Sustainable Fashion

Sustainable Fashion

Designers are taking diverse approaches to eco and social consciousness. A look at this trend and how four independent British makers are approaching going green.

Sustainability is on the lips of almost every fashion label these days. If you aren’t going green, then you are not keeping up. The increasing popularity of sustainable fashion—addressing not just ecological but social and economic considerations as well--inevitably means that varying standards are being touted round the industry. Businesses large and small are making an effort to clean up their acts with approaches as varied as the clothing they create.

Internationally, for example, the Japanese textile company NUNO has introduced fabrics created from the leftover remnants of other NUNO fabrics. The company has also explored alternative fiber options, such as Ingeo fabric derived from corn, launched five years ago by NatureWorks LLC. The sportswear maker howies, meanwhile, has found that natural fibers such as merino wool prove superior to new-performance fibers in their ability to wick moisture and repel odor. Based on the coast of west Wales and now owned by Timberland, howies is using merino wool that is “Zque certified” from the sheep and their farmers in New Zealand through to garment production. The Zque accreditation is designed to make the entire production cycle visible, including the care of the sheepdogs that are used in the farming of the sheep.

The materials used by fashion are just one of many considerations the industry is beginning to confront. Based in Ireland, edun LIVE (a subbrand of EDUN, the socially conscious clothing company launched by Ali Hewson and U2’s Bono in 2005) produces black and white cotton T-shirts for the wholesale market, in a setup described as “grower-to-sewer African.” The revenue from the processing of the cotton and manufacturing of the T-shirts remains as close to the communities that farm it as possible. Los Angeles–based Christina Kim of dosa works with craft communities around the world, creating new collections each season but incorporating consistent techniques (such as bandhani, or tie dye, done for her in India) so as to provide stable employment for the communities. For spring/summer 2008, she has created an “off the grid” line of garments made from handspun fiber, woven on handlooms, and stitched on peddle-driven sewing machines.

With the burgeoning interest in green fashion, independent designer-makers are often in a position to make the most innovative and original contributions to sustainability. But in reality, green credentials are expensive. Balancing economic feasibility with eco morals, these designers have found diverse solutions. Some work with specific materials, either recycled or organic, in an effort to minimize the impact their work will have on the environment. Others recognize the ubiquity of the fashion industry and have elected to focus not on what they create, but on instilling in what they create a value that will extend the product’s life. Still others propose that reconfiguring and reworking what we already own is the most sustainable and responsible answer to the excesses of fashion today. Four British designers exemplify this range.

Davina Hawthorne, a 2002 graduate of the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (London) MA program in Design for Textile Futures, works with recycled garments to create “cutting-edge clothes for women that combine textiles and fashion and seek to push the boundaries of these two disciplines through finishing, texture, function, and silhouette.” She uses a combination of recycled, industrial, and handcrafted techniques. Hawthorne received a Clerkenwell Green Association award in 2002 that allowed her to set up a studio and launch her own collection shortly after finishing her studies. Hawthorne’s approach comes as something of a surprise after you see the garments she constructs. It would be hard to know her work makes use of recycled materials without reading a press release.

Alison Willoughby makes skirts from materials she collects “everywhere: car-boot sales, garages, my granny’s attic, my mum’s attic.” Her magpie approach makes her work green, but that is not her sole intention. “If I had the budget to buy all my materials new, I would,” she says, “but I would also want to spend the same amount again on fabrics from car-boot sales.” Photographs, often of “unusual surfaces such as decomposing-fly posters,” are the first reference for many of her designs. “I love the packaging of old things,” she explains. “I use the shape, proportion, and color as inspiration.” From humble beginnings, Willoughby’s work moves into both fashion and fine art contexts. She has noticed that when displayed in a gallery setting, her work enjoys the attention of viewers but not buyers. When marketed as fashion, the garments are bought and worn as functional garments.

Other designers are tackling not what we wear, but the sheer quantity of what we own and discard. Keep & Share is an ethical knitwear company that strives to achieve “long-term wearer satisfaction.” Owner and designer Amy Twigger Holryod explains, “We find it abhorrent that the vast majority of clothing is discarded before the end of its wearable life, and seek to reverse the effects of throwaway fashion by encouraging our customers to buy fewer, more special pieces and keep their items in use for longer. You can’t hold up a Keep & Share cardigan and immediately recognize its ethical credentials, but the principles underlying my designs and the way I run my business are guided by sustainability thinking.”

Annika Sanders and Kerry Seager of Junky Styling (London) are equally innovative in their approach and can boast the production of original, recycled garments for more than a decade now. In addition to breathing new life into existing clothing to create one-off garments, they also provide a “wardrobe surgery” service. Aimed at encouraging customers to revisit what they already own, the idea is to resize and refashion the clothes we already have. In doing so, the cycle of excessive consumption is broken at last.

While no one approach to green design is perfect, it is heartening to see an increasing number of businesses, both large and small, confronting the challenge. Let’s hope it is one fashion trend that is here to stay.

FiberArts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2008: 40-42)

image: Davina Hawthorne