Why fashion must learn from Philip Karto’s recycling triumph

When Miley Cyrus was spotted carrying a bag decorated with a large marijuana leaf earlier this year, the photographs traveled the world. But while the music star is a longtime supporter of legalizing marijuana, some fashion insiders felt her bag actually made a different kind of statement: It was produced by the French designer and entrepreneur. . Philippe Karto, which is quickly making a name for itself with a line of recycled Louis Vuitton bags priced at over $ 3,500.

“Fashion is one of the worst industries in the world when it comes to recycling and sustainability,” Karto says of its range, which tries to push back on some of the industry’s practices. “There is so much garbage. “

Not with Karto products. The designer retired from the fashion industry a decade ago, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the unsustainable materials he uses and the large volumes of his products that are hardly worn or thrown away.

Then, in 2017, something changed. Karto borrowed a Louis Vuitton tote from his mother because he needed something to carry his gym kit. “It was good for the job, but it was a bit boring, so I personalized it with my own design,” he says. “Now, every time I took it out, I couldn’t go more than a few minutes without being stopped in the street by someone who wanted to know where I had bought it.

Karto realized that he may have accidentally hit something. Very quickly, he bought four other Louis Vuitton bags, carefully disassembled them, then reassembled them, adding silver pieces and snakeskin or crocodile skins on one side, and figures or painted objects on the other. Then he contacted an old friend with a store at the Montaigne market in Paris and asked her if she would put them up for sale. All four were recovered within 24 hours.

For Karto, it was a kind of epiphany. He had previously considered returning to the fashion industry. Now he had a potentially successful product that didn’t require him to compromise on his values. “Recycling is so important to me – and every material used by the fashion industry can be recycled this way,” he says.

Five years later, a business that Karto effectively started as a personal project has grown into a full-fledged business. From his Miami workshop, Karto now buys a large number of second-hand Louis Vuitton bags, often at auction, then carefully recycles them with his personal touch. It sells around 1,000 bags a year, on average, although excluding periods of the Covid-19 pandemic when stores that stock its bags were closed, the numbers are even more impressive.

These are by no means cheap products – some Karto bags cost over $ 6,000. But the demand is strong. Celebrities are part of the story – in addition to Miley Cyrus, stars like Mike Tyson, Bella Hadid, Puff Daddy, Floyd Merriweather, Cassie and the LA Lakers basketball team have been spotted with Karto’s bags . But a lot of non-celebrities buy too.

The success of the company therefore turns heads: is there room for other designers to place more emphasis on sustainable development, either with the materials they use in the production process, either with their attitude towards recycling? “It’s the future, I’m sure,” says Karto. “It is impossible to continue as we are.”

For its part, 2022 could be a big year. Karto hopes to open three flagship Philip Karto stores next year, potentially in his hometown of Miami, in the south of France, where he is from, and in the Middle East. Stores will stock an expanded range of its products.

One possibility is to repeat Louis Vuitton’s experience with bags from other designers – Hermes or Goyard are possibilities, says Karto. The designer is also planning to revisit a range of clothing he launched at the end of 2019 – with items all assembled from recycled materials – but suspended when the Covid-19 crisis caused so much disruption.

Karto is also in talks with a number of brands over collaborations on a similar theme, though it is keeping a low profile for now. The themes of sustainability will feature prominently in such projects, he promises.

In a sense, Karto’s success is a classic example of one of the most basic advice entrepreneurs often receive – the most successful businesses often grow from something the founder is particularly passionate about. But there is also a larger lesson here – even in industries that previously felt removed from the sustainability debate, demand is shifting outlook, brands quickest to adapt are reaping the benefits.

Still, Karto insists that the key is not to lose sight of the product and what makes it special. In her case, the brand was built on her love of art and design. “It’s a real mix between art and fashion”, says Karto of its range. “These models are 100% handmade, but they are sold in stores rather than galleries.”