Don’t worry. This long read isn’t going to be full of statistics telling you how much clothing and textile waste we are dumping all over the world. You’ve probably read some of those pieces and they have made you feel a little depressed and very powerless. Yet most people continue to buy the same sort of clothes they were buying last year and the year before — new clothes made with synthetic fibres and/or new clothes made with cheap fabrics that won’t hold up to years of washing and aren’t worth mending (or they can’t be bothered to mend). All the doom and gloom in the news about our ongoing damage to the environment seems to beget just more doom and gloom in our shopping habits, as if so many feel they can’t see much point in changing, as if the mantra, “Each one of us can make a difference!” is just not that convincing.
So instead of making you contemplate those massive tips of unwanted shoes and clothes, I’m asking you to consider what I believe to be the most stylish dress possible one can adopt in 2022 – because the two topics could not be more related. Amid all this powerlessness over the state of the planet, there is a new power available in clothes and accessories, and this style is not quite like anything that has gone before. It’s dressing with meaning, significance and incredible beauty, and it requires a simultaneous contemplation of the present moment and the past – or several pasts, traced in the previous lives of objects that are being remade anew. I need to be much more precise, I know, and I need to give you some background and to explain why and how this new vision of fashion’s power is diametrically opposite to what we are being spoon-fed, or drip-fed, by the major brands and much that is put out by the fashion media. Indeed, the two views of “fashion” are mutually opposed to one another.
Many of my days are spent visiting shops, walking a silly number of miles around central London just checking out what’s new. I absolutely love doing this and, as a former gas-guzzling Texan, I feel enormously blessed to be able to let my Doc-Martened feet take me down the Soho alleyways and Covent Garden byways to shops that are institutions as well as ones that may have just opened last week, or where they are polishing the windows in preparation for the opening in two days’ time. Yes, that is what is happening in London these days, as the shops emptied by the global pandemic and our increasing inclination to shop online (not to mention excessively high rents) are currently being filled by new vintage clothing shops, by new “pre-loved” clothing shops (anything to avoid the word “second-hand”), or by up-and-coming designers who are trying their first pop-up to see if this or that street works for them. Determining to create absolutely sustainable fashion in the UK is all a gamble, but it’s exciting, even for me to observe, as I don’t know for sure what shop I might find around a corner on any given day. In the nearly three decades I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen London like this, and some days I am just left staggered at the quality of the goods on offer within the same confines of bricks and mortar that last week might have held only dust and a forgotten hanger or two.
The Overwhelming Noise of the Big Fashion Brands
Where is the most exciting, creative fashion design actually coming from right now? Well, no surprise, it’s mainly from young designers, most of them under 30, with names you probably won’t read of in the printed versions of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar or the latest weekly fashion supplement. No celebrity or influencer has yet worn their designs; they can’t afford to pay for advertising in fashion mags, and many of these designers actually don’t want that kind of in-yer-face success, that kind of promotion on a grand scale. Many of them are very disturbed about how high-street fashion is largely promoted these days, such as the fact that influencers are sometimes paid to wear the clothes they are pictured in or that they are given those clothes for free by major brands. As Lauren Bravo writes in How to Break up with Fast Fashion, these days “brands are falling over themselves to turn social media’s biggest players into walking, talking adverts” – with the result that those brands (many of which are owned by LVMH and Kering) are able to claim year after year that they are setting the rules, that they are deciding what is most “fashionable”.
All they are really doing is throwing money and free clothes at celebrities and influencers, while throwing advertising money at fashion journalists who continue to support their spurious claims. (Just this morning I came across a sentence in Vogue beginning, “Balenciaga may be at the pinnacle of today’s hottest, trendiest fashion brands”.) Of course it’s not at the pinnacle, and no one has any idea who could be at such a pinnacle that could never in reality exist. There is nothing authentic here! It is one big self-serving game, with the public as victim – especially those members of the public who buy brands simply because of their logos. Every time you see “Burberry”, “Versace”, “Chanel”, “Dior”, “Prada”, “Stella McCartney”, “Fendi”, “Gucci” and “Valentino” emblazoned on the strap or buckle of someone’s something, please ask yourself, how exciting is the design, really? You should then of course ask, how sustainable is the design, and the answer is probably not at all, as the vast majority of the major brands make a poor showing on the Fashion Transparency Index — or absent themselves from it entirely.
