They were an impressive bunch of speakers, all dressed chicly but quietly – including a top player from fashion group Kering and an Oscar-winning actor’s wife who, as well as being an outspoken eco-warrior, has a hotline to the Hollywood-glamour brigade. Not bad for a conference on sustainable fashion where, as one observer put it, “some expect people to be dressed in hemp”.
The Copenhagen Fashion Summit was held this year on the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, when an unregulated building in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over a thousand garment workers; how to improve conditions in mass-clothing manufacturing was accordingly a much‑debated preoccupation at the conference. Just as striking was the level of engagement and action on sustainability from luxury brands, a sector often accused of dragging its feet on the issue. Sustainability is becoming sexy, and some luxury brands are investing in order to change an agenda hitherto set by mass producers. “Designer brands are competitive and it’s no longer enough to have great ideas – to stand out, you need ethics and values,” says Dilys Williams, who founded the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, attached to the London College of Fashion, in 2008. “Five years ago sustainability was seen as a supply-chain problem; now, it’s a design opportunity.”
So it is interesting that Marie-Claire Daveu, head of sustainability for Kering – which encompasses 22 brands, including Gucci, Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta – echoes the words of Sir Stuart (now Lord) Rose in 2007, when he launched Marks & Spencer’s ethical and sustainable Plan A, “because there is no Plan B”, a programme that is still going, in expanded form. “Sustainability is the only way to answer major issues like climate change, lack of biodiversity and scarcity of resources,” she says. Like Williams, she believes “it can give a competitive advantage, because once it drives a business it stimulates the creativity and innovation that keep a brand ahead.”
Daveu’s background is in environmental science and the civil service as an advisor to French government departments. Her appointment illustrates Kering’s commitment to the cause, which comes, she says, from the interest of chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault. Its 2012 action plan – to reduce carbon emissions and introduce more sustainable practices by 2016 – is, she adds, “being supported by each brand – though on a different scale. For instance, Stella McCartney is niche and known for ethical attitudes and not using leather or fur, while Gucci is huge and a byword for leather, but there we have introduced heavy-metal-free tanning, which is less polluting and cuts water consumption by 30 per cent and energy use by 20 per cent.” (This production method is being used, for example, in the leather of the new tasselled bamboo bag, £1,530.) Such initiatives take more scientists than designers; last year the group opened a Materials Innovation Lab in Novara, northern Italy.
Scientific advances take time, one reason for seemingly slow progress. This applies equally to attitudes. “Ten years ago this wasn’t a world issue, but now the effects of climate change and pollution are apparent everywhere,” says Daveu. “People are becoming more sensitive about how business delivers value; they ask questions and demand transparency.” The stylish Daveu points out that luxury fashion is an obvious participant “because it is founded in quality, heritage and handwork, which is what sustainability is about. It has long been good at compliance and philanthropy; now it is shifting up a gear to lead the search for innovative solutions to problems like creating sustainable supply chains, an area of worry for luxury brands because it is easy to make mistakes.”
Some brands are also endeavouring to put their own house in order. As much philosopher as fashion mogul, cashmere designer Brunello Cucinelli always seeks sustainable sources for the Mongolian yarn used in his coats (£3,620), in deeply subtle shades, and soft, drapy sweaters (£1,990), sometimes glinting with tiny sequins sewn under the knit. He has also restored a village near his Umbrian factory, adding a theatre and sports facilities for his staff as well as the local public. Comments in which he envisages a world where “future generations exist in harmony with the earth” turn his catalogues into manifestos.
Bottega Veneta has spent seven years creating a state‑of-the-art eco HQ for design and sample making in a converted and extended 18th-century palazzo in Montebello in the Veneto region, which has won coveted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification at the highest level; 75 per cent of its materials are reclaimed, it runs on recycled rainwater and solar energy, and its air conditioning reduces CO2 emissions by heat exchange. The park surrounding it has been restored, with the original plants and wildlife carefully researched. As a discreet luxury brand (its “When your own initials are enough” slogan says it all), such meticulous headquarters are appropriate and underline its respect for the talents of its craftsmen.
Bottega Veneta president Marco Bizzarri, who is also CEO of Kering’s couture and leather goods division, says: “We place the same importance on the skills of our artisans as on those of our creative director Tomas Maier – they innovate and experiment with their hands, and if we provide a workplace that brings pride and happiness, they will have deeper job satisfaction and make even better products [which currently include dresses shaped with swirls of tiny pleats in contrasting shades, £5,265]. The search for excellence is both an industrial strategy and a philosophy that permeates every aspect of the brand. We consider our staff truly valuable and a competitive advantage for us.” This is, he insists, a long-term strategy, “not for short-term profit – our approach is beneficial to everyone involved, because our futures are intertwined.” Despite the hefty investment required, this has done Bottega Veneta no harm – its 2013 revenues exceeded €1bn, up nearly 14 per cent on 2012, while the most recent figures show a second-quarter rise of over 20 per cent compared to the same period the previous year.
