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What Luxury Brands Teach Us about Sustainability

By Elisa Niemtzow, Sequoia Lab Principal.  

2011 marks an exciting year in luxury goods. After years of being singled out for lackluster social and environmental performance, luxury brands are recognizing the benefits of going green, and are starting to talk about it. Backtrack four years ago to the release of WWF-UK’s analysis of the luxury goods industry, and things looked bleak. For example, Tiffany scored a D+, PPR a D, and L’Oréal a C+.

This year, Tiffany launched its well-received sustainability website, detailing the responsible business practices that have made it a sector leader. PPR unveiled the first complete annual environmental profit and loss account for its brand Puma, committing to extend the practice to all of its brands, including iconic luxury houses Gucci, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta by 2015. Finally, L’Oréal pleasantly surprised more than just one sustainability expert at its inaugural global stakeholder forums this year.

Like other business sectors, luxury brands still face a lion’s share of challenges. In September, the Ethical Consumer Research Association (ECRA) in the U.K. lambasted leading designer clothing companies in its special report Style Over Substance, at the height of the “killer” sandblasted jeans problem involving brands such as Armani and Dolce & Gabanna.

For sure, there’s a lot of work to be done.

However, in reading the ECRA report, many companies received criticism for lack of available information, and ECRA assumed the worst. Dig a little deeper and I’m convinced that better things are brewing beneath the surface. Secrecy, after all, is a hallmark of the industry, which protects its craftsmanship and its margins like a mother bird her eggs.

I used to manage wholesale at Chanel, one of the most coveted brands out there (and one of the most searched for names on the internet). Online videos will take you backstage at December’s Paris-Bombay runway show, but you’d be hard-pressed to find much corporate information on this very private company.

Because of their glamorous role front and center, we expect the best from luxury brands (and that creates a special risk for them if customer perception of good business doesn’t match reality). But, as luxury brands begin conversations around sustainability, they face the same challenges as their non-luxury counterparts. Since I don’t have the space here to discuss all these questions, I’ll focus on that last one, i.e., how do you talk to customers about your social initiatives without detracting from key brand messages?How do you communicate on your sustainability journey, essentially a work in progress, without becoming a target for criticism or losing control of the dialogue? How does a corporate executive support sustainable consumption while meeting ever-increasing sales targets? How do you talk to customers about your green or social initiatives without detracting from key brand messages?

The question of how to communicate on CSR themes to customers comes up frequently with my consulting clients these days. Fortunately, luxury brands have the potential to excel in this arena. They know how to create universes – whether that’s stores, fashion shows, websites or ads – which are on brand, make you dream, aspire, and ignite all your senses.

First, let’s start with a CSR-focused ad campaign gone a little wrong.

Italian leather and fashion house Ferragamo pioneered eco-luxe in 2007, with the launch of a small collection of bags made of natural, metal-free leather. This year, it launched the Ferragamo World collection, with 5 percent of proceeds going to the vanguard Acumen Fund. What a great partnership, but what a bad ad.

Womens cooperative partners with some of the foremost fashion houses in the business

by Sass Brown Maria Teresa Leal, known as Tete to her friends, is a force to be reckoned with.  The founder, driving force, and visionary behind COOPA-ROCA, the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she has powered this group of artisans from home sewers and craft workers to creative partners with some of the foremost fashion, interior and installation artists around the world.  An arts educator by training, mentored by the famous educator and theorist, Paulo Freire, she founded COOPA-ROCA in the early 1980’s.

Visiting the family housekeeper in the favela (read urban slum) on the weekend, Tete was encouraged by the residents, to establish free Saturday craft classes for the children of the favela.  Bored with teaching art to the children of Rio’s elite, she was excited and enthused by the eagerness of the children of Rocinha.  Intercepted by the mothers of the children one day, as she was delivering a bag of textile scraps to her class, she was persuaded that they could put better use to the scraps of fabric than their children. Tete watched as the women fashioned all manner of home wares from these unwanted scraps of fabric, working with techniques like patchwork and fuxico, a type of patchwork that is made from circles of fabric gathered into a centre and attached to each other, and so the sparks of what would become COOPA-ROCA were ignited.

