The fashion industry has never been more ready for a good shake-up and a meaningful change. The pandemic exposed many flaws within the system and made it clear that fashion brands have to change the way they operate to be able to stay afloat. They should do so through sustainable innovation. Sustainable innovation is no longer a trending topic but a necessity. Emerging independent designers have always been at the forefront of change, delivering the most innovative and unconventional ideas. And now, the new generation of creative talent is leading the way into a sustainable future. They view sustainability as a starting point of design and as their core value. To them, sustainability is a mindset and a lifestyle. Not a PR strategy, not a „virtue-signaling“ product label that claims to save the Planet, while the reality is: it has been manufactured using cheap labor in China, India, or Bangladesh. And it‘s just not a set of vague environmental commitments by 2050.
A sustainable mindset matters and brands should hire designers who combine traditional know-how, innovation, and sustainability.
According to the research paper published by the British Fashion Council and DHL last year, the staggering 70 percent of the industry impact on global CO2 emissions happens in the design process and manufacturing (in the dyeing and finishing stages in particular), as a result of choices made in this early stage of production. Instead of spending more time forecasting the actual demand and sourcing sustainable fabrics, brands purchase non-sustainable materials and produce more than needed because it‘s cheaper and more profitable. This business model is not sustainable in the long run, and this is why brands need to rethink the way they operate and hire people in key positions who have the right skills: the ability to source sustainable materials and forecast the actual demand. Morten Lehmann, Chief Sustainability Officer at the Global Fashion Agenda, pointed out in the conversation with BOF that we are looking at the future marked by scarcity of natural resources due to climate change; therefore, these skills will be especially critical long-term. To combat climate change, countries will need to double and triple their 2030 reduction commitments to meet the Paris Agreement Climate Pledges, as reported by National Geographic a year ago. The fashion industry has tremendous influence and power over what people think and could lead the way. And here is where creative ideas of the new generation of designers can come into play: the ideas that favor sustainability, creativity, and collaboration over profit-making and growth at the expense of the environment.
Traditional know-how and innovation
Emma Bruschi is a young French designer based in Marseille, France. She is the winner of the 19M Métiers d’Art de Chanel prize at this year’s 35th edition of Hyères Festival. Emma’s work is inspired by nature, the art brut, and the way her grandparents live in a small village in the Haute-Savoie region of France: their domestic know-how and ability to grow what they need. Emma sees the past as a source of inspiration and knowledge that she can use today in a new innovative way. „The fashion industry is obsessed with finding new efficient materials neglecting those that proved as useful and versatile since centuries. Take the straw. There is so much you can do: you can build a house, feed animals, make objects and clothing, use it as fuel, and even make bioplastic out of it.“
In her latest collection, Emma explores creative ways of using traditional materials such as wool, linen, and straw. She made a belt from linen fabric and embroidered it with straw and raffia using an old needlework technique called Lunéville and upcycled linen bedsheets into shirts. She made earrings from straw in collaboration with Maison Lemarié and straw baskets together with a local basket maker using the wicker technique. Emma works with local artisans who are also farmers and who still use traditional techniques, and she hopes to revive the traditional crafts. Emma‘s vision of the future is a textile farm where she could grow plants and use them as both a food source and raw material for her garments and where she could employ local artisan and boost local production. The fashion and food industries should work closer together and develop techniques to use agricultural byproducts and food waste for the production of fiber and raw materials for garment production. It can be the ultimate win-win situation, says Emma. If local agriculture could supply the local fashion industry with raw materials, the fashion industry could close the gap between its supply chain, manufacturing, and distribution.
Pioneering sustainable ways of working with leather
Andrea Grossi comes from Tuscany, the Italian region, known for its long tradition of producing high-quality leather goods and for its know-how. True to tradition, Andrea is pioneering a sustainable way of working with leather. First things first, “we need to understand why leather production is so polluting,” says Andrea. It is not due to livestock since leather is a byproduct of the meat industry.
The most polluting stage of leather production is tanning with chemicals such as chrome. Andrea works with rhubarb and olive leather. Both rhubarb and olive leather is not a plant-based product. It is animal leather tanned with rhubarb and olive leaf extracts, environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional chrome tanning. The rhubarb plants for rhubarb leather production are cultivated organically and do not compete with common food crops for cultivation area, and the olive leaves are a byproduct of existing agriculture. Andrea also works with zero-waste leather made from leather scraps assembled through coupling and coating. It has the same performance qualities yet a lower environmental impact than new leather. Unfortunately, zero waste leather is expensive, as it requires labor-intensive production and handwork. If someone would invent the machine, we could industrialize the production of zero waste leather, he muses. To Andrea, using sustainable leather alternatives— be it rhubarb, olive, or vegan leather is critical. Especially, if you are a designer and if you have the power to make the right choices in the early stages of the production process. You can create demand and signal to manufacturers what alternatives they should focus on, and thus push the market in a sustainable direction. The rising demand will curb the production of sustainable alternatives and make them more affordable. „I always think about what if one-day people will stop consuming meat, “ says Andrea. „What if one day there will be no more leather coming from the meat industry?“ The plant-based alternatives will be ever so important, and this is why we need more research in this area.
