Thursday, 30 November 2017

Bespoke Bras: sustainable luxury to make you look and feel fabulous!

At a time of year that's become synonymous with frenzied shopping and last-minute panic-buying, I thought I'd write about sustainable luxury that rewards the patient conscious consumer: beautiful bras that are made to order right here in London, using sustainably sourced or recycled materials!

Lovely lingerie may seem like a luxury, but as everyone who has worn a bra can confirm, comfort and correct fit are a necessity! A great bra can enhance the look of your clothes, make you feel fabulous (even if you're the only one who sees it), and is all but essential for exercising. If the prices of bespoke bras seem expensive, can I gently suggest you take a closer look at a bra? All those component parts are painstakingly pieced together by people, not machines, with pinpoint accuracy to ensure a prefect fit. This is skilled labour, and I want the people who sew my bras to be fairly compensated for their work. 

If you're interested in the lingerie industry, or have burning questions ("Why isn't X available in my size? Why is Y so expensive, when Z is so cheap?"), I recommend checking out The Lingerie Addict, and following its founder Cora Harrington on Twitter. She has been writing about lingerie for over a decade, and she has great insights into manufacture and materials as well as trends. Cora is an advocate for appreciating craftsmanship and financially compensating artisans accordingly, while making it clear that we shouldn't feel guilty for wanting to have beautiful things. That sounds like the perfect argument for sustainable luxury to me! 

I've treated myself to very different styles of bra, one frilly and fanciful, the sort of bra that you want to show off because it's just so *pretty* and two that are practical but stylish, and the sort of bra that you want to show off because it feels barely-there but it's so supportive! Of course, even the fanciest bra needs to be comfortable and well-fitting (otherwise I won't feel fancy, just annoyed), and a practical bra needs to have some flair about it that elevates it above a basic bralet.

I had been skeptical about a bralet being supportive enough for my (usually) 32DD bust, but when I saw that Lara Intimates made a cute range of soft-cup bras in specific sizes rather than just 'S', 'M' and 'L', and offered a fitting service, I was hopeful I would be able to find something suitable. 

Lara Intimates is run by two LCF graduates, who crowdfunded their first collection and run their business out of a studio in Soho. When I went in for my fitting I chatted to them about their business plan; having their bra designs made by a specialised factory would have required a minimum order for every style, in every size and every colour, and they didn't have the money for that sort of initial outlay. By making bespoke they can form a better idea of their customer base, which style, size and colour combinations are the most successful, and use their money wisely. 

I was able to try on samples in my size - different from the size I would usually buy for an underwired bra (as I mentioned in my blog post about ethical swimwear, it's always best to take sizing advice from small businesses who know their product really well) and the main difficulty was narrowing my choice down to two styles! These bras would be great for yoga or Pilates, if a very structured sports bra feels restrictive, and I was thrilled to finally find a comfortable halterneck bra that will work under some low-backed vintage 70s sundresses I have in my wardrobe. The bras are made from deadstock lingerie fabrics, and with prices ranging between £55 and £72, they are a great investment as they are so versatile. 

Buttress and Snatch's marketing focuses on pin-up glamour, but their sustainability credentials are pretty good too: their bras are made to order in a workshop in London, often using vintage fabrics, so I'd say that makes them more sustainable than a lot of brands, with the added bonus that their made-to-order business model means they can offer a really diverse range of sizes. They have a really specific brand aesthetic, and I think it's important that we don't see sustainable or ethical fashion as a "style" in its own right. At the end of the day, people aren't going to spend their hard-earned money on a piece of clothing just because it's sustainable, they are going to buy something that looks great, and works with their personal style. 

Buttress and Snatch offer several different styles of "patchwork" bra, made from offcuts of vintage fabric. Each one is unique, and the bra that was specially made for me is a kaleidoscope of floral prints, trimmed with beautifully soft leavers lace. I bought my usual size and the fit is spot on; despite the fancy detailing the overall cup shape has a smooth finish, so it disappears under all but the clingiest clothes.

Do I *need* such a delightfully frivolous bra? Technically, no. But living sustainably doesn't have to mean denying yourself fancy things, it means making better choices and treasuring your fancy things for years to come.  With prices ranging from £70 to £150+ these bras aren't going to be everyday purchases for most people, but I also think it's really important that ethically run small businesses can be part of the luxury goods market too. If you have the money for something with a designer label, wouldn't you rather have something unique made just for you? I firmly believe that clothes should help you to the best version of yourself, so buying bras that have made me feel fabulous without having to compromise on my principles is money well spent!