To paper over their own insecurities, people with more money than sense buy into a brand name to make them feel they are in some way securely fashionable – i.e., superior to the rest of us who can’t afford Givenchy and Louis Vuitton. In truth, these worshippers of the bland machine of mega-fashion are well out of the loop these days. Yet they remain unchallenged in the fashion press, particularly the fashion business press, and logo-mania continues in its emperor-is-wearing-no-(captivating)-clothes way, partly because most of us just aren’t that secure in our own fashion sense. Doing so much of our clothes buying from behind screens, we have lost the ability to trust our instincts to handle cloth and judge its value, to finger embroidery and attest if it’s done by hand, to examine the cut of fabric and the strength of seams. Faced with someone parading a branded T-shirt or handbag, we think to ourselves, “Uh, that shirt or handbag must be hot and trendy” — without taking a moment to pause and reflect that the shirt or handbag are not that attractive, that they only say “power and money”. They don’t say “outstanding design and make”.
Moreover, the mega-brand names emblazoned on them only stand for those mega-brand looks marching down the latest catwalks that are themselves often pretty dull. After all, most of us have seen much more interesting styling in our own urban settings than we will ever see on fashion week catwalks, but we’re not confident enough to speak this truth. So, instead, we say that the major brands are more “accessible”, “wearable” and “commercial” – with “accessible”, “wearable” and “commercial” becoming cop-outs for uninventive rehashings of the same old same old. One imagines the marketing executive whispering in the creative director’s ear, “It’s got to be dull in order to sell!”
We need to remember that ’twas not ever thus. There was a time when dressmakers worked with their customers to create clothes stamped with the individual identity of the wearers. There was a time when couturiers did not design with commercial pressures foremost in their minds, when they designed for particular clients, some of whom acted as muses. Even as designers moved into ready-to-wear in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they did not create for a mass market because their goal was never to try to please everyone in order to make as much money as possible. In today’s fashion marketplace, a revolution in style such as that of the Swinging Sixties seems nearly impossible, as the big brands chase every trend down into the ground with mass-produced lacklustre products, forever brainwashing the public into believing there is nothing to rebel against.
Independent Fashion Designers Deserve our Attention
So, yes, this is what I’ve learned charging around shops in Mayfair, particularly in Bond Street, where only a few decades ago a middle-class Brit could have afforded to shop, but not anymore. Now the rents are so ridiculously high that fantastic, independent designers like Erdem, Simone Rocha and Roksanda would not consider putting their boutiques where Kering and LVMH rule. What one discovers in the best independents these days is their wholehearted willingness to engage with historical and cultural pasts, their fearlessness to look back several decades and even centuries to find inspiration for new fabrics and silhouettes that celebrate brave, bold women in their own unique and wonderful ways. They reject bland. They don’t smother us in solid beige with a gold logo. With them, instead, we get slowly evolving design created with enormous stylistic integrity, as if, as Manolo Blahnik always has done, they are forever watching old films, haunting galleries, fingering keepsakes and seeking to create from what touches them most deeply.
Much as I love them all and am enormously grateful for their stable bricks-and-mortar presences, I still wouldn’t put them at the very top of the list of today’s most exciting designers, largely because many of their most beautiful products are made with synthetic fibres that will take hundreds of years to break down. I believe that the most innovative, impressive design is now happening among those who are facing our planet’s crisis with an uncompromising honesty, with an urgency not fully acknowledged by those confronted with what they see as their more urgent overheads. Many of these relatively unknown sustainable fashion designers are beyond angry at the fashion game that shows no signs of slowing down, at the green-washing that pervades every website of every major fashion brand. They won’t accept being 40% sustainable when they know they can be 100%, and they are determined to find whatever way they can to keep afloat and keep designing.
What is sustainable fashion? Who is making it in the UK?
Truly sustainable fashion has no harmful environmental impact: the cotton grown for the clothes has not used silly amounts of water; no synthetics nor chemical dyes are used whatsoever; garment workers are paid fairly, well above the minimum wage; no clothes are made that have little chance of being sold. Better yet if the clothes are made in the same country where they are sold, so no air miles are involved and the conditions of workers can be ascertained with clarity. Even better if the fabric, buttons, or clothes themselves are upcycled, repurposed into new garments and saved from landfills.
