Tamsin Blanchard Urges You To Do The Right Thing – It’s The Future of Sustainable Fashion As Seen In Issue 62
I have just had a glimpse into the future, and I’m pleased to report that I’m looking forward to going back there. Just so you know, I’ll be wearing either a silver Bacofoil drawstring bolero by Patrick McDowell or a vintage Comme des Garçons jacket.
Actually, depending on what day of the week it is, I will be wearing both, because although my crystal ball sadly does not indicate I have won the lottery, I will most certainly be renting my clothes, not buying them. For a monthly subscription, I’ll be able to swap my outfits, depending on my mood and the occasion.
The not-so-far-off future lies in a pop-up shop called Nothing to Buy Here. In a bright white gallery space in Hackney, Higher Studio founder Sara Arnold invited guests for an opportunity to touch, feel and try on some of the pieces available to rent from her website. There was a Phoebe English woven silk dress, a one-of-a-kind show piece that has been almost on permanent loan since it has been available to rent; a Junya Watanabe coat; an archive Martin Margiela deconstructed trench; a two-dimensional jacket in pink felt from the 2012 Flat Pack collection by Comme des Garçons; a Martina Spetlova dress with ruching; and pieces made using upcycled Burberry offcuts from Patrick McDowell’s recent degree show at Central Saint Martins (CSM).
There was no particular season, and an assortment of pieces, some borrowed direct from the designer, who will earn a “royalty” every time their piece is rented, and some from collectors who are using Higher Studio much as they would rent their flats out on Airbnb to generate a little extra income. Unlike the Rent the Runway model, which boasts thousands of styles to suit all tastes, and ends up feeling like you are in some kind of hellish online-shopping cattle market, Higher Studio is a highly curated selection of 150 items. “These pieces are my taste,” Arnold explains. “It’s really important I like the designer.” And she has to be inspired by the designer’s values. There has to be a story, a reason for Arnold to want to be part of that designer’s universe. And as for seasons, they are an irrelevance. “Good fashion doesn’t go out of fashion,” she says. “For example, a Claude Montana suit was so of its time, yet you could wear it any time.” Forget the hype of the weekly drop culture. In the long run it’s just not sustainable as a model. Hypebeasts eventually burn out with anxiety and exhaustion. What’s really interesting is the slow burn of renting a show piece or a rare throwback from a designer’s archive.
Arnold has done her homework and is focusing her efforts on perfecting the experience of renting. Your piece is couriered to you and comes, clean and looking like new, beautifully packaged in a box (which will be reused). There are different levels of subscription, or you can choose to rent on a per-piece basis. “This is suddenly going to take off massively,” she says. In December she donated 5% of her profits to Mission Lifeforce, an environmental campaign with a mission to establish ecocide (the destruction of the planet) as a crime at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. It’s a cause Arnold feels passionately about. She is also an active supporter of Extinction Rebellion, the environmental campaign that encourages civil disobedience to draw attention to the urgency with which the government needs to take action to slow down climate change.
Higher Studio is part of a collective called Circular Vision, along with Swim XYZ and resale site Live Archives. The three start-ups have a strong design focus but are interested in the circular economy. Together they aim to share resources and help each other get investment. They are part of a new collaborative, open-source generation who are interested in forging a new way of making, selling, renting and experiencing fashion. For Arnold and for the designers she is working with, it’s about creating a more sustainable relationship with our clothes, in a climate where the fashion cycle has spun out of control, luxury brands are burning stock just like the high-street chains are because they are simply producing too much, and it’s cheaper to burn it than to find creative ways of dealing with it, and where the fashion and textile industry has become one of the most polluting and wasteful on the planet. We really have reached crunch time. Everyone knows the industry is going to have to clean up its act, but quite how it is going to do it is not clear.
Certainly, technology will have a massive role to play, particularly in regulating production. Unspun is an American start-up working on a way to revolutionise the way we buy – and make – our jeans, so that they are made on demand, using automated localised manufacturing, making overproduction a thing of the past. It’s a model that Unmade, the London-based industrial knit-to-order company has been developing. The milliner Leo Carlton is developing a range of hair bands and accessories that are 3D printed to order, allowing him to have a revenue stream to focus on the slower craft of hand-making hats. So there is one possibility that our clothes will not be made until we order them – and they will be made to our specifications.
For some brands, it’s about exploring new business models. BITE, which stands for By Independent Thinkers for Environmental Progress, is a brand that is radical in its outlook and consciously understated in its design aesthetic. Based between Stockholm and London, it sets out to limit its own production levels. Collections are kept tight, fabrics are reused, and they want their customers to buy less and wear what they buy for longer.
