Taking a Stand on Style

Discover London's eco-ethical brilliance as it pertains to sustainable style

Posted: Thursday 14th February 2019

With its white-hot tech innovations and eco-ethical entrepreneurial brilliance, London is the world pioneer in sustainable style, writes Katie Baron.

Finally, sustainable fashion can no longer be considered the elephant in the room, the nerdy cousin in pop-cultural debate or awkward fit in style magazine stories. Now a beacon for brand innovation’s brightest and most creative minds, sustainability is inspiring a kaleidoscopic playbook of new strategies and a currency all its own. There is undoubtedly a newfound cachet in pushing the eco-ethical envelope, one that is being propelled by a dynamic set of London-centric players — both in-public and behind-the-scenes.

The success of sustainable fashion isn’t just about overhauling the design process; reimagining retail — the wheelhouse of consumption — is also vital. British fashion designer, Christopher Raeburn, the ex-air cadet who last year became global head of creative for US lifestyle brand, Timberland, as part of its mission to plough a more responsible furrow, is long-time don of covetable sustainable design. But he’s also championed new ways to engage audiences, elevating eco’s credibility. His purposeful and often rather poetic ‘remake, reduce, recycle’ ethos feeds his urbanised slant on utilitarianism, (the look is emergency services meets streetwear, with materials including surplus parachutes and 1950’s British Air Force silk escape maps) and also powers his Remade Studio in east London. Home to his design atelier, archive, showroom and offices, it bears first-hand witness to the brand’s processes and vision, including regular open days and workshops where visitors customise designs using atelier off-cuts. Raeburn is currently developing a made-to-order e-customisation tool (a concept partially borrowed from his knitwear-focused collaborator, Unmade) that illustrates how tech is igniting environmental reform. It provides brands with on-demand manufacturing software that it calls ‘curated customisation,’ where customers tinker with designs according to pre-set perimeters (the more manageable world of alteration, not creation) so only what’s ordered gets made, massively minimising waste.

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Quilted Strip Textile Top £826 · Phoebe English Fashion designer Phoebe English has pioneered unlikely material combinations and the revival of exquisite antiquated techniques threatened by mass production. This SS19 top includes off-cuts and dead stock from previous collection pieces.

Then there’s the rise of crypto-provenance, aka blockchain, an open-source digital ledger system that stores data from multiple parties and can’t be tampered with. Think of it as truth tech with a very useful side-line in storytelling. At the forefront of such innovations are designers like Martina Spetlova. An accredited chemist, Spetlova specialises in materials manipulations and grass-roots activism (she’s currently partnering with a female group of Syrian artisan refugees on her accessories collection, MWoven). Today she is refining a blockchain-based concept that gives full visibility to the origins, people, processes, journey and materials that constitute her garments, from the stitching to the zips. Working with digtal platform, Provenance, the idea is that by scanning a product tag with a smartphone (later this could be a clothing label or even be ‘baked’ into the fabric itself) a wealth of real-time information would surface, making the garment and its back-stories indelibly linked. When her AW19 collection is released, 100 per cent of it will host this extra digital dimension. According to Spetlova, “there’s so much detail provided by this technology, it’ll stop pieces being a blank canvas, and really, really make designers think about who they work with.”

Marginally less Tomorrow’s World, the booming rentals industry also presents potential salvation. Higher Studio, founded by former Central Saint Martins fashion student and Imperial College business graduate, Sara Arnold, describes itself as “rentals and subscriptions to clothes with integrity,” and “providing a rotating wardrobe free from a consumer hangover.” Rental for one item is £85 a month bolstered by the sheen of unlimited free swaps. Brands on offer, all of which have an eco-ethical agenda (even if it’s a journey with some way to go) already include arthouse edgy designers and fashion’s new darlings, Phoebe English, Patrick McDowell and Ovelia Transtoto.

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Lipstick Refill £32 · La Bouche Rouge Ticking multiple eco boxes, luxury beauty brand La Bouche Rouge’slipstick refills – flavourless, perfume-less and absent of unhealthy, disruptive chemicals – slip directly into the original case, countering throwaway plastic tubes.

Such developments spotlight one of the biggest shifts in the fashion retail sphere: a swelling eco-ethical ‘group-think’ where brand solidarity is fundamental to raising the bar. For example, London’s newest retail and hospitality destination, Coal Drops Yard (CDY) in King’s Cross, is streets ahead of this game. Steve Kellett, sustainability manager for Argent, the UK property developers responsible for it, is an industry master whose job straddles the Victorian-era industrial architecture of the space (resuscitated by architect Thomas Heatherwick) and the slightly less sexy remit of energy and waste — the more hidden operations that its sixty or so tenants plug into. In a central waste system, anything non-recyclable is incinerated (and also turned into energy); all kitchen oil on-site is collected and turned into biodiesel; and coffee grounds are transformed into compost that’s also used on the estate. It’s a blessing for many of CDY’s smaller or independent brands for whom positive intentions are hard to manifest without practical guidance or financial support.

