Shades of Excellence: CQ Studio's Cassie Quinn speaks on making a change within the fashion industry

According to reports, people in the UK buy more clothes per person than in any country in Europe and around 300,000 tonnes of used clothes are burned or buried in landfills each year. Moreover, 10,000 items of clothing are being sent to landfills every five minutes.

Janet Osayande speaks to the founder of CQ Studio, Cassie Quinn, about her journey of starting her business and the use of biological sources for manufacturing textiles.

Cassie Quinn, 28, founded CQ Studio in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Similarly to previous entrepreneurs that Kindred. Have spoken to in this series, the world health crisis turned out to be a blessing in disguise in terms of focusing on new business ventures.

"I find that it was actually a little bit easier because people were more concerned and started to understand. You know the conversation around sustainability and environmental impacts really kind of heightened.

"Because the point of my business was about trying to raise awareness and communicate what I was doing, it actually made it a little bit easier because we had the spaces online," she says. "I was able to focus on what I was doing, and the developments behind the scenes a little bit more."

Quinn describes her initial start as a soft launch, as she was still finishing her master's degree in Bio Design. She has however been running workshops since 2019. "That kind of fed into then actually launching and trying to get the materials out there and get designers to buy them," she says.

CQ Studio combines science, craft and fashion, with Quinn having a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Textiles and a master’s degree in Biodesign from Central Saint Martins, which teaches designers biology and how to design for a sustainable future. Originally from West Belfast, Quinn first became interested in sustainability during her bachelor’s studies at the University of East London.

"We had a module that was called fast fashion. I never really looked at sustainability, it was a bit of a topic, but I never really knew that much about it. So I started to research."

At the time, Quinn, who has been shortlisted for the Mayor’s Entrepreneur Award for her work with CQ Studio, was a Cass Art student ambassador. In this role, the ambassadors had to put up workshops and run exhibitions.

"Because of learning about fast fashion, I wanted to do more research and understand the massive amounts of waste that we were producing as well as the labour issues and social impacts," she says. "But mainly, the environmental impact of our materials just really shocked me, because it's not something that we learned from the get-go at university. So I was really interested to learn more."

Quinn’s first proper introduction to sustainable textiles was when she ran an exhibition on it and after her second-year project which focused on being fossilised in our own plastic waste using plastic materials to tell the story, "which seemed ironic", Quinn eventually started thinking what other alternative materials are out there.

"I started to research these innovative materials, and how you can make things from Algae and it just really fascinated me," she says. "Then I started a residency to develop my own innovative materials. And during the residency, the lady who founded Brooke Roberts Innovation Agency, told me about this master's course in Biodesign, saying that this would be perfect for me. So I started on that journey and this was really bringing together designers teaching them laboratory protocols, science, biology, and how you can become more sustainable."

It was during her master’s that the young entrepreneur thought about turning her skills into an actual business, relying on her strengths, concepts and ideas about how we can be more sustainable.

CQ Studio sells materials and fabrics, but they also run workshops, which Quinn finds extremely important for both to exist.

"We don't have the education around why we need these materials," she says. "And that, you know, this flax leather that I'm producing might be good today, but tomorrow, it might be bad, it might be more negatively impacting the world. And it's all by continuing the educational journey for myself, for the customers and the public."

Quinn describes her practice of finding new materials as a "deconstruct, destroy and rebuild" process, trying to understand the material and what can be made from it. "What does it do? How does it change the properties? Now it's more focused on making it more sustainable and working with natural ingredients. But it's always the same process in my mind.

"For example, with inflaxuation, it started with myself - I was looking at my heritage because I'm half Irish, and half Chinese. Everyone always says, just start with what you know and that's yourself, you will change the small habits. So in the bigger picture, I think it's still the same."

Wanting to look at Ireland and the textile industries already existing there, she says: "Flax was a massive industry and I wanted to understand it, especially because Ireland is known as the Green Isle, and it's really known for being green and beautiful with all this land. But it's actually really unsustainable because it's all green land for pasture. That's not biodiverse, which means there isn't a thriving community of symbiotic life happening.

"That's how it started. Then I started looking at flax, and then taking on traditional craft techniques of how can I play with flax and see and understand what more we can do."

Another thing Quinn is interested in is rebranding what waste is. She says that "waste is still a valuable resource, so why do we call it waste, when it's actually something that’s technically worth money".

Quinn also worked on a project called Excessories which creates plastic-free textile accessories from excess waste by using wastewater from the textile dye industry.

"By using chemistry and some food waste, I was able to create this process that removes the contaminants from the water, so you're left with water and the sludge. That sludge you can cure, and then you turn it into a plastic-like material, which you can make sequins from."

She says that she is always trying to get a fashion and textile outcome, but likes to start with waste and things around her.

"Then I think how can I sort of bridge those gaps so that things are no longer being thrown away and we're looking at them as a valuable resource."

When asked what we could do in our daily lives to reduce waste and the impact fast fashion has on the environment, Quinn advises thinking about the thing we’re buying. "I think of three different things that I have at home I can wear that with. It makes you stop and think it may look beautiful, but do I need that? Does it fit in with my wardrobe?

"Because I think that when we're constantly bombarded with social media and walking past shops that have these beautiful displays, we forget what actually our style is," she says. "My boyfriend, who wears white t-shirts and skinny jeans, always says to me that he doesn’t have a style but he is probably the most stylish person because his style is about his personality and not about what the shops are trying to sell. I really am such a big advocate of focusing on what your personal style is and what you feel comfortable and good in, rather than just what's on-trend.

"So that's one thing you can always do, think about what that product you're going to buy fits within your wardrobe."

She also advises repairing things. Nowadays fashion has been reduced to disposable items, with fast fashion brands jumping on trends that often don’t stick around for more than a season. That means that most of the clothing is disposed of even though it is in perfect condition, with only a small percentage of these items being repurposed.

Quinn says it is a learning process and she recognises herself she is not perfect and sometimes buys things that may be a "bit too disposable". She however tries to "build a wardrobe of things that age really nicely and that you would want to repair. If you buy something that you don't want to repair, you're not going to repair it."

Until the end of May, CQ Studio has a pop-up at 12 Piccadilly Arcade and it has already received a great response. "The thing that struck me the most is people weren't just here, they were actively asking questions. They were really engaged.

"And every day on Instagram, not to brag, it sounds like I'm bragging," she laughs. "But people will reach out to me and ask can I buy this material or can I just speak to you? Can I pick your brain? Like all of these things? There's rarely been any sort of pushback. And if there is, it’s usually people just challenging it, because they can see that there's something there and they just want it to get better.

"But it's been such an amazing response from people. Even though I don't have a massive following on Instagram, the people that I do have following me are so supportive and so engaged, that it just is the quality over the quantity at the minute."

When asked about her next steps and the future of CQ Studio, she mentions that she is at a "turning point", where she is considering scaling up. "I'm a little bit apprehensive of that because I don't want to just create a new problem by starting to scale these materials, but definitely starting to scale up a little bit.

"Even if it means that I'm not focusing on making one material because that's always an issue, but focusing on lots of different projects that I can start to make at a level where a designer can come in and say, 'I want to buy ten meters of that,', and I can actually do that."

She is hoping to continue to listen to her customers, listen to their needs and wants as well as see her materials as products in stores.

"The next step is to start to make it a little bit more scaled up but not mass-produced. That's the main thing."

To find out more about CQ Studio and the workshops, you can visit the website or Instagram.