A scientific study published in the journal Nature last year suggests that despite climate change, overfishing, and human destruction of marine ecosystems, the world’s oceans could rebound by 2050—if governments and world leaders invest in ocean conservation. And though one person can’t single-handedly save the oceans, Barbara Della Rovere is engaging in grassroots efforts to do so. A pioneer of the blue fashion movement, the Brazil-born, Rome-based designer makes beautiful, sustainable bags and accessories from fish skin leather and shares her knowledge with organizations looking to develop more sustainable fishing techniques.
“Blue fashion is an innovative segment of the fashion industry that sources materials from the sea, at the same time supporting fisher communities while reducing waste and offering sustainable alternatives for designers,” Della Rovere told Departures. “The materials sourced are by-products that would be discarded and consequently create a waste management problem.
Raised in Rio de Janeiro with roots in an aristocratic Roman family, Della Rovere got an introduction to fish skin leather while working for Osklen, a sustainable Brazilian brand with stores in New York City and Miami. “For me it was exciting because it was something new,” she recalled. When she moved to Europe six years later, she realized that no one was working with fish skins. She enrolled in a yearlong course at the Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome to learn how to make shoes and bags, but ultimately decided to work with an artisan in Le Marche who crafts bags for Gucci. Through some contacts in Brazil, she found a community of women in the southern state of Paraná to supply the fish skins.
“They have no jobs in the community, their husbands were fishermen,” Della Rovere explained. “They were working for free, because they used to prepare the filets of fish to be sold in the market and they were throwing away the fish skins.” A visiting biologist trained the women to treat the skins through a process of cleaning and drying them before softening and dying them with natural dyes made from acacia trees or indigo plants.
After receiving the fish skins, Della Rovere sketches a design and works with her collaborator in Le Marche to bring it to fruition. She creates elegant bags and clutches, sometimes combining skins from two different types of fish or incorporating some cow leather leftover from brands like Roger Vivier. “Those companies are so big that they order huge pieces of leather and they actually pay for what they use and the rest that they don’t use, they return to this supplier. And it’s usually not a lot,” Della Rovere explained. “And what would happen is these leftover pieces would be incinerated. It’s awful.”
Della Rovere doesn’t adhere to the traditional fashion calendar, but rather launches product by product. “I’m really engaged with the circle economy and sustainability and I think it’s not sustainable in fashion to launch collections,” she said, adding that she sees this as a growing movement in the fashion industry. “We should produce less, but with more quality.”
Contrary to what you might think, fish skin leather is actually stronger and more durable than cow leather. That’s because with cow leather, the fibers go up and down whereas fish skins have criss-crossed fibers. And though fish skin is not elastic, it gives designers like Della Rovere a lot of margin to work with. Removed of scales, the fish skins also have beautiful patterns reminiscent of alligator skins. So far, Della Rovere has used pirarucu (a large fish native to Brazil), tilapia, sole, and Nile perch from Kenya, but she’s been looking for a supplier who can provide salmon skins. She has spoken about her work and the blue fashion movement at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Sustainable Blue Economy Conference in Nairobi and hopes to continue sharing her knowledge about this burgeoning sector of the fashion industry when she can travel again.
Della Rovere sells online in a direct-to-consumer model and ships all over the world. She may just be one person, but her work proves that fashion doesn’t have to be wasteful. “I make bags that are intended of course to be beautiful, but I try to make them strong bags that last for a lifetime,” she said.