Can ethics and glamour co-exist? Lisa Strathdee explores the sustainable side of London Fashion Week.
I know sustainability is fashionable but can fashion be sustainable? Can these two seemingly contradictory terms strut down the catwalk together? Is eco-fashion something I'd actually want to wear? Or will it be some shapeless garment made of hemp with the wrong hemline, neckline and available only in a palette of drab? These questions were swirling in my head as I rocked up to Somerset House home to the S/S 2013 season of London Fashion Week.
I am here to visit Estethica - the dedicated exhibition for eco-fashion showcasing 15 designers selected for their design talent and their sustainable work ethos. To exhibit here, a designer must adhere to at least one of the key Estethica principles such as fair trade and ethical practice in production processes, the inclusion of organic fibres and the use of up-cycled and re-cycled materials.
Since its inception in 2006 this pioneering event has supported over 100 designers, not just via the LFW showcase but by offering mentoring, marketing support and access to an e-tail outlet on Yooxygen.
This is touted as "one of the most innovative platforms in the world for sustainable luxury fashion". I entered the West Wing hallway only to find myself being stared at by eight elegant mannequins wearing extremely exquisite, expensive evening gowns. On closer inspection, I discovered the gowns were by established designers such as Tom Ford, Antonio Berardi, Roksanda Ilincic, Alice Temperley, Jonathan Saunders, Marios Schwab and Stephen Jones all of whom - apart from Stella McCartney who doesn't use fur or leather in her collections - are not designers one normally associates with "The Green Cut". These leading designers have been invited to Estethica to prove Livia (eco-fashionista spouse of actor Colin) Firth's point "that ethics and glamour can co-exist".
This first-ever collaboration between the British Fashion Council and the British Film Institute aims to "celebrate the very best of fashion, film and sustainability" by pairing each designer with an iconic British film. Hence the cinematic glow of dresses inspired by My Fair Lady and Velvet Goldmine. This initiative is part of Firth's Green Carpet Challenge - one which, five years from now, ideally sees her "unrolling a big green carpet outside the Oscars for all the actors wearing green gowns". And with "a dedicated red carpet for all the ones who don't!"
The "green" credentials of these beautiful gowns are not quite clear except to say that all the fabrics, mills and detailed bits and pieces have been sourced by the GCC fabric library's director Giusi Bettoni. I can't help wondering about all those carbon footprints on the carpet at Oscars time.
As I press on I realise that with sustainable fashion, as with organic food, provenance is key. This becomes evident when I meet Carla Fernandez and Carrey Somers.
Fernandez is from Mexico and designs two womenswear ranges - Taller Flora which is bespoke handcraft "where a dress can take six months to make" and her namesake brand which instead involves industrial manufacture to enable a wider distribution and consequently ensure the co-operatives she collaborates with constant work.
Fernandez, with a double major in art history and fashion design, realised that almost all traditional clothing was a "cloth origami" created by an elaborate system of pleats, folds, seams and assemblage originating in squares or rectangles. Fernandez made the connection with the first avant garde art movements such as the the Constructivists and the Futurists who, venturing into fashion, explored the wearability of geometric shapes. This is how she came to see Mexican folk clothing "not as a primitive object but as a sophisticated art form with a specific language in its making".
Besides designing two ranges and running two shops in Mexico City, Fernandez travels throughout the country, compiling an archive of indigenous design. Documenting patterns, utensils, garments and techniques, this archive allows local artisans to reacquaint themselves with their own cultural heritage. "Traditions are not static and fashion is not ephemeral and only radical contemporary design will prevent the extinction of craftsmanship." The key mission of her design concept is to enhance artisanal creativity based on traditional methods, creating connections between communities, strengthening fair trade networks and using environmentally friendly materials. Her designs reflect her personal and cultural identity while speaking an international fashion language.
Carey Somers operates along similar lines in Ecuador, home to the Panama hat. Pacachuti means world upside down in the Quechua language of the Andes. Founding Pacachuti in 1992, Somers chose this word because it encapsulates her desires to change the fashion industry from within and demonstrate a company can be successful and benefit both producers and the environment.
Pacachuti pays higher, fair trade prices to the women, who live in remote Andes highland villages. The market price for their skills is so low that if there are no orders from Pacachuti they would rather earn money picking tamarillos.
Somers, like Fernandez, sees centuries old artisanal skills in danger of dying out "unless we act to preserve them through proper remuneration and design development".
The Panama hats are woven from organically grown carludovica palms on bio-diverse plantations owned by the community.
Once the plant is established it grows to full height every 30 days and can be cropped monthly for 100 years. Nothing from the crop is wasted; fibres not suitable for hats are used for roofing. Pacachuti is the first company in the world to be Fair Trade Certified (in 2009) by the World Fair Trade Organisation - a guarantee of the highest social, economical standards throughout the supply chain.
Currently Somers' company is a pilot for the EU GEO fair trade project which provides visible accountability of sustainable provenance for raw materials and production processes with the help of technologies that rely on different remote sensing imagery. The end consumer will be able to scan a QR code and by using remote sensing imagery sources such as ESA Globcover, Shuttle Radar topographic mission, climatic data satellites, GPS tracking and Google Earth, trace each hat to its individual maker and see direct implications of the purchase on the livelihood of weavers.
Belgian designer Bruno Pieters is Estethica's special guest with his Honest by label. The fashion content of his designs is totally "au current" and shoppers on his website are are guided by key filter words like Organic, Vegan, Skin Friendly and Recycled.
Honest by is committed to transparent processes such as the entire garment being made in the same country, as stated on the label. Pieter's company made the 2012 Sustania Top 100 list.
Christopher Raeburn is fascinated by the way 'everything has a reason' in military design. Raeburn sources military parachutes and uniforms which he deconstructs and reconstructs into contemporary urbanwear. With a source contact list that includes the Ministry of Defence, Raeburn tracks down "heaps of new uniforms still folded in their waxy paper".
He is "excited by the element of archaeology" in his work and likens his role as a designer to that of a "sucker fish on the side of a shark". His designs are made from new and old materials. For S/S 2013 he is showing dresses and tops made from "the original escape maps that were silk linings in the WWII RAF pilot bomber jackets".
Victim by London-based Taiwanese designer Mei Hui Liu recycles vintage textiles and laces to create whimsical, one-off pieces. They can only be bought at the Spitalfields studio in Fashion Street or online.
MaxJenny, a Danish design label uses hi tech textiles made from recycled plastic bottles to produce colourful, digitally printed, waterproof, breathable parkas to be worn over slinky knit "zero waste" dresses. These patterns are designed to produce minimal textile wasteage at the outset.
Finally I meet up with a young and recent fashion graduate Diana Auria who has teamed up with her ex-flattie and current London "It" girl Margot Bowman to produce a fun swimwear line inspired by the "nostalgia for LA beach society in the eighties". The swimsuits are made from a stretch polyamide made from discarded products like fishing net and carpet. Auria admits "it may sound strange to wear a bikini made of carpet but reassuringly the fabric is no way reminiscent of its flooring past". The cult New York store OC (Opening Ceremony) has passed by and expressed an interest in stocking her range. Auria is understandably excited about this also because fashion credibility revolves around a brand's cool factor. Auria is embracing sustainability because she believes is is "very important for young designers to think about the future of fashion".
As I walk back home across Waterloo Bridge I spot a young man wearing a T shirt that pretty much sums up the motivations of the Estethica designers. Its slogan reads: "There is no Planet B".