Just a few seasons ago, you would never have used the terms “Fashion Week” and “sustainability” in the same sentence. Fashion Week used to stand for all things frivolous, superficial and decadently glamorous. And in many aspects, it still does: industry insiders still travel, in quite an unsustainable manner, from all over the globe to fill their front-row seats at the hottest shows in town, magazines still compile the ever-present lists of “Hottest New Trends From Fashion Week”, and street-style photographers still ensure that the show-goers’ outfits are even more hyped than the ones on the runways.
But something has shifted in the last few seasons. All of a sudden, headlines like “London Fashion Week hosts swap shop” stood out amongst the glitzy front-row coverage. Swap shops at London Fashion Week? This initiative, led by ethically minded young designer Patrick McDowell, was a sign of a new wave of consciousness. Is sustainability finally stepping out into the spotlight?
With reports continuously placing fashion as one of the most polluting industries in the world, it’s about time the industry got serious about sustainability. We are reaching a point when fashion brands, be they small and independent or international giants, can no longer get away with not having a stance on sustainability, and with all eyes on them during Fashion Week, designers and events are feeling the pressure to step up their ethical game.
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Banning fur from the runways seems to be the first and most logical step – the Fashion Weeks of Amsterdam, Oslo and Melbourne are proudly fur-free. Others are looking for a more all-rounded approach to ethics. After Copenhagen Fashion Week – constantly described as “one to watch” in the international fashion scene – announced a radical new sustainability plan that would require brands to meet several sustainability targets – bigger international fashion weeks and well-known designers refuse to be left behind.
Fashion heavy-hitters like Alexander McQueen are donating their entire archive to students to minimise waste, and Anya Hindmarch is following her 2007 I’m Not A Plastic Bag design with a new bag that carries the slogan I Am A Plastic Bag – made from recycled bottles. Amy Powney, founder of luxury eco-fashion brand Mother of Pearl, launched the initiative #FashionOurFuture, a digital community for those who aim to make a change by taking a pledge that will make their own wardrobe more sustainable – pledge-takers have so far included Eva Chen, Alexa Chung, Adwoa Aboah and Jameela Jamil. This season, sustainable fashion was on everyone’s lips.
Smaller, quirkier designers also showed their eco credentials. London designer Isabel Manns creates reversible designs that bring the wearer two looks in one, and has made serious efforts to reduce waste in her AW20 collection. Turkish-British brand Harem London focuses on gender-neutral clothing with a focus on long-lasting, sustainable fabrics.
But as we see minimal initiatives touted as progress, could it be that Fashion Week has in fact been greenwashed? For example, the fact that this season’s show invites were no longer sent out on paper but digitally hardly seems like a reason to celebrate when you consider the vast, devastating impact of seasonal production. A few minor tweaks will no longer do – we’re in panic mode, and reacting to the climate emergency with a simple shrug is a serious faux pas.
Fashion journalist Bel Jacobs, one of the organisers behind the protest movement Boycott Fashion (part of the worldwide Extinction Rebellion movement) helped organise this year’s London Fashion Week protest, which called for the event to be cancelled, and for the British Fashion Council to work on an emergency action plan to help stakeholders transition into a new format, which addresses the issues of obsolescence, overproduction and exploitation.
“Our aim was to highlight the climate emergency and fashion’s role in that and to persuade the British Fashion Council to cancel Fashion Week and to use its platform to tell the truth instead, by hosting people’s assemblies to find the way forward,” says Jacobs.
To the question whether she considers the action successful, she replies: “In that the BFC is still going pretty much as usual, then no. As a way of keeping the spotlight on the issues, then yes. 2020 is the crunch year, when we put in place the systems that could divert from from catastrophic climate breakdown. But I don’t think anyone fully understands how complex those systems – whatever they turn out to be – will be to implement or just how catastrophic climate breakdown really will be.”
And despite the steps taken by designers to make their production more ethical, the core issue of Fashion Week is that a seasonal fashion system contributes to a continued cycle of endless production, resource depletion and modern slavery. As we have a system ruled by seasonal trends and a constant desire for new things, Fashion Week is far from truly sustainable. Making small amendments to a system that doesn’t work as a whole is, in the long run, quite futile without a radical change at the core.
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Jacobs continues: “I love labels that are trying to do good – but, as long as they still work on the idea that we can continue to draw resources from a depleted earth, use carbon to power our machines and basically shop as usual, we have a problem. Plus, the time for tweaking the system and incremental change is over. We need to look at ways of living that mean that we don’t create our identity and sense of selves from what we buy and own.”
But there is one event that is revolutionising the way we think of Fashion Week. Millennial entrepreneur Evelyn Mora, founder of Helsinki Fashion Week (HFW), hosts a yearly – not seasonal – event that centres around sustainability. Two years ago, HFW made headlines as the first-ever Fashion Week to ban leather from the catwalks in collaboration with animal rights organisation PETA, and the 2019 event featured a BioPlayground where show-goers could find out more about materials that were revolutionising fashion, such as mushroom leather, and learn about how they were made. The event also offered several panel discussions – as well-attended and sought-after as the shows – on tackling sustainability.
This year, HFW is presenting a Designer Residency Programme, where sustainable designers will collaborate on collections made from re-used fabrics. On being a game-changer, Mora says: “The winners are those that create real change – and by ‘change’ I mean take action to raise standards, whether it’s an event, a dress or a dish.
“Crisis or not, you should have a level of professional integrity and passion to aim to serve your best and highest work. In other words, keep it real. After all, buzz is a moment, but fact is forever.
“When I founded the first and still the most sustainable fashion week, we didn’t do it to gain followers on Instagram, we pioneered it because we knew that it is simply the quality and values we wanted to stand for.”
And those values – and standing by them proudly – is what sets Helsinki Fashion Week apart. We can only hope, for sake of the planet, that more international events will follow suit.
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Feature image of 2018 New York Fashion Week by Sam Aronov/Shutterstock.