There’s one buzzword that’s dominated almost every conversation at London’s shows this season. And it’s an unexpected one, given that it’s never been remotely fashionable before: sustainability.
So why now? Quite simply, because we’re at a tipping point. Just look at the global outcry about the burning of the Amazon rainforest, for one. Then there’s the rise of Extinction Rebellion, the grassroots protest movement who occupied some of London’s busiest streets and transport hubs this year (and who were a quietly powerful presence throughout the shows, wielding placards that itemised the industry’s vast environmental impact in sobering black and white). Everywhere you look, the industry is being held to account as never before – from journalist Dana Thomas’ new book Fashionopolis, which explores the relationship between fast fashion and the climate crisis, to campaigns like Oxfam’s Second-Hand September, an initiative encouraging consumers to abstain from clothes shopping entirely.
At the BFC, several initiatives (a research study on sustainability, the launch of an Institute of Positive Fashion) have been unveiled in recent days, signalling a new willingness – in London, at least – to foreground environmental issues. And it’s worth giving credit where it’s due here; London Fashion Week has a long history of supporting ecodesign, dating back to the launch of Esthetica (a showcase devoted specifically to ethical fashion) in 2006. Although it remained on the margins of the main schedule, Esthetica was an early champion of Christopher Raeburn, who has perhaps done more than any other British designer to make responsible creation cool.
And across this season’s shows, it was easy to see Raeburn’s mantra – Reduced, Recycled, Remade – being taken up by emerging names. At Richard Malone, leftover textiles from previous collections were imaginatively reused, built out with recycled wadding or layered with off-cut scraps. Fading from rich berry tones to watery blues and greens, the designer’s garments ballooned into sinuously surreal showpieces – but the real highlights were his patchworked column dresses and sleek tailored pieces, cut and seamed to highlight the transparency of their construction. At Fashion Scout, London’s off-schedule platform, Isabel Manns showcased a tightly-edited range of fully reversible garments – exuberantly printed on one face, textured white on the other – all constructed in London. ‘From, literally, Day 1,’ she said of her time at Parsons School of Design, it was, ‘You’re the future. You’ve got to make the difference.’ Not that Manns needed much prompting; she’d grown up sewing alongside her mother, who always recycled clothes rather than throwing them away.
Fyodor Golan went wild with offcuts, collaborating with Kat Maconie on upcycled candy-coloured sandals. And Phoebe English, after taking two seasons out to rethink her production, placed her new process under the microscope, with production leftovers sealed between layers of organza. Pinboards placed to the side of her presentation space listed her principles and provided contacts for others to benefit from the sustainable fabrics and collaborators she’d sourced. ‘There are so many negative things happening with the environment,’ she reflected at her presentation. ‘I remember feeling helpless, because I really didn’t have control over these things. But then realising that the problems we were having were the systems – and that, if there were any systems that I do have control over, it was my responsibility to alter it.’
It should be noted that this new environmental consciousness doesn’t end at the generational divide. You can trace Raeburn’s philosophy back decades earlier, to names like Katharine Hamnett (who sounded the alarm about fashion’s reckless use of resources back in 1989). But few listened to Hamnett’s warnings, and her campaigning derailed her career; ignored when she wasn’t being patronised, she became a marginalised (though impressively persistent) voice. This week, though, Hamnett was back in action, handing over deadstock t-shirts to be customised and overprinted by fellow designer Dr. Noki. Preen, who started out in business among the vintage stalls of Portobello market, patchworked much of their collection together using fabrics from seasons past. And Margaret Howell’s show, with its subtle riffs on the timeless casual basics she’s been refining across four decades, acted as a quietly powerful reminder that the backbone of British fashion has always been businesses that are independent, human-sized, and which have thought about how and where and why they source and produce their ranges.
Of course, there’s still a long way to go, both in terms of the way fashion is made and consumed in general, and in how London chooses to showcase that fashion in the future. (In that regard, Stockholm has thrown down the gauntlet, cancelling its fashion week entirely whilst it explores more sustainable alternatives.) Burberry followed the leads of Gucci and Gabriela Hearst in announcing that their show would be a carbon-neutral production this season – a strategy that seems destined to become the new normal as time goes on. But, headline-grabbing though such big gestures are, what was inspiring about London’s schedule was the smaller, perhaps more painfully-won steps of a generation of younger designers, who have placed sustainability at the heart of everything they do. At Dilara Findikoglu, the designer scrawled ‘VIVIENNE SAYS BUY LESS’ across a model’s chest, in tribute to Westwood’s relentless activism; at Ashish, the show tickets came packaged with endangered wildflower seeds; and at Wright Le Chapelain, where models in upcycled charity-shop donations replanted a Bloomsbury backstreet. There’s even a WhatsApp Group, Vogue reported this week, where designers like English, Findikoglu, and Raeburn pool resources and share information. And that’s what’s perhaps most exciting of all – that London’s new ethical designers aren’t lone voices in an unreceptive wilderness anymore; instead, they’re becoming a powerfully cohesive force.