The craftwork produced by the artisans became the idea behind organizing the women into a cooperative. Focusing initially on organizing and evaluating the women’s skill set, a small production force was developed to produce decorative craftwork by reviving traditional Brazilian craft techniques.  Impressed by the range of skills and techniques the women knew, Tete began prompting the women into improving their techniques and standardizing their workmanship.  At first selling the simple hand crafted home wares at local markets, over the years Tete has built the cooperative into an internationally recognized creative powerhouse.  Partnering with designers such as Osklen, Lenny, Cacharel, Paul Smith, Agent Provocateur, Lacoste and C&A.  COOPA-ROCA have also worked withinstallation artists Ernesto Neto and Tord Boontje, and decorated lounges at the Salon di Mobili Milan, Rio and Sao Paulo fashion weeks, and the New York Craft Fair.

The mission of the cooperative is to provide work to the female residents of Rocinha, arguably the largest favela in South America, with somewhere around 180,000 residents, allowing them to work from home, and contribute to the family income without neglecting their domestic duties, hence improving their quality of life.  The cooperative has approximately 150 members along with some important partners in the fashion and interior design, and installation art markets.  Partnerships have been developed through commitment and dedication to networking, along with Tete’s ongoing determination to promote the work done by the cooperative of artisans.  A fierce advocate for COOPA-ROCA, she does not allow anyone to take advantage of the artisans.

There are no reliable figures on the exact number of inhabitants in Rocinha, due to the fact that the favela’s are not a product of urban planning, but an outgrowth of a burgeoning population of residents migrating from the drought ridden North East of the country, otherwise known as Nordineastas.  Much as the usual global pattern of urban poverty, many of the residents of urban ghetto’s migrate from rural areas, in the hope of finding more and better opportunities to provide for their families in the city, when the reality is sadly often the reverse.  Subject to prejudice and racism, the often under-educated residents, also become the under or unemployed, creating the raw material for the rampant drug trafficking gangs in the area.  Denied opportunities for lawful and legal employment, most people will do what they must to support their families, leaving many few choices.

The favela itself is a cubist jungle of cinderblock apartments, one teetering on top another, often several stories high, rising up the hill situated between two of the richest areas of Rio, Gavea and Leblon, home to Rio’s elite gated communities and private schools. Disparities between rich and poor in Brazil are stark, with public health and education incomparable between neighbors.  Rocinha ranks as the 6th worst municipality in Rio.  There is not one single local hospital or doctor for that matter within the confines of the favela.  The residents have an average of 4.1 years of formal education, with less than 1% of the adult population earning a degree above high school diploma level.  Although most houses have basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity, the streets are narrow without gutters, turning them into rivers during the rainy season, with make shift electrical wires criss crossing the narrow streets.

Tete, an Ashoka and Lead International fellow, has been involved with programs related to UNDP, NGO’s, local and federal government organizations, been awarded a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation, and a Claudia Award Finalist, amongst many other accolades.

The development of ‘special’ projects has strengthened the cooperatives network as well as served to promote the sustainability of the cooperative in the long term.  Projects have included the design and production of a limited CD box set for Brazils Culture minister, Gilberto Gill, covered in patchwork, a special presentation at Selfridges department store in London in celebration of the year of Brazil, which included a magnificent fuxico shirt for Paul Smith, a fashion show in Paris in collaboration with Cacharel, with the cooperative reworking and reinterpreting the collection, and various installation pieces for artists, Ernesto Neto, and Tord Boontje, which includes a wonderful hand crocheted light fixture knows as the Come Rain, Come Shine Chandelier.

Unemployment and under employment is the bane of existence for migrants who have settled in the favelas. Tetê realizes that, despite good intentions, small enterprise programs generally fail because they do not consistently produce high quality goods, they don’t understand and develop markets, they fail to make best use of their workers' skills, and they fail to see themselves as viable, competitive manufacturers competing in a global economy. Tetê’s pioneering work with the artisans of Rocinha has revealed two realities about business and poverty, one, that workshops owned by poor women can compete in the world of high fashion; and two, that making quality goods is an effective means for poor women to compete in global markets, as well as act as a means to earn a descent living. Rather than organize poor women to produce poor goods, Tetê has raised both the standard of the product and the living standard of those producing the good. This philosophy guides the cooperative, defining a standard of best practices in community development and fair labor standards.

