Meet Qwstion, the Swiss brand making premium bags from banana trees

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When it comes to the question of the sustainability of the fashion industry, the problem is not just that it produces clothing in unsustainable quantities – it also uses synthetic fibers like polyester which cause d ‘enormous damage to the environment. Fortunately, pioneering brands around the world are developing new materials to reduce damage.

The Swiss brand Qwstion is one of them. The Zurich-based brand, founded in 2008, manufactures high-end bags and accessories using Bananatex, its exclusive fabric made from banana plants.

The fabric is known locally as “Banana Hemp” or “Abacá” in the Philippines where it is cultivated before being made into a viable alternative to synthetic fabric. Replacing these fibers is currently a huge topic of discussion surrounding efforts to clean up the fashion industry.

Once touted as a miracle fiber thanks to its cheap, lightweight and durable properties, polyester has come under intense scrutiny in recent years due to the release of harmful microfibers. According to a 2017 report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 35% of all microplastics in the ocean come from the bleaching of synthetic textiles like polyester, which have been deeply woven into the heart of the ocean. fast fashion industry. .

This is where alternatives like Bananatex could come in.

FashionUnited spoke to Qwstion co-founder and creative director Christian Kaegi about the creation of Bananatex, the decision to make the fabric open source, and the sustainable fashion award.

Qwstion Fast Facts

Established: 2008
Founders: Christian Kaegi. Matthias Graf, Hannes Schoenegger, Sebastian Kruit, Fabrice Aeberhard
CEO: Hannes Schönegger
Size of the company: 25 employees
Own store locations: Zurich, Lausanne, Basel, Vienna
Country of sale: 45
Main retailers: The exception Paris, Chic Cham Lausanne, Ecolabo online, Conran London, Darial Barcelona, ​​Baerck Berlin, Manufactum, Ooid Basel, Globus

What fabrics did you use before Bananatex?

We used cotton first – standard non-organic cotton. It was basically the only thing we could find when we first started that had the performance we were looking for when used in bags. Then the next big step was to create our own GOTS certified organic cotton canvas. We still use it today in some of our collections – it comes from Turkey and is processed in Hong Kong.

Before getting to cotton, we also did a series of tests with other materials like bamboo, hemp, and linen – to name a few. They were all natural fibers with inherent strength, which is what we really needed for our bags, but we did not come to a satisfactory stage in developing these fabrics.

What kinds of problems have you encountered?

It was just hard to find a stable source of fiber. We considered using nettle, for example, which was historically quite common for sturdy backpacks and was used by the Swiss military around the 1920s-30s. Back then there was a constant source that was harvested and produced, but that is no longer the case.

With hemp, we managed to find a source in Europe. Our goal was to contain the entire supply chain in a very close geographic area around Switzerland, but we also had problems there. We found a stable source of hemp in Belgium, then the spinning would be done in northern Italy and finally the weaving on specially modified looms in Switzerland. But this whole process meant a total trucking distance of about 4,000 kilometers in Europe.

We realized that by doing so, the environmental footprint was ultimately larger than what we could achieve in Asia, which ultimately was decisive in our decision to explore the region where we ultimately discovered banana fiber.

How was Bananatex born?

We were doing a lot of research on hemp with the Asian partners that we were already working with on organic cotton and they mentioned that they knew of a spinning mill that had just started that used banana fiber. They were very early in their experimentation phase, so we came to a really good time and were able to develop something with them. This led to a three year experimentation period until we got the textile we were really happy with, Bananatex.

How much of your product line now consists of Bananatex?

I would say now Bananatex is just taking over from our other materials. As soon as we knew that Bananatex was working as we wanted and met all sustainability criteria, we decided to implement it as soon as possible across the range. If you see what we’ve produced over the past two years, that’s about 80 percent of Bananatex. We anticipate that almost all of our products will use Bananatex over the next three years.

How does the price compare to other fabrics?

Bananatex costs around $ 27 per meter – so it’s much more expensive if you compare it to polyesters, nylons, or Cordura which cost around $ 3 to $ 4 per meter. Our organic cotton costs around $ 9 per meter, to put that into perspective.

How did you then manage not to significantly change the price points?

Using something so expensive has forced us to completely reconsider the design of our bags. Bananatex’s first launch was a minimal collection and there it was really about minimizing the number of pieces to make up for what we could in terms of higher prices so that we could ultimately hit a still demographic price point. . Our prices have gone up slightly but I would say it ultimately comes down to the price of durability.

How does it fare in terms of durability compared to other plastic products?

If you look at Martindale’s abrasion test [a unit for quantifying the
abrasion resistance of textiles] so we’re at a level of about 30,000, which compares to the thinner versions of Cordura. Heavy Cordura versions could go over 100,000. But I think it’s important to really consider the “suitability” of the materials. This is one criterion where performance plastic-based materials go extremely far – you might be carrying a ton in your backpack, but who has to? When designing, we really looked at relevance and thought about how much performance someone really needs for the intended purpose. It was our goal.

And the bags are biodegradable?

Yes. From the end of 2020, we have replaced our nylon threads with Tencel threads. So now, once you’ve removed the YKK zipper and metal hooks, both of which can be recycled, you can literally put them on your compost. We tested it ourselves and after about six months it’s gone. The idea for us was really to make a product that comes from plants and which can eventually come back to plants and nature.

You say you develop and source almost all of the material directly. Which one aren’t you doing right now?

We still use leathers in some of our products. We know there are plenty of vegan alternatives out there, but most of them involve plastics at this point and don’t offer the same durability we’re looking for. We also did our own experiments with mushroom materials, but again we didn’t achieve the same quality. We know there is a lot of controversy over leather, but the cowhide we use is a by-product of other industries, so we decided to keep using it.

Why did you decide to make Bananatex open source?

The decision came naturally to us because we wanted to create change in this world and in this industry already so excessive in production and waste. As soon as we saw that Bananatex could really offer a viable alternative to plastic based fabrics, we knew we could have a big impact if we shared it with others rather than keeping it exclusive to our own lines.

What interest have you seen so far and where does it come from?

The response has been incredible – since its launch about two years ago, we have received thousands of requests. While we cannot give names as they are all still in the prototyping stage, we have seen widespread interest, including some major sportswear and luxury clothing companies, jewelry and watch brands as well. We have also seen interest from outdoor brands, but to a lesser extent, perhaps because the outdoor industry is very performance and price driven. We have also seen interest from other sectors such as the furniture and automotive industries.

When can we expect other brands to use Bananatex?

You can expect an announcement for a major fashion brand in the first quarter of the year.

What future for Bananatex?

We really want to improve our transparency even further. At the moment, we are working with suppliers, so we have a reseller between us and the banana farmers. About 400 micro-farms cultivate banana fiber and bring it to the warehouse. Right now, we are working with our partners to set up a fully transparent supply chain where we will actually know exactly which farmers are making which fiber.

Photo credit: Qwstion


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