As we focus on sustainability in fashion this week, which all started from the recent collaboration between second year Fashion Design with Marketing and Fashion Journalism students, we decided to find out more about the term itself. So when Rozalina told us that she was going to visit Orsola de Castro’s studio in North London to pick up a few materials to upcycle in her final collection, we decided to tag along. We had heard a few stories about a strongly opinionated Orsola, who co-founded London Fashion Week’s Estethica programme, initiated Fashion Revolution day and who has been running her own label From Somewhere since ’97. When we started discussing ‘sustainable fashion’, a small infuriation arose about using this specific term…

“We’ve globalised the planet without keeping alive artisanal skills. We’ve made them look deliberately quite dirty because they weren’t glossy enough.”

So we’re doing a sustainable fashion week—

Don’t call it that! Don’t ever ever put the words ‘fashion’ and ‘sustainability’ too close together. There has to be something in between, otherwise it makes no sense.

We’re publishing a handful of articles about this, so that fashion students and designers can get a better grasp of the topic. It doesn’t seem to have a very good reputation, perhaps partially because people don’t understand it. 

Well, problem number one: it’s not sustainability. This is fashion. OK? Take a look at young designers throughout history, up until the beginning of the 1980s, and then tell me that a young designer wasn’t sustainable.

So you get out of college, you start your own label, and you cut carefully because fabrics are expensive: we now call that ‘zero waste’. You reuse every scrap and remnant from one year and one season to the next: we now call that ‘up-cycling’. You spend all night sewing your collection: we now call that ‘artisanal’.

The reality is that the industry completely lost touch with its main values ever since it’s only been about rapid growth, mass production, fast fashion, and disposable luxury. It so detached from its origin that it then had to go and create a shit name so that people could be stigmatised. The reality is that sustainable fashion really is fashion. It’s everything else that isn’t sustainable that should be called as such. Choose whichever name you like the least, such as ‘unethical fashion’ or ‘unsustainable fashion’ to describe the way that the industry operates.

“If you buy something, however badly made, but you love it, then you will take the time to mend it, and therefore it will last longer.”

Looking at the flip side of the ‘young designer’ coin: isn’t it also the case that big corporations and high street brands make garments that are meant to fall apart after two years? 

Fashion has an added planned obsolescence to it. Not only are clothes nowhere near as well made as they were before, they’re also seasonal, so we really do have this idea of having to change fast. I think that what is wrong with the fast industry is the fact that it produces so much. It’s actually in the consumer, and in the way that you buy, that something holds its value.

If you buy something, however badly made, but you love it: you will take the time to mend it, and therefore it will last longer. The fact is that we’ve been fed this trend of buying, and this trend implies that we need to want, that we are buying because we can, rather than because we fall in love, and that’s the problem. That’s where there’s unbalance. If you’re buying emotionally, you’re always making an investment.

What do you think are the biggest challenges young designers face when wanting to design and work sustainably? 

There has to be a change in attitude. Now, whether you wanna call it revolution, whether you wanna call it sustainability — give it a name if you have to — the reality is that this industry has lost its common sense. It’s done more harm, not just to us [small labels] but globally to artisans. We’ve globalised the planet without keeping alive artisanal skills. We’ve made them look deliberately quite dirty, because they weren’t glossy enough. It’s about tackling the industry creatively through design, and making your principles shine. Right now, it’s about unity; making your opinions clear and stating your motives, because otherwise you will be swallowed up by an industry that ultimately is very damaging. It’s the second most polluting industry in the world…

“Ever since they started calling it ‘sustainable fashion’ it’s very difficult to find interesting sustainable fashion designers.”

All you need to do is understand your industry. If you start looking at it thinking ‘Once I get out of here, what are my chances?’ you’ll find a very difficult journey ahead of you. Another thing is that most students don’t understand a lot about the supply chain. The fashion industry encompasses more industries than any other. We are talking about the farmer who makes the cotton seeds; then the cotton is made into fabric and yarn, then it’s dyed… If with every one of those aspects you look at the consequences — for example the footprint of toxic dyes and leather dying — then you can make your own conclusions based on that. It is then your choice if you want to apply your creativity to finding solutions.

At the same time, it’s very difficult to enthuse universities to educate more on this topic. Ever since they started calling it ‘sustainable fashion’ it’s very difficult to find interesting sustainable fashion designers. It’s a very limiting word.

What name would you give it? 

I wouldn’t give it a name! I’d call it luxury if it’s luxury, or sportswear if it’s sportswear, and then I’d say “by the way, it’s made of organic cotton,” or, “by the way it’s made from up-cycled fabrics.”

So, what should we call sustainable fashion instead? 

‘New fashion’? ‘Alternative fashion’? Anything but sustainable fashion. Call it ‘Anything-but-sustainable fashion’.

Portrait/Interview by Jorinde Croese

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