Sustainable style can help spread an important message, say panelists at London fashion week after a weekend of protests
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Story by: Ellie Violet Bramley
The climate crisis was on the agenda again at London fashion week on Monday, with sustainability experts and activists taking part in a symposium at the Finnish Institute focusing on creativity and sustainability. It was in keeping with fashion week so far, which has seen Extinction Rebellion activists stage a “die-in” and swarm the Victoria Beckham show, one of the week’s highest-profile events, hoping to force the industry to take the climate emergency seriously.
The symposium was a follow-up to July’s Helsinki fashion week, which is open exclusively to designers and brands who produce sustainable collections. Similar events have already taken place in New York, and there are more planned for Paris and Milan – part of a programme focusing on sustainability and the identity of each host city. For London’s instalment, which was chaired by Helsinki fashion week’s founder, Evelyn Mora, creativity was deemed an appropriate topic given the British capital is, in her words, “the belly of the beast”, known for its fashion-forward approach to design.
The audience was a mix of activists and fashion insiders wearing Matrix glasses and cowboy boots. Hung around the space – and worn by model-activists Nimue Smit and Aine Campbell, who were in attendance – were garments from some of the designers who showed at Helsinki, including the young Liverpudlian Patrick McDowell (whose work using unwanted fabrics has garnered him big-name fans such as MIA), Ka Wa Key, young n sang and Bleu Chose.
Mora, who founded Helsinki fashion week in 2014, said designers often asked her whether creativity is an obstacle to sustainability. For her, they are not mutually exclusive: “Innovation to me is no longer about travelling to the moon; it is about finding something new in the old.”
The panel also included Sara Arnold, a founding member of Extinction Rebellion; Charlotte Turner, the head of sustainable fashion and textiles at Eco-Age, a London-based sustainability consultancy; Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd, a professor of the school of art and design at Nottingham Trent University and Bel Jacobs, a former Metro fashion editor and Extinction Rebellion member. Each were invited to give their take on what creativity means.
All agreed the focus need not be simply on creating new products, but also on finding solutions. Holroyd, who is a board member of the Council of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, said: “maybe answers already exist in different contexts and cultures.”
Jacobs spoke of creativity stemming from limitation, saying she had seen innovative design starting with what material was available – “I only have these things; what can I make with them?” – rather than with the end garment already in mind. She added that it was about rethinking what it is to be creative.
Extinction Rebellion puts an emphasis on creativity via reusing what is already out there. Arnold said it was about “going into secondhand and vintage shops and finding something that means something to you and chimes with your personality,” as well as looking into your own wardrobe. As she pointed out: “we probably already have enough clothes in there to last us the next 20 years.” Jacobs pointed to Sara’s fashion-forward vintage glasses, often the subject of comments, for proof that “we’re not saying [we need to see] the end of creativity”. What did need to change, she said, was “the system of production, consumption, disposal.”
Creativity will also be necessary in rethinking the fashion industry as a whole – according to Arnold, “we need to start envisioning another world.” Holroyd spoke of the need to acknowledge that the capitalist model was inherently unsustainable, while Mora said the industry was broken and needed to come together before it could move forward.
Turner said getting companies to implement a living wage was key: “The whole fashion system is basically propped up by the fact they are currently able to employ people and not pay them a living wage.” A living wage, she said, “will force brands to realise that if they want to keep producing at such high volumes they will need to rethink their whole supply chain.” For Extinction Rebellion, solutions need to be drastic – in line with the 18 months some scientists say we have left to save the planet – and cannot work within the current capitalist system.
They are hoping their London fashion week interventions, which will culminate in a funeral march for the fashion industry on Tuesday, will help. For Jacobs, the British Fashion Council (BFC) standing up and saying we are in a climate emergency would be a powerful step. While the BFC has spoken of a commitment to sustainability goals, it is a far cry from Helsinki fashion week, which is known, even among the eco-conscious fashion weeks of Scandinavia, as a pioneer. At this year’s instalment, animal leather was banned, with designers encouraged to use plant-based leathers and other sustainable textiles.
While the picture is bleak – the 63% projected increase in global apparel consumption by 2030 sits uneasily next to news of melting ice caps and species being driven to extinction – there were also words of encouragement from the panel. Arnold put fashion at the heart of affecting change, rather than being simply an ill that needed remedying: “Think how you can use the communicative power of fashion to get this message out there,” she said, having earlier cited the practice of printing T-shirts people already own with slogans. “As a communication tool, fashion is so influential – we all have to put clothes on and that has power.”
Holroyd spoke of “creating visions of alternative worlds” as a “creative, powerful, playful and highly subversive act”. Earlier in the talk, she also cited Ursula K Le Guin: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.”
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