Sustainability and Young Talent at Modaportugal

Without young designers and sustainability, fashion has no future. These were the take-home points from the third edition of the MODAPORTUGAL Futures conference, a summit that was focused on sustainability and dedicated to promoting fresh design talent.

The event, held last week in Porto’s Alfândega convention center, included a competition of 29 fashion and footwear students from 13 top European design schools.

With flexibility, rapidity and expertise, Portugal’s 6500 manufacturers have become key players in Europe’s textile, clothing and footwear industry employing 150,000 workers concentrated in the north of the country around Porto, which generates 6 billion euros per year, 75 percent of which are generated from exports.

Portugal’s textile and clothing association said earlier this year that Portugal is the sixth largest European textiles and clothing player in Europe, behind Spain, the UK, France, Germany and Italy. Italy is the largest at 31 percent.  A major provider for the luxury and mid-price sectors, as well as for European and North American brands, Portugal is positioning itself as an eclaireur, navigating the complex and often contradictory issues of sustainability while continuing to innovate creatively.

With an international jury that was presided by  Edouarda Abbondanza, president of Modalisboa and that included fashion photographer Philippe Jarrigeon and Emanuela Amato, art director of Dust Magazine, the young fashion competition reviewed ready-to-wear collections and shoe designs from some of Europe’s most prestigious fashion schools including Head, Switzerland; Madrid’s IED, Aalto University in Finland; the Institut Français de la Mode, Italy’s Polimoda, London College of Fashion and Portugal’s ESAD, Faul and Modatex. Students competed for a 2500 euro award by country with an additional 2500 euro award for the best overall ready-to-wear and footwear collections.

With inspirations ranging from old-school rave flyers, 19th century hiking clothes, ghosts and New York city’s LGBT muse Suzanne Bartsch, competing students’ work showcased an imaginative use of recycled materials. Helsinki’s Aalto University’s Idaliina Friman took the prize for Finland and for best collection, inspired by her grandfather’s life and the minus-40 degree temperatures in her native Lapland.  The starting point for the collection was the ensemble of a 19th century noblewomen’s, in an array that slowly transformed into technical winter garb. Esad’s Marcelo Almiscarado’s “Torto,” aesthetic reconstructions inspired by clubfoot and clowns for men, was Portugal’s winner. Aurore Marquis of Head in Geneva took the Swiss country prize for her “Chambre 213” womenswear inspired by scars and hospital textures in bandage style fabrics artfully wound around the body. Spain’s Andrés Zurru of IED in Madrid was the Spanish winner with men’s fetish style military uniforms that blur gender roles. Rémi Si Labri’s nostalgia for Algeria in the 1950s and 60s translating into a draped and tailored mix in menswear took the prize for France. Polimoda’s Li Manuel’s “Gentlemen,” a clash of social media signage and destroyed sexual taboos won for Italy and Dan Ren from London College of Fashion was the UK prize winner with ghostly womenswear.

The overall winner for footwear and for Romania was TUIASI University’s Paula-Elena Pruteanu with her sneaker featuring detachable eyelet reinforcement. Lorenza Cicolini of Arsutoria School won for Italy and Liquito Mesquita of Lisbon School of Design for Portugal.

In cooperation with CENIT, a non-profit organization promoting private projects and public initiatives in Portuguese fashion, ANIVEC, the national association of clothing manufacturers, APICCAPS, the footwear and leather manufacturers association and MODALISBOA, the sustainability conference featured speakers divided into four panels working on consumer, retail, industry and long-term value creation that drew an audience of clothing, fabric and footwear manufacturers, brands, sourcing agents, teachers, students and industry analysts all seeking trailblazing sustainability pathways for fashion.