Social sustainability is another important topic for Andrea. „It‘s good to create a product using sustainable materials, but it‘s not enough. You have to think about the social impact of your product. Do you create job opportunities? Do you produce responsibly? Producing responsibly means creating products that the end-consumer wants to buy. If you offer a sustainable product, yet there is no demand from the end-consumer, honestly, there is no point in producing it.“ Andrea strongly believes in ecomodernism. He believes in using traditional know-how and knowledge and adapting them to our current needs through innovation. Creating a more sustainable future is also a matter of education, of changing people‘s mindset, and creating new value systems focused on sustainability. „Ultimately, what people care about is an affordable and good quality product. The task of a designer or a brand is to take responsibility and offer a sustainable product that appeals to the consumer.“
Paradigm shift: re-defining luxury and fostering collaboration
Maximilian Rittler is an Austrian fashion designer, currently based in Antwerp, Belgium. He created his recent menswear collection from deadstock and donated materials. For Maximilian working sustainably was not an option but a solution. He didn’t have the financial means to buy new fabrics and had to work with what was available. „Working within constraints and limitations of what you already have and what you can get is a strength and a skill of creative problem-solving“, he says. „It depends on how you see the world: you can see the same glass of water either half-full or half-empty. I decided to turn my situation upside down and use the limited access to fabrics as an advantage: I worked with what was there and used my creativity and imagination. The limitations helped me to acquire important qualities of making fast and effective decisions and working sustainably. As a designer, you have many options for how you chose to work. Working sustainably is a conscious decision. Taking active care of the environment is a conscious decision.“
Fashion has the power to change what people value. „You can say python‘s skin is luxury, or you can say an upcycled piece is luxury, and you can create a new narrative for what‘s considered a luxury and a whole new economy based on the new understanding of luxury. The industry needs a paradigm shift that can change the very core of how the system and the companies within this system operate. „There are so many people working in creative fields in non-creative positions, and they don‘t know anything about the creative process, which allows for mistakes and misunderstandings to slip through. If these people knew more about the creative process, mistakes could be avoided“. Maximilian laments the lack of communication, collaboration, transparency, and support within the industry. „It could be helpful to create open databases where designers and brands would share information about their suppliers and manufacturers instead of secrecy and non-sharing mindset. The industry can only change when we start to compete with and not against each other.“
Designers call for a fundamental structural and systematic change in the industry.
Only if we change the system, we will be able to meet the sustainability goals. The industry should develop a framework that rewards sustainable efforts. We need to see the new generation of designers in high profile positions: those who know how to work with scarce resources, those who have a mindset rooted in sustainability and who are familiar with circular models, and those who value collaboration. We need to expand our understanding of equality and diversity within the industry. We need more opportunities for people from working-class backgrounds, including hiring them for high-profile creative positions. They can bring new unique perspectives on how to be resourceful and work efficiently. The article published at Fashionroundtable.co.uk at the beginning of November argued that unpaid internship positions widespread within the industry perpetuate the fashion industry‘s class divide and should no longer be acceptable. It took a closer look at the exploitation of creative talent through free labor and the difficulties that many people from lower economic backgrounds face.
Creativity and collaboration should be pivotal
One of the questions young designers often ask is: why don‘t brands that have an overstock of materials (deadstock fabrics, fabrics they no longer use, pieces they no longer sell) simply donate them? Why don‘t we have platforms where brands and designers can exchange materials on a larger scale to prevent these unused materials from ending up in landfills? By donating what they don‘t need and don’t use, the brands could support the new generation of independent designers who have brilliant ideas but lack the financial means to make these ideas a reality. Redefining luxury and the value system around second-hand and upcycled fashion, championing direct-to-consumer communication and transparency, thinking local and sustainable - these ideas are worth supporting. These ideas can change the world.
Written by Veronika Dorosheva
Images (From left to right on top and also top to bottom in the article) Looks from Emma Bruschi, Andrea Grossi and Maximilian Rittler collections. Images: Ètienne Tordoir / CatwalkPictures via 2e Bureau