How to transform an old sail into a designer dress

You might see an old raggedy used sail, but German fashion designer Jens Werner sees a high-fashion structured trench coat.

“No one has ever really done this before,” Werner says, walking through a warehouse in Brownsville surrounded by sewing machines and scraps of sails. Over the past six months, he has transformed almost 100 used sails into functional works of art.

The project began back in May when Werner was introduced to the founders of Shake-A-Leg, a nonprofit in Coconut Grove which has been teaching water sports to people with disabilities for 25 years. To celebrate their 25th anniversary, founders Harry and Susan Horgan knew they wanted to do something with the hundreds of old sails that had piled up over the years of teaching.

Normally, people throw away their old sails.

“They become stretched and also they can tear, especially down here. The sun is brutal on the sail. When you’re a high powered competitive sailor, you want to keep those sails new and crisp because they go faster,” Harry explained. “A little wear and tear and the softer and more supple they are … they lose their aerodynamic qualities. Once they lose their shape they won’t be as fast.”

Competitive sailors started donating their old sails to Shake-A-Leg, and while looking at the growing pile Susan had an idea.

Initially, she wanted to turn them into handbags and accessories, but once Werner got on board he saw even more potential. A renowned designer who has worked with Tory Burch and Adidas Y-3, Werner had never really touched a sail before. He’d only been out on a sailboat a few times casually with friends.

Now here he was, surrounded by them — rigid off-white mainsails with their rough textures, transparent nylon-like Spinnaker sails in their varied hues, and stiff, clear mylar sails with patterns laced through. He was inspired.

He dyed, cut, and sewed mainsails to make structured skirts. He took translucent spinnakers, bonded them to each other and made long coats. Then he used the patterns of on mylar sails to fashion casual jackets.

“The garments are designed to represent characters. Some are super ill-fitting, others way too big and asymmetric,” he said. The goal was to make them imperfect, but still high fashion.

No single garment in the collection looks the same — it’s a celebration of our diversity and of our imperfections, Werner explained. And he did it all free of charge with the proceeds going directly to Shake-A-Leg. 

Werner thought creating a varied and diverse collection would be appropriate considering Shake-A-Leg’s commitment to building an inclusive sailing community. The whole collection will be presented as a theatrical performance with models of all shapes and sizes, and with varied abilities, including models in wheelchairs — for which he’s even designed a parka that unzips at the wheels. In total, there are roughly 80 pieces, no single one the same.

“They approached me to do a normal runway show, but I thought about it and thought we should do something new,” Werner said. “I wanted to make this more about the community around this organization than the garments.”

The designs will be showcased at Shake-A-Leg’s “Art of Sail” gala at the U.S. Coast Guard Seaplane Base on Oct. 29.