From The Issue: 10 Reasons To Be Optimistic About Fashion’s Future By Tamsin Blanchard
For years, the fashion industry has regarded anyone who talked about pollution, plastic, recycling, chemicals and working conditions as some kind of a hairy fashion outsider. And yes, I confess, I do have a penchant for ponchos, hand-knits and anything made from felt. But I believe people should be treated fairly and equally – and that extends to the seamstresses who sew the seams of my clothes.
I believe we should all take responsibility for our own actions, including the choices we make as consumers. We should clean up after ourselves and not drop litter – and not sending clothes to landfill is an extension of that (who even throws old clothes in the bin, anyway?).
I believe that killing animals for their fur is outdated (and finally the fashion world seems to agree). I believe that we shouldn’t trample over the planet, flushing toxic dyes into the rivers and pumping pollution into the skies. I believe all of this is simply common sense, incorporating ideals most of us would like to be a reality. It’s not just me.
For many reasons, the fashion industry has simply come unstuck somewhere along the way. It has spun out of control, too fast, and has been a victim of its own success. It got greedy. It got lazy. It got horribly wasteful. And it all became too cheap. We have all got the message that the industry we love needs to shape up. And while the balance is all wrong and profit margins have blinded many brands to the human and environmental cost of how they are carrying out their business, it’s not too late to change.
There is still a long way to go for brands who are mired in the mess of their own making. But there are many ways to make positive change, and there are many brilliant, innovative designers doing things differently; inspiring campaigns that are holding the industry to account; and increasingly, disruptive technologies and digitisation that are going to turn the whole thing on its head. Here are just a few of them.
1. BETHANY WILLIAMS
When the influential Japanese retailer Beams recently met Bethany Williams, they were intrigued by her delivery schedules. She makes just one collection a year – she refers to them as projects – and currently, production of her knitwear is done by herself and her mother. Her recycled jackets are hand-woven from materials such as waste electrical tape by people at a drug-rehab programme in Italy and other pieces are sewn by women prisoners at HMP Downview in Sutton, Surrey, who are part of a programme that is teaching them to sew and learn a skill. To even out cash flow, Williams plans to use her skills to teach (at London College of Fashion), lecture and consult.
Rather than deterring the buyers, the small batches and social message are what is attracting them to Williams’s work. And it’s not just Beams. She’s selling to odd92 in Brooklyn, Dune in Japan and Farfetch here in the UK. And despite only being in her second season, she’s had a knitwear order from Neiman Marcus, as well as interest from Bergdorf Goodman, and Addicted in Seoul. “Beams liked my business model,” she says. “As a whole package, they said the message is clear.”
This is a designer whose motivation to make fashion is not fame or fortune or a slot on the London Fashion Week schedule. She measures her success by how she can make the greatest positive impact for the communities she works with – 20% of profits from her Women of Change collection goes back to the social programmes.
For her first collection, Breadline, Williams worked with her local food bank in Vauxhall, to draw attention to the problems people are facing in austerity Britain. She organised an exchange of groceries from Tesco for unwanted textile waste from the food-bank users’ homes and repurposed the latter as well as food packaging, cardboard boxes and Tesco bags to make a collection of urban menswear. The result was the most extraordinary woven-cardboard parkas and casual and sportswear, featuring bold embroideries celebrating the fabrics’ wear and tear.
“We provide an alternative system for fashion production, as we believe fashion’s reflection upon the world can create positive change,” says Williams. “I don’t want to be mass-producing. I’d like to sell to 15 to 20 stores where they can tell the story. The message is as important as the product.”
Her next collection will be based around a mobile library service that lends books to people of no fixed address. “The motivation is the social side of things,” she says. “It’s been really drilled into me by my family. Making new textiles is a passion and it’s nice to be able to link the two together. For me, sustainability is finding innovative solutions to problems our world is creating. It’s about the people and the planet.”
2. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS WASTE
Last November, Carole Collet, the recently appointed head of sustainable innovation at Central Saint Martins set up a symposium to explore the concept of sustainable materiality with a series of talks by students and graduates of the Het Nieuwe Instituut, Rotterdam, and the Central Saint Martins MA Material Futures programme.
“We live in extreme times,” wrote Collet. “From mass global migration and rapidly changing ecosystems to radical shifts in the world’s superpowers, we are witnessing seismic changes in the way we live, work and survive. Our current systems for managing and tackling these changes seem outdated and unreliable. As designers, it is our responsibility to look beyond the conventional and probe, question and explore how we can, should or want to shape the future.”
