Fashion has been forced to address its impact on the planet, with major brands including Gucci, Burberry and Prada all making key commitments to go carbon neutral in 2019. But for a whole new generation of designers, working sustainably is already second nature.
From Collina Strada and Eckhaus Latta in New York, to Bethany Williams, Richard Malone and Phoebe English in London, we’ve seen a surge of eco-minded designers rising through the ranks, promoting repurposing, transparency, traceability and craftsmanship in their work.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced major changes to this fashion month, with a shift to digital shows and far fewer editors and buyers travelling to attend physical shows, difficult conversations on how the industry can do more to protect both people and the planet are still far from resolved. Here, we speak to three designers who are inspiring change this season in London, Milan and Paris to find out what their hopes are for the future of the fashion industry.
Since graduating from the University of Westminster’s MA programme in 2018, Priya Ahluwalia — a joint winner of this year’s LVMH Prize — has quickly become one to watch. The British menswear designer, whose mother is Indian and father is Nigerian, fuses together sportswear-inspired designs with tailoring, all created using repurposed vintage pieces and deadstock. She unveiled her spring/summer 2021 collection during London Fashion Week.
What was the inspiration behind your latest collection?
I’ve been collecting books all my life and I was looking at images of black men and women in times of protests. One book, in particular, had a lot of photos of people in traditional Nigerian prints. So, I worked with a graphic designer, Dennis McInnes, who is Nigerian, as I wanted to make this collection more graphic.
How did you go about sourcing your materials this season?
We worked with Reskinned, which helps fashion companies either recycle their materials or redistribute them to other places, so they have a lot of deadstock. Once I developed the colour palette and knew which fabrics I wanted, my team rummaged through everything. We also sourced locally as well.
Why is repurposing so central to your design ethos?
When I started my business, I’d just released Sweet Lassi, my book about the secondhand clothing industry and what happens to our clothes — they end up in other countries around the world and ruin their local economies. When you see Panipat [in northern India, known as the world’s cast-off capital] you can’t ignore it. I learned so much about it, there was basically no way I could really go back [to using virgin materials]. Repurposing is a no brainer.
How has the pandemic affected the way you work?
It’s a smaller collection—I’m not doing a big show this season. I had a successful launch of my book, Jalebi, during lockdown. We did a digital exhibition which was really well received—it made me realise how much you can do digitally. I don’t think it replaces the excitement and buzz of a physical show—I wouldn’t ask a theatre to stop doing shows in real life — so I definitely think there’s a place for it, but I realised that I don’t have to necessarily adopt this process of doing a show every season.
How important is it that diverse voices are included in conversations around sustainability?
It’s completely essential. What people forget is that sustainability is a global issue. During COVID-19, some companies started to not pay their factories—these factories are based in India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, countries where Black and brown lives [are being affected]. So you’re going to say publicly, ‘We want to be sustainable’ or ‘We support Black lives’ but in your own supply chain [you’re not following through].
Sustainability is about sustaining the planet but also people and respecting people around the globe. Without doing that, then no one is sustainable. If you don’t have diverse voices in the conversations, no one’s bringing these issues up.
Known for her signature prairie dresses, Sindiso Khumalo promotes craftsmanship through her eponymous brand launched in 2014, working closely with a group of female handweavers in Burkina Faso, West Africa. The Cape Town-based designer and Central Saint Martins alum, a joint winner of this year’s LVMH Prize, is showing her latest collection via a film at Milan Fashion Week.
What’s the story behind your spring/summer 2021 collection?
I looked into Harriet Tubman’s extraordinary life, and what it meant to release 70 slaves. The collection is based around her and the idea of her lost childhood. At six, she was already working on different farms. These are the dresses she wouldn’t have had: the Sunday best that would have been taken away from her. Obviously, it’s a very delicate subject to talk about, but I think it’s important to tell these stories.
How do you incorporate sustainable practices in your work?
Everything you do in your business has to be intentful. My interest in sustainability lies mainly in the socio-economic impact: I’m trying to create opportunities to empower people in poverty. I do a lot of handweaving in Africa; we’ve been using the handweavers for years. It’s always, “How can I bring this into the collection?”
I try to make sure that all the materials I use are natural. I use Better Cotton Initiative cotton, and African cotton for all of my handweaving products. Recently I’ve been using hemp a lot, which is another good cotton alternative.
Do you feel the social side is often missing from conversations around sustainability?
One hundred percent. I go to the supermarket [in Cape Town] and I’ll easily drive past five or six families on the side of the road. Somebody’s asking for food, somebody’s trying to sell something at the traffic lights. Here, there’s such an [economic] disparity that you can’t avoid it. I feel like it’s left out [of the conversation] because maybe it’s not even in the experience of a lot of the people who are pushing for sustainability.
Do you think there needs to be more diverse voices within the conversation?
It’s important to have a diverse range of voices because everyone’s got different experiences. I learn so much when I’m talking to somebody in Italy about sustainability, I learn different information from someone in Cape Town. It’s all about sharing knowledge and this idea of responsibility. For me, the core of sustainability is a sense of responsibility.
What are your hopes for the future of the fashion industry?
I would like to hear more voices. I don’t really hear what the voices are in India, for example, or Brazil, or China. [Diversity] has to go beyond models—it has to be your creative directors. I know it’s changing, but it still doesn’t feel diverse enough.
After graduating from Central Saint Martins, Paris-based designer Kévin Germanier launched his brand Germanier in 2018, creating glamorous party wear from recycled sequins and beading. Since then, he’s gone on to dress Tracee Ellis Ross and Kristen Stewart for the red carpet, while also counting Taylor Swift and Björk among his fans. This season, he’s showing his spring/summer 2021 collection digitally during Paris Fashion Week.
How has the pandemic changed your approach to spring/summer 2021?
COVID-19 opened my eyes to the importance of those more commercial pieces. In this current situation, I don’t think a woman will spend €4,000 on a sequin dress. So during lockdown, I designed a collection called Les Essentiels: T-shirts, shirts, denim — basics that are more commercial, but have the Germanier DNA. For spring/summer 2021, you can still have a dramatic skirt and train, but mixed with our Swarovski T-shirts, leggings and cycling shorts.
What sustainable practices have you used in this collection?
We upcycle deadstock materials, including end-of-roll fabrics and Swarovski’s green stock—discarded [sequins] where the colour didn’t work. This season, I have been exploring zero waste. Our patterns are rectangles; it’s super tricky, but it’s worth it because we have no waste. I wanted to show that you have to think sustainably at the design stage—it’s not enough to use organic cotton. Nowadays, you really have to innovate with your pattern cutting, your finishing…
Do you think people’s perceptions of sustainability have changed over the past few years?
It’s my mission to prove to people that you do not have to compromise on the final product. If you’re a glamorous woman and you love sparkle, you can still dress yourself the same way as you used to dress—you just have to find a better way of sourcing your garments. The reason I started Germanier is because I was looking for a sustainable brand doing glamour.
What changes would you like to see within the fashion industry moving forward?
I hope we will get to a place where you don’t even have to say something is sustainable—because it’s the way it should be done.