Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to Ryan Yasin, who started smart-fabric clothing start-up Petit Pli in his quest for sustainability. 

Ryan Yasin was just trying to be a good uncle when he decided to make fashion work for our wallets and the planet. Horrified by the waste produced by children’s ever-changing wardrobes – as well as the huge financial undertaking to dress a kid who grows every week – smart-fabric clothing start-up Petit Pli began as a quest for sustainability and became a revolutionary design house.

While studying a Master’s in aeronautical engineering, Yasin sent a gift of baby clothes to his sister and her newborn son. By the time the package reached the family, his nephew had already outgrown the clothes, and they were thrown away. The 25-year-old wondered why kids’ wear seemed designed for little adults rather than dynamic, constantly growing children’s bodies.

He ultimately found an answer where the worlds of art and earth-orbiting satellites collided. Having specialised in both – Yasin previously worked on nano-satellite technology before shifting to study global design innovation – he drew on his wide-ranging influences for an idea that might not only be kinder to the planet but save parents thousands of pounds.

His failed gift was the turning point that led to the 2017 launch of Petit Pli, a range of expanding origami-like garments which fit children from an average age of three months to two years. But it wasn’t the first time Yasin had thought about the role of clothes – a stint in Japan had opened his eyes to what fashion could mean in social and engineering contexts.

Yasin is careful about his terminology, though. “I don’t like saying fashion – it implies something trend-based,” he says. “Or something that’s going to change periodically.” So he prefers to say “clothing” or “garments”.

I loved how you could see that in an art gallery and walk out into the street to see it in real life,

In Japan, he saw engineering principles he knew well put to use for clothing and in the media. Referring to the work of fashion designer Issey Miyake, Yasin says: “I loved how you could see that in an art gallery and walk out into the street to see it in real life, on people. The folds, the structures. It’s this tangible, functional art, that’s what I really loved.”

As well as appreciating clothing as a material achievement, it occurred to him that fashion might not be completely superficial. He refers to the Harajuku community in Tokyo and Camden punks, who bonded as communities partly through dress. Where sustainability would be the driving force behind Petit Pli, it was the community factor behind fashion that first drew him in.

DID YOU KNOW…

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And so Yasin set out to tackle our approach to clothing, one that seems counterintuitive when the future of our planet hangs in the balance. To invent garments that would grow up to 75 per cent in size while retaining shape he would have to manipulate the properties of the fabric. He laughs: “The first prototype was super crude. I bought a sewing machine off the internet.

“It arrived the next day and then I got sewing a pair of trousers. I crumpled them up and put them in the oven to cook. The idea was that the polymers within the fibres would deform permanently so it would have some kind of elasticity.” It wasn’t until his niece and nephew donned the modified clothing and their parents seemed to buy into the idea that Yasin thought he might be on to something.

My 3 tips for success

  1. Listen to others’ input, but don’t lose sight of your own judgment.
  2. Persist when it gets tough. You’ll hit obstacles which seem like they could dismantle your whole operation – push through.
  3. Fully and completely understand why you do what you do. Passion will be what gets you through the rough times.

During the design process, Yasin researched the fashion industry and its faults, determined to use his skills to see what he could do about “different aspects along the supply chain, from growing cotton to the point of sale” and what he could do to mitigate consumption. He then completed an internship at a London piecing house, learning to use the machinery and hand pleat, and worked on developing the garments into a viable product. The concept, while impressive (the fabric is inspired by folding solar panels fitted on to mini satellites) is simple, says Yasin. But its production less so. The complex recipe makes the garments expensive to manufacture, and so when Yasin won the James Dyson Award for design in 2017, he put the prize money right back into Petit Pli to ensure a successful launch.

He now directs a team of seven, plus a pioneer test involving 100 people around the world who are giving feedback. “The response from them has been hugely positive,” Yasin says. “Way beyond what I was expecting. I’m so grateful for them testing our product all around the world in all sorts of cultures.”

We’re just pushing that message of slowing down consumption,

Now Yasin is pushing his first line – sustainable, gender-neutral, waterproof, lightweight and robust enough to withstand the wear and tear of tumbling through early childhood – further into the market. Finding the resources to expand remains the biggest challenge the start-up faces, he says, though they’ll go ahead and do it anyway (a maternity range is next on their list).

“We’re just pushing that message of slowing down consumption,” he says. “There’s so much scope for it. Like everything in sustainability, the biggest hurdle is changing minds.”

Illustration: Lyndon Hayes