We think of “climate entrepreneurs” as solar moguls and wind energy CEOs, but maybe we should envision 24-year-old Elena Bonvicini instead. As a California teen, she saw peers tossing old jeans “like they were trash.” At the same time, she was visiting second hand stores and flea markets in Los Angeles where well-worn denim was being sold for double or triple its original retail price. “I realized I could start my own business and keep clothes out of landfills at the same time,” she says. “That’s how I started flipping jeans.”
Five years later, Elena is the creative director of EB Denim, an upcycling hub in Downtown LA that helps tackle big problems like water waste—new jeans can use 18,000 gallons in production—and the deforestation that comes from mass cotton production. She’s also reinventing designer denim by remixing washes and recutting old classics into brand new jeans, skirts, and jackets for clients like Kendall Jenner and Megan Fox. (“Your favorite celebs are currently obsessing over this emerging denim brand,” gushed The Zoe Report, showing further upcycled pieces on Gigi Hadid and Hailey Bieber as more proof.)
We called Elena on Zoom to get a tour of her studio, meet her new kittens, and learn how to buy jeans without trying them on.
When did you first fall in love with old denim?My grandma used to take me to flea markets with her in Wisconsin. I was just obsessed with how each item of clothing had a story—a real point of difference you could see. And even though jeans look really modern, you could also tell that it was a part of history. Then in LA, I would go to very cool boutiques, and they’d have jeans just like that for hundreds, or thousands, of dollars. I was like, “Yes, I can do this.”
When did the environmental part come into focus for you?
To be honest, the obsession with denim style, and the realization that I could make money, those came first. But when I started doing more research about the benefits of upcycled denim, I became so painfully aware of how many people I knew that just threw out their old jeans, and it physically hurt.
As an entrepreneur, how does focusing on the planet affect your mental health?
On the one hand, I love that we can make any kind of positive impact in the world, and that really keeps me going. At the same time, it’s easy to think if you want to be sustainable, you have to be perfect. And then you drive yourself crazy.
We talk about that a lot! Progress over perfection.
That’s exactly it. We’re rooted in upcycling, so we’re one of the most sustainable denim brands that exist. But also, we have to accept that by making things, of course we use energy, and electricity, and just by being human, we can’t be perfect. We just have to want to be better than we used to be.
For people that are brand new to this world, what should they look for?First, run your hands over the jeans. If they feel super thin, they may rip more easily, which you might not want… Usually, the darker the fabric, the more sturdy it is. A deep indigo is going to hold up for a very, very long time.
What’s the best way—for the planet and for your wardrobe—to do laundry?
Just don’t wash your jeans as often, and only do it in cold water! Maybe every 10 wears, unless something really crazy happens? Some people also put their jeans in the freezer—raw denim, in particular—to kill bacteria. But the cool thing about denim is that it creates a map of your body. The way you bend, the way you walk, it all becomes a thumbprint that only your jeans will have. And after 100 wears, you can actually walk into the ocean with your jeans, as long as they’re pure cotton [without any plastic fibers], and it’ll keep that thumbprint.
True or false: If you want to know if a pair of jeans fits you, wrap the waistband around your neck. If the ends touch around your neck, they’ll also fit your body.
That’s mostly true, and if you can’t try something on before you buy it—like at a sample sale or something—it’s a good trick to know. But it doesn’t work with really low-rise jeans, because they’re not sitting on your waist.
So if you’re not getting Vintage Britney jeans…
You should be fine!
Please tell us your favorite animal fact.
We’re rescuing foster kittens today! They’re brothers and I think they’re six weeks old. I am so excited, but one fact I do know is that cats are an animal that can’t be vegan. They require meat in their diet to survive. Dogs can have vegan things, though!