There have been many challenges in the development of the co-operative, however COOPA-ROCA continues to expand their commercial partnerships while increasing the scale of production and the number of its members. COOPA-ROCA are now moving onto a new stage in their development, and are in the process of developing the COOPA-ROCA brand by producing a small collection of mixed fashion, accessories and interior items for sale through their own e-commerce site.


Artisanal Denim, The Art of Manufacturing Eco Denim

by Sass Brown        The premium denim market has been trending towards artisanal denim for quite some time now. However, what masquerades in advertising campaigns as hand distressed denim, too often translates to abysmal working conditions and production scale sand blasting, not individual hand deconstruction.  The sight of lines of workers wearing protective clothing and welding helmets, or simple bandanas tied around their face, in factories already steamy from hot washing and dying processes, armed with high velocity sand blasting machines, the grit creating a constant rain, breaking down to silica particles, and responsible for lung disease, hardly constitutes fair trade.  Nor does it gel with the TV imagery of the boyfriend lovingly toiling away with his hand tools to replicate the years of wear in his favorite pair of jeans, as a gift to his girlfriend.

The Clean Clothes Campaign recently targeted denim manufacturers in a high profile campaign designed to raise awareness about the process of sandblasting in jeans production, and spotlight those that refuse to stop using this destructive practice.  Turkey recently enacted a countrywide ban on sandblasting after 46 former operators contracted silicosis.   Several manufacturers have also recently denounced its use and banned it in the production of their own jeans, including Levi’s and H&M.  However, Giorgio Armani, Roberto Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana steadfastly hold onto the practice, with what the Clean Clothes Campaign describes as “total indifference” to their campaign.  Dolce and Gabbana raised particular ire when they returned a call from the Clean Clothes Campaign notifying them of their intent to target the company, with D&G reportedly saying “thanks for the information (but) it did not interest them”.

There are some artisan jeans however, that are just that, hand made, each one unique.  Denim at this level of the market is truly luxury,

produced mostly in Japan and Italy, and sold exclusively through high-end retailers such as Colette, Paris.  Dutch brand Denham is one such label, with an extensive line of hand constructed denim jeans individually hand sewn by artisans, in their production facilities in Hiroshima, Japan.  As it says on their website “Made in Japan with 100% artistry, love, passion and NO shoes.”  This is a place where denim finishing is considered an art, where the knowledge base to perfectly deconstruct a pair of jeans is highly prized, not downgraded in a conveyor belt mentality of quantity versus quality.  This is a company that ‘worships tradition’ while embodying the rebel attitude of James Dean or a young Marlon Brando.  Their women’s Boyfriend jean for example, is made in strictly limited numbers, and ‘leaked’ to a highly select group of global retailers. Their production facility is the antithesis of a sweatshop, clean, Zen, and bright, where jeans are hand finished and constructed not in the factory piece work system, where individual sewers do only one small repetitive task, so as to achieve maximum speed.  Denham jeans are constructed holey by individual sewers.

The latest addition to the custom denim market is 3X1, so called after the standard right-hand twill weave construction specific to typical denim.  Based in New York, they are taking luxury jeans to the next level, with total customization, for the denim connoisseur.  Scott Morrison, a veteran from Paper Denim & Cloth, Earnest Sewn and Evisu, founded this unique retail store, showroom space and production facility in Soho, New York, as a reaction to economies of scale, and simply as a place to do one thing “really, really well”. The studio style environment beautifully merges with the old loft style building in New York’s Soho, and incorporates a custom tailor shop, and a textile merchant (all be it specializing in denim), all in one.  A customer can order jeans on the premises from a multitude of styles, fits, denim, finish, studs and stitch color, with over a hundred different denims to choose from, and endless permutations of cut, fit, finish and material.   Capacity production is twenty-five pairs of hand made, made to order jeans a day.  This is truly denim as a luxury item, not to mention an antithetical statement to global branding, with no name and only a discreet selvedge tab folded inside the back right pocket.

