Environmentally friendly fashion is all the rage in the industry at the moment, but what does it actually mean?
The new greens
Environmentally friendly fashion: sometimes it feels like everybody is talking about it, but nobody really knows what it's supposed to be. Green has been the new black in fashion land for some time now and by now, most of us are well aware that it's not all about hessian sack dresses, or nasty socks and sandals. In 2009 more than 300 retailers in Britain signed up to a government initiative called the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan, in an attempt to curb the culture of "fast fashion".
But now that the phrase "environmentally friendly fashion" has really caught on, what does it actually mean? Look, or ask, around and you'll find that all sorts of different definitions of "green fashion" have evolved. After spending two days at a conference devoted to the subject and talking to leading designers such as Frida Giannini of Gucci, Oscar de la Renta and Dries van Noten about it, British fashion editor Vanessa Friedman of the Financial Times had this to say: "Having thought about it over the weeks since and having canvassed a wide variety of fashion figures, I can honestly answer ... no one knows."
Friedman felt this was because the fashion industry, generally regarded as an indulgent and air-headed business at the best of times, tended to be defensive about its forays into this realm. "No wonder fashion has so far taken an approach best summed up as 'we are doing what we can but we don't talk about it unless asked'," Friedman wrote. It's a bit like this in New Zealand too with local companies that are trialling various green production methods preferring not to talk about it too loudly until they are sure they are doing it right. And the result overall, both here and overseas, seems to be a lack of consensus about what environmentally friendly, sustainable fashion really is.
In fact, this century it appears to include everything from the fascinatingly named practice of "zero waste design" to, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, a room full of little old Italian ladies doing embroidery. The question then, is this: will the real sustainable fashion please stand up?
Also known as "classics". This is an item of clothing that you will keep, and appreciate, for longer than a few weeks, maybe even a few years. It is true that the ongoing success of the fashion industry is dependent on clothing manufacturers always coming up with the next big thing. Having a new look or colour every season makes followers of fashion want to buy. However a friend of the environment is no slave to fashion's fickle ways. Additionally shoppers can expect to see a lot more investment pieces on the runway during hard economic times because for designers, they are generally a safer bet when it comes to making sales.
And at New Zealand Fashion Week? Despite the name - which tends to conjure up visions of beige suits and sensible twin sets - investment pieces need not be dull - for example, the timeless joys of a sheer black dress from a local label like Zambesi or a special print by Cybele. And then there are also local labels like Blak, the creation of a former designer with the Moochi brand, offering a nice range of well-made basics that boast of their multiple uses and wardrobe longevity.
Made from eco-friendly materials
Obvious really. This garment is made from materials that have been produced in environmentally friendly ways. In order to work out exactly how environmentally friendly, it is important to trace all the "ingredients" of every garment right back to their source. This can include everything from how a fabric is dyed or printed to how happy the sheep were that donated the wool, to how much pesticide was sprayed on the cotton plants that went into making that pair of knickers. The biggest advantage of this category, is that it is genuinely changing the way we make clothes, from the source onwards. Getting your garments made from 100 per cent environmentally friendly materials is tricky (sourcing those things can be difficult, especially if you expect a certain standard of fabric or want specific colours and prints), some eco-friendly materials are still contentious and others can be prohibitively expensive. Often, for one reason or another, clothing manufacturers and designers may only be able to source one or two components per garment that are eco friendly. It depends on how staunch you want to be about this issue, but, like Kermit the Frog said "it's not easy being green" and it feels that, honestly, any effort should be applauded.
At New Zealand Fashion Week? Wellington-based label Starfish is a leader in this area, with their strong, loud commitment to environmentally friendly fashion. The label, which opened its first Auckland store this week, yesterday put on the first ethical fashion show at New Zealand Fashion Week. Owner and head designer Laurie Foon says the brand is working constantly to increase the eco-friendly content in their clothes. Past Fashion Week participant Kate Sylvester and Standard Issue are other brands trying to figure out how to make their whole business more sustainable, with Sylvester looking into everything from eco-friendly fabrics like organic cotton and merino to low-emission vehicles. Likewise designer Miranda Brown works with organic fabrics and dyes. Outside of Fashion Week, there are eco-standard bearers like Untouched World and Icebreaker with their smart-casual looks. Also worth noting is Descendant Denim, a small but fashion-conscious firm making cool jeans.
Made from recycled materials
Again, this is pretty obvious: rip it up and start again. However clothes made from recycled materials are less easy to find simply because, especially in New Zealand, recycled fabrics are harder to source. They may even come from further afield (and the transport required adds to their carbon footprint). Additionally they not only need to be good for the earth, they need to look and feel good too, and it's not as easy to achieve those qualities with recycled cloth as it is with brand new fabric. In fact, often a garment or accessory may contain a blend of fabrics that includes some recycled materials.
The other aspect of making something new from old clothes involves unique one-off items made from vintage finds that have been cobbled together. This can range from the incredible pieces in the likes of Paris-based designer Martin Margiela's artisanal range, which has featured such wonders as a frock made from three old wedding gowns to a vest made from delicate antique leather gloves, to the more uneven delights one sees in local events such as Trash to Fashion and the Wearable Art Awards.
At New Zealand Fashion Week? Wellington-based label Starfish have been known to use some blended fabrics that contain recycled fabrics. Both Nom*D and Zambesi have done their own version of the artisanal thing, a la Margiela.