Sustainability is now glamorous enough to have celebrity support – that Copenhagen Fashion Summit eco-warrior is Livia Firth, creative director of brand consultancy Eco-Age, who berates both luxury and high-street firms for perceived shortcomings, but also works with them on her Green Carpet Challenge (GCC), creating sustainable designer items that are beautiful enough for red-carpet habitués. The first product collaboration was with Gucci on luscious vegetable-dyed bags (from £1,550), made using South American leather from sources that do not involve deforestation. This year she has worked with Stella McCartney on the first full capsule collection for the GCC by a single designer, featuring light and glamorous eveningwear (from £4,285) in a mix of recycled silk prints, specially created eco-lace and sustainable wool from Patagonia.
In April, a GCC Brandmark was awarded to Bottletop, a foundation set up 12 years ago by Cameron Saul (son of Mulberry founder Roger) and business partner Oliver Wayman to sell Kenyan-made bags created from bottle caps and ring pulls. Unpromising, but the idea has grown in stature and sophistication, becoming a social enterprise two years ago and increasing its sales sixfold since then. Now the ring pulls are coated in various colours, woven into complex patterns using the same ethically sourced leather as Gucci, and made by favela dwellers among others in Salvador, Brazil. A collaboration with New York designer Narciso Rodriguez has created sleek designs (clutch, £595), while another joint project with an as-yet-undisclosed “super brand” is set to launch next spring. For now, Bottletop is heading back to Kenya to make bags printed with a pattern based on the ring pull that will become a signature, eventually to be used on linings too.
Official sustainable organisations have cottoned on to new luxury interest and are linking up with like-minded designers. Known for her campaigns against climate change, Vivienne Westwood is an eager collaborator, with her enthusiasm matched by that of her fans. Her Ethical Fashion Initiative bags (graphic-printed Abstract Orb weekender, £230, and beaded clutch, £160) are collectors’ pieces, snapped up by devotees as they come out each season. These creations see recycled, handprinted canvas, leather offcuts and discarded metal turned into trims by slum dwellers in Nairobi or beaded by women from impoverished Maasai communities, in collaboration with the UN and World Trade Organization-backed Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) under the slogan “Not charity, just work”.
She has also worked with the EFI to use very distinctive, woven striped cloths from Burkina Faso – fabrics also championed by new Italo-Haitian design sensation Stella Jean, who contrasts exuberant traditional Haitian wax textiles with the stripes of Italian shirt fabrics in deep, sophisticated shades to elegant 1950s-inflected effect. A winner of Altaroma and Italian Vogue’s Who Is On Next? competition, who held her first major show in Giorgio Armani’s fashion theatre at his behest, Jean is typical of the independent designers now beginning to populate the sustainable luxury arena: she is young and a poster girl for the new generation that is driving attitudes forward, pushing luxury brands to invest in the area, as Daveu points out. For Jean, there is no alternative. “We live in an unsustainable period, so for me it is natural to want to preserve and transmit heritage and integrity,” she says. “Growing up in a multiracial family in Italy – not easy in the 1980s – I found people did not want to learn about other traditions, so the treasure trove of unparalleled craftsmanship that the EFI opened up to me was a wonderful chance both to showcase their skills and create social enterprise, not charity. I find that stores and customers are open to this new philosophical viewpoint.”
Idealistic though this sounds, it is a view shared by many of her generation. Alex McIntosh is both the business and research manager at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion and managing director for Christopher Raeburn, a young designer known for sports-inspired designs mainly using recycled fabrics (such as well-cut parkas in soft metallics, from £475, and sporty dresses, from £395), who shows on London’s main circuit. McIntosh says that “values have shifted among the young, not just about the environment but in wanting to make a contribution to the community. ‘Conscious consumption’ and the wish to invest in items that are worth passing down is replacing mindless shopping, perhaps because today’s young have grown up able to have anything instantly. Our students already have that mindset.”
