Friday 17 October 2014

The New Normal

We've talked before about the need for ethical fashion to become more than just a niche product. At the moment it's a kind of worthy sub-genre that, if we were in the movie world, would be world cinema or documentaries when compared to the giant ugly blockbusters that the fashion behemoths spit out.
Worse still, ethical fashion can be seen as not just worthy but expensive. By the simple act of paying artisans a proper working wage, unit costs go up, which means the price of the finished item goes up, which means you can never be seen as a cheap and cheerful everyday choice.
It doesn't help that, if brands do decide to launch ethical collections, they do so while effectively ghettoising the range. It's kept in its own little stable away from the main shop floor, where its poor delicate sensibilities might be ruffled by the clothes on the rest of the racks. By making these collections 'special', 'exclusive' or worst of all, 'limited edition', the best intentions of the big-name store are ruined. The range withers on the vine, excluded, ignored and eventually cancelled for want of sales. "We tried," the brands will say, "but no-one wanted to buy the clothes." Not surprising if the stuff's 20% more expensive and stuck on a standee at the back of the store.
In order for ethical fashion to succeed, it needs to become, well, normal. It needs to become the choice that people make without thinking, the item that people reach for because it's the first thing on the rack, and isn't unusually priced. We have a long way to go before that happens, of course. But one way of getting the message out, counter-intuitive though it might seem, is not to get the message out. Rather than push out the message about how eco-friendly and socially responsible your clothes are, why not just make the best clothes you can to the highest ethical standards you can, and see what happens when they are forced to stand up for themselves?
There are few people out there that will buy clothes because they're worthy, and the era of the eco-warrior who was proud to wear itchy, badly-dyed goat-hair jumpers is, thankfully, past. People don't wear clothes because of the label. They buy them because they're comfortable and they look good. I'm not saying marketing isn't important. But a piece has to be more than its advertising campaign.
A recent piece in the Guardian highlighted designers at London Fashion Week who were working with short supply chains, a close relationship with their factories and clever use of recycled materials without making a fuss about it. These guys are start-ups, but they see a sustainable model not as a choice, but as the only logical way of working. Daniela Felder of German label Felder Felder says:
"Working closely with our factory is crucial to get the right result but also because of the relationship we work with people we trust, it’s personal, there is genuine love and care."
More importantly, though, these smaller operators can move quickly and have the ability to experiment and try new things. Here, perhaps, is the key. Ekatherina Kukhareva, for example, is using computer-controlled flat-knitting techniques to cut her waste output down to scraps. There's no need to compromise. They can see the cracks in the current model, and manoeuvre smoothly around and through them. As pioneers for potentially game-changing working practices, designers like Felder Felder and Kukhareva are shaping the future dialogue between fashion house, factory and consumer, making sustainability the new normal.

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