The use of vegetable dyes, natural indigo and water cleaning systems go a long way to improving a product that is responsible for major pollution, as well as labor violations.  In a world where water is beginning to be valued as a non renewable natural resource, that is being depleted at an alarming rate by agri-farming and bottled water companies, the embedded water content in a pair of jeans is alarmingly high. Traditionally made of cotton, a water hungry crop, the calculated embedded water content, the amount of water used to make a product from production of the raw materials, in an average pair of jeans, is 10,850 liters, that is approximately equal to 72 1/3 bathtubs full of water!  With 450 million pairs of jeans sold annually in the US alone, that adds up to approximately 4.8 trillion liters of water, or roughly the equivalent of half of California’s entire yearly urban water demand!

Conventional cotton farming has long been responsible for upwards of twenty-five percent of all insecticide use worldwide, yet the denim market has been slow to embrace the use of organic cotton.  The rules for organic cotton production, spinning and weaving are strict.  It takes a farmer three full years to turn around a conventional cotton crop to an organic one, to ensure that all pesticides have been eradicated from the groundwater, and the soil where the plant is grown.  In which time the farmer looses the scale of cotton production only achievable through the use of pesticides and insecticides, while not yet able to gain organic prices for his crop; an expensive endeavor for a farmer who needs outside support to see them through this ‘transitional’ stage.  All spinning, dying and finishing then needs to be wholly separated from conventional cotton, for fear of contamination.

Nudie Jeans from Sweden are one of a few companies however that produce a full range of one hundred percent organic cotton jeans, along with blended organic and conventional denim, and recycled denim fiber. They also utilize potato starch and pre-reduced indigo in place of chemical alternatives. Working exclusively with natural indigo instead of the hydrosulfite synthetic version, which allows them to biodegrade the exhausted dye-baths through simple waste disposal systems, instead of polluting the environment.  Proponents of the superior qualities of genuine indigo dye, as true denim elitists, they recognize the ancient and epic history of this ancient practice dating back to Pharaonic times.

Denham recently launched a range of Virgin jeans made from paper selvedge.  Consisting of fifty percent recycled Japanese paper pulp and fifty percent indigo cotton, the jeans are designed to be worn in more quickly, and have an ultra lightweight feel.  They come packaged in a zip up denim laundry bag and are accompanied by a bar of Cathartic soap made of natural enzymes, and formulated to preserve the paper selvedge.

Italian label, Naked Ape Eco Clothing, so named to represent our natural, naked, non-polluting past, work only with natural and wholly organic fibers, certified by a laundry list of accredited certification bodies, including Ecocert, USDA and the Soil Association.  This is not a brand that does things by halves, their entire collection of denim and cotton twill; unisex pants are made from organic cotton.  The full collection includes super skinny chino’s and carrot tops; how the Italians refer to low crotch styles, in a wide range of neutrals, pastels and brights, and include a full range of fits, cuts, washes and finishes, in a down to earth, democratic package.

UK brand Monkee Genes was born in 2006 by Road Team.  With a twenty-five year heritage in the denim industry, the founders were

bored with the conventional denim market, and decided to produce their own change by founding the company, and invigorating it with a fresh, vibrant and youthful direction.  Monkee Genes produce one hundred percent certified organic denim and cotton Jeans with a retro twist, innovative fits and styles, all in classic denim and vibrant cotton sateen.   With an Indie Jean rebellious heart, their motto is No blood.   No sweat.  No tears.  The brand focus on the Fair Trade aspect of production, and were the first and only jeans manufacturer to be awarded the soil Associations Global Organic Textile Standard, requiring that all factory working standards are considered as important environmental factors.

Haikure is a brand new Italian denim label on the market from this fall, winter season.  The label name is based on the tradition of restrictive Japanese poetry – Haiku, combined with the endings of the words; nature, future and pure. This lifestyle brand proposes exclusive, elegant and refined denim garments, entirely created by means of eco-sustainable materials and processing.  Each pair of jeans carries a QR label, which allows you to track all the production information of each individual pair of jeans through the use of any camera equipped mobile device, and an internet connection.  With detailed information from the certification of the organic cotton, to the production of each trim and treatment, the brand aim at complete transparency, in a market that has traditionally been anything but.

