Friday 30 May 2014

Clean Clothes

We were talking earlier in the week about smart fashion: that is, clothes that do more than keep you warm and flatter your shape. On the fringes of the industry, and in the labs of sports research, innovation is an everyday occurrence, and utility means more than just adding pockets or a hole to poke your headphones through. From companies like Studio XO who developed a dress for art-diva Lady Gaga that blew bubbles, to the visionaries at Biocouture that are brewing fabric, these are exciting times.
It's all about lateral thinking, about considering a problem and flipping it around. Take a simple chore like laundry. It's a necessary evil: washing our clothes rinses detergents into the water supply, and uses kilotons of energy. What if the act of washing our clothes could somehow help, rather than harm the environment?
A collaboration between Helen Storey MBE, a British artist, designer and head of Fashion Science at London College Of Fashion and Tony Ryan MBE, professor of Physical Chemistry at the University of Sheffield has led to a fascinating notion: catalytic clothing. Simply put, it's a treatment added to laundry detergent that cleans the air around you of pollution.
Catalytic clothing applies the technology already at work in things like self-cleaning windows and building concrete, and applies it to fabric. Brace yourselves, I'm about to drop some science. The CatClo solution contains nanoparticles of titanium, thousands of times finer than the human hair. When light shines on it, it reacts, splitting oxygen to create free radicals that bleach out the volitile organic nasties that couse pollution. The titanium is deposited on your clothes with every wash, and the process is accelerated by movement. In other words, when you wear clothing treated with the CatClo solution, you become your own catalytic converter, scrubbing the air around you clean. If everyone in, say, Sheffield, was to wash their clothes with CatClo, they could remove three tonnes per day of of nitrogen oxide, a key ingredient in the pollution cocktail, from the atmosphere. Imagine that in smog-choked Beijing.
Big business is, curiously, yet to jump on the idea, despite the fact that it's a reasonably straightforward addition to currently available detergents. There are pitfalls, of course. For one thing, CatClo removes all volatile organic compounds from the air around it, including perfume. So long, Chanel No. 5.
However, public perception of the process is generally positive. All it takes is one forward thinking multinational to step on board, and CatClo could fly. Here's the thing: it doesn't need special clothing or products. But to work successfully, it does need as many people as possible to be using it.
This notion of collectiveness, of working together for the common good, may be anathema to corporate thinking, but it's vital in a world where our environment is changing rapidly, and not for the better. A product like catalytic clothing is just the kind of innovative, forward-thinking notion we need. A tiny step towards a cleaner world.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

The New Black: fashion, technology and the future

If, like me, you're interested in what the future holds for the fashion industry, then you need to set a bit of time aside to watch the documentary I've embedded below. Presented by AEG, The New Black is a thought-provoking exploration into the way we create and wear clothes in this most science-fictional of centuries. Let's put it like this: in the next ten years our clothes will most likely be interacting with us in all sorts of unexpected ways.
From specialists at Adidas who are weaving fitness-monitoring tools directly into sportswear, to the design house that built Lady Gaga's bubble-blowing dress, there's plenty here to inspire, intrigue and downright boggle the mind. The real game-changer? For me, it's the work being done by Suzanne Lee at Biocouture. She is growing--or more accurately brewing--fabric from the same sort of yeast microcultures familiar to the beer and bread-making industries. This is stuff that's true cradle-to-cradle. Grown from naturally occuring substances, and completely compostable at the end of its usable life. Now that's forward thinking.
I guarantee you'll find some food for thought in The New Black. In an industry where there's frequently too much going on to consider research and development, it behooves us to look to the fringes to find out what will be shaping our clothes, and our relationship to them, in the coming, challenging years.

Friday 23 May 2014

Gap Does More? Hardly...