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Personal style meets personal values: the Ethical Brand Directory's Conscious Christmas Showcase

Happy Black Friday everyone! Since shopping is at the forefront of everyone’s minds at this time of year, I’ve written up a shopping event and panel discussion I attended that focussed on centring your personal style and personal values in the purchasing decisions you make, rather than being persuaded to panic-buy deadstock according to the whim of advertisers. 

"The more you know... the harder it is to shop!" Roberta Lee jokingly summed up the panel discussion at the Ethical Brand Directory's Conscious Christmas Showcase. It felt relatable (no high street impulse buys for me any more), and reflected the feelings of 'overwhelm' that can sometimes come with trying to make more ethical or sustainable life choices, but the whole event was actually a really positive exploration of the ways in which personal style and personal values intersect. 

The Ethical Brand Directory is an online listing for ethical brands, including homewares as well as fashion and beauty, that is searchable by the products you need and the causes that are dear to your heart. The Conscious Christmas Showcase was an opportunity to check out stylish designs and innovative fabrics, appreciating artisanal skill and the wonders of modern technology. Sleek and sophisticated occasion wear from Annaborgia would have paired well with a hand-tooled clutch bag from Embellished Truth, while cosier Autumn/Winter looks were represented by super-soft bamboo sweatshirts from Lyme Terrace and adorable printed scarves by Where Does It Come From?. Starseeds were following up their collections of bamboo and organic cotton active wear with workout clothes made from recycled coffee grounds, while Fresh Lifestyle had come up with packaging that would prolong the life of their natural skincare range, and which customers could return in exchange for discounts on future purchases. 

Stylist and founder of the Ethical Brand Directory Roberta Lee was joined for a panel discussion by Claire Couchman of Couchman Bespoke, a tailor specialising in alterations and bespoke menswear made from sustainable fabrics, Lucas Windhager from Alive, an online Vegan accessories boutique, and Olivia Pinnock, fashion journalist and founder of The Fashion Debates, a series of panel discussions focusing on ethics in the fashion industry.

Claire and Roberta discussed a topic close to my heart; how alterations to your store-bought wardrobe (and even the occasional bespoke piece if you can sew or can afford it) can be a key element of being a conscious consumer. Roberta explained that personal style and fast fashion are often at odds with one another; we make impulse purchases without thinking about who we are and how the clothes we buy will fit into our lives. Personal style is about knowing who you are, and when you know this you won’t buy so many things that end up being discarded. Ethical shopping and living doesn’t have to mean going without, it’s more about keeping the things we do buy for longer. 

Claire discussed her plans to work with ethically made fabrics as much as possible, but emphasised the sustainability of bespoke clothing: consumers can have input into the design, so their new clothing will work well with their existing wardrobe. A bespoke piece of clothing should fit perfectly, promoting confidence and body positivity. Roberta pointed out that throughout history, people have gone to dressmakers and tailors for bespoke clothes, and would have expected to get clothes altered to fit. It’s only recently that we have fallen out of love with alterations (although Roberta is still a big fan of getting her clothes altered). It seems like a big jump for consumers to go from the immediacy of fast fashion to the delayed gratification of bespoke clothing or alterations, but Claire emphasised that even if you buy the most expensive brands from a department store, you are still buying a generic size, and compromising on fit. Getting your clothes tailored to fit you is a great way to support a local seamstress or small business, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of plenty of people in the public eye. Clothes don’t magically fit celebrities better than anyone else; they get a lot of custom alterations done!

Roberta talked about her “evolution” into a more ethical consumer, and the difficulties she’d found when trying to make better choices. In her discussion with Lucas she brought up the issue that vegan, cruelty free and eco-friendly brands aren’t always the same thing, and asked Lucas how he chooses brands for Alive boutique that don’t contradict one another. Lucas had chosen not to include PVC or polyester products, as they are vegan but not eco-friendly. His customers expect his boutique to adhere to their values which he described as “fortunately - or unfortunately - more important than money!” The carefully curated collection in the boutique is an authentic reflection of Lucas’ values, but he stressed that there was only so much one person could do, and Olivia heartily agreed: “no one can be 100% ethical!”

