Bonnie Young: Saving Fashion, Saving The World
Author, photographer, curator and activist Bonnie Young is well-known for her designer clothing, which has adorned stars and models such as Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Priyanka Chopra. Her designs are often splashed on the pages of Vogue, NYT and Harper’s Bazaar. But now, she’s made a commitment to using only fabrics and textiles in her collections that are destined for landfill, proving that upcycled fabrics can be just as fresh and inspiring as the original rolls — without taking a toll.
Back in the ’90s, when Ralph Lauren offered Bonnie Young a job with a substantial salary for her work, she practically fell off her chair. As a student at Cornell University, she would get a lot of parking tickets because she was often in studios late and driving back to her apartment off campus and illegally parking her car, which ended up getting impounded. She didn’t want to tell her dad, but she needed money to pay the tickets and get her car back. Luckily, the father of one of her friends at school was best friends with Ralph Lauren, so he put her in touch.
So, it’s not as if she were on a fashion trajectory. “Literally, that’s just how I got into fashion,” she says. Even still, as a little girl, she would sometimes show up for dinner at home with lace tights and amazing shoes, which her sister really didn’t get. “I want to look nice,” Young would tell her. At her core, Young was always an artist and, for her, creativity is bred in the bone. Take her dad, for instance. He wanted to become a rock star, but became a doctor because, well, it’s just the stereotypical story, she says, and he really couldn’t choose that path as his career. “But, he’s extremely creative. He’s 83 and he still does open mics now,” she says.
Young didn’t sit back and relax in a comfy chair at Ralph Lauren, though. Instead, she moved to Australia. “I’ve had wanderlust my whole life,” she says. And, in another fortuitous moment, when she returned to New York and worked for Ralph Lauren full-time, her boss hated travelling. So, Young got to spread her wings and travel to places like New Mexico, London and Italy, doing fabric research and visiting vintage stores.
But Young was still just 24 years old. She ended up moving to Italy and became the Creative Director for Donna Karan International for the better part of her career, until she started her own company designing luxury clothes for children and launched her label, BY. Bonnie Young. She opened a store in Aspen, Colo., and went on to create collaborations with companies like Adidas and Swarovski. “So, my fashion story is … just being at the right place at the right time,” she says.
Young has had an incredible career with recognition from around the world, with Hollywood stars showcasing her designs, and she has worked on some amazing projects, including designing costumes for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 and other creative collaborations with Lands’ End, Koral Los Angeles, Orta Blu and an exclusive collection of jewelry, T-shirts and accessories for the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar.
In fact, Young’s collections have always been inspired by her travels to places around the world, and she has been repurposing fabric for years now, taking leftover cashmere, for instance, to create other items. “I’ve always used upcycled fabrics. I can do it because the company is small and it’s very exclusive, so I am not ever going to produce 300 dresses. I could say, ‘All right, there’s 100 yards — that’s it. I’m just making 15 dresses: first come, first served.’” For sustainability, she says, she’s always been able to run the business that way.
Still, Young is cautious about calling something “sustainable.” Says Young: “Sustainability has become a buzzword. It can never be fully sustainable; it’s more like ‘purposeful’ fashion.” And now she’s focusing even more on purposeful fashion: her SS 2020 collection was designed based on the availability of otherwise obsolete materials, preventing wastage. Since then, Young never starts from scratch anymore. All her collections are created using upcycled materials from fabric stores across New York.
According to the Department of Environmental Conservation in the United States, 85 per cent of all unwanted NYC clothing ends up in landfills, contributing to an industry producing more greenhouse gas emissions than international flights and maritime shipping combined. “Now I ask, ‘What do you guys have left over?’ I can upcycle that and make a new look, so that we’re not throwing millions of metres of fabric into landfill,” says Young. “I don’t want to say that [my collection is] 100 per cent upcycled, but I’d say it is 80 per cent upcycled.
Life is interesting, isn’t it? Especially as we get older, we often have a different way of looking at everything. “The world has changed as I’ve aged,” Young says. “I mean, the last two years have really taken a toll on all of us.” It’s just so different now, she says. New York has really shifted since the ’90s and even in the early 2000s. Her daughter is 20 now, and, even if she wanted to, Young says that there’s nowhere for her daughter to go and have nights out until 4 a.m. But, the pandemic has also changed New York, she adds, and it has reverted to somewhere in between the cool, gritty city it used to be before it became the “billionaire haven,” since many of them have left the city and have still not returned. “I think people are more connected now,” she says. “There’s a lot more humanity here.”
Young tries hard to link what she is doing in a collection or with her fashion company and use that as a voice for a bigger cause. And she’s committed to philanthropic endeavours. In addition to her work with Solving Kids’ Cancer, she’s also the founder of Fashion Fights for Children’s Rights, an initiative to align her brand with various children’s charities such as ECPAT and Nest Foundation.
Right now, Young is at a good place in her life, living in New York with her husband, a photographer/creative director, and she’s proud of her three children and what she has passed on to them. As luck would have it, her daughter Celia is an amazing singer and was a finalist on season 16 of The Voice. And, yes, her mom designed everything she wore on the show.
Interview by Estelle Zentil