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"Ethical-Eco Clothing" Movement Gains Momentum in the UK

Eco labels try to shake hippie image

By Fleur Britten International Herald Tribune
Monday, February 14, 2005

LONDON "If clothes had to list their real ingredients on the label, bad
labor standards and toxic chemicals would need their own symbols," says
Anti-Apathy, a socio-environmental campaign group and the organizers of last
week's fringe London Fashion Week event, Re: Fashion.

Showcasing organic, fair trade, vintage and recycled fashion, Re: Fashion
attempted to move ethical fashion away from its ascetic image of hair shirts
worn by yurt-dwelling hippies. It was held in a London nightclub with live
rap music and a forum that included the eco catwalk crusader Katharine
Hamnett, who wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Make Poverty History." "Fashion
is making a real mess of the world," added Hamnett.

The show was hosted by the hip British broadcaster Miranda Sawyer. "I was
really worried about what I was going to wear - you start examining your
morals," she said.

So in a secondhand skirt, top and cream suede boots from eBay, Sawyer
introduced capsule collections, ranging from the street ("hip-hop hemp" by
The Hemp Trading Company and Howies' eco-surf style) to the high street
(pretty People Tree and American Apparel) to boutique fashion (Enamore,
OsvoMode, Juste, Sari, Debbi Little and Junky Styling).

To some, this list might read like random telephone directory entries -
apart from American Apparel, all are small British designers committed to
making a big difference.

But they are all part of the green movement that includes organic food and
eco-architecture.

According to the Co-op Bank, ethical fashion spending in Britain rose by 17
percent to £273 million, or $509 million, by the end of 2003 (while total
fashion spending amounts to £23 billion today. The hidden costs of
conventional fashion are, broadly, issues of pollution, waste and workers'
rights. While sweatshop labor has been widely publicized, there is still no
legislation to enforce humane standards, according to the Ethical Trading
Initiative, a British alliance of companies, nongovernmental organizations
and trade unions.

And in a culture of disposable fashion, the waste mountains are piling up.
Some 900,000 tons of textiles end up in British landfills, according to the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, releasing methane, a
greenhouse gas, and poisonous ammonia as it rots. Up to 95 percent of the
waste could be recycled.

Fair trade label People Tree opened the show with Sophia
Kokosalaki-inspired draped and knotted dresses and vests in black organic
cotton with silver "zardozi" (intricate Indian embroidery). The London-based
label supports more than 1,400 craftspeople in developing countries. Because
fair trade guidelines stipulate long lead times, this was People Tree's
spring collection.

Next came fresh-looking sportswear from American Apparel, which claims to
be the largest U.S. T-shirt manufacturer. (Its workers are given bicycles,
bus passes and yoga classes, and it uses cotton that is part organic and
recycles all scraps.) Recalling vintage Fred Perry, girls bounced out in
purple preppy tennis dresses, boys in layered zip-up tops, velour polo
shirts and joggers.

The Hemp Trading Company worked the hip-hop vibe in gray and charcoal
hoodies, visors and sweatbands with motifs by London's best graffiti
artists. The company's ethically traded hemp and organic cotton has a cult
hip-hopper following, even making its way into rap lyrics. "Hemp is
naturally organic," says the company founder Gav Lawson. "After all, it's a
weed - it's difficult to stop it growing. It doesn't need agrochemicals."

"Last Light," Howies's autumn collection, captured the brand's outdoorsy
outlook. Gideon Day, a former designer for Paul Smith, showed organic baggy
jeans and witty motif-ed organic sweatshirts.

"The only zero-impact company is a bankrupt one," said Howies's Welsh
founder, David Hieatt, "but we want to make the lowest impact possible - the
worst thing you can do is to make stuff no one wants to buy."

OsvoMode's womenswear was typically kooky off-schedule London fashion:
black half-trousers with chunky sweaters, and apron dresses in cream and
black. "We like to play the line between good and bad taste," say the
Central Saint Martins' teachers Jeanette Osterried (who has designed for
Peter Jensen and Ann-Sofie Back) and Thomas Voorn. They use organic where
possible but lament the lack of variety in colors and textures.

Reminiscent of Jessica Ogden and Marni, the hemp label Enamore showed
kimono wrap-over tops and romantic knee-length culottes with trims from
recycled curtains, and 1960s A-line bell-sleeved coats in an antique palette
of dirty rose, chestnut and charcoal. Enamore's spring/summer show is the
first collection of the Brighton-based Canadian designer Jenny McPherson.

"I blend hemp with luxurious silks, wools and cottons. It's time to dust
off hemp's canvas sack image," said McPherson, who nonetheless plays down
the eco argument. "This has to appeal to the mainstream," she said. "I can't
rely on a bunch of hippies. They'll be knitting their own clothes."

Juste (French for "just right" as in fairly traded) showed dresses, tops
and skirts, each made from just one square of silk folded around the body
and hand-woven in the traditional Bangladeshi craft of "jamdani."

Sari, which recycles discarded saris, followed the Indian silk theme with
1950s quilted silk jackets and matching circle skirts, and halter-neck
dresses in a straight 1930s silhouette and rich jewel colors. The company
founder, Sital Haria, launched a "save a sari" campaign when she realized
how many were being thrown away in Britain. Her business partner and Saint
Martins-educated designer Sam Cook breathed new life into them, inspired by
the simplicity of Jean Muir and Zandra Rhodes's eccentric color
combinations.

Debbi Little, a former Cerruti designer, followed with sport-luxe ballgowns
made from crushed silken parachute canopies in bottle green and ruby red.
With a "make do and mend" principle, Little uses only recycled fabrics,
inspired by the 1980s New York designer Norma Kamali, who made jumpsuits
from parachutes.

Closing the show, Junky Styling sent out quasi-Vivienne Westwood twisted
tailoring made from deconstructed tweed suits: miniskirts, leg pieces and
boned basques with satin ribbons, harem pants made from suit trousers, and a
bikini top made from two jacket pockets as the finale. Junky Styling
co-designers, Kerry Seager and Annie Sanders, also make recycled silk
kimonos and dresses for the Italian fashion company Voyage, and use green
energy and source unused fabrics from obsolete factory stock.

Models wore old school "worn again trainers," made from recycled prison
blankets, old car leather and natural latex by the former Prada Sport
designer Ajoy Sahu for Terra Plana, and colorful court shoes from the
vegetarian shoe label Beyond Skin.

Hamnett had hoped to show her first ethical-eco menswear collection but
production difficulties delayed delivery. From organic thread to the labels,
Hamnett refuses to compromise. "I'm not going to print '100 percent organic'
on a polyester label. But it's like climbing a precipice. Suppliers would
say, 'Why should we do organic when you're the only one asking for it?"'
Hamnett said.

But how did the fashion show stand up to aesthetic scrutiny? "I thought all
the clothes we really wearable," says Sawyer. "That's the most important
thing - this won't work if it looks disgusting. And everything was youthful
without being too young."

However, despite Re: Fashion being a sell-out show, none of the buyers from
London boutiques and department stores responded to their invitations. Does
that suggest this is forever a niche market or is it the thin edge of the
sustainable fashion wedge?

"There's still a long way to go," says Cyndi Rhoades, the founder of
Anti-Apathy. However, she added, "These innovative designers along with
consumer pressure will drive the issues onto the mainstream agenda."
Copyright © 2005 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com