JAMAICA, Vt. - It's a long way from this New England village to Jakarta, Indonesia. But the distance is bridged creatively by a company named Monsoon Vermont.
Founded in 2005 by Julia Genatossio, Monsoon Vermont sells items made from nonrecyclable plastic collected by scavengers from the streets, landfills, and waterways of Jakarta, the capital city with more than 9 million inhabitants. The trash is triple-washed, then sewn collage style into usable objects such as messenger bags, wallets, umbrellas, computer bags, backpacks, shower curtains, wastebaskets, travel wallets, and more. Dubbed "trashion," combining trash and fashion, the items create sustainable work for some at the bottom of the economic spectrum.
Before moving to Vermont, Genatossio worked in crisis management for Save the Children UK, where she developed sustainable businesses in Sri Lanka, Ecuador, and with the Bangladeshi community in London.
Shopping one day in Brattleboro she found a simpler version of the bags she now designs. Genatossio recalls that when she saw the bag, she thought, "This is a story. Garbage!" She booked a flight to Indonesia and arrived two days after the tsunami hit the region in December 2004. In the chaos, she saw people collecting trash from landfills, and this solidified her vision.
"The idea was to take the original bag I had seen to another level design-wise," said Genatossio. "I looked at luxury designs by Louis Vuitton and things in Vogue. I wanted to integrate what the Indonesians started with high-end design. They needed that economic niche for this to survive as a sustainable project."
Genatossio sends her designs and production orders to a small company in Jakarta that gathers the materials and stitches them.
"They have very talented sewers who used to work for Fendi and Chanel when they maintained factories in Indonesia. When these companies pulled out, only ghost factories were left, along with talented people who can do high-end finishing work," said Genatossio.
The bags use heavy gauge zippers and the interiors are lined with patterned satin fabrics. The exterior is a collage of products in English and Bahasa Indonesia, combining language and color in a way that creates visually interesting cross-cultural references.
"Traveling in Asia, all five senses are working all the time," said Genatossio. "Our products are a microcosm of that, working on many levels linguistically, [and] stylistically . . . and they are useful objects."
Each piece features an individually made collage. Pak Haris, a man identified on the website as "an artist/master tailor/slum-dweller" who crafts Monsoon Vermont's toiletry travel bags, is so inventive that Genatossio asked him to sign his work, which is sold in limited editions.
"Is it really garbage?" is a common question posed by visitors to the shop. What makes these textiles look new is what makes them potentially devastating to the environment: They never break down. According to Genatossio, there's so much garbage in Jakarta that the people who live in the dumps can die in avalanches. In the ashen gray fields of garbage, the bright plastic colors are "almost like flowers."
"My product creates a commodity from garbage," she said. "The price per kilo is the same as paid for rice. This elevates the scavengers to the level of agricultural workers. It's unspeakably wonderful. It has a profound effect on their lives. They're now proud of themselves."
Monsoon Vermont's warehouse is a small room attached to the Post Office and is open sporadically on work days. The work is sold online and across the street in a boutique set up in the Jamaica Coffee House, where you can sip fair trade organic coffee six days a week (closed Wednesdays), from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Necee Regis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.