Some environmentally sound, independent designers have bricks-and-mortar pop-ups for a few weeks or a few months, depending on the goodwill of their landlords. As a result, many of those practising sustainable fashion in the UK are living and working with huge uncertainty, but those I have met seem to thrive on it, as if the quality of their design coupled with their impeccably green principles have left them secure that they will be recognised and appreciated for doing what they are doing so well — for no less than inspiring every person who walks in their shops. Two examples spring quickly to mind: Isabel Manns and Olubiyi Thomas. Bewitched by images from nature and adoring strong colours, Isabel creates her own fabric designs for multi-functional reversible dresses, and she has managed to find people in the UK to help her with every single step in the process of their creation. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to hear that there are no plane trips to and from Spain, Portugal or Italy for her garments, nor is there any fabric wastage. On the other hand, the Nigerian-Scottish Olubiyi simply adores very old fabrics, the older the better, with frayed edges and bulky buttons. He has taught me to see that the older the fabric is, the more interesting it can be, as it contains layers of time, lost techniques and lost stories that somehow remain with the fabric, clinging to its edges in imperceptible ways. Olubiyi will take a brocaded carpet and turn it into a sumptuous coat. He will layer endlessly, cut, embroider, turn old pieces of fabric upside down and inside out, swathing real bodies of every size in ancient materials that dignify the wearers, who seem to be wearing time itself.
Designer Collectives Defy the Odds
Other sustainable fashion designers are forming collectives and helping each other out in a hundred different ways, collectives in London like bleaq, Lone Design Club, Löfte and Never Fade Factory. (Please watch our video to see more of their designs.) What they have in common is an open appreciation for and determination to use materials that have been cast aside, dead stock from last season in some cases, in others, the fabric that once covered a sofa or was rolled up in the back of the warehouse and forgotten. Along with upcycled materials, some are using fabric made from recycled waste, like Newt London (part of Löfte) whose cheerfully bright masks and scrunchies are made of material actually created from old plastic bottles that then is printed in Worcestershire with engagingly bright images. The best designers these days are wholly transforming our throwaways, sometimes painting forgotten fabrics or decorating them in funky, fun ways that yet can leave you breathless with their beauty. Or they entirely repurpose them, like Haram Official, a Berlin-based designer with bleaq, who turns old running shoes with neon logos into fabulous, eye-catching corsets.
Haram’s tagline on Instagram says modestly, “another independent fashion brand trying to be as sustainable as possible”. I read this with a little gulp, recognising that this designer, like every single one associated with bleaq, really means it. It costs these designers much time, effort and untold amounts of inventiveness to make their incredible clothes, created by, as bleaq’s stated ethos declares, “reimagining waste materials into otherworldly non-binary pieces”. I have stood a little gobsmacked staring and touching just a few of their brilliantly complex and somewhat gossamer items, while founder and designer Shannen Maria Samuel explained how she or her friend made this and that — with me thinking all the while that they couldn’t possibly be making much money. These makers of sustainable fashion in the UK may be just getting by, yet their commitment to each other and to saving this planet is rock solid, and no cheap chance of financial gain will sway them from their purpose. Declaring itself “an unorthodox and powerful collective . . . born from a torn society, where political, social and environmental strains call for creative uprising”, bleaq’s designers stand in strident opposition to a world clothed by the major fashion and fast fashion brands: “We are a movement demanding change and providing hope.” These designers’ courage is inscribed into their clothes – all of which, by the way, are so reasonably priced, well above fast fashion prices, of course, but well below those of high fashion.
Moreover, the clothes and accessories on offer by this new wave of designers are, in my view, infinitely more interesting than what is being designed the traditional way, from scratch, starting ex nihilo as it were, with a blank piece of paper or computer screen. These designers bent on saving us and our planet – rather than, as is the case with so many brands, not causing quite so much damage as they did in the past – start instead with the stuff that nobody wants. They contemplate long and hard what we we’re bored with and can’t bear to look at anymore, finding potential for things entirely new, purposeful and rather gorgeous. As Shannen Maria Samuel admitted, they have set the bar very high for themselves, as their design process is much more challenging than starting from nothing. It’s filled with limitations and boundaries, with trial and error providing the only path to success. Repurposing laddered tights and her father’s old racing leathers to make her unique tops and bags, Samuel has clearly embraced those limitations. Each of her products is listed on the bleaq website as “lovingly handmade” in London or the Isle of Man.