Denim jeans have become the great social leveler, with their history stemming from work wear, they are democratic by their nature, despite the price tag that comes with premium denim. Comparing the denim market to the mainstream fashion industry is a bit like comparing dog years to human years – the denim market has 7 new trends for every regular fashion season.    At least now the latest trend seems to be sustainable denim!  So now there is no reason to sacrifice style or fit to dress with conscience in the latest denim trend.

You can sign the Clean Clothes Campaign’s petition to tell D&G, Armani and Cavalli to stop using sandblasting at

The ancient craft of felting is pushing modern fashion design into the future

by Sass Brown When you think of felting, one dominant stereotype comes to mind, that of the frumpy, middle aged spinster who whiles away the hours creating fussy, floral craft items with no real function and, to a sophisticated eye, even less form.  Indeed a quick Google search of felting courses will yield all kinds of retreats and short summer courses advertised with lots of photos of those very same ladies happily ‘walking’ their felted projects on a water soaked table top. In the last few years however, Generation Y felters have come to dominate this scene, growing up in places like Portland, where there has been a renaissance of all things non-commercial and DIY. Cute young things are finding new joy in the process of creation, while simultaneously removing themselves from the hamster wheel of consumerism and bringing new life to this age old craft.  There is however a third type of felter, a true artist, as opposed to a crafter, an intellectual, conceptual thinker, a designer who works through this ancient craft to bring new meaning and value to felting.  Such are the likes of Christine Birkle, Andrea Zittel, Elena Garcia, Francoise Hoffman and Pat Hopewell.

The ancient craft of felting has been practiced by many cultures around the world and has its share of legends that date back to biblical times.  One tale has Moses filling holes in the arc with sheep wool, which, when mixed with sea water and matted, made the boat watertight. Another tale dates back almost as far; a monk on a pilgrimage in colder climes fills his leaking shoes with pieces of discarded fleece, which when mixed with the monks sweat and the friction of walking, created the perfect pair of warm and waterproof insoles for his thin, worn shoes.  Whatever the truth, felting has been around for a very long time, with most academic accounts quoting the first century AD.  The Mongolians still use it to construct their yurts (nomadic tent-like homes), which are incidentally impervious to rain, snow and wind – pretty handy if you live in Mongolia!  Many nomadic tribes from the Gobi desert to Central Asia have an ancient history of felting, living on the wealth of their herds of sheep, camels or goats.

In many cultures, felting was critical to survival, as well as steeped in cultural tradition and meaning. Of course, felt was also constructed in to clothing, with colorful examples in multiple traditions, incorporating rich patterns, vibrant use of color, appliqué, embroidery and quilting in some cases.

The process of felt making is incredibly laborious, requiring long hours and even days of what is referred to as “walking the fiber,” a form of rolling, rubbing or agitating cross laid woolen fibers with a combination of hot then cold water and soap suds until the fibers “mat” together making a continuous piece of fabric.  Depending on the size of the piece, such as a yurt (a type of home), the “walking” process can involve entire families and communities, as well horses, donkeys and camels.

Historically, traditional craft techniques like felting have not produced eye-popping, avant-garde fashion. However, the felting craft is undergoing a renaissance.  With fashion’s focus on a return to more sustainable practices and a modern eye to form, function and true artistry, there are now a range of groundbreaking designers whose products are as beautiful as they are ecologically sound.

Christine Birkle, founder of the fashion label “Hut up” in Berlin, has caught the attention of such fashion luminaries as Dries van Noten and Matheo Thun.   She is a felter extraordinaire, renowned around the world for her creations.  She uses a technique known as nuno felting, which incorporates a base fabric, which is shaped and decorated through felting only selected areas.  Beginning with minimally seamed garments in silk, linen, or cotton she uses felting in place of darts, tucks and shaped seams, to give the garment shape, form and dimension.  Her clothing has an organic appearance in their shape and contour, creating soft, sophisticated pieces with richly detailed and understated textures.  There are no consistent thicknesses, no straight edges, and everything is organic.  Birkle’s designs have the sophistication of Muccia Prada and the retro sensibility of Paul Poiret.  She is the rare combination of an artist, a crafter and a successful fashion designer. Birkle exhibits and sells around the world, has shown her collections in Paris, Milan and London, and sells to Barney’s and Bendel’s in New York and Takashimaya in Japan.

