The fashion industry is a web of relations, causes and effects, and power structures that unfortunately don’t always treat human and nature capital fairly. Considering that landfills – made up of waste material, unwanted clothes and fabrics – release harmful toxic gasses into the air globally, fuelled by the pace with which we buy and discard cheap clothes, where does one draw the line and make a conscious effort to do things differently? Kering sets a good example. The holding group of Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Brioni, Gucci and Puma among others, has sustainability at the heart of its operations, and recently worked together with second year Central Saint Martins students to spur inventive ways to rethink design methods, such as upcycling, recycling and developing natural dyes.
Involving three courses from the fashion department in a three-week project — Fashion Communication and Promotion, Knitwear and Print — the students formed groups and were allocated a Kering brand each. The brief was to propose a new line or collection for the respective brands, under the banner of sustainability. Sustainability finally seems to be penetrating the halls of both the corporate fashion industry and the educational institutions these days, with a new focus on transparent supply chains and a somewhat environment-friendly production (see our own growing archive of writing on fashion substantiality here). It seems obvious that sustainable production shouldn’t be some philanthropic turn in one’s mid-career, but rather an integral element of the design process that requires a lot of innovative thinking and some self-critique. “I think the sustainability-aspect of what Kering is working towards with their brands was rather helpful, as well as a hurdle at times,” one student reflected in retrospect of the project: it’s all about creative problem-solving. Here, we look at three of the re-imagined brands: Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Gucci.
38 – Balenciaga
It’s surely an interesting moment to be examining the Spanish heritage brand Balenciaga, with Alexander Wang’s brief tenure and sportswear-isation as creative director from 2012-2015, and now Demna Gvasalia’s (of Vetements) more underground interpretation of the brand. “We presumed Gvasalia would be delving into the archives,” Sahil Babbar, an FCP student and group member, discusses with us: ”so we as well went back to before Wang or Ghesquière, and found Balenciaga inspiring because of its Spanish roots, specifically.”
Firm decadence, sensual confidence and a number of references to Spanish Matador dress pervades in their collection 38, but without ever seeming like a corny appropriation of national costume. “The link between old and new is continuously prevalent in all aspects of 38’s design and ideology,” writes the group in their press text on scarlet red, referring to the ackuxtaposition of sourced materials. Taking inspiration from Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings, the group took the craft in a more literal way. They purchased old oil paintings from car boot sales, and repurposed them in the form of tailored jackets that carry aspects of the bolero design. Another element that was taken into careful consideration, was the ability of the Spanish house to create volumes and textures through fabrication. “Think of cloqué, jacquards and brocade produced for Balenciaga by the textile house Abraham in Switzerland,” one designer reflects. This particular research concluded, the group says, in the Virgin Mary intarsia trousers design, which “has a very wide waist that is compressed by the use of steel mesh that’s quilted onto the fabric.”
Other details used in the decoration of the garments included amulets and old jewellery, which were customised and appliquéd on trench coats and knitted jumpers, featuring the use of the entirely sustainable yak yarn. What’s more, the whole collection “ties together by the strings of red handmade crochet lingerie that adorned the models,” visible in their communication and presentation of the project. They worked with models of all ages from their immediate environment; most notably, the charismatic Foundation tutor Gail Evans, who acted as cover girl for the brand in Almodóvar-esque film posters, representing the character “Gail the Great”.
KNIT: Gilda Balass, Grace Kennard, Jingwen Sun. FCP: Mila, Sahil, Rudi. PRINT: Giovanni Segantini, Mariia Popova, Guilherme Basto, Kai Ninagawa.
Free Range – Alexander McQueen
The dystopian attitude frequently associated with the world of Alexander McQueen found its way into the Free Range collection, albeit with less gothic references one may have expected. The group wanted to imagine a future where real nature no longer exists — a prospect that is not entirely a surreal one, considering the way humans exploit natural resources to uphold our capitalist economy. In their project, the real nature is replaced by a man-made nature, which is being rebuilt by a group of future farmers. To envision what those landscapes in question would look like, they used materials such as discarded car seat leather, old VCR tapes and recycled plastic packaging. By crafting textiles from these materials, they intended to replicate familiar plant-like and animalistic forms found in our ‘current nature’. “The farmers’ rebuilding continues onto the body and in the construction of the garments,” they tell us. “Pieces such as corsets and lacing are thus used to morph the shape of the wearer.”
The title of their collection, Free Range, immediately brings to mind debates on ethically bearable meat production. This ‘ethics of the supermarket’ or any shopping experience, is captured skilfully in the video presentation of the fashion line, where clothing items are wrapped as meat parcels and interchangeably presented with minced beef and chicken breasts to the viewer. “The product-inspired packaging and imagery creates a cognitive correlation between the meat and fashion industries, which are both responsible for a large majority of the pollutants on our planet,” writes the group in their press release, correctly: the dark predictions of our future environment should be taken more seriously than a matter of consumer trends.
KNIT: Alex Russo, Henry Xu, Soyun Yun. FCP: Hattie, Sasha, Chloe. PRINT: Anna Rekas, Wenjun Zhu, Yuting Zhu.
Gucci – Renai
The Gucci group dug a little deeper than Frida Giannini’s legacy of hypersexuality, when trying to tap into the spirit of the Italian leather brand, which led them to Italian Renaissance paintings and Roman mythology, and strangely, back to Gucci’s new 2015 aesthetic as directed by Alessandro Michele. The group studied the discreet, yet prevalent elements of Italian Renaissance art, like the ideal nude body image and ripe fruits, and translated them with a distinctive hand-drawn charm.
The group re- and up-cycled materials among which were leathers, old sofa silks and suede from car interiors, most of them donated scraps. “We adapted our techniques to utilise all of the material,” they say of the process. Their most sustainable change, was in the way that all the fabrics were printed and dyed. “To conserve water, we sponge-dyed everything and hand painted as much as we could to limit waste,” they explain further. As a result, their knitted gnome-like faces and landscapes on garments in 50 shades of nude all contributed to an image of Italy that was highly idiosyncratic. Even the presentation was installed as a full-scale DIY-take on Botticelli’s Birth Of Venus, to the great appreciation of the college’s art history students.
KNIT: Ranura Edirisinghe, Cecile Tulkens, Conceicao Matumona. FCP: Alena, Marc, Ryan. PRINT: Harry Rupert Cavil Henley-Freegard, Ella Marsh, Hinako Nakazawa, Leeann Huang.
Words by Jeppe Ugelvig
Additional reporting by Lydia Chan