainable fabrics – which just happened by accident. At the beginning of the journey we had the option to make the tracksuits in Asia, but it was against my concept and way of thinking. It then became really important for me to produce a product from Europe, with sustainable materials. I came across a company in Sweden which produces the kind of recycled materials I was looking for and we just jumped on it.
What is it that makes the tracksuit a stand out item of clothing for you?
I did a lot of sports when I was growing up – I especially liked soccer. However, I was never the standard sizing in trousers and pants, so I got into tracksuits really early. I was always searching for the perfect products in regards to their philosophy of production, fitting, style and so on, but I wasn’t always happy about it. Eight years ago I designed my first jogging pants and tracksuit but it was really expensive and I made only one. I wanted to level up what I had created as I had started to see many people wearing tracksuits not just for sport. I was seeing it more in the streets and on people in agencies and companies that were getting out of traditional suits and jeans, and out of uncomfortable clothing. They had turned their old concepts of styling into something that was comfortable, functional and sustainable. So I turned my designs into things people needed.
There’s been such a huge rise in athleisure clothing and it not just being exclusively for sport. It’s definitely a bigger fashion statement. What are the defining features of The Hour Zero collection?
Exactly. In the process of designing I had a few points which I really wanted to focus on. First of all, as you said sporty clothing on the street is turning into a different style, a style of its own. The first feature of this collection is that I’ve not designed a tracksuit for the track. I designed a tracksuit for the street and because of this there are a lot of functional features on the tracksuit. We have special smartphone pockets in the top, water resistant zippers on the pockets so your smartphone or other devices won’t get wet in the rain, a reflective logo and patches on it so when you’re out in the street when it gets dark, you’ll be seen. There’s also a point of security and practicality that I thought about. The main features were designed to be functional, sustainable and stylish. I wanted to design and produce something that people can really use, and not just wear, but really use in the streets all day, every day.
Hip-hop has been cited as an influence of TTC for its iconic style and design – what parts of the Hour Zero collection are influenced by this era?
Hip-hop brought the tracksuits from the basketball court to the underground party and music scene, it created a whole new lifestyle. The first DJ’s of hip-hop were wearing tracksuits and evolved that style into being cool. The collection name ‘Hour Zero’ goes back to the New York City blackout that happened in 1977, the big power failure, where all those young guys were able to loot and get the technical products needed to produce music. So that is the main thing about Hour Zero; it stands for the Hour Zero collection of The Tracksuit Club, but it also stands for Hour Zero where everything started with the hip-hop lifestyle. There are echoes of this in the designs and printings I’ve used. For example, we’ve got a lightning hoodie because it was a lightning strike that caused the blackout.
What made you think of using plastic in such innovative fashion?
As we were searching for the right materials I had a few points I really wanted to consider. I wanted high quality materials, not only for the fabrics but also the zippers and everything else that was going on the tracksuit. I also wanted sustainability to be a big part of it, it wasn’t always about recycled plastic in particular, but also organic cotton and so forth. There are so many possibilities to recycle things so I knew I just wanted to use something. The kind of tracksuit I was designing usually is made of 100% polyester, so that was the kind of fabric I was looking for – at this point I didn’t even know we would be able to convert plastic bottles into tracksuits. I was looking at recycled plastic for the zippers, but noticed that the quality of the plastic was really good and so we went with that for the material too. So yeah, the plastic factor just sort of dropped in. We’ll be doing organic cotton products too, t-shirts, sweaters and hoodies!
Where do you source the plastic from?
The plastic bottles come from a company out of Sweden. Actually, let’s say the fabric comes out of Sweden and there’s a partner company that we work with and they recycle plastics from everywhere. It comes from out of the seas and they get recycled plastic bottles from supermarkets. The plastic comes from planet earth…from everywhere. So they collect the bottles and then produce the fabric.
How many plastic bottles on average are recycled in a TTC tracksuit?
We have about 30 plastic bottles for one tracksuit. In the Hour Zero collection we’ve already recycled around 10,000 plastic bottles! It’s a big number. Often in recycling we have the problem of just reusing the plastic to make more bottles or plastic bags out of it, but what happens after we use the plastic bag? It’s not sustainable. Sustainability is to collect the waste and make something useful out of it and not only using it once. So that is the point of sustainability and sustainable tracksuits. The average number is 30 per tracksuit and around 10,000 in our collection.
What sets TTC apart from other clothing brands?
