The New Wave of Sustainability

October 26th, 2019  |  Published in October 2019

Let’s face it. It’s a scary world out there. Even if your daily wardrobe consists primarily of rose-colored glasses, one can’t deny our world is going through changes of seismic proportions nearly every day.

And the fashion world, one of stunning beauty and whimsical folly at times, is not immune to these changes. Designers at their core are artists and many have chosen the runway as the place to make a statement on issues currently under debate. In New York, Kerby Jean-Raymond began his Pyer Moss show with a politically-charged sermon by writer Casey Gerald, which served as the designer’s third commentary on what “Vogue” explained was “the erasure of African American narratives in popular culture.”

In London, Erdem Moralioglu’s Spring 2020 collection for his namesake brand was dedicated to the life of Tina Modotti. According to the designer, the actress-turned-communist “found a cause that she believed was right, fought for it, and eventually suffered the biggest consequence.” Hidden in a line of decadently patterned dresses, scarves and statement hats, one can’t ignore the coincidence in the timing of showcasing this particular woman of the world. Even hidden messages can be heard loud and clear.

In Milan, design house Marni, helmed by Francesco Risso, stood in solidarity with climate change activists through a jungle-infused experiential journey. Not only were some of the textiles upcycled, so was the décor in the room. See the tropical frenzy-infused collection here.

And, not surprising for many fashion enthusiasts, one of the largest statements came from Paris, from Sarah Burton for the storied fashion house Alexander McQueen.   Mr. McQueen, during his lifetime, was no stranger to making a statement or spectacle. But Sarah Burton has generally carried on the tradition of incredible design and craftsmanship left behind by Mr. Queen, not necessarily his flair for the overly dramatic.

That’s not to say her designs aren’t decadent in their own right; they certainly are. For Spring 2020, however, Burton toned it down. And, in doing so, she showed that quiet statements can sometimes start the loudest revolutions.

A major theme of the Alexander McQueen collection was community – what people can do when they work together to create something.

“Each look tells its own story. The connection between the clothes is the time it took to make them. I was interested in clarity and paring things down, in the essence of garments – stripping back to the toile. I love the idea of people having the time to make things together, the time to meet and talk together, the time to reconnect with the world.” – Sarah Burton

 The McQueen team – everyone from fashion students to Human Resources executives – joined together to create two of the hand-stitched dresses shown on the runway. In all these years, textiles have never come from the hands of an HR rep. Ever.

Those same fashion students also contributed by way of sketches as two of the more wearable dresses were made of fabrics patterned with those hand-drawn designs. The light lavender version provided a lovely breath of fresh air in a collection of mainly black, white and navy garments.

Several looks then took on a whole new life as they used materials from previous McQueen collections. Burton didn’t just go into the archives for inspiration, she went for fabric samples as well. In particular, a ruffle-sleeved dress with panels of organza, tulle and ivory lichen lace that walked the runway like a cloud was reworked from past seasons’ materials.

Finally, many pieces in the collection were made using materials sourced from Great Britain’s fine craftspeople. The brand may show in Paris, but McQueen and Burton are both proudly British. Linen came from Northern Ireland. The North of England provided wool for her more-tailored pieces. Ireland provided even more linen, this time for damasks. These garments helped Burton illuminate the often-forgotten technique of beetling. The designers ventured to the oldest mill in Ireland, William Clark & Sons, among other storied factories to produce these textiles.

When speaking of the McQueen design team, “The Irish Times” noted in an article that “it was the first time they had seen first-hand the 300-year-old process of beetling fabric, which gives the linen a particular lustre and sheen.” Duncan Neill, creative director of William Clark, said in the same article “the whole factory floor vibrated” when the 150-year old beetling machine was used.

Not just simply upcycling, this collection went back into the roots of what fashion is. Clothing made at the hands of men and women – together. Is there a lesson there in sustainability?

The question has been in the air for a while, especially in the hallowed halls of fashion. When will designers start to take the idea of sustainability more seriously? When will they skew global sensibilities and think more local to create wearable works of art that are both fashionable and limit the amount of damage to our world? Done well, sustainable fashion could even uplift and expand lifecycles, not just manage its demise. Some designers have begun this work and championed it for years. Other designers still show collections so far removed from the idea.

But now the need for change seems more urgent. And Sarah Burton’s toned-down, local-centric, community-focused collection is one that can spark the change for a more conscious take on fashion.  And her collection was still at its core, beautiful. She just showed that if the designer utilizes the resources you have around you, explore old techniques mixed with new and engage your community to help, magic can happen. If more designers took these principles to heart, the industry would lead the way in sustainability.

Oh, what a world that would be.

–Jennifer Perusek

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