The London-based desisgner Caroline Jacob explained her project The Remainder, which looks at everyday domestic waste. She developed a relationship with a laundrette in a small town in Holland and collected the fluff left in the tumble dryers to explore the idea of the richness of what we discard. Over a period of just one month, she collected enough lint to make a 12-metre length of fabric. If you scaled this to include every laundrette in Amsterdam or Holland – or London or the UK – our clothes would generate enough fluff to make a significant amount of clothes.
Which makes you think about all the other everyday waste we generate, such as coffee grounds. A Taiwanese innovator has launched S.Café, a company that uses these to make a textile yarn that is quick-drying, ideal for sportswear and compostable at the end of the garment’s life. Orange peel is also being put to similar good use (by Orange Fiber), as are grape skins (Vegea) and pineapple leaf (Piñatex). Fruit-juice waste is the future.
Imagine a fast-fashion model where the clothes just go round and round in a virtuous circle: buy, wear, recycle, then they are shredded and synthesised into a new material that can be 3D printed into new clothes (eventually, you might be able to print to order, what I would call print-à-porter). And then the whole cycle can be repeated so that very little virgin material is needed.
Jenny Banks graduated last year from the Material Futures MA at Central Saint Martins with a working prototype of a machine that uses recycled-waste textile fibres (varying lengths can be used) and binds them in layers that can be built up to create 3D fabrics that bypass the energy-intensive textile processes of spinning, weaving, dyeing, and so on. “Instead of trying to convince everyone not to buy fast fashion, I think we need to accept that, actually, the business has nailed it,” she says. “Consumers love changing their wardrobes often and they love a bargain.”
Banks can produce custom-fitting flat-pattern pieces that can then be assembled into garments – like flat-pack furniture. Perhaps the consumer could even do the final assembly themselves. What is really revolutionary about this process is that she can use any fibre, from cotton to wool to silk, even if they are mixed with other fibres. She’s making use of the lowest-grade textile waste, which would normally be used for insulation.
“This project is exciting as it uses the wadding material from the mechanical recycling process as its raw material. It then processes it directly into product without the need to spin the recycled fibres with virgin fibres, or weave, knit it into fabric, dye, finish or cut and construct it into new garments. By bypassing all of the traditional textile processes, we can make huge environmental and economic savings. Also, because the garments are processed into garments, we close the loop – we don’t need virgin materials.” We can’t wait to see how this develops into Zara-print or H&M Print & Go! Digitisation of fashion is only in its infancy.
According to the Dutch textile scientist (she’s been called an “artivist”) Nienke Hoogvliet, seaweed is the future. It can be used as a fabric dye – different species make different colours – as well as a textile. As part of her research, she discovered that 100,000kg of seaweed is washed ashore each year in Ireland alone. It has the potential to create a new generation of sustainable textiles.
5. OPEN STUDIOS
An initiative by Fashion Revolution, a pro-fashion protest movement spurring on change in the industry, Open Studios is an international platform for designers who are interested in changing the status quo and are finding other ways of sourcing materials, making collections and selling them outside the traditional calendars and conventions of the industry. (Disclosure: I co-curate this.)
For the event, designers open up their studios and explain their processes, share their experiences and best practice, talk about their supply chains and even offer workshops to the public to emphasise and re-evaluate the craft and workmanship that goes into creating a collection. It’s the opposite of a catwalk show – this is the process laid bare. The second Open Studios will be held during Fashion Revolution Week 2018, April 23-29. Designers taking part will include the extraordinary John Alexander Skelton, the ever-inventive Christopher Raeburn, Bethany Williams, Phoebe English and many more to be confirmed.
6. FASHIONED FROM NATURE
This April, the big exhibition at the V&A will explore the relationship between fashion and nature. It’s going to really make us think about how the fashion and textiles industry we all love is screwing up the planet. Go, get wise and be inspired – Fashioned from Nature will run from April 21 until January 27, 2019.