I first encountered another collective, Never Fade Factory (whose exhibition and retail space is pictured above), when I was meandering around Soho, on its famous Old Compton Street where clothing shops just aren’t supposed to be. From the windows I couldn’t quite make out what it was all about. There was a bar serving drinks; there were bold paintings on the walls, racks of clothes scattered around the room, an old gilded sofa smack in the middle, backed by a large table where a designer was painting onto fabric. I soon met Bosko, a very personable Croatian who is a whiz with a spray can and can turn any old coat into a work of art, a complete one-off that looks so current and alive. He seems somehow to possess the zeitgeist in his fingers’ pulses, and he is happy to tell me how quickly his coats are selling. Then there is the Frenchman Barek, with his Barek Neverlandess Streetwear inspired by Japanese cartoons, transforming the backs of vintage denim jackets with huge leering faces. And there is RC Margot, aka Roberta, whose paintwork proclaims the shared beliefs of the collective. Her giant “No One is Illegal” confronts anyone turning up to Never Fade Factory, whether it’s plastered on the back of a prominently displayed coat or on the wall. Another jacket is heavily painted in gold to make the words stand out, “Let it Hurt / Then Let it Go”.
The Fashion War
A conversation I had a few weeks ago with Jasmin Bourne, also of Never Fade Factory, has stayed with me. I found her tying together strips of old denim to make a handbag and remembered that I’d admired a gorgeous denim coat of hers, so I was keen to know more. She told me that, to her great surprise, she won the 2021 Graduate Fashion Week Christopher Bailey award, that she now works around 40 hours a week at a London supermarket and that she designs and creates clothing at night and gets very little sleep. She buys textile waste on eBay and Facebook Marketplace, screenprinting some fabrics with her own designs. Her graduate collection was called “Interwoven” and celebrated the linking of her own Fijian and British heritages. She pulled a pair of jeans off the rack unlike any I’d ever seen, made of innumerable pieces of old denim and a red, yellow and black fabric packed with heraldic symbols. The denim pieces were arranged like plates of a knight’s armour, with knees that pointed out and upwards into peaks in the front, while in the back of the legs the pieces were arranged in falling strips, each separately bolted on. They were a joy to handle, so I could not but ask the price. They aren’t for sale, she told me. She had put too much work into them, and they meant too much to her. They symbolise the fact that “we are at war”, she said – at war with the fashion industry and its millionaire and billionaire owners who continue to put profits before real change.
“We are at war”: the words couldn’t have been stronger, and yet coming from such a sweetly humble young woman, they took me aback. And I’ve been repeating them to myself and my friends ever since. I remember also being taken with a military-looking beret by Lone Design Club’s Timna Weber with the word “Enough” spelled out on a badge. Don’t kid yourself for a moment that Fashion is a monolithic behemoth relentlessly seeking to make you feel inadequate so that you buy more. Fashion is rather riven with the most essential conflicts right now, as the good guys and the little less-good guys fight the bad guys and the very bad guys, with the latter having the power, influence and financial resources to put the good guys out of business, all the while spouting propaganda about their own sustainability. Made nauseatingly visible by their giant publicity machines, the mega-brands continue to tell us how to dress and fill us with fear about dressing differently, dressing to express our own personalities. The feisty independents offer us unbelievable choice with clothes that can mean anything under the sun that we want them to mean – as well as bespeaking our connection with the past and our care for our planet. Fashion is at war with itself. All our clothes-buying choices are choices to support the good guys or the bad guys in this war, and, every time we buy mindlessly, we ally ourselves with the bad guys on the wrong side of history. We also don’t look as cool as the good guys.
All eight of our tours include information on the sustainable initiatives of most of the brands we discuss. Check out Unique Boutiques, Latest in Design, Ballgowns to Bumsters: a Women’s Fashion History Tour, Savile Row and Jermyn Street, A Day Out in Style, Breeches to Bellbottoms: a Men’s Fashion History Tour, and Voraciously Vintage.