LFW S/S 2008: Ethical Smethical – Clothing, Ethics and London Fashion Week

Kate Gilbert comments on the ethical fashion at London Fashion Week spring summer 2008.

As the world around is waking up to the effects we are having on the planet, fashion and design is one of those areas were we are definitely dragging our heels. Despite top designers such as Stella McCartney stamping the plight of ethical issues, eco concerns seem to counteract everything high fashion is about; luxury, excessive consumption and wealth. There is also the issue that environmental concerns, by its very nature, fundamentally undermines the business of fashion; new collections come out every six months with high street stores can have up to fifteen new collections within the year, on the basis that someone somewhere will buy them. Ethical concerns undermine this and our comfortable western lifestyle; and we don’t like that. Change unnerves us. There has also been the issue in the past that ethical fashion wasn’t being produced by designers, it was being produced by environmentalists and as a result the clothes were all very green, but were not desirable in terms of appearance. This however, is changing; slowly, but surely.

So what actually are the issues? I must confess that before digging around and doing some research, I was very ignorant to the problems raised by our fashion consumption; however, when you start to delve into it, it really is quite worrying. There seems to be two levels: firstly, there is the human element and the effect clothing production has on underpaid, mistreated workers. Secondly there is the environmental impact that comes in multiple forms. To start with there are the implications the use of chemicals have on the environment. At least 8,000 chemicals are used to turn raw materials into clothes, many of these are toxic and pollute the environment, the local water and also cause lasting harm to the workers. Polyester is cheaply mass produced and found in many clothes, however it is not biodegradable; and cotton has become the focus of media debate as it makes up 40 percent of world fiber consumption and yet has to be treated heavily with damaging toxic chemicals.

Furthermore, there is the carbon emission produced through these methods contributing massively to the greenhouse effect; then on top of this, there is the miles garments travel before hitting our shop floor. This is obviously a very brief sum up of very complex issues, however it is quite pertinent that whilst we are all getting on with recycling our bottles and newspapers, we need to urgently start turning our attention to our clothing.

Turning back to the matter in hand, how are these issues being handled at London Fashion Week? Well, almost everything is a double edged sword. In terms of general fashion, there does seem to be a slow shift with many high street stores now stocking an ethical range; however, often this is a way of placating guilt and duping the consumer. It is almost ironic that companies such as Primark, the leader in fast, cheap disposable fashion, would stock a range of organic cotton t-shirts. It is almost adding insult to injury.

At London Fashion Week itself there is almost the same phenomenon happening. Last season saw the establishment of esthetica; a relatively small section of the LFW exhibition that is dedicated to entirely ethical fashion. This has in turn caused debate amongst the exhibition goers; by creating this green section, you are polarizing these two fashion communities against one another, i.e. by stating that these companies are ethical you are stating that the others are not. Also, if you talk to the designers within esthetica, they hope to be integrated into the main exhibition; thus making eco-fashion a given instead of the exception.

So what is ethical fashion itself like? Of the small number of stands on display, there was a good range of clothing and accessories; shoes, handbags, knitwear, denim and clothing. In terms of shoes, there was Veja, who produce eco-friendly leather sneakers using chrome free, ancient tanning methods and organic compounds; and no, they don’t look like you’re walking around wearing leaves tied together with bamboo and human hair, they look like normal sneakers (in a good way).

Then there is Terra Plana who create really lovely shoes; their spring/summer collection include round toe leather flats and cone heeled mary-janes, in varying colours. Their aim is to improve sustainability by using new techniques and materials, for example, using the outside of rice to produce a form of cushiony material used on the soles of shoes. They also use recycled plastic bottle mesh and all of their leather is dyed using either vegetable dye or chrome free dye and is tanned all the way through so as a result, as the shoes age, the colour becomes richer. Each shoe is unique and they are ultra-flexible. They are also in pursuit of making a high heel that is comfortable enough to wear all day long (which, eco issues aside, my poor calves are crying out for.)

However, it doesn’t all have to be about new materials and obscure techniques, many of the clothing ranges on display this season were all about recycling old clothes into something new. Junkystyling creates skirts, corset tops and dresses out of old shirts and ties. Davina Hawthrone makes really quite beautiful clothes including dresses and tops out of old lace table clothes and doilies with beautiful flower appliqué made out of vintage materials. Then there’s From Somewhere who get their material from factories, using colour palette panels and unused fabric rolls.

Of course, there is also Katherine Hamnett, who needs no introduction. 20,000 people die a year from accidental pesticide poisoning in cotton agriculture and a further 1,000,000 people a year suffer long term poisoning (World Health Organization), and through her renowned slogan t-shirts, she aims to change this. All of the Katherine Hamnett t-shirts are 100% organic cotton. A new edition slogan for SS08 is ‘No more fashion victims’ – which is a direct statement to the fashion and textile industry to clean up their act. This season also sees the launch of range of footwear (ballet pumps and plimsolls), which are made from organic cotton, with recycled laces and Forestry Stewardship Council rubber soles; also a range of handbags and holdalls in vegetable tanned leather and organic cotton.

This is only the tip of the iceberg with many new companies cropping up that are ethical from top to toe (even down to using recycled buttons). Whilst going green was once a difficult lifestyle choice was usually only reserved for the eco-warrior. It is true that the industry is coming under increasing scrutiny and is becoming more aware, however, as a consumer, it is increasingly coming down to us to apply the pressure. Going green is now becoming not only a sensible lifestyle choice for our worldly well-being, but it is also becoming a style decision; as after all, all the cool kids are doing it nowadays.

As we watch high fashion we must increasingly question what is important in a collection, and increasingly, we should judge a designer not only on the cut of their fabric and their use of colour, but also on the way that collection was produced and what it is made from. Also, as a consumer group we do hold an immense amount of power and we should start to use that by questioning what is behind our purchases and questioning what is the price of a bargain really costing us?

— Kate Gilbert reported live at London Fashion Week spring summer 2008 for SASSYBELLA.com