We Caught Up With Tamsin Blanchard To Talk About The Future Of Design

FR1“If nothing changes the fashion industry will consume one quarter of the worlds annual carbon budget by 2050” according to an Ellen MacArthur Foundation report published in November. But if there’s any optimism to be found in such a profoundly depressing prognosis it’s that things are changing. Via the efforts of people like Tamsin Blanchard, the conversation surrounding fashion and it’s duty of care towards the environment is growing ever louder. The V&A’s ‘Fashioned From Nature’ exhibition is one obvious indicator of that, but even more exciting are the new generation of designers and businesses whose work is shaped by a desire to think differently.

Fashion Revolution is an example of one such group. Founded in the early 1990’s by Carry Summers and Orsola de Castro, this extraordinary international cross-section of designers, writers, policymakers, brands, business leaders and makers has opened up a refreshingly transparent space to talk about how we can better our industry. Tamsin has been there since the early days, when ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ were still met with a certain amount of eye-rolling, and talk of curbing fashion’s carbon footprint was pushed to the side lines. Now, as one of the global co-ordinator’s behind the programme, she is preparing for the second year of Open Studios, a week-long international platform she co-curates, that has already become a creative hub for sustainable minded designers. The idea is to do away with trade barriers and industry secrets, to initiate a new discussion that openly explains processes, materials and supply chains. Through open studio sessions, workshops and talks, these designers are sharing their craft and supporting one another. It’s this kind of collaborative open-sourcing approach, engendered by Fashion Revolution and Open Studios, that Tamsin believes holds the answer to widespread change in the industry. We spoke to her ahead of next week’s Open Studios to find out more…

FINN BLYTHE: Hey Tamsin. What have you been up to?

TAMSIN BLANCHARD: Trying to do too many things all at the same time and feeling slightly like I’m failing at everything.

FB: I know it well. I assume you’re referring to the Fashion Revolution Open Studios?

TB: Yeah, we did the first one last year in April during Fashion Revolution week and we realised there was space for it so we’ve been trying to plan a bit more this year. We started working on it in October and there’s some really amazing people taking part. It keeps growing and there just seems to be a space for a lot of designers who maybe don’t feel they fit into the conventions of London Fashion Week or traditional Fashion Weeks, so it’s an opportunity for them to talk a bit more about what they do and why they do it.

FB: What are the biggest changes from last year?

TB: There’s been a massive general shift in the industry realising it has to change and that trying to be more sustainable is not some kind of niche weirdness. It’s the realisation that this is the way it has to be. I think what’s really inspiring is people trying out all sorts of things, there’s no right or wrong answer. In the past, the fashion industry has always been very secretive about stuff and what’s really nice is a new generation of designers who are really happy to support each other and talk about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.
FR3FB: I know you’ve talked about the importance of industry transparency and sharing of ideas. Is that something you think has spawned only in the last few years with the increasing awareness of the need for sustainability?

TB: Yeah I think the big shift has been this idea of a more transparent industry in every way. Even looking at how casting agents are behaving…

FB: What do you mean?

TB: I just think it’s a different attitude. Bad practice on every level is now exposed and the industry had got into some really bad habits. On every level, we’re in a much more transparent period. Everyone calls everyone else out, everybody feels they have a voice now and you don’t have to suffer in silence. For the big brands there’s a long way to go, but there’s a realisation that the public want to know. They don’t want a guilt trip but they want to know that their clothes have been made fairly without exploiting people or the environment.

FB: That’s a nice segue for us to talk about ‘Fashioned From Nature’ at the V&A. Why is this exhibition is so important right now?

TB: It’s a great opportunity to showcase some of the innovations that have been going on in the industry. It’s also just an opportunity for everyone to take stock, I think a recalibration of the fashion industry is needed and this exhibition sends out the right message. For the public it’s a really good opportunity to see that there are really interesting solutions being thought about but at the same time it is a starting point. Those big exhibitions at the V&A or the MET are always such an inspiration to designers and you see references to them six months down the line, so I think the repercussions of this exhibition will go on for the next few seasons. But it’s important that we don’t see this as a trend, it’s a shift, and hopefully a lasting change in the industry.

FB: Open Studios was founded in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013. Why do you think it prompted such a global reaction?

TB: Well obviously it was the huge huge death toll and the injuries but it was the fact it was this factory complex making clothes for brands that we all think we can trust to make clothes in a decent and safe way. It was the fact that you could not hide from the reality of how our clothes are being made. It was just this realisation that there’s a complete disconnect between what brands say they do and the reality of how they’re making clothes in as cheap a way as possible.FR4FB: I’ve been reading about these incredible companies that are making new materials from renewable sources, from orange waste to seaweed and grape-based leather. How viable do you think those new materials are?

TB: That’s all really exciting and it’s only just beginning. Ultimately we have to move away from cotton and polyester which is what the majority of our clothes are made from at the moment. I think the fashion industry will look like such a different place in ten years time when lots of these textiles have come to fruition. A lot of them are still in their early stages, but there’s a really amazing company in London called BornAgain, founded by this brilliant pioneer Cindy Rhodes. The holy grail seems to be being able to separate different fibres when you’re recycling textiles, and she’s working on a system to do that and I think that will be the gamechanger, so fabrics can be recycled by separating them into different fibres and then spun into new yard and used again.

FB: Like the Guppyfriend!

TB: Exactly. And have you seen Smart Stitch? It’s a Belgian company who’ve developed a dissolvable stitch meaning that you can separate materials quite easily and recycle them properly. I love that.

FB: I know you do a lot of work at St Martins and I’m just wondering what the knock on effects of those technologies are going to be on the way fashion is taught?

TB: Yeah there’s a lot more to be done on that. The course at St Martins is ‘Material Futures’ and they now have Professor Carole Collet, who’s a bio-textile researcher, heading up the LVMH partnership. She organised an amazing symposium at St Martins about six months ago where she brought all sorts of people together. There was an amazing woman talking about seaweed, which seems to be the ultimate renewable material you can do all sorts with and it benefits your skin when you wear it. The students are having access to all of that and are really aware of the new changes that are happening. There’s a ‘Zero Waste’ project they do with LVMH every year that challenges students on designing out waste. It’s really exciting that these designers are coming out and there are people like Kevin Germanier who’s just been taken on by MATCHESFASHION and is completely committed to a more sustainable way of making clothes but does so in a way that looks really ultra glamorous and fashion-y.

Images, from top:
Cotton farmers in India for label Frankie Jones. Photograph by Mehera Shaw
Christopher Raeburn #FashRevStudios
Tamsin Blanchard in conversation with John Alexander Skelton during Open Studios 2017

Fashion Revolution Week is on from April 23rd to 29th, with Open Studios events running throughout. Visit fashionrevolution.org for more information.