Much More Than Design Itself: Emerging Senior Thesis by Karo Buttler

Karo Buttler’s senior thesis project offers an enormous amount of detail on design, manufacturability, materials and sustainability. Her insights were hard-won, and speak not only to her curiosity and versatility, but also to the special learning opportunities offered by FIT – opportunities that expand arguments way beyond simple, facile explanations.

Karo Buttler in her up-cycled sweater with burned edges and the double-knee carpenter pants

Buttler describes her project, “everest,” as “an exploration focusing on unisex garments and balancing active-outerwear functionality with streetstyle elements.” She presented her work in Prof. Jerry Dellova’s Incubator class (FD462) in mid-December.

Detail shots of the burned edge on the sweater, the belt loop details and monochrome top-stitching

The collection is based on upcycling – turning donated and discarded old clothes into new ones. But there’s more sophistication than meets the casual glance. Her professional experiences meld the performance apparel sector and materials science.

Upcycled tote bag (made from corduroy pants), a pocket detail and belt loop detail for overall utility

How did it happen?  In early 2020, when Covid first hit NYC, Buttler quarantined in Colorado with her best friend’s family. “We went hiking every day. That solitude I found in nature and movement are seen in the outerwear aspects in the garments.”

Buttler is 5’ 10” and finds it difficult to buy pants that aren’t too short but fit tight enough on her waist so getting the silhouette right was her biggest goal, she said. “Whenever I design, I try to solve a problem; in this case by adjusting the fit of carpenter pants for the female body.”

Carpenter pants with double-knee detail

All of this was based on a firm intellectual foundation. Just before leaving for Colorado, Buttler participated in a masterclass sponsored by Pensole with industry partners New Balance and Foot Locker, and was exposed to sustainability from a corporate standpoint.

“Karo understands how to take repurposed, reused, recycled to a different level. Many do this on a very small mom-and-pop level but with her experience at New Balance, Google and MIT she ‘gets’ the branding relevance, and ‘gets’ how to use technology and science, which makes sustainability more of a global practice then a local practice.” – Prof. Jerry Dellova

“Through daily presentations, meetings, and the guidance of New Balance designers and mentors like D’wayne Edwards [Founder of Pensole], I added to my communication skills and realized the importance of collaboration within a department,” she said. “Ever since, I’ve been interested in approaching waste and recycling from an economic angle. Moving toward a circular economy is crucial for the fashion industry.”

Sketch for the final design to New Balance and Foot Locker: a highly-functional, layered windbreaker and track pants with thermoregulatory properties

Back in New York last September, Buttler had an opportunity to talk to Maria McClay, Director Fashion and Beauty at Google Cloud, about the importance of technology in the fashion industry and how companies like Stella McCartney are investing in ways to make the supply chain more transparent.

That conversation was captured (below) in a video created to showcase Google Cloud’s new technology that will help fashion brands, fashion designers and design students.

That conversation reinforced Buttler’s view of the growing interest of industries (not just companies) collaborating with each other and the need for knowledge about materials within the fashion industry.

“It underlined for me the need for conversation between different industries, to have people communicate about the issue not only within the design realm but across industries,” Buttler said.

Upcycled windbreaker following the aesthetics of the product created in the MIT x FIT workshop with team

In January 2021, Buttler participated in the MIT x FIT workshop with New Balance and Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, (AFFOA) that she said, “transformed my thinking about the intersection between engineering and design. Creating mono-material garments for easier recycling processes was one point my team and I focused on.”

“Working with Karo is proof that science and design are great partners. Her team communicated the merger of innovative textiles and well-researched design to establish a scalable marketable presentation in a real-world scenario.” – Faculty mentor and Fashion Design professor Amy Sperber

This led to an internship with the MIT start-up Neramco in Fall 2021, working with polyethylene, a synthetic polymer that has great sustainability benefits. Working among engineers, Buttler gained insight in their way of approaching a problem.

“Most people think organic and natural fabrics are our only way out of this mess. But those options are often costly and often use enormous amounts of water. Active clothing requires specific properties – so working on the recycling and up-cycling of already existing polyester is going to be important.”

“Upcycling is a very intuitive process, as the design becomes clear only after you know what fabric you have to work with” she said.

“I like using ‘what’s already out there,’ and giving it a new life. Even though upcycling is difficult to achieve on a large-scale level for big companies, it might inspire give-back programs and recycling initiatives. It will be an exciting few months working on ‘everest.'”

Visit Karo Buttler’s website: karobuttler.com and follow her on IG @karobttlr.

To learn about the Fashion Design program go to: Fashion Design at FIT.

All images provided by Karo Buttler.

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