Olivia spoke about the joys of embracing your personal style and finding your community through the clothes you wear. The internet makes finding independent businesses and style influences so much easier, and consumers no longer have to rely on the brick-and-mortar high street stores for their fashion fix. She emphasised the importance of not writing off the high street completely though; Olivia and Roberta (and most of us in the audience, I imagine!) still own high street clothes, but are planning to keep them til they wear out, rather than throwing them away in a futile gesture that will only add to landfill. There are also plenty of people who work in fashion who don’t want their work to be seen as disposable, and are working to change the industry from the inside. 

As well as emphasising aspects of our personality, clothes also reflect what we believe morally and ethically, and what we want our lives to be about. As more attention is drawn to the harm done by the fashion industry, to people and the planet, the harder this is to ignore. As the panel pointed out, it also makes good business sense to put sustainability at the heart of fashion, otherwise brands will lose customers in the short-term, and will run out of raw materials in the long-term! Roberta and Olivia agreed that it was more productive to respect the things that companies are doing to improve the fashion industry, and ask for more of the same, rather than just criticising them for the things they aren’t doing yet. They acknowledged that far-reaching change, from within the industry as well as outside, was needed. With less brand loyalty amongst consumers, brands with a more positive ethical identity could encourage consumers to switch to buying their products, which might encourage more brands to improve their practices to keep up. 

There were lively audience questions and comments, which made me reflect on what a wide-ranging and complex topic this is! For an industry with a global supply chain and many different manufacturing processes, improvement in one area of production is always going to highlight problems in another. Supporting brands that are doing good, and switching our shopping habits from trend-driven impulse buys to thoughtfully planned purchases that will make us feel good every time we wear them, are sensible ways to make a positive change. 

It was a pleasure to chat to the founders of the ethical businesses that were showcasing their products; they were all passionate about fair wages, quality fabrics and flattering, wearable clothes. Focusing on a capsule collection and understanding their customers rather than trying to scale too quickly and be all things to all people hopefully means that these brands will stick around and attract more like minded shoppers.

Roberta concluded the panel discussion with the quote from Anne Lappe: “every time you spend money, you are casting a vote for the kind of world you want” this quote has become the unofficial motto of the online ethical living community, and if it’s become ubiquitous it's probably because it resonates with more and more people, and it’s worth bearing mind as the holiday season becomes an endless stream of shopping events.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Refashioning project: outgrowing your clothes as an adult

It’s something of a shock to stumble upon photos of yourself from years past, rocking very different clothes to the ones you wear now. You might feel nostalgic for outfits that reminded you of good times, or incredulous that you ever wore such a thing. Even past purchases that we thought would stand the test of time might end up lurking at the back of our wardrobes unworn, because we are unhappy about how we look in them. Rather than requiring a complete wardrobe overhaul if our bodies change or we need to dress differently, we can alter our clothes to change and grow with us, making sure they always look flattering and work with our personal style. 

When I first started reading fashion magazines I was aware of the advice to buy ‘statement pieces’ that would form the basis of a ‘capsule wardrobe’, but as a teen scraping together pocket money and meagre Saturday job earnings to go searching for bargains in Brighton’s vintage shops, this was not advice I heeded. I was well into my twenties before I could start to think about buying clothes that would be a good investment, and I was still developing a personal style.

Fast forward a decade, and I’ve refined my personal style, but there’s still room in my wardrobe for clothes I bought with my first permanent employment paychecks. Unsurprisingly though, my body has changed over the years, as has the nature of my job. I’ve gone from mostly standing to mostly sitting, and (purely by coincidence, I’m sure) I now have a couple of dresses that are uncomfortably tight fitting over the hips, and the lack of room for movement causes them to ride up, meaning that they aren’t suitable for wearing out and about!

As well as this waxed linen Aquascutum dress, which I’d bought for a bargain price in TK Maxx and was really reluctant to give away, I also had a grey jersey dress, acquired in a Reiss sale but well-worn. I loved the woven jersey panel that stretched across the back like wings, but I was self-conscious about the length. It was too short to wear on its own, but there was too much fabric to tuck into a skirt or trousers.

I shortened the grey dress to high-hip level, so it would be just long enough to tuck in. Jersey clothes are usually hemmed in a factory using a coverstitch machine, but you can achieve the same two lines of stitching, and a stretchy hem, by using a twin needle in your domestic machine. Use two spools of thread, thread up your machine as normal, fold the hem allowance under and pin, then stitch your hem from the top, using the measurement gauge on your machine as a guide. The bobbin thread zig-zags between the two needle threads, creating a neat stitch with plenty of stretch in it.

