by Sass Brown

We have reached an interesting time in the fashion industry, when a lot of things are possible.  This is a moment when the fashion guard is aging and retiring, with few serious contenders to take their place. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Vivienne Westwood, the untimely death of Alexander McQueen and the recent shaming of John Galliano, has all left a huge void in the mainstream fashion industry. This isn’t news of course, the old guard has been aging for some time now, with the likes of Zac Posen and Proenza Schoeler poised to replace them, yet as much as they have been heralded as the next waive of superstar designers, they are poor reflections of the real thing, mimicking the symbols of a system that isn’t sustainable in the long term.  The concept of global branding and iconic super star fashion designers is a system that has passed its time, a system that is already crumbling with its movie star bling and red carpets, a system that is being eaten away at the edges if only they could see it through the spotlights glare.

The fashion system at its best is a reflection of our culture, of our values, and of our worldviews.  We are in a time of great change, of climate crisis and cultural shifts, of alignment of our conscience, our lifestyle choices and our work. This season some of the most exciting collections, designers and shows around the globe, were by designers also pushing forward the frontier of Eco fashion.  Not all citing themselves as ecological or ‘green’, but who, never the less are making a difference to this industry, through their actions and their choices.  In London, Milan, and Berlin’s fashion weeks, the broad range of talented Eco designers was amazing.  The champagne brunch at London Fashion weeks Estethica, incredibly drew more traffic than the mainstream fashion trade show.

At London’s Estethica, part of London Fashion week, Orsola de Castro, showcased her most recent collaboration with Speedo, in the form of a capsule collection of fun, playful and sexy dresses.  Speedo’s banned LZR competitive racing swimsuits were reconfigured by de Castro, in a groundbreaking model of production scale recycle, reuse, and redesign. A brave and enlightened move by Speedo to consider alternatives to destroying the suits, and a creative collaboration with the talented de Castro, who repurposed them into a line of funky, cool must have dresses.

Also showing at Estethica, was Michelle Lowe Holder’s Ribbon Reclaim project. The winner of the London College of Fashion’s sustainability center award, showcased her handcrafted collection of accessories made entirely from reclaimed and vintage ribbons, all produced ethically and locally in the UK.  Pulling inspiration from history and with a greater than average respect for technique and detail, pieces are modern in expression but historic in inspiration, with more than a nod to Elizabethan ruffs and collars reinterpreted into architectural cuffs and neck pieces.

The eponymous Junky Styling, long producing a timeless, deconstructed, re-cut and completely transformed collection for women, made entirely out of men’s suitings, also showcased at Estethica.   Now championed by Livia Firth on the red carpet and in her blog on British Vogue, the label continues to break new ground with their creative reinterpretations of menswear to women’s wear.  The collection is edgy, fashion forward and yet timeless.

Another label showing at the mainstream fashion exhibit in London was Tamara Folge.  Not positioning herself as an ecological label, but never the less making a difference through her choice of materials and production. Fogle creates an amazing collection of bags from reclaimed German flour sacks, Hungarian grain sacks, French mattress ticking, French military tents and hand stitched quilts from Pakistan.  Some of her material choices dating back to the 1830’s, with others much more recently discarded.  Creating a heritage and luxury bag collection through local British production in an artisanal workshop setting.

The White show in Milan, is one of the premier fashion trade shows in the world, specializing in cutting edge and avant-garde European design.   Showing their collection in the coveted basement alongside the likes of industry stars such as Alessandra Marchi, was Km/a from Vienna, who combine performance, fashion, art, installation and ecology. Multi talented, multi inspirational and producing a beautiful collection, they don’t purport to be an ecological label, but never the less use organic fabrics and recycled materials. Producing an understated collection from recycled parachutes layered with organic fleece and cotton jersey, top stitched and shrunk to create wonderful textural effects.  Displayed on wire hangers in a moldering, distressed basement, the collection was as inspirational in presentation as it was in styling.

Barbara Congini from Denmark, also showing in the basement of White, has one of the darkest, most creative collections since Rodarte, and worthy of McQueen himself with layer upon layer of tonal slashed and wrapped fabric, but also combining interesting use of materials with organic cottons and vegetable tanned leathers. Her avant-garde and conceptual designs drape, wrap and cocoon the body with a post apocalyptic sense of style meets hard rock goddess, to amazing effect.  You would be hard pressed to find a more inspirational designer anywhere.

The Touch show in Milan featured featured the work of Roya from Afghanistan, who’s work in this warn torn country is legendary, with the set up of her atelier in Kabul, bringing work to women who have traditionally been denied self sufficiency, while simultaneously mining their artistic and cultural past through her ongoing support of traditional hand weaving and embroidery designs.  Showing in the mainstream part of the trade show, and with stores ordering the beautifully cut jackets and coats purely for the aesthetic reasons, as opposed to the groundbreaking work she undertakes, her designs stand on their own aesthetically.

Menswear label Banuq, showing at the GREENshowrooms in Berlin, brought ethics as well as sustainability to the men’s wear market, with their easy wear, understated collection in organic, vegetable dyed winter weight cotton.  Designed for the urban traveler, something the Italian duo epitomize themselves, the collection is produced in Africa to fair trade standards with GOTS certified fabrics.  With an effortlessness ease to the designs, they bring the focus back to the wearer instead of the clothing.

Viennese label Steinwidder, showing at THEKEY.TO in Berlin, produce a collection of women’s dresses and separates made entirely out of pre consumer sock production waste.  Yes, you heard me right, socks!  At first an odd sounding concept, but the textures, color variations and styling they achieve through this single material source, has to be seen to be believed, creating interlocking patterns and textures from the jigsaw puzzle material base, then reconfiguring them into entirely new contexts through their edgy designs.

These are not just designers paying lip service to eco design, in some cases ‘eco’ isn’t even a term in their vocabulary, yet they are designers that are making a difference with their commitments and actions; ground breakers on multiple levels, in many ways far more admirable and altruistic than some of those postulating their ecological achievements, while simultaneously taking advantage of their workforce or the environment.