The rise of ethical fashion

How thinking ethically about fashion became a trend labels want to set.
Who makes your clothes? In politically charged times, it’s a question that an increasing number of us are asking of the brands that we so faithfully follow. What shopping ethically might actually mean, however, isn’t an easy question to answer for either labels or fashion-obsessives. With the industry proving itself to be the world’s second-most-polluting after oil, and an enormous 235 million items of clothing being sent to the landfill by Britons alone last year, the numbers are in, and they’re difficult to ignore. In fashion, something’s not adding up.

For Stella McCartney, the best way to deal with that colossal waste has always been head-on. For the designer’s AW17 campaign, she made her most explicit visual statement yet, collaborating with artist Urs Fischer and photographer Harley Weir to present models messing around on a landfill in Scotland. For McCartney, the campaign aimed to “portray who we want to be and how we carry ourselves; our attitude and collective path”. The result was an optimistic but bracingly honest set of images, which is not surprising, considering the designer has stood by her commitment to being a responsible, sustainable brand. Today, the label uses only vegetarian ‘Skin-Free Skin’ leather, uses forest-friendly and recycled fabrics whenever possible, and recently partnered with biotechnology company Bolt Threads to create new sustainable materials from proteins existing in nature.

Ethical fashion brand Birdsong AW17

Ethical fashion brand Birdsong AW17

Another innovator who has always made strong statements on sustainability is Katharine Hamnett, the woman best known for the now ubiquitous political slogan-tee, with popular designs such as ‘Choose Life’ and ‘Use a Condom’ draped over the glamorous frames of everybody from Naomi Campbell to George Michael in the ’80s and ’90s (Hamnett even famously wore her ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ T-shirt for an audience with Margaret Thatcher). Now that the technology exists for the British icon to produce her line sustainably, Hamnett brought her eponymous label back to market for autumn 2017. Besides the slogan-tee updated for 2017 (Choose NHS among them), was a range of androgynous-minded mens and womenswear all ethically made in Italy, using sustainable materials and processes.

The modern heir to Hamnett’s agenda-setting might be Demna Gvasalia, whose Parisian label Vetements is now the byword for radical change in fashion. Last summer, the designer announced his label was leaving behind the seasonal show system altogether in favor of lower production of clothes, as made at specialist factories, with fabrics that last. What’s more, when those items include an £880 pair of jeans made from two pairs of vintage Levi’s cut into 21 pieces and sewn back together, it’s clear that for Gvasalia, producing clothes ethically is simply a byproduct of rejecting fashion’s parameters from every possible angle.

Standing apart from the idea of simply producing fewer clothes, however, certain new names are combining environmentally friendly materials, as well as innovative methods to reduce wastage, to become the new ones-to-watch. In L.A., Reformation discloses the entire environmental footprint of each garment on its tag, using what the brand has coined as the ‘RefScale’. Also emphasizing how ethical fashion is part of the feminist fight, there’s a growing movement in independent, ethically minded lingerie labels: Anekdot, Neon Moon and Naja use techniques such as upcycling deadstock materials, and reducing water waste through digitally printing colors instead of dyeing them.

For Scottish designer Samantha McCoach, the brains behind London-based label Le Kilt, a sustainability focus for her label was kind of “an accident”, though she cites the make-do-and-mend attitude of the strong women in her family as an early influence. Her desirable kilts, inspired by her punk heroines as well as her grandmother (who was a traditional kilt-maker), have only used ethically sourced wool from the very beginning. “I think it’s important to understand the processes of exactly what you’re working with, and how it’s made,” she says. “It’s not just about the wool, it’s (about) how it was farmed and spun. It’s important we make people aware of the time that your jumper actually takes to make, from start to finish.”

In London, Birdsong is an online and sometimes-IRL shop hoping to prove that shopping ethically needn’t break the bank. “All our clothes are made by women’s groups and charities with rare skills,” explains co-founder Sophie Slater, who works on a premise of no sweatshops and no Photoshop. “We pair their expertise with our designs, creating wearable pieces with a mind to the future.” In reality, that means cute garments crafted by everybody from migrant seamstresses to knitting grannies, meaning women who usually have significant barriers to work are able to get a living wage.

For Slater, brands and retailers need to see the bigger, 360-degree picture of the problem of how to shop ethically. From having total control of their supply chain to simply making clothes with pockets, Birdsong sees ethical fashion as a feminist mission. “Ethical fashion is growing at a faster rate than ‘regular’ fashion, and young people are more and more concerned with how things are made,” she says. “It’s felt great to have seen a gap for something that (women) needed and wanted.”

It seems like no coincidence that it’s driven young women, rather than faceless corporations, who are the figures innovating behind-the-scenes to create sustainability in fashion. By answering the problem of what people might actually like to wear, as well as letting them know who made it, fashion’s most future-minded labels are giving hope for a less-wasteful wardrobe to come.


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