Coal Drops Yard is also home to an on-site recruitment centre working to ensure at least 60-70 per cent of employees are local. Such social ethics dovetail nicely with sustainability’s eco mantras, and have led CDY to pursue B Corps certification, a legally binding qualification already of major importance in the US, designed to entrench positive social impact deep into business practice. It stretches from building management, to diversity, to broaching the gender pay gap and has just been achieved by advertising giants, Havas (part of the wider CDY ecosystem in King’s Cross). According to Kellett, it’s all about creating, “virtuous circles; a happy community is a happy place. It’s about holistic responsibility as opposed to simply Fairtrade, for example.”

Nomad Belt £55 · Carv London Reimagining the centuries-old heritage of British leatherwork, Carv’s pieces epitomise minimalist artisanal excellence. The Nomad belt is handmade in the brand’s London studio using sustainable, locally-supplied vegetable tanned skins.

Similarly, The Maiyet Collective — a part-time concept store in Mayfair’s new social ethics member’s club, The Conduit — is redefining ethical luxe with its founding principle that ‘brands do better in collaboration.’ The club’s co-founder and former human rights lawyer, Paul van Zyl, says, “everyone has equal access to support and can share thoughts around topics from cause marketing to supply chains. It’s about creating a tide to lift all boats.”

Former textile designer and ecologist, Carole Collet, is another major player joining dots to powerful effect by fusing academia, industry and R&D ranging from biomimicry, to zero-waste pattern-cutting, to regenerative materials. She’s Central Saint Martins’ Professor of Design for Sustainable Futures and the CSM-LVMH Director of Sustainable Innovation, uniting the college with the luxury French supergroup’s seventy plus brands on a host of sustainability projects. They include Maison/0 — a research lab boasting an external-facing aspect, helping both LVMH and CSM transcend their usual roles. “It’s a space to expand minds differently,” she says, “A place to reflect and incubate ideas without the commercial restraints that are liable to hinder real breakthroughs.” Rather seductively, most projects are veiled in secrecy. In addition to the second multi-disciplinary sustainability symposium, The Other Way, to be held at the Design Museum in February, in September 2019 she will launch the very first MA in biodesign, exploring the intersections of design and biological sciences as a catalyst for sustainable innovation. “We have no formulas; to us, diversity of thought is everything,” says Collet.

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Mordros Jumper £125 · Finisterre Finisterre’s fisherman style Mordros jumper is knitted from Merino wool, spotlighting its commitment to ethical, natural produce including the resurrection of responsible supply chains (see the extraordinary Bowmont project in the main article).

Cornish outdoor (surf focused) apparel brand Finisterre, which is already a B Corps brand, epitomises Collet’s ‘no formulas’ philosophy via a staggering array of long-haul projects; many of which won’t yield a return for years and are barely publicised. Consider its nurturing of a flock of Merino sheep for its Bowmont knitwear line; over five years, they have turned 26 sheep into 300, and entirely resurrected a 100 per cent British supply chain. Finisterre also uses natural fibres and recycled materials in all its garments (including re-spinning fishing net fabric into swim-wear) and they have just installed a full-time wetsuit recycler in their St. Agnes flagship store — a concept that chimes with younger consumers’ positive attitude towards repair that’s more pimp-my-ride than patch-it-up. “We’re a brand built on our relationship with the sea and the land. To retain that legitimacy, we’re committed to making informed decisions — what we’re doing is repurposing capitalism,” says founder, Tom Kay.

The same appetite is also apparent in online magazine and sustainable city guide, Pebble. An ex-travel editor, Georgina Wilson-Powell launched the platform after being warned off pursuing a sustainability niche by colleagues who, two years ago, told her it was a duff horse to back. It’s ironic, considering the e-zine has grown 350 per cent this year (to 50,000 readers) with 85 per cent requesting a corresponding event to explore sustainability issues and meet like-minded people. In response, in April this year, Pebble will launch a sustainability festival in London as part of Fashion Revolution Week. Wilson-Powell describes the festival as “based on everyday activism,” with plans for talks and workshops covering beauty, fashion and design, plus a food expo. “Our audience were early adopters, but 2019 is when the real impact will be seen,” she says. “We’re heading towards a mainstream audience crying out for a lifestyle shift.”

Original article published in the KX Quarterly Newspaper here.