The blowback from the Rana Plaza collapse rumbles on, as many Western retailers implicated in the disaster continue to hold out on paying their rightful dues to the families of the victims. Prmary amongst these are Gap and Walmart, who have been sending up smokescreens, announcing their own unaccountable compensation scheme, and generally acting like corporate vampires.
Many observers were surprised and delighted, then, when emerged this week, apparantly signalling a u-turn in the company's attitude. Convincingly branded and designed, it announced that Gap would be joining the Accord on Fire And Building Safety in Bangladesh and paying compensation to the victims of a fire at the Aswad Composite Mills late last year. The website seemed to show Gap had turned a corner, and were ready to man up to their responsibilities.
It was, of course, too good to be true. Gap's Communications Officer issued a statement denouncing the site as a convincing fake. On Tuesday, activist group 18 Million Rising came forward as the instigators of the, saying:
“This is not about a hoax on the company. It’s about justice for the workers who make the company possible.”
The spoof site has shown just how vulnerable a position Gap has backed itself into. Few observers consider their efforts to distance themselves from the Rana Plaza disaster or their further attempts to set up competing compensation schemes as the actions of a company with any sense of social responsibilty. Although sadly no longer active, shows just how little they're actually doing.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Kickin' It Batik Style With Vans And Della

Batik is a way of dying fabric by using wax to block out patterns. The trademark dots and whorls sing off the cloth in vibrant shades often inspired by the landscape in which they were made. Like tartan, the colours and design can signify rank and status, with some patterns forbidden to all but royalty. Batik garments are used in rituals of motherhood and childbirth in Indonesia. The fabric is a rich part of the culture in which it is made.
The bright colours and bold patterning of batik have recently enjoyed something of an uptick in popularity, especially after a UNESCO recognition for the fabric as a Masterpiece Of Oral And Intangible Heritage Of Humanity (nope, me neither) in 2009. Indonesians are encouraged to wear batik to work on a Friday, and worldwide the fashion-savvy are seeing the attraction of this bold and beautiful stuff.
As the weather warms, a blogger's thoughts turn to a change in wardrobe, and I'm considering a new pair of sneakers for the summer months. What luck for me, then, that skate brand Vans have launched a range of pumps using Ghanan batik. They've partnered up with Della, a fair trade label that works with local artisans to create unique prints. These clad the classic Vans kicks in a hot burst of Ghanan colour. Reds, blues, yellows and greens echo the colours of the area in which the prints are made, invoking the riverbanks and tree canopies of this lush and fertile land.
The money raised from this partnership will help Della's core work in the villages of the Volta region of Ghana, funding education, community and training projects. This capsule collection is going to go fast, so keep an eye open if you want to snag a pair.
Check out the full story on the Vans site:

Friday 16 May 2014

Friday Pants

I want to talk to you about an important issue, my friends. It's something that affects us all, something that unifies and unites us. I want to talk about an item that we all own, that we take for granted, that deserves a little more love.

Today, I'm talking pants. 

Let's define our terms. The word "pants" in this context is not the American definition. My colonial friends, if you insist on using the word to describe "trousers", don't be surprised if we English stifle a childish snigger. For all right-thinking citizens of the world, when we say "pants", we mean "underwear." 

The thing is, underwear is just as much a fashion piece as any other item of clothing. And yet, it's the sector of the market that simply doesn't get as much attention or respect. Most Brits are happy to buy their pants in bulk, and supermarket pants seem to be an acceptable purchase for many. 

But think about it. Pants are there to cradle, coddle and flatter the most intimate and delicate of our man and lady parts. Why should we skimp on them? Why is it that we'll spend a fortune on a new pair of strides or a fancy dress, then underpin the ensemble with a greying pair of George from Asda grundies? 

No, my friends, we can do better than that. 

Nukleus are a company committed to the creation and manufacture of the finest ethical underwear. Their mission statement has sustainability and respect for their workers baked in. They have a partnership with the World Wildlife Fund, and seem serious and committed to the cause of better underpants for all. They're made from organic cotton, certified to be pesticide and toxin free. More importantly, they team their social conscience with good design. The clothes look good, feel good and do the planet good. 

The basics market is a tricky one, prone to a "that'll do" attitude from both designers and consumers. Maybe we just don't want to think too hard about pants. Maybe we should. Maybe we should all think really hard about pants today. 

Oh, look, OK. Part of the problem here is that pants are inherently hilarious. Our sense of humour is stuck in the playground and, no matter how good a job Nukleus do with their lovely pants, it's tough not to snigger. When Nukleus team a sales pitch like this: 

The earth does not belong to us. We belong to the earth.
The Earth Series is a sartorial masterpiece that honours the earth we walk on. Every stitch of the fabric, every shred of material, every loop of the needle that went into the making of this innerwear is a reminder that we have only one earth.

with an image like this:

you can see the problem. The difficulty with writing about pants is that you end up visualising people in their pants. And that, my friends, is always funny.