There will also be a focus on transparency. Amy Powney’s No Frills collection is all about highlighting supply chains, a challenge to herself and her team to make a collection with minimal impact and the fewest possible journeys from raw material to shop floor. And for Christopher Raeburn, who is celebrating 10 years of repairing, reusing and recycling, it’s a business model that has ensured a level of authenticity and brand loyalty that can only come from having a serious belief system.
There are some industry leaders who are listening and are trying to sort out the mess, but it’s something everyone is going to have to take responsibility for and clean up together. It’s an entire system failure that is interlaced with opaque supply chains that are almost impossible to trace, a culture of secrecy and an industry that has allowed itself to be syphoned off into isolated bubbles that have lost all sense of reality. As Powney says, transparency is key to change. If you don’t know what is happening in your own business, or along the many tiers of your supply chain, then you don’t know what’s broken and what needs to be fixed. And if you don’t publicly disclose your supply chains and your material sourcing, then how can anyone be held accountable when things go wrong?
It’s the sort of question that could keep Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering’s chief sustainability officer, awake at night. It’s her job to give a wake-up call to the luxury brands that Kering runs and ensure that they are reaching their targets to achieve a 40% reduction in their environmental impact by 2025 because, she says, climate change is one of the most important issues of our century. “It’s important to have top management involved in the topic,” she told me recently when I interviewed her in front of an audience as part of the Elle Weekender festival. “I try to translate the vision of François-Henri Pinault.” For 2018, there was a focus on traceability of materials and supply chains. For 2019, there will be a major push on animal welfare.
Ultimately, the only way companies will make meaningful change to the way they run their businesses – whether that is deciding to ban fur or ensuring that your Mongolian cashmere is not destroying the ecosystem – is with vision from the top. “I feel we have to be very honest,” said Daveu. “The sustainability journey is a step-by-step programme, but you have to be sure that every month, every year, you are making some progress and you are reducing your environmental impacts.” One way of doing this has been to make a percentage of Kering’s CEOs’ bonuses sustainability-related. “It’s also to send them a message saying that of course the business you’re doing is key, because we are not an NGO, we are not a charity, so we have to earn some money, but we want to show you that you have also to pay attention to the sustainability side.”
Incentivising sustainability through financial reward makes complete sense. Unless it makes good business sense, nobody – apart from a few truly committed individuals – is ever going to save the world. Kering’s Environmental Profit & Loss ledger has been key in moving the brands forward in a way that values the environmental impacts of the business alongside the financial gains.
It’s also important to innovate. Alongside their Materials Innovation Lab, a library of more than 2,000 certified fabrics, Kering have been working with the Plug and Play accelerator for new innovations based at Fashion for Good in Amsterdam. Here, mini start-ups are given space and investment to try out new ideas, in the hope that they will create meaningful solutions to some of the issues facing the industry. Since 2017, Kering have supported more than 50 Plug and Play start-ups, focusing on everything from developing sustainable raw materials, biotech leather alternatives and circular technologies to biodegradable glitter and fabrics made from algae to new ecological dyeing processes and ways to recycle clothing. In December, Daveu launched the Kering Sustainable Innovation Award, with a top prize worth €100,000, to extend the programme within luxury and fashion in China. The winner and two runners-up will be announced in autumn 2019. Overall, Kering has a huge programme with massive investment that includes the partnership with London College of Fashion and two scholarships that have currently just started on the MA at CSM.
So while progress might seem slow, nobody can accuse Kering of resting on their laurels, not least the recipients of those 2018 scholarships, Matthew Needham and Paolo Carzana, two exceptional students who are hell-bent on disrupting the status quo. For Needham, that means working almost exclusively with trash. He is a passionate advocate of the need for designers to rethink their resources and raw materials. “In five years’ time, buying 100 metres of fabric will be an obsolete way of working. We need to think of innovative ways of sourcing materials and processes of making clothes, otherwise the industry will risk a huge collapse. It cannot continue as it is right now.”
And for Carzana, it’s all about materials like the pineapple-based leather alternative Piñatex he used for his final collection at the University of Westminster. He is currently experimenting with seaweed fibre as an alternative to cotton, as well as hemp. “I also work with natural dyes from a variety of plants, including pomegranate, weld, quebracho plant and indigo,” he tells me. Carzana, a vegan, is adamant that he can source new textiles that don’t impact negatively on the planet or the people who farm, spin and weave them. “Animal leather and non-organic cotton is a poor excuse for a designer or brand within the current growing innovation of plant-based textile development,” he says.
Both designers have a strong belief system that has the environment at the heart of everything they do. Between them they are going to send the strongest of messages to the industry when they graduate in 2020. If anyone can create meaningful change in this industry, they can.
Taken from Issue 62 of 10 Magazine, with collage by Anna Bu Kliewer. PRO-CHOICE, UNCENSORED, CODES is on newsstands now.