Andrea Zittelis a California based sculptor and installation artist, whose work is an ongoing

experiment and exploration in living as it relates to shelter, food, furniture and clothing, and is in response to her daily routines and surroundings.   In the early 1990’s, as a young artist with very little money, working at an office job where she was expected to wear “something respectable,” she conceived the “Uniform Project”.  Starting as a pragmatic response to her situation, each season Zittel designed one perfect black dress, which she wore every day for an entire season.  The project evolved over the years to explore her changing interests.  Simplifying her concept over time, Zittel moved from a perfect black dress to working only with rectangles of fabric, then crocheted dresses, formed from a single continuous thread.  Then, in 2002, she discovered felting.

Fascinated by the flexibility of felting, Zittel creates seamless dresses formed directly into fiber and form in three dimensions.  Quickly exceeding her strict seasonal requirements, she produces variations in color, texture and ornamentation. She creates exquisite pieces with simple silhouettes incorporating all the uniqueness of the material with dripping hems and lava lamp like holes, varying in texture and thickness and imbuing each piece with a sense of organic connection to the material itself.

Born in Spain, but based in London, Elena Garcia graduated with a degree in Surface Textiles for Fashion from the London College of Fashion, producing her first collection in collaboration with friend, Ilya Fisher directly upon graduation.

Elena Garcia’s work blends daring design, traditional techniques and luxurious, eco-friendly textiles to create beautiful, timeless garments.  Her collection has a highly sophisticated, esoteric aesthetic, with a vintage-like respect for couture processes and boudoir sensuality.  The collection features silks made from organically fed silk worms and chemical free processing.  Much of the wool used in the collection for the nuno and needle felting, comes from the organically-reared British Blue Faced Leicester sheep.  Details include special silver clasps and stunning shell buttons.  All garments are handcrafted in their studio or produced by small local manufacturers and social enterprise units, working to provide work for local women.  All dyes used are free of metal, ammonia and azo compounds.

Elena’s work has been noticed by the likes of Suzy Menkes, who featured her work in an article for ____.  Her collection is available online through her website as well as through high end boutiques across the UK and the US.

French felt maker Francoise Hoffmann works in a three-dimensional collage of felting and fabric.  Based in Lyon, her designs include many of the local textiles for which the city is famous, including silk chiffon, velvet, linen and cotton lace. Hoffmann innovates using this traditional process with her combination of fabric, felting, print and graphic imagery, digitally printing her fabric with text and images.  The use of digital graphic imagery is something quite unique to Hoffmann’s work.

Wool shrinks, but silk does not, so Hoffmann must work from the back side of the fabric and envisage the migration of the fibers from the side they start out on, to the side they end up on.  Hoffmann must also be careful to maintain the soft hand of the silks, while ensuring all the fibers are firmly embedded; a fine balance to maintain.

Now with her own felting studio, she works on artists projects as well as one off apparel pieces for a whole range of customers.  Creating a velvet jacquard for Lanvin, Hoffmann’s pieces have been purchased by the museum of Art and Industry, La Piscine in Robaix, as well as the Cooper Hewitt in New York.  She has also created theatre costumes for Waltraud Meier’s Lonhengrin at the Opera de Lyon.


Pat Hopewell’s journey in textiles began as a lingerie designer in Nottingham, Trent, and took her through many years working in the

developing world.  Her experience in Bangladesh with a NGO training young people in fashion technology stimulated a desire to “make the cloth,” she subsequently returned to England and took a fast-track degree in textile design, specializing in weave.

Since graduating Pat has made woven and felted scarves, shawls, wraps, bags, broaches, wall hangings and art pieces, whilst periodically returning to the developing world to work on textile related projects, particularly in Nepal.  Embodying slow design, Hopewell works with the time-honored techniques of handloom, crochet and felting.

Working with varied and wonderfully colored soft merino wool, Hopewell loves to make felt using the natural colors and textures of the different breeds of sheep, to produce a whimsical, organic range of bags and purses more akin to ancient felted vessels than your average IT bag.  Bags have lace embedded into the felt and are finished with leather, beaded or corded handles. Scarves and wraps have a natural organic appearance with intriguing textures and tonal variations combining twisted and creped fine silk and raw fleece to create delicate effects.