Orsola de Castro, who co-founded the Estethica sustainable area at London Fashion Week and has her own upcycling brand, From Somewhere, helped instigate Fashion Revolution Day on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster in order to highlight industry working conditions and better inform consumers about the supply chain. “Rana Plaza was a terrible catalyst,” she says, “but it has made consumers, especially young fashionistas, query both cheap fashion and mass ‘luxury’. The high street concentrates on improving production methods, while the high end focuses on social responsibility, giving the luxury industry a good name.” She believes the movement is best expressed by the rehabilitation of the term “artisan”, which used to mean handmade but rough and ready and is now the last word in luxury; Maison Martin Margiela even uses the title ”Artisanal” rather than couture for its made-to-order collection (prices on request), which this season it has based on old embroidered damasks and decoration with out-of-circulation coins. It selected this name with justification; reworking vintage items in highly skilled, decorative ways was a principle of the brand’s foundation.
Mark Kenly Domino Tan is a Danish designer (as de Castro points out, “the Scandis are hardwired for sustainability”) whose conceptual, generous yet wearable shapes (from €200) with a slightly Japanese aesthetic are made in recycled or organic materials, with top-end pieces manufactured locally. “I believe in staying close to the process and in building a quality wardrobe to last, as my grandmother did,” he says. “Stores choose our styles on aesthetics, but the way we work can close the deal.”
New York-based Maiyet works with artisans in countries from India to Peru on delicately decorated pieces (from £440) in soft, gently sheeny fabrics and with feminine, flattering outlines, sometimes bias cut. “These collections appeal to young women who demand more authenticity from brands and are attracted to our social mission and business model.” says founder Kristy Caylor. “Great products will always drive sales, but clients often tell me that they are excited to discover a luxury fashion brand that reflects their values.”
De Castro describes small brands carefully handmaking at an artisanal level as a sustainable model “on a smaller, more personal scale than big luxury allows. Alabama Chanin gets all items made locally once orders arrive, to save on stock [embroidered pieces from about £700]; Roman designer Flavia La Rocca works with recycled fabrics and makes multi‑use pieces so you buy less [such as a crisp, white long shirt that can also be cropped, £245, and a dress that separates into a top and skirt, £345]; while Feral Childe’s fine artists in Midtown Manhattan print and make pieces that contrast with colour-blocked tailoring.”
The latter two are among the brands on sustainable fashion site Gather&See. Co-founder Stephanie Hogg – who also has her own small ethical brand, NearFar, with items made by unemployed youths affected by Sierra Leone’s civil war – says, “Despite being part of the generation that rejects fast fashion, it was still hard to find beautiful, ethical clothes that suit the working world. We eventually discovered brands, mostly exclusive in the UK, with great stories that we explain – clients really want to know the background.” At Bottega Veneta, Bizzarri agrees. “The consumer is now interested in the backstory – where an item came from, how it was produced – so everyone in the company is associated with the values behind it.”
This attitude, plus youthful enthusiasm, is creating a virtuous circle of brands with a sustainable agenda, which some of the brightest, most innovative fashion graduates target for their first jobs, bringing with them fresh “It’s not just designers – Christopher has a highly talented fashion-marketing graduate who wanted to work on the graphics side,” says McIntosh. It’s global too. De Castro speaks about sustainable development to students in Germany, Italy, the UK and Hong Kong.
But despite all the positives, there are many, many challenges. Bizzarri says one is a scarcity of artisans: “The current generation is getting older and the young are drawn to digital jobs.” Action is being taken in smaller-scale British companies – shirtmaker Emma Willis runs apprenticeships for local youngsters at her factory in an 18th-century townhouse in Gloucester, where working conditions and flexibility are paramount, and has noticed greatly increased interest in her sustainable methods from young employees and City clients alike. There’s also the fact that buyers can still be sceptical about sustainability, while getting glossy-press coverage is hard. “Many magazines are advertiser-dependent,” de Castro points out, “so young ethical designers create their own networks on social media and cool online magazines”.
The biggest issues, however, are what de Castro calls “the elephants in the room” – the environmental wastage, unregulated manufacturing and fast pace of the fashion system itself. Everyone recognises that solutions are far off, though not impossible. From the luxury perspective, Daveu is optimistic that “the new spirit and expectations of younger people will change attitudes generally”. McIntosh is pragmatic: “The whole system is problematic and every sector is complicit,” he says. “We have a dialogue now, but eco-efficiency will not be enough – fundamental change is vital.” Fighting talk comes from Williams, who founded the Centre for Sustainable Fashion to challenge many accepted norms of the fashion industry. “We should devise a business model targeting over-consumption – fashion is in a good position to prick the bubble,” she says. “The biggest challenge is to change attitudes to what we want and when. But we have to start from where we are and dream with our eyes wide open.”