Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Well Fashioned: Eco Style in the UK

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Well Fashioned
Crafts Council, London

Curated by the fashion designer and Senior Research Fellow at Chelsea College of Art and Design Rebecca Earley, this exhibition presents twenty-odd designers based in the UK who use ecologically sensitive approaches to the design, production and consumption of fashion. Earley’s own efforts as a designer in this field have not gone unnoticed (her PET recycled scarves won an award at the first Peugeot Design Awards in 1999) and in her role as curator she offers us a veritable little black book to eco fashion in Britain today. Fair trade practices, natural dyes and the use of sustainable materials such as hemp are likely to be the approaches the general public most readily associates with this emerging discipline. But one of the greatest strengths of Well Fashioned is its acknowledgement of many other insightful reactions to the waste and pollution the fashion industry, and its consumers, create.

While the garment industry is indisputably an enormous polluter of the environment, what may be harder to swallow is the role we play as consumers who buy fashion that is so often discarded less than a season later. The disposal of unwanted (but not necessarily worn out) garments is responsible for enormous amounts of environmental pollution. So too is the culture of washing we now live by, which takes into little consideration the energy and water used every time we start the washing machine full of chemicals, but half empty of clothes.

A crucial point raised by Earley is the need to “increase sense of consumer attachment to garment” so that we treasure and respect the fashions we own. Several designers offer services that encourage the public to consider redesigning or refashioning existing garments to give them a new lease of life. For example, Junky Styling offers a ‘Wardrobe Surgery’ that redesigns existing garments; Amy Twigger’s Keep & Share knitwear label aims to “challenge the emotional principles within sustainable design” by a system of short term loans of garments and the mindset that less can be bought but enjoyed for longer; similarly Red Mutha’s customisation service contributes to the possible extension of a garment’s life. Interestingly, while eco fashion may be relatively new, the designers who respond to the make do and mend ethos as an attractive decorative as well as ethical stance of this decade are returning to and drawing on values firmly established during the rationing brought about during World War II.

No approach is ever going to be perfect, nor one designer or company capable of answering each and every consideration. Which is why it is a relief to read such canny advertising as appears on the howies’ website: “At howies, we know everything we make screws something up. From growing it, to making it, to dyeing it, to shipping it. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the problem, too. That’s why we want to find new lower impact ways of making our stuff at each and every step along the way.” Among other things, howies has found a simple way to reduce the amount of energy, water and detergent needed to wash jeans during the finishing processes. By simply adding rubber balls to the wash they are able to reduce the number of washes needed to create the faded, worn in look consumers like to buy off the shelf, dramatically cutting water and energy usage.

Rather than sacrifice aesthetics in the name of ethics, the multifunctional design of individuals such as Ben Stine offer smart design that adds to, rather takes away from, aesthetics by creating garments that are multifunctional. Another innovative response can be found in Alison Willoughby’s craft centred work coined “upcyling” rather than “recycling” which suggests an “artful form of creative recycling [that can] make a better thing than the original thing, due to the hand rather than machine techniques and skills used to reinvent it.” But for the most part the image these labels offer does not cater to mainstream tastes. A case in point is OsvoMode who “design, style and present their collections in a way that deliberately challenges the viewer to ask if the clothes are beautiful or ugly, and seek to express style as the opposite of what is fashionable at that moment.” While this sort of approach certainly contributes to the conceptual debates surrounding why we consume what we do when we do, at the end of the day much of this clothing remains unappealing to mainstream consumers. As boring as it may sound, tapping into the enormous consumption patterns of the mainstream would impact the way fashion is bought, washed and worn on a far greater scale.

Continuing the theme of reuse explored by many of the exhibitors, the Well Fashioned exhibition display is made of recycled materials. Where recycled options were not available, the public is assured that the materials will be recycled at the exhibition’s conclusion. Unfortunately the lack of professionalism in the exhibition design seriously distracted from its content. The question board set up in the first room encouraged the public to contribute information about what and why they buy and wear what they do, but the display is so reminiscent of a playschool project that it undermines the tone of critical inquiry that is otherwise evident in the exhibition. The second room at the Crafts Council includes very large mirrors propped against the walls, but I was unable to understand the contribution they made to my understanding of eco fashion. Instead details such as these seemed to suggest recycling purely for the sake of recycling, rather than the considered design decisions found in many of the garments on display.

Selvedge Magazine 2006: 88.