Well, this is a slightly misleading moniker because really, all clothing is recyclable. After all, when you are finished with that dress you could always cut it up and use it to dust the furniture. Some international brands - American outdoor clothing company Patagonia is one - have a "take back" programme that allows the buyer to return the item to the store after they have finished with it. In New Zealand there is also a handy "take back" programme most of us can utilise. It goes by the unsubtle name of "the charity clothing bin". After all, if you couldn't make any money at the flea market from your outmoded items, then it is far better to donate your unwanted outfits to charity rather than just throwing them in the rubbish. At least this way they get a chance to live again, even if it is just as a cleaning cloth or a piece of quilting fabric.
At New Zealand Fashion Week? If you're short of rags but long on cash, then almost every garment on the runway at New Zealand Fashion Week may be considered recyclable (eventually). But there are other issues worth noting too: some brands, like Kate Sylvester and Starfish are recycling other items too - such as the paper in their offices, their clothes hangers and their packaging, among other things.
Vintage clothing - also known as op-shop or second-hand clothes - is clearly the ultimate in recycling. And, as anyone who regularly reads local fashion stories knows, this doesn't have to mean rummaging through boxes full of smelly, old T-shirts (although that can be fun too). There are stores like Fast and Loose and Victorian Gilt in Auckland, Ziggurat and Hunters & Collectors in Wellington as well as plenty of others that provide beautiful, handpicked-by-the-owners' vintage options for the style savvy. And there are also stores like the nationwide Recycle Boutique who have been going for years but who now seem particularly proud of their role in recycling.
At New Zealand Fashion Week: Vintage boutiques tend not to put on runway shows but that does not mean that local designers won't borrow special items for the event. If you see something you like, keep an eye on the credits in the press release provided at Fashion Week, or in the "thank you" notes, and you may unearth a vintage treasure.
It's a grand description to apply to your goods and services but really, this is pretty similar to the "investment" category. Basically, this is just a fancier way of putting it. If you spend more money on a classic, beautifully made item, then you will keep it longer and possibly even hand it down, or on to others. In other words, you won't be throwing this keeper away - which makes it an example of "heritage sustainability".
At New Zealand Fashion Week: This is a bit subjective. After all, one woman's heritage garment is another lady's dirty old hand-me-down. One imagines though, that if something is deliciously made, a sign of the times, carefully chosen or horribly expensive, then the buyer might want to keep it in the family for a while. It's also worth keeping an eye out for a designer's show pieces - these are the garments or accessories made especially to attract attention on the runway. Often they are unique and interesting - this country's low-key version of couture you could say - and will most likely not go into mass production. If something really floats your sartorial boat, then ask the designer: those pieces are usually for sale in very, very limited numbers.
This is where the little old Italian ladies doing embroidery come into it. Basically this type of green fashion supports those doing things by hand with expert knowledge - the old-fashioned way. This keeps local businesses and traditional industries going - which is seen by many eco-advocates as a positive in the fight against globalisation (where garments end up being made offshore in low-wage-paying factories and using unethical methods).
At New Zealand Fashion Week? There are New Zealand labels relying on their older hands, those specialists in garment construction who have been doing the job for decades. They include Zambesi and Alexandra Owen.
This is the category where many New Zealand designers truly excel. Interestingly though, it is not as easy as you might think. Once a New Zealand label is doing a certain level of business, it gets more difficult to avoid the temptation to have stock made elsewhere in the region - most commonly China, where the wages for workers are lower and the factories are geared for quick turnarounds and larger orders. But some local designers have made firm commitments to keeping their production in New Zealand, despite the fact that the clothing manufacturing industry - that is, the factories that actually make the garments rather than the designers, who get a lot more attention from the media - in this country is shrinking, in the face of competition from overseas manufacturing. Also worth bearing in mind: just because it's made locally, it does not necessarily mean this fashion is protecting the environment.
At New Zealand Fashion Week? This is a tricky one. Some firms pride themselves on their product being made almost completely in New Zealand - this keeps down transport costs, means they can supervise their contractors and supports the local economy; pretty new labels like Maaike and Riddle Me This out of Tauranga use their home-grown qualities as a selling point. But others outsource certain elements overseas. If you are concerned about this issue, read the fine print. For example, next month Italian fashion companies could be the first to be forced by law to detail exactly where their goods were made, whether in Italy or elsewhere.
As one Singapore-based journalist commenting on the issue wrote: "As outsourcing becomes a global phenomenon with unabated growth, it becomes imperative that luxury brand marketers confront these issues. Research has found that if corporate actions are perceived as unethical, the company stands to lose favour with even its most committed customers."
Strictly (and historically) speaking "fair trade" refers to fashion business done with disadvantaged communities ethically and with a view to sustaining that community, rather than exploiting their labour forces. Basically it's about bringing the advantages of the multi-billion dollar fashion industry to smaller, less well off communities and to be completely transparent in that process.
Again, fair trade is not necessarily about protecting the environment - rather it is about ensuring that garment manufacturers get a fair deal in an industry that is often focused only on the bottom line.
At New Zealand Fashion Week? Generally it is important to the fancier New Zealand labels that they practise fair trade, whether they are having their stock made here or elsewhere.
Because of a growing sensitivity in the country about offshore production and "Buying New Zealand Made", designer brands will make reassuring announcements about the way they conduct their operations overseas.