Good question! Number one thing to point out is that no one else is using this kind of recycled plastic material. It’s a really strong material but it’s soft to the touch at the same time. The quality of the fabric is really high and there are not so many companies who produce it in Europe. Everything is produced in three European countries: Poland, Sweden and Germany. It’s important for me to have a very authentic product; some companies will buy pieces already produced in Asia and then put together in Europe and be labelled as “Made in Europe” or “Made in Italy”. So what is really important here and what makes the difference here is that our product is produced in Europe and every detail and material in it comes from Europe. It’s from Europe, for everybody.
So where do you see the future of sustainable fashion going?
In short sustainable fashion is going to take over! Normal cotton is about 4,000 litres of drinking water to produce one kilo of cotton, and for organic cotton we use 9% of that, so that’s a lot of waste when you think about how many t-shirts, sweaters and cotton products the industry is producing. We are water, and everything is water, which is why it’s important that we save water and rethink the way in which we produce and use cotton products. What we also need to do is collect all those things swimming in the ocean and the plastic bottles lying around everywhere, and actually produce something that people can use for a long time. I think that’s the direction sustainable fashion is going – everyone has to change their mindset on collecting things.
Can you tell us a little bit about The Social Club?
I had two main problems: to find the right tracksuit and how to spend my free time. I thought about playing golf or tennis but I didn’t just want to play a sport, I wanted to connect with people. However, playing tennis, I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to talk to anyone about sustainable clothing or hip-hop, for example, and there are people in tennis who like hip-hop, I don’t want to discriminate. But I thought about how to make my free time productive in a good, positive and accessible way. We have social clubs for all types of things but we don’t have social club for this new lifestyle. I wanted to create a space for people who are interested in sustainable fashion, hip-hop, also for up and coming rappers from Europe and all over the world – if he or she is a newcomer on the scene then welcome to The Club. The main point is to give talents a stage and to connect those talents to the right people. It’s for people to exchange experiences and life, thoughts, political things, fashion and art. It’s not about having the money for expensive membership fees like private members clubs or tennis clubs, it’s the value in the mindset and the mindset is spreading love and getting more love, protecting the Earth for each other and future generations. It’s about quitting the war mentality to fight against each other and so on.
How often are The Club sessions and where will it be based?
The first session will be in Berlin, and we have a solar-powered engine boat on the Sprei. It’s one of the first solar-powered boats in the world and it’ll be where we have our launch party for The Club. The Club is flexible and free and we are planning on having the next four sessions all over Europe in cities such as London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Paris of course. We want to follow the vibe. Sessions will be every three months and we probably won’t do the same city twice so that we can bring something new each time.
I also want to connect people from all the different cities – I don’t see borders. I see the whole Earth as a potential place to do a session. I want to bring artists, influencers and people in media business to London, to Amsterdam, to Paris and to also invite those same people out of their city to experience a new one. So when we go to Amsterdam we have Berlin members connecting with the Amsterdam members and then when we go to London, we’ll have the Berlin and Amsterdam members and so forth, really breaking the barriers and fences. Everything is step-by-step so that TTC can have a really natural growth. Sustainable fashion and projects are always growing organically and it’s not about the fast hype, as fast as a hype is created, as fast it will die, you know.
Yeah I get what you mean. It’s important that people are thinking and making those thoughtful choices when choosing what to buy and wear.
We also want to transport this way of thinking and maybe change the way people think about particular things, in all aspects such as eating meat, about having a car, and just consuming smarter. It’s too easy to consume fast fashion these days or buy from companies that don’t have sustainable working practices. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to wear a TTC tracksuit with Air Force or socks from Nike. I’m not saying that at all, but we have to change the approach of how much sustainable and not sustainable products we consume. One customer messaged me to say £200 was too much for one pant but on his Instagram he had a lot of Nike and Adidas stuff, and I thought it was interesting just how many people don’t understand that they pay a lot of money for products made in Asia to companies that pay their workers really really bad!
Yeah, that’s crazy. I guess it’s easy to contribute to a problem when the problem is not blatantly in our faces. Which definitely does not make it okay!
Exactly! People just pay the money and don’t give a sh*t about what is happening on the inside, they collect their stuff and their shoes and for them the transaction is done. That’s really the point. A sustainable product is not only made out of organic cotton or recycled materials, but we don’t pay companies who pay their workers poorly, or under-pay our own workers. A sustainable product is not only good for the Earth but it is good for the people, and also as we just discussed for The Club when it comes to connecting people and giving opportunities. It’s a really exciting journey and I love the process of it. From the first designs and steps to today a lot of thought went into the product and The Club, many things evolved and changed. I’m happy for every new and exciting challenge. Yeah, this is a really good thing for us and everybody!