“Repair Café” in Kostroma: Where the Vision of Conscious Consumption Faded Amidst Fabric and Thread

03/04/2024
Starting a social project is a risky business. Even with the support of donor organizations, not always the idea gets the desired continuation. Natalya Teplinskaya, the curator of the Repair Café project and the head of the humanitarian programs department of the Second Breath Foundation, in a very honest interview recalled how it all began, how the project developed and what traces it left in Russian eco-education.

The “Repair Café” is a place where anyone can mend or modify their clothes, fix appliances, oil up a bike chain, and pick up new skills at masterclasses. The concept originated in 2009 in Amsterdam, courtesy of journalist and eco-activist Martine Postma. It quickly gained traction worldwide, with nearly 1,700 cafes in operation by 2019.

In Russia, the first stationary repair cafe opened in 2020 in Kostroma, but only for its doors to shut in 2021.

Natalia Teplinskaya, project curator and head of humanitarian programs at Second Breath Foundation, sheds light on why the organizers’ aspirations fell short of reality and the impact Kostroma made on Russia’s eco-conscious landscape.

 

Why Kostroma?

“The idea to introduce such a concept in Russia came from our director, Daria Alekseyeva. She’s always on the lookout for innovative initiatives that promote recycling and waste reduction.  So, we decided to give it a shot.  In 2020, CSS Foundation hosted a competition supporting social initiatives. We submitted our proposal, outlining the project’s significance, and won!" – explains Natalia.

Choosing Kostroma as the pilot site for this wasn’t arbitrary. By 2020, the city had already embraced other initiatives by the foundation:

- The Charity Shop: where purchases fund eco-projects and nurture a responsible attitude toward nature.  

- The Sorting Center: where locals can drop off unwanted items for recycling or redistribution to those in need.

- The Clothing Assistance Center: offering free essentials to those in need.

Given the city’s blooming eco-infrastructure, the “Repair Café” seemed like a natural fit.

Expectations vs. Reality

“Our primary target audience for the Café consisted of patrons of the Clothing Assistance Center: low-income families as well as people in extreme need, both children and adults.

We envisioned them receiving their clothes and then using our facilities to tailor them to their needs or mend any flaws, utilizing our sewing machines, spacious worktables, supplies, instruments, and expertise.

Moreover, through Café events, we aimed to educate Kostroma residents on the importance of extending the lifespan of their possessions and inspire environmentally conscious lifestyles.”

In reality, the Café attracted a different crowd: mothers with young children,

turning the space into a hub for leisure and creative development.

“I often recall a mother of multiple children, a vegan advocate of homeschooling and mindful consumption. For months, she practically lived in our workshop with her infant daughter and two older kids,” Natalia shares. “The family spent entire days here, participating in all our workshops. Her son learned woodworking, crafting plywood masterpieces, which he was probably excited to share with his father at home. Eventually, even the father joined in, he tinkered with our jigsaw and contemplated purchasing one for his own projects. He also taught woodworking to his son and others interested. Their family bond was strengthening right before my eyes!”

Similarly, parents whose children frequented the Kostroma Down syndrome club, Zhavoronushki (The Little Larks), became ardent supporters of the “Repair Café”.

Club members, performing a lot of live shows, found the workshop a resourceful space for creating stage props and costumes. Café amenities, such as high-quality fabrics, helped families save on expenses while ensuring their children looked their best.

“Olga, a mother of a child with Down syndrome, was a frequent visitor. In Zhavoronushki, Olga used to handle costumes, stitching outfits at home, before the “Repair Café” project was launched. Her initial visit left her in complete disbelief: free materials, ample space for sewing and cutting, all conveniently located near the special kids school! And from here she could call for other moms’ help!”

Volunteers from the local animal shelter also found purpose at the Café, repurposing surplus materials into bedding for recovering cats and dogs. 

However, when designing the project, the Second Breath’s team expected more widespread community involvement, and saw low-income families as the main visitors.

“Unfortunately, the “Repair Café” and the Clothing Assistance Center were inconveniently distanced from each other. This may have been one of the reasons for the low interest in the project expressed by the audience, which initially was out target one,” remarks Natalia.

The team also hoped that the principles of upcycling – i.e. repurposing materials to create new items – would gain traction in Kostroma, spreading greater environmental consciousness among its residents. However, the “Repair Café” leaned more toward leisure than serving as an educational beacon.

 

Clearly, It Wasn’t All in Vain

The project came to fruition thanks to the Second Breath Foundation winning the Stronger with CSS competition in 2020. The primary expenses included renting a two-story space, procuring tools and materials, and equipment maintenance, totaling 700,000 rubles over the year.

“A rather unpleasant surprise was the hefty spending on tool repairs, inventory, and fittings. While the CSS Foundation supported us, these costs were manageable. However, once the project deadline elapsed, it became quite challenging.

Of course, we didn’t intend to close down the Café. We tried to secure sponsors, pleaded with the City Administration for a space free of charge, but to no avail.”

Thus, in the summer of 2021, the “Repair Café” announced its closure.

“Kostroma misses the workshop. We still receive emails, inquiring if we have plans to reopen in the city. Many regret not having had the chance to visit us. Such is the local mentality: Kostroma people take their time, they are hesitant to rush and skeptical of anything offered for free.

Among those who did visit, some invested in sewing machines after trying them out in our workshop, realizing that sewing and repairing items themselves is both feasible and cost-effective. Some acquired jigsaws. Others, upon staining their clothes, now choose not to discard but instead enhance them using techniques like tie-dye, which they learned about at our Café.

We maintain ties with Zhavoronushki, regularly supplying them with fabrics for costumes. After the workshop’s closure, they faced significant challenges. Yet, they remained resilient, rallying together to secure a space from the city, where they established their own workshop. 

Clearly, it wasn’t all in vain. There’s no doubt about it!”

However, with this project winding up in Kostroma, the story of the “Repair Café” in Russia didn’t come to an end. In 2021, the Second Breath Foundation launched a similar workshop in Moscow. In the Russian capital, the foundation promptly secured premises from the city for free use.

“The workshop in Moscow is now thriving, and we have relocated here all the equipment and inventory from Kostroma. It’s worth noting that success didn't come instantly here either.  It took about six months to identify our audience, locate them, and devise strategies to attract them.  We believe that in Kostroma, we simply lacked time, as well as support from local organizations and authorities.”

Now, eco-activists from various regions regularly visit the Moscow workshop, gaining insights to replicate similar initiatives in their own cities. Thus, the wave of eco-enlightenment sweeps across the nation. Like-minded individuals connect and create significant projects. Knowledge disseminates, fostering a culture where people increasingly cherish their belongings, prolong their lifespan, and reduce waste. The pioneering “Repair Café” in Kostroma played a pivotal role in this movement.