I shortened the blue dress to the same level, but had to shorten the zip too, so the end of the zip sat above the new hem level. To make sure the zip still functioned efficiently, I hand-stitched a new ‘stopper’ at the point where the centre back seam started so the zipper itself couldn’t slip down too low, and stitched a little fabric patch over the cut edge of the zip to stop it fraying. 

I turned the hem twice and topstitched it, using a single needle this time. This top is designed to sit over the waistband of a fitted skirt or trousers, not quite a crop top, but with a slightly boxy shape to balance out the volume of the sleeves.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Ethical Clothes Shopping; a quick guide to finding information, inspiration and wardrobe essentials

I've been so encouraged by friends asking me for ethical fashion recommendations recently that I thought I'd write a quick post, more of an FAQ than a fully formed directory, to speed up the searching process for anyone interested in doing some ethical shopping.

I quite like the research process I'm going through before I make clothing purchases; I'm learning about innovative fabrics, international supply chains and discovering fashion's Next Big Things, but I realise that doesn't work as a shopping strategy for most people.

We all want good quality, wearable clothing at a price we can afford, and I'd like to think that if you're reading my blog you probably want the clothes you buy to do more good than harm. So here are some suggestions to set you on the path towards a more sustainable wardrobe.

Let's get back to basics:
Plain, stretchy vest tops, t-shirts, leggings and tights form an all-important base layer for our wardrobes at this time of year. We want them to keep us cosy, save outer layers like shirts or dresses from constant washing or dry-cleaning, and look good as an outer layer by themselves when summer comes around.
Rapanui sells vests and t-shirts for a great price, and it works out even cheaper if you buy several items at once. They also sell hoodies and sweatshirts, and partner with Teemill, so if you buy from them you know you are still supporting an ethical business!
Thought sell bamboo tops, leggings and tights which make great base layers, as well as a range of organic cotton and bamboo clothing.
People Tree are probably one of the best-known ethical brands, and as well as classic and fashion-forward pieces, they do an Essentials range of multi seasonal clothes in organic cotton.

I couldn't mention Teemills without giving a shout-out to my friends at The Suffragette City who are making the most of their moment of fame (a photo of them dressed as Suffragettes at the Women's March went viral) by selling T shirts and bags, and donating all profits to the charity Abortion Rights! 

Ethical Brand Directories: the excellent women who searched the whole of Google so you don't have to!

The Ethical Brand Directory was set up by stylist Roberta Lee because she was tired of the endless Googling it took to find great ethical brands. Some of the businesses she showcases specialise in a specific product, others, like Sheer Apparel and Birdsong London, feature multiple small brands. All the brands do a great job of demonstrating how stylish and exciting the world of sustainable fashion is!

Roberta is running a live event, the Conscious Christmas Showcase, on Wednesday 15th November, so pop along if you want to check out some of the brands from the Ethical Business Directory in person,  and hear from some amazing speakers! Tickets available here.

Ethical Fashion blogger Tolly Dolly Posh has compiled her own Ethical Fashion Directory; her list of brands was such a useful resource for me when I first started looking for ethical alternatives to the high street. One of my favourite things (there are a lot of them!) is how supportive and encouraging the online sustainable fashion community is; everyone is happy to share their knowledge. There is an understanding that everyone has a different financial situation, shopping habits and personal style, so the emphasis is on encouraging people to do what they can, rather than criticising for appearing to not do enough.

Conscious Consumerism on the High Street

If it's impossible to find what you are looking for from an ethical brand (sadly that's still possible; a lot of ethical brands are small start-ups that can't produce a vast amount of stock, in every size, for a low price), not all high street brands are equally unethical! Most big companies are much less transparent about their supply chains than smaller ethical brands, but fortunately there are people to do the detective work so you don't have to. If you want to reward good behaviour by high street chains (or avoid financially supporting bad behaviour), these resources will only take minutes to use:

Ethical Consumer Magazine grades brands who produce a range of consumer goods as well as clothes, so you can see at a glance which companies score high (or low) on their chart. You can also subscribe to the magazine which gives you access to more detailed content.

Not My Style is an app developed to rate high-street clothing brands according to their ethics and transparency. Download it for instant access to important ethical info when you're out window-shopping!

The other thing I think we all forget is that we can ask brands to be better! Multinationals might not improve their practices out of the goodness of their hearts, but they will have to if they see a drop in sales, or come under pressure from concerned customers.