** To bid for the dress pictured in aid of Save the Children, visit Christies.com/HTSI. Online auction ends December 11.**
There are few more powerful advocates for sustainable fashion in Britain than designer Stella McCartney and campaigner Livia Firth, and as a double act they are unstoppable. The duo have worked together before, in 2009, when McCartney was chosen, because of her ethical principles, to make a dress for the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC), which Firth founded. It features an annual event at September’s London Fashion Week that helps get the best of ethical and sustainable fashion worn by her film-premiere-going friends.
Since then, GCC’s initiatives have included Gucci bags made in Amazonian leather that involve no destruction of rainforest for cattle rearing (they sold out before they hit the stores); bags crafted in Brazilian favelas from coated ringpulls and the same Amazonian leather by fashion company Bottletop for New York designer Narciso Rodriguez; jewellery created in Fairmined gold by Chopard, including earrings worn by Cate Blanchett when she received the Best Actress award at the Golden Globes; and evening dresses by five British designers including Christopher Kane, Erdem and Victoria Beckham. However, this is the first time a sole designer has produced a complete capsule collection for the GCC, and the beauty and quality of the clothes, plus the absolute sincerity behind them, shows that the choice of McCartney as designer was the perfect one.
The launch at the Royal Institution of Great Britain was one of London Fashion Week’s peachiest parties. Long, elegant gowns with Matisse-like colour-blocked shapes were modelled on plinths in one room and photographed by McCartney’s older sister Mary, while in the gallery half-a-dozen girls in exquisite flower-print dresses trimmed in antique-looking lace were being sketched by young artists from The Prince’s Drawing School. The conservatory was filled with a sustainable forest created in support of the Forest Stewardship Council, the bar was a traditional English pub (all props recycled from film sets) and an Irish band whistled up a storm. There was not a wisp of porridgy cloth anywhere, yet every item – down to the shoes, bags and jewellery – was impeccably made from recycled, sustainably sourced or organic materials.
It was a high-profile demonstration of sustainable clothing’s potential in the right hands, featuring a starry audience of fashion-, music- and film-world luminaries from Anna Wintour, Rita Ora and Alexa Chung to McCartney’s father, Paul, and Firth’s husband, Colin. In the calm before the paparazzi blitzkrieg began, Firth and McCartney sat down to explain how the project was conceived. McCartney has great passion for the cause, with facts and figures rolling off her tongue. Yet she is careful not to evangelise – she always maintains that designer fashion must first and foremost be beautiful, which this collection certainly is, and is pragmatic in her use of sustainable materials.
She has been one of the forces helping to make Kering – the conglomerate which part-owns her business – the undisputed leader in sustainable luxury but, she says, “we’re not prepared to sacrifice style for sustainability. Fashion has long supply chains and it’s hard to guarantee everything 100 per cent. I like to infiltrate from inside, not shove my beliefs at people, but show them that you can have a successful sustainable-business model. In the same way, I’m not asking everyone to go vegetarian, just to make small differences – to have one meat-free day a week, given that animal rearing adds so much to global warming, or to buy only one leather handbag a year, as there are alternatives.”
Firth is quieter on this occasion – though, having seen her in action at this year’s Copenhagen Summit on sustainable fashion (she laid into fast-fashion manufacturers for their perceived complacency even after the Rana Plaza disaster, when over 1,000 garment workers were killed in the collapse of an unauthorised building in Bangladesh), I can testify to her forceful approach, while her delicate Italian beauty makes her the perfect model for red-carpet appearances. The Eco‑Age organisation she co-founded with Colin, which advises and helps businesses wanting to adopt a sustainable approach, has both resources and expertise and has gained great respect.
So the project is a genuine partnership – McCartney designed the collection, while Eco-Age helped source and verify materials and suppliers. Both stand against disposability in fashion, which the pair regards as a major problem. “People are voracious consumers of clothes that have no value and get tossed into landfill,” says Firth. “We wanted to make dresses of such beauty you want them to stay with you for life. What you are paying for is an emotional attachment.” McCartney adds that as a girl she dressed “from vintage and charity shops and that develops your fashion individuality, not like being dictated to by brands”.
For the eco-lace dress collection, McCartney looked to silk and cotton prints from her previous collections as inspiration and added organic-cotton lace, made by traditional methods in France and Italy, for intricate, vintage-looking dresses. Meanwhile, the colour-block pieces are printed with non-polluting, water-based inks on organic silk, or smooth Italian-woven wool sustainably farmed on the Patagonian grasslands, in a non-commercial project McCartney is promoting in the hope that more designers will use it and ensure its viability. The project’s accessories make ingenious use of recycled plastic, polyester and brass, sustainable wood and eco alternatives to leather, but are universally luxurious.
Provenance and methods at every stage are painstakingly verified by Eco-Age, and the three limited-edition lace dresses are now available to buy at select Stella McCartney branches and online. The pair must be happy – the pieces should fulfil both Firth’s ideal of emotional attachment and McCartney’s view that “the best fashion is the sort you can hand down to your daughter”.