These “artist designers” embody a new generation of felt crafters working with ancient techniques, yet creating hip, cool, intelligent designs that are groundbreaking in design aesthetic and ecological sustainability.  In this way, they are true to both the past and the future.

Designers that make a Difference, take the Spotlight!

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.

Insights on the Eco Index: how the outdoor apparel industry’s sustainability tool changes the game for any business

If you could reduce your product packaging costs by 38% while offering a more sustainable solution to your customers, would you think twice? Many companies are taking bold steps to incorporate sustainability into their core business strategy, reaping not only brand and customer benefits, but bottom line benefits as well.

In a recent example, the outdoor industry, whose customers are known for their environmental savvy, is embracing sustainability through industry wide collaboration. A sub-group of the Outdoor Industry Association called the Eco Working Group spent the past four years creating the Eco Index - an environmental assessment software tool designed to advance sustainability practices among the apparel, footwear and equipment manufacturers.

Launched in the summer of 2010 and backed by supporters like REI, Target, Timberland, Patagonia, Brooks, Levi's and Nike, the Eco Index is quickly earning credibility and has the potential to drive major changes in the apparel industry.The Eco Index addresses two of the biggest challenges companies face in making a case for socially responsible business practices - quantifying the costs and savings and standardizing performance metrics that can be easily communicated to customers.

According to their website, the Eco Index “provides companies throughout the supply chain a way to benchmark and measure their environmental footprint, allowing them to identify areas for improvement and make informed sourcing and product life cycle decisions.” Furthermore, the index seeks to create “common language” around sustainability for consumers and retailers alike that will allow for more informed decisions.

The Eco Index is similar to Energy Star, the EPA’s rating program that ranks the energy efficiency of appliances such as refrigerators, which has become the international standard in measuring appliance energy efficiency. In the Eco-Index, products are ranked based on suppliers’ answers to survey questions and then assigned a score that is some percentage of "perfect" in each of 7 “lenses”: Land Use Intensity, Water, Waste, Biodiversity, Chemistry/Toxics – People, Chemistry/Toxics – Environment, and Energy Use and Green House Gas Emissions.

Unlike the Energy Star program, the Eco Index is currently only an internal supply chain tool and is not a consumer-facing label. In order for the Eco Index to reach such a level of adoption, it would have to be made available at the point of sale. For now, "it's a tool for a company to use to make a better choice," Amy Roberts, vice president of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association explains.

While the Eco Index does provide a methodology that is easily applied across categories, it is only in Phase 1 roll out and there are still some big questions to address. For example, some survey questions rely on estimates from suppliers, which could call into question the accuracy of a score; and currently there is no total score, although one may be incorporated during later phases of the project.

Despite the fact that it’s still a work in progress, the Eco Index has proven that a focus on sustainability can impact the bottom line. Even at the most basic level, programs that reduce, reuse and recycle frequently lead to cost savings. According to the Eco Index website, Patagonia's efforts to encourage its supply chain to adopt more sustainable practices have resulted in eleven of its textilemills adopting the Bluesign standard - allowing Patagonia to reduce the costs and time associated with monitoring those vendors.

Wall Street Journal article reports that, in and effort to improve their Eco Index score, “Brooks got rid of moisture-absorbing silica bags, which turned out to be ineffective, and stopped stuffing the insides of shoes with tissue paper. As an added benefit, the " green" changes reduced the cost of the shoe box by 38%.”

With both proven bottom line impact and growing consumer feedback favoring green minded companies, as a business leader, are you adequately engaging your customer around your sustainability efforts?

Many consumers cite that they recognize that sustainability and social responsibility is a developing conversation in the business world and they want to hear about the work in progress. They don’t expect companies to have all of the answers, but they do expect a response.

As the Eco Index, and tools like it in other industries, moves toward a more consumer-facing model, there will be increased incentive for companies to incorporate sustainability in all facets of their business from product design to supply chain. Will you be a leader in green innovation, or will you be left standing in a pile of tissue paper and silica bags?

Sequoia Lab consultant Emily Cangie contributed to this article.

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