So, there we are. Pants. Good for the planet, good for your wobbly bits. Good for a writing exercise where I see how many times I can fit the word "pants" into one article.

Have a nice weekend.


Wednesday 14 May 2014

Teaching Sustainability

A fascinating interview over at The Fashion Spot with designer John Patrick highlights one of the most important aspects in the continued shift of ethical fashion towards the mainstream: education.
I'm not just talking about the way consumers need to be educated about ethical fashion (indeed, taught that such a thing even exists) or how education in the third world is vital in allowing indigenous workers to empower themselves for the future. We'll never have a fasion business model based on sustainable and ethical principles if we don't get the designers of the future on message. To find out what the score is on that point, Patrick went straight to the source: fashion school.
The news, in general, is good. The major colleges regard ethics and sustainability as far less of a niche subject than they would have ten years ago. John makes an important point: in a changing world, where the challenges of climate change and an evolving labour market are making an increasing impact on the status quo, building an ethical, sustainable fashion model is a pragmatic response. He says:
"...students should be prepared for the real world and all of its challenges. It is important to be flexible in order to make great, constructive changes within our industry and understanding how to work within limits."
It seems, at least from the evidence provided by the interview, that fashion schools do understand the changing nature of the world into which they're training thier students to fit. Central St. Martin's, for example, has been offering sustainability as part of its course structure since 2007. Even so, Patrick believes that they can go further. He'd like to see design and ethics taught alongside each other, for example. This is a fair point: design without an understanding into the processes of manufacture, which by definition include the welfare of the people that make your product, is hugely important.
The whole interview and responses from schools like Central St. Martins and ESMOD Berlin, make for a fascinating insight into the future of ethical fashion. John's further reading list is also worth a look, showing that there's meaningful inspiration outside the hermetic bubble of the industry. Thought-provoking stuff.

The Fashion Spot: How Are You Teaching Sustainability To Tomorrow's Designers?

Friday 9 May 2014

MeasureUp The High Street For Ethical Fashion

If ethical fashion is all about innovation, whether in method, material or manufacture, then ethical shopping is all about information. It's important to know where all the big name brands stand when it comes to the way they treat their workers, or if their plants dump foamy toxins into the local water supply. Until this information is on the labels, next to the washing instructions, it's tricky to figure out just how safe it is to buy a high street name.
MeasureUp aims to change that. It's an online benchmarking tool that allows you to see at a glance just where your favourite brands line up on a table of ethical metrics. If you've ever wondered how Matalan fares against Loius Vuitton when it comes to regular factory audits or transparency, you can find out at a glance. MeasureUp features a database of 60-plus brands that covers the full range of fashion outlets, and it's growing all the time. There's a Top Ten (unsurprisingly, People Tree seems to be a lock at number one, although it's interesting to see names like George at Asda in there, particularly following parent company Walmart's stubborn stance over Rana Plaza), and you can match any brand against any other. It's kind of like Fifa Football Manager for the fashion game.
MeasureUp says:
“We wanted to be able to shop more ethically, but when we tried to look into it we simply couldn’t find the information we needed to compare different companies—at least not without doing months of research or reading lengthy reports. So we decided to start this website. It’s taken quite a while to put together and we’ve tried hard to make it as accurate and useful as possible.”
If you're really interested, there's plenty of supplementary data available to give you all the info you need to make an informed choice. Once you start digging, MeasureUp becomes a surprisingly in-depth research tool. The focus, though, is on ease of use. The primary market for the site is for those of us on a smartphone who just need to see how ethical a purchase that new pair of strides really is.
Even five years ago, the ability of a consumer to check the ethical credentials of an item of clothing while it's still on the rack would have seemed like science fiction. MeasureUp have taken that dream and made it into a straightforward and simple tool that will help us all make the right choice--and of course, point manufacturers in the right direction too.