There’s only one brilliant fashion duo quite like ONEBYME, the gender-fluid, urban-lifestyle brand. “We engineer garments from one piece of cloth to allow everyone the freedom to live, move and breathe,” say Elsa Ellies and Miles Dunphy of their innovative new label that tears up all notions of seasons, production, consumption and waste. Ellies and Dunphy met at the Royal College of Art and graduated in 2016 with a joint project that has become the first lifestyle brand to be selected by the InnovationRCA incubator investment programme. Ellies trained with Rick Owens before she began her MA and her ingenious one-piece patterns form the basis of ONEBYME’s seasonless, timeless, genderless collections of clothes. They use British-made natural fabrics and any remnants are fed to their wormery at the back of their studio, where they are transformed into compost that can then be used to grow vegetables. Sounds kind of small scale and slightly bonkers, but there’s no reason why a wormery in a backyard can’t be scaled up to a field, a farm, an entire supply chain…
Their next step is to open the first ONEBYME ONE Lab, a social enterprise working with their local community in Poplar, east London. It will be a creative laboratory space where people can go and be part of the creative process to finish their own clothes. “Empowering others to create!” they say. “This is where we’ve been trying to go – to create a new positive framework for fashion and really evaluate the current fashion cycle and provide alternatives that engage and inspire.” Keep an eye out for what they are doing and how you can be part of their disruptive collective via their Instagram: @onebyme.world
8. FROM EARTHWORKS TO SPIDER SILK
As a well-documented arachnophobe, talking about spider silk is not initially easy. But Bolt Threads is the bright, new textile-tech start-up cultivating the fabric of the future by harnessing the extraordinary strength and possibilities of spiders’ webs.
The future of fashion is not in organic cotton, bamboo or any other natural fibre that requires unsustainable quantities of water and a battle against nature’s pests to grow it. The future is where science, textile design and technology meet. Bolt Threads studied real spiders’ silk to understand the relationship between the spiders’ DNA and the characteristics of the fibres they make. But then they recreated that DNA artificially and developed proteins by growing them with yeast and fermenting them with sugar and water. The result is artificially engineered silk.
Stella McCartney has jumped at the chance to work with spider silk and her label has partnered with Bolt Threads on a project that was recently on show at the Items: Is Fashion Modern? exhibition at MoMA, New York, and will hopefully be part of the V&A’s Fashioned from Nature exhibition.
When I recently asked Claire Bergkamp, the head of sustainability at Stella McCartney, about the spider situation, she reassured me that no spiders are involved in the making of spider silk. I had imagined some hellish room filled with them, but am now completely reassured and looking forward to wearing some when it comes to market properly in the next few years. Phew.
9. ELLEN MACARTHUR’S GREAT CIRCULAR MISSION
Last November, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published the report A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. It told us that the equivalent of one bin lorry of textiles is wasted every second, while less than 1% of clothing is recycled into new clothes, saying, “If nothing changes, the fashion industry will consume a quarter of the world’s annual carbon budget by 2050.” It also highlighted the shocking news that our clothes are releasing half a million tonnes of microfibres into the sea every year, which is equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles – “Microfibres are likely impossible to clean up and can enter food chains.”
OK, so, major disaster looming if we don’t clean up our act now. And MacArthur is determined to rally the entire industry – from H&M to Nike – to engage and change the way it is producing clothes. “Today’s textile industry is built on an outdated linear, take-make-dispose model and is hugely wasteful and polluting,” she said. “The foundation’s report presents an ambitious vision of a new system, based on circular economy principles, that offers benefits to the economy, society and the environment.”
MacArthur is a powerful independent voice, one that industry and governments cannot ignore. Her power is her ability to share information and to urge brands to collaborate. Changing the industry is not something any one brand can do single-handedly. The Circular Fibres Initiative, launched last May, is working out how to change this “take-make-dispose” model that is currently dominating the industry.
If you’re wondering what you can do to help fight its negative impacts, the first thing should be to invest in a GuppyFriend washing bag (guppyfriend.com), which prevents microfibre pollution when you wash your clothes.
10. IT’S ALL ABOUT TRANSPARENCY
Forget the secrecy of the past. The new fashion model is all about transparency, open source, sharing information and collaborating. OK, so you might not want to be open about a particular product or collection you are developing, but the processes, the supply chains and even the pricing structure can no longer be kept under wraps. This is the only way the industry can be truly held to account, whether it is the high street or luxury.
The Belgian designer Bruno Pieters is a pioneer of creating a transparent business model with his website – and his first store in Antwerp – Honest By (honestby.com). Pieters recently collaborated with Glenn Martens of Y/Project on a five-piece collection for the website that included a shirt and a trench coat, with each piece made in limited numbers and out of the highest-quality organic and sustainable materials.
You can access total disclosure on material information, manufacturing details (including the name and location of the factory) and the pricing structure, which goes into every detail, from the 25c hang tag to the €3 eyelet, and the wholesale and retail mark-up. Other brands are following his lead: expect this to become standard practice.
Taken from the latest issue of 10 Magazine, ALAÏA, SHIFT, POWER, NEW, on newsstands now…
Text by Tamsin Blanchard
Illustration by Stephen Doherty