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Fashion Design and Sustainability

Recently, I have been doing a short 11 week fashion course. The reason for doing that was to learn how to sew better and I did not realise I would be in for a ride learning design, pattern cutting and sewing.

Me being me I analysed the way sustainability is presented and taught. Firstly, what I noticed is that the teachers talk about sustainability and how important it is but when it comes to either upcycling and using sustainable materials there is not much happening. Upcycling is a no, because to learn how to upcycle you need to understand how to construct a piece from scratch in the first place (fair play). Learn the rules before breaking them.

Materials were on me and my own pathetic attempts at making a sustainable piece went down the pooper pretty fast. My collection was inspired by Jeff Koons' baloon statues and therefore I was looking for glossy fabric, of which in silk I found only one in the colour and texture that would have been suitable and that was £50/ meter. I knew about Offset Warehouse - awesome sustainable fabric shop, but I struggle choosing fabric in real life, so biuying it online is out of question. Then I went down the rabbit hole and gave up on sustainability by almost choosing PVC, since the colour and the texture fitted the bill so perfectly. I decided to give up on that because I would not be able to sew that together either. So I bought offcuts, of which I used one of them and then I found glossy polyester that I would be able to sew together. The filling of my piece is lefover bubble wrap that I have plenty of at home. Some of my tutors said it is quite sustainable, but I do not see how. Essentially I'm wrapping leftover plastic into new plastic. The only truly sustainable items are my vintage buttons I bought for the piece.

This experience made me think whether one of the reasons why designers do not always go for sustainable options is lack of creative choice in the sustainable market. High prices and lack of experience, should not be a problem for mid and luxury market because designers hire experienced makers and artisans to make their collections and they probably don't have such high chances of fucking it up. High street obviously does not care, so they go for cheapest options either way, even when they pretend to be green.

It also made me think whether there is enough emphasis on how to change the habits. Do people who have worked in the industry and are teaching now actually know how to change production, distribution, and the system overall and are they allowed to teach that? My first encounter with the production system (besides the work for a jewellery brand I did ages ago) was for my uni project on upcycling two years ago. I went to some factories in London (only one or two) to see if they could upcycle. They got confused by what I wanted, told me that some of the pieces would take longer to sew, now, that it has been dismantled and basically that they would not be able to help me. It makes sense: the pressure is to make more, cut out as many pattern pieces at a time as possible and not have to worry about a one-off piece. When the system is so set in place is it even possible to change it and where do you start that change?

I went on the course so I could find ideas for upcycling and I was upfront about it and of course there is not enough time to teach that area, while covering the rest of the syllabus. I am taking into consideration that the course is really short, but I still wonder whether three year BA courses cover sustainability well enough or do they just pass it. This year going to Graduate Fashion week I saw some designers who centred their pieces around sustainability by reusing existing fabric or using sustainable fabric. But out of 5000 students, I saw only about ten sustainability driven design projects and a few marketing and fashion management ideas on sustainability, which primarily were around fashion rental and connecting consumers to second hand and sustainable fashion market. But from the design perspective, there wasn't much. I don't necessarily think it was students' fault, since they were not producing on a Zara scale and each can only do so much, but besides the talks is there enough encouragement for sustainability in the industry from the stage of education? Being a non-fashion student from somewhere like Central St Martins what do I know. But it is just a thought.

You would tell me 'these are all lame excuses' especially for large luxury brands who have access to what it feels like the whole world. And I get it. I know a few designers who make pieces themselves or hire tailors or a few and make production in house. Some buy leftover fabric (Roop), some remake their finds from charity and second-hand shops (A HUG, Mary Benson London), some only make to order to ensure less waste (Olivia Rose The Label and Mary Benson). So where there is a strong value, there is action and potential solution. Myself, I am not entirely sure how to get there besides slowly learning how to sew and test out some pieces in the hopes to get bigger and have enough money to hire better professionals. On a larger scale I think it is a union thing where everyone has to chip in and try, but especially people who own the most and people who have an opportunity to change it on a large scale.

Check my progress here. I did have fun overall!

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