Wednesday 7 May 2014

A Shoe For The Ages From The House Of Borgezie

Longevity has always been one of the most important tentpoles of the ethical fashion movement. Making clothes that look good and last is essential to a more planet-friendly ethos when it comes to clothing. Look at companies like Nudie Jeans, whose whole retail experience (oh, alright--shop) is based around helping you to wear your strides until they shred off you.
When it comes to shoes, though, the situation can be more tricky. They are, by definition of use, subjected to heavy abuse on a daily basis. A cheap pair of shoes will maybe only last you a season. For blokes, it can be easier--a decent pair of shoes or boots can be repaired many times. If you're a member of the trainer brigade, maybe not so much, although the big brands are looking at ways of making their bumpers more easily recyclable.
What if shoes were made of more obviously hard-wearing materials? Sure, the Dutch have their clogs, which, apart from the ugliness of the design, are eminently suited to a landscape that's only been precariously rescued from the sea--waterproof and able to float. But the clog is hardly a high fashion item (although with my sense of timing, let's see what Cara, Kate and co. are clomping down the catwalks in this autumn). Which is where the House Of Borgezie comes in.
The Riviera Stiletto is an elegantly crafted strappy number crafted entirely out of silver and stainless steel. The shoe is specifically designed not just to look good, but to feel comfortable. Fully lined with silicon insoles, the machining ensures that the sloping edge of the steel actually curves away from the feet. The potential for the shoe to chop off your toes and rub your heel to tatters is simply not there. It's being advertised as "the world's most comfortable stiletto."
The designer, Birmingham-based shoe designer Chris Shellis, claims that the Riviera Stiletto is a heirloom investment, easily passed down from grandma to mother to daughter (or son, depending on proclivity and shoe size). It's built to last: he claims that the materials will withstand normal wear and tear for anything up to a thousand years. I guess you'd better really love it, because if you buy the Riviera Stiletto, you're going to be living with it for a loooooooong time.
There's an element of parody behind the House Of Borgezie, but their wry commentary on the transitory nature of the business cuts to the heart of the discussion about ethical fashion. If we're serious about it, then we need to consume less and make the most of what's already in our wardrobes. The clothes we buy and wear need to last, not for a couple of seasons, but for years. With that in mind, the notion of a steel stiletto stops sounding like a joke, and more and more like a very good idea.

Friday 2 May 2014

Get your head round a new way to recycle...

Fashion's a broad church, and the fine art of looking good while doing right by the planet often means widening your radar to new ideas. I want to talk about something that many people might not consider to be a fashion item at all. But if you're listening to music, an audiobook or a podcast on your way into work this morning, then you'll have a handle on what I'm talking about.
Headphones are an essential part of many people's everyday wardrobe. For some people, going out without that pair of Beats or Sennheisers slung round the neck would be as unthinkable as leaving the house without pants. At the high end, headphones can cost hundreds of pounds and, with styling in leather and gold or chrome trim, are designed to be seen as well as heard.
But they're also delicate and complex bits of kit, and if they break down there's often no alternative to slinging them in the bin. That's where the problems start. Electronic waste is a major contributor to the huge amount of rubbish going to landfill every year. In the UK, we produce over a million tonnes of e-waste a year, and very little of it is recycled. Instead, it's shipped abroad, and ends up in toxic heaps in developing countries, where it leaches heavy metals and other nasties into soil and groundwater.
Up until now, there's been no way to recycle those old pairs of ear-warmers. But RecycleYourHeadphones.Com, a new campaign from Colour Your World by Urbanz, aims to increase awareness of the e-waste problem while making it easy for you to do something about it.
Much in the same vein as sites for recycling mobile phones or old CDs, you simply register online and pop your old 'phones in the post, where they're responsibly recycled. P&P is free, and you also get money off a new pair of headphones from ColourYourWorld by Urbanz--up to 45%. They're a registered recycler, so your 'phones will be responsibly recycled by accredited partners, keeping your own little bit of e-waste out of the system.
You might think that recycling your old pair or cans won't make that much of a difference. But 280 million headphones are sold worldwide every year, so every set recycled is one less going off to a toxic dump in India. It's estimated that global e-waste is set to reach 65.4 million tonnes by 2017--that's enough to fill a line of 40-tonne lorries streching from the UK to Australia and back. Let's see if we can do something about adjusting that curve in the right direction.
For more info, check out, or for more about Colour Your World by Urbanz.