Artist and shop owner Barbara Ruiz talks upcycling, sustainability in fashion


Courtesy of Barbara Ruiz

Some upcycled clothes sold at Retro*Fit. Owner Barbara Ruiz said she prioritizes sustainability and ethics over wholesale fast fashion.

Laya Neelakandan, Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editors

Where most people see a dish towel, artist Barbara Ruiz sees a shirt waiting to be upcycled.

“Each piece lets me know what it’s going to be next in that weird, artsy way,” she said.

The Evanston-based artist owns Retro*Fit, a clothing brand which gives a new life to old clothes and accessories with a focus on sustainability. Retro*Fit places an emphasis on slow fashion, avoiding large-scale manufacturers and prioritizing ethical production.

Ruiz said she has been immersed in art since she was a child, but her passion has always been fashion. After studying fashion design at Columbia College Chicago, Ruiz opened three boutiques in Chicago.

“At the time, it was really fun, but I wasn’t really thinking about where all of these things came from,” Ruiz said. “It really was a learning process… there’s that whole question of, ‘Who makes your clothes and where do they really come from?’”

After the 2008 recession forced her to shut down her boutiques, Ruiz said she had the itch to start another boutique, one that did not fall into the traditional model. She said it “didn’t feel right” to get clothing made by a wholesaler when she didn’t know who made it or what the company’s practices were.

Instead, Ruiz decided last year to take one of her hobbies — upcycling donated clothes — and turn it into a business. Although the process differs from piece to piece, Ruiz said she usually either adds embellishments or reworks the fabric of a piece to transform it into a fashionable clothing item.

“I wanted to make sure that I really am aware and cognizant of what happens when you throw things away,” Ruiz said. “What’s ‘away’? It’s such an easy thing to just throw something away, but ‘away’ isn’t ‘gone.’”

Although the pandemic derailed her plans for a brick-and-mortar shop in Evanston, Ruiz spent time in quarantine developing a website. She said the learning curve was difficult because she had not previously dealt with e-commerce or the technological aspects of it.

Her website contains three sections: upcycled clothes, select sustainable brands and second-hand pieces that don’t require upcycling. Ruiz said it’s important to her to focus on socially-conscious, female-owned brands that give back to their communities. She also ensures her packaging is recycled and compostable.

Ruiz’s friend, ceramicist Susan McBride, said she admires Ruiz’s work ethic and creativity.

McBride recounted one specific shirt she bought from Ruiz, on which she had sewn a gold line in the style of Japanese Kintsugi, a type of art that repairs pottery by using gold seams. McBride said as a ceramicist, Kintsugi interested her, so she appreciated Ruiz’s creativity in applying it to clothing.

“Barbara is doing a similar thing (to the concept of Kintsugi) with textiles and clothing… bringing new life to discarded items,” McBride said. “(Her brand) is a reflective and thoughtful way to better the world and also use her incredible talents.”

Steve Johnson, Ruiz’s husband, said he has loved watching his wife’s idea bloom into a business right from their house.

“The proximity of working together right now on our entrepreneurial projects is a lot of fun… it’s fun to have water cooler talk again,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who has been married to Ruiz for almost 25 years, said he admires how “ahead of the curve” his wife is in terms of fashion sense, something he has noticed since the day they met.

He said he is excited to see the future of Ruiz’s shop — one he hopes brings the Evanston community together through fashion.

“For her to be able to take her experience owning a brick-and-mortar and her concern for where things are going with fashion and our environment and make it into this business — it’s really cool to see that come together,” Johnson said.

Ruiz said she loves upcycling because anyone can see that the clothing was “made by human hands.” She said upcycling clothes is her form of meditation, something that has become necessary to her everyday life.

Ultimately, she hopes her shop can continue the conversation around sustainability and ethics in the fashion world.

“I’m hoping it really becomes something that’s a regular part of our wardrobes and lives,” Ruiz said. “Who benefits and who’s really harmed by practices of these huge companies? Just getting the word out is another part of why I’m doing all of this.”

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Twitter: @laya_neel

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