Today’s sustainability discussions can easily turn into a tower of Babel, and as speaker Ali Azimi of Blue Ben, a knitwear brand based in Berlin, summed it up: “if you try to act on all fronts you risk getting nowhere.” His advice is to pick one battle and fight it perfectly. For Blue Ben, that battle is water, one of the most overlooked issues in the fashion industry. Blue Ben is doing this by using less water intensive materials, working with far-sighted production partners, showing consumers how much water is used in their product and founding their own NGO Drip by Drip in Bangladesh, the first to target water waste in fashion. “I have a problem with the word sustainability and the public’s view of cotton as more ecological than polyester,” said Azimi. Blue Ben tackled the water use problem by developing its Tree Fleece material which is made of beechwood, a material that requires less water to produce than cotton and is plastic free. On a comparative basis, he estimated that Blue Ben’s Tree Fleece saves 90% of water compared to cotton.

For Rachel Zeininger of Germany’s FACIT research, the public’s perception of a brand’s sustainability is of major importance. For it’s annual consumer study for Neonyt, which organizes Germany’s Neonyt trade fair and fashion show, the Fashionsustain conference and the Thinkathon, Zeininger charted the image score of 34 fashion brands in June through interviews with those who wear the brands. “It’s not enough for brands to be sustainable, they must communicate and be transparent about it,” said Zeininger. The study examined eight categories including fit, look, enjoying fashion and choice. Sustainability rated third with 67%  of consumer interest jut behind fit and look, with brand and trend at the end.  Of all the brands, Germany’s Hes Natur was rated number one for sustainability, while Chanel  ranked 11. Zalando and H&M came in last, but C&A which was at the bottom last year, moved up to 18, a move which Zeininger credits to increased communication.

“We are one of the most polluting industries in the world,” said Ana Tavares, head of sustainability for Tintex, one of Europe’s leaders in eco-sustainable textile production who said she deplores the generalizations that fill discussions on the topic. Tintex, the first Portuguese company to participate in Germany’s Techtextil competition in 16 years, won the Sustainability award  last May for Picasso, its patented dyeing process, developed with a consortium of Portuguese research organizations which drastically cuts down water waste and is based on natural extracts from residues of mushrooms and plants as well as enzymes.

Before the conference, participants toured sewing, fabric, dying and footwear factories, all of them on the frontline of sustainability. While 15 or 20 years ago the major challenge for Portuguese manufacturers was finding a way to maintain quality and respond more quickly, today they are tackling how to maximize sustainability, while maintaining profit and keeping fashion desirable for consumers.

Pedrosa & Rodriguez, a jersey garment manufacturer since 1982 in Barcelos in northern Portugal, is a poster child for responsible and creative practises. The winner of  MODAPORTUGAL’s 2019 Energy Efficiency award, it has come a long way. “My parents began in a garage with three seamstresses and today we employ 120 people and work with over 30 brands,” said Ana Patricia Rodrigues. The daughter of co-founder Sabina Pedrosa left her job as a media consultant for Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos in 2013, to join her parents’ factory that produces jersey for Loewe, Diane Von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang, Supreme, Nina Ricci and others.

More than a sewing factory, P&R has grown into a one-stop production problem solver which takes a client’s initial designs, prices the production, makes the pattern, sources the fabric and trim, oversees dying, printing and embroidery from manufacturing partners (all located close by to minimize the carbon footprint), sews the samples in-house, and advises on production through outside factories.

Profit conscious and creative, Pedrosa frequently presents more affordable alternatives to clients’ initial requests while its R&D department also offers design suggestions. “More than ever our customers are asking us questions like: ‘what lace do you have?’or ‘can you source this jersey for less?’  Today we have a design team, an archive of 40,000 samples and we see ourselves as curators.”

Although Rodrigues concedes that it’s difficult for sustainability to be competitively priced, Pedrosa is working on transparency. This evolves from its extensive in-house quality controls and scheduling data which offers for its clients brands that could be shared with consumers.

While speedy production and quality control from fabrics to finished garments is second nature at P&R today, sustainability has become a question of personal conviction and finding the most sustainable solution from the choice of clients and production partners to the selection of buttons, what to do with the scraps on the cutting room floor and even packaging. “Sustainability is non-negotiable,” said Rodrigues. “We’re constantly learning, un-learning and re-learning and we would rather produce less than work with clients who are exclusively focused on price. We get requests all the time from fast fashion, but we choose to work exclusively with elevated brands. They have a business model similar to ours and they share our values,” said Rodrigues.”

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