Thursday, 11 October 2018

Fashioned From Nature: Designing a Sustainable Future

Fashioned from Nature at the V&A is an exhibition designed to encourage debate and raise awareness about the complex, uneasy and unequal relationship between fashion and the natural world, without preaching or causing feelings of guilt. Fashion takes inspiration from nature but also exploits it, and as the fashion industry has grown rapidly in scale since the Industrial Revolution it has become a global problem that is impossible to ignore.

Senior Curator Edwina Ehrman’s introduction to the Fashioned From Nature: Designing a Sustainable Future conference gave some fascinating insights into the design of the exhibition and also set the tone for the rest of the day: fashion has some hard truths to face up to but it is also a space for experimentation, innovation and beauty.

The first speaker was Professor Dilys Williams, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. She posed questions that challenged the audience to think about our intentions when we choose our clothes and dress ourselves. If our ability to project our identity through our clothes is an identifier of being human (no other species can alter their appearance in this way), what does that say about our relationship with nature? For four hundred years humans have believed that we could change or control nature, but the truth is that we are a part of nature, not separate from it. The current fashion system relies on inequality, and the imbalance between what we take from and what we give back to nature.

The Centre for Sustainable Fashion encourages the fashion creatives of the future to look at the fashion industry through different lenses, considering power, culture, nature and society. Rather than putting economy before ecology, we need to work towards an era of interdependence, using our imaginations to construct new identities which are more in sync with the world around us.

Kathy Gomez, the Vice President of Innovation at Nike, talked about the new techniques the brand is pioneering to achieve their goal of increasing sales while dramatically reducing their environmental impact. An interesting fact I’ve noticed during the time I’ve been writing this blog and looking into sustainable fashion is that brands that run their own factories have many more opportunities to change and improve their practices. For instance, the plastic used to make the air soles for Nike trainers can be recycled and reused in-house because Nike own and operate the factories.

Journalist and vegan fashion advocate Bel Jacobs was joined by director of sustainability at Stella McCartney Claire Bergkamp for a conversation about the search for alternatives to animal products for the fashion industry. Even as an emerging designer, Stella McCartney was adamant that she did not want to use leather, so from the start the brand had innovation at its core. Not wanting to offer products that were an inferior quality, collaborations with traditional manufacturers that had moved with the times to stay in business were often the answer when it came to finding artisans to work with new materials. The search for new materials has led to a collaboration with Bolt Threads, who make lab-grown spider silk and mycelium leather, and the brand has embraced the opportunities for creativity and change that come with pioneering the use of new fibres.

After lunch (an opportunity to sit in the V&A garden and digest everything I’d just heard) the afternoon’s presentations began with founder and director Nina Marenzi and curator and consultant Amanda Johnson from The Sustainable Angle, a not-for-profit that aims to connect the makers of sustainable textiles with buyers from the fashion industry. They run the Future Fabrics Expo, which showcases thousands of samples of new and innovative materials (you can read more about my trip to the Future Fabrics Expo in this blog post). Many of their most successful fabrics use post-consumer waste from a variety of industries to create fabrics that are a great substitute for their cruel or polluting “natural” alternatives. Leather is being replaced by some brands with Pinatex, made from pineapple fibre, or Frumat, made from apple pulp. Malai is made from coconut water waste, grown onto a banana fibre base, while post-consumer plastic bottles can be made into a synthetic down substitute for jackets which feels and behaves just like the real thing.

Oya Barlas Bingul from Lenzing gave us an overview of the company’s latest sustainable textile innovation: Refibra. Taking cotton waste from the manufacturing process and combining it with lyocell creates a natural fibre which reduces both  textile waste and the need for ever-increasing quantities of raw materials. Lenzing maintains a traceable and transparent supply chain for their fabrics, viewing innovation as a necessity: “don’t settle for the way things are, push for the way things could be”.

Dyeing is a hugely impactful part of the garment-making process, responsible for large-scale water pollution in countries like Bangladesh, but Orr Yarkoni, founder of Colourifix, had some good news about revolutionary sustainable processes that are currently being developed. Colourifix’s new technology will first ferment synthesised pigments from naturally occurring colours before the dyeing process begins, which improves the absorption of the dye by the textile fibres. This new technology will be compatible with existing dyeing infrastructure, and can be used on yarn, fabric or garments. It also successfully dyes both synthetic and natural fibres, unlike many other dyes.

PhD researcher Miriam Ribul is interested in fashion on a molecular level, investigating better fabrication models for an already abundant source of plant-based textile waste: cellulose. In the past, cellulose could only be made into fabric using toxic chemicals, but new technology is making cellulose regeneration a cleaner and safer process. One key problem that limits current textile recycling is the lack of information about what chemicals have been used to dye or treat the fabrics, and if the garment label has been removed or damaged even the information about the mixture of fibres in a garment is lost. DNAture material coding would embed this information in the fibres themselves, so a quick glance under UV light and a microscope would provide all the relevant information about the garment.

Carry Somers, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, sat down with Amy Powney from Mother of Pearl to bring fashion back to the personal. The two women spoke about the ways in which their unconventional upbringings had paved the way for a career in sustainable fashion: living off-grid meant they didn’t take modern conveniences for granted. A parental lack of concern about her street cred at school led Amy to obsess about saving up for the latest trends, and she remembered every detail about these precious passports to teenage acceptance. Being detail-oriented meant that Amy wouldn’t accept a lack of knowledge when it came to starting her own label, and her search for information took her all the way to South America. Interestingly, sourcing a collection from scratch rather than relying on existing supply chains has reduced the costs of manufacturing this collection, rather than increasing them.

From the molecular to the global, there are positive changes to be made at every level of the fashion industry. We can learn from the past, as the Fashioned From Nature exhibition shows us, and we can overcome the current problems in the industry by learning from one another and collaborating, fashioning the identities that will shape a better future.

You can also read my review of the Fashioned From Nature exhibition here, or catch it at the V&A until January 2019.