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No Fashion (Week) on a Dead Planet

WORDS BELLA WEBB

Extinction Rebellion’s call to cancel London Fashion Week was met with raucous resistance. But what would cancelling fashion week actually mean? And what other solutions are out there?

Image by Gareth Morris

When Extinction Rebellion first called on the British Fashion Council to cancel London Fashion Week back in July, the idea seemed absurd. News outlets rushed to question the validity of such action, and many dismissed it as an impossible ask. But over the course of fashion week, as protestors created a red carpet of ‘blood’, staged a ‘die-in’ and held a funeral for the fashion industry as we know it, people started talking. Many spoke earnestly, others in hushed tones, and some between muffled bursts of laughter. 

As part of our own investigation, we asked readers on Instagram stories whether they thought LFW should be scrapped. Answers ranged from “No no no darling” to “YES!!!!”. Some suggested only allowing sustainable labels to show, while others argued that the responsibility shouldn’t fall on luxury brands as much as their fast fashion counterparts. The general divide was 50/50, with very few sitting on the fence. 

Sara Arnold, a key member of Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion team, clarified that the action was about using a key cultural event to draw attention to the environmental crisis we are facing. “The call to cancel fashion week is primarily about starting conversations,” she explained. “LFW is a cultural hub, and culture should allow people to connect with the truth. We ask culture to stand up to that responsibility. We want the BFC to use Fashion Week as a platform to make this emergency known. We have to use our voices.” 

In light of the myriad, complex conversations around this issue over the past few weeks, we gathered everything together to try and make sense of it. Cancelling LFW may not be the right solution, but what else is there?

Extinction Rebellion's funeral for London Fashion Week. Image by Gareth Morris

Cancelling London Fashion Week would impact young designers most

In our recent graduate roundtable, The State of London Fashion Week, the participants almost all agreed that cancelling London Fashion Week seemed counter-productive, as young designers would be worst hit. Matthew Needham is one such designer, currently completing the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, but his upcycled garments have already received praise for offering a potential solution to wasteful design practices. “In London, the majority of us are promoting change,” he said. “It seems backwards to be targeting us and the BFC.” Fellow designer Jonathon Kidd agreed, pointing out that targeting London in particular magnified this issue: “I see LFW as mostly young designers. If you were asking me this question about cancelling Paris Fashion Week, the answer would be different as it probably would affect big houses much more.” Shortly after the call to cancel became public, Fashion Roundtable founder Tamara Cincik issued an official statement to similar effect: “LFW is not a showcase of mass produced hyper sale mega brands, these are small companies with marginal turnovers- all of whom buy into sustainable business practice. These are the very people who support XR and see themselves as a part of that message.”

Cancelling fashion week only works if you cancel all of them 

What would the cancellation of a major fashion week actually look like? Extinction Rebellion member and RCA Fashion graduate Laura Krarup Frandsen pointed to the cancellation of Stockholm Fashion Week as an example of how the BFC might respond. “Stockholm fashion week got cancelled with a month’s notice, to reevaluate itself in today’s context,” she said. “The UN Secretary General has warned that we are facing a direct existential threat if we do not completely change course by 2020 latest! Yet we are talking about how to best showcase fashion collections for 2020? 2021?” 

Stockholm Fashion Week, due to take place from 27th-29th August, was cancelled by the Swedish Fashion Council so they could focus on finding a more sustainable alternative to the biannual fashion weeks that were run since 2005. CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council, Jennie Rosén, says: “The fashion industry is in a critical situation, because the planet is. It’s that simple – the whole industry has to be disrupted and we have to act now. Saying we are aware of the problem, and then repeating what we have done before will not allow the necessary change to happen.” 

Her call for action is not dissimilar from Extinction Rebellion’s fight against what they call “business as usual,” but the response to the SFC’s decision raises questions about whether or not designers are ready to embrace this approach. Stockholm Fashion Week was cancelled a month before it was scheduled, meaning designers due to show had already invested time and money into their presentations. Their response demonstrated a lack of support for the decision. Swedish stylist Christopher Insulander aimed to fill the void with a series of events under the moniker Crap Diem Couture Week. Participating designer Emelie Janrell commented on Instagram that, “marking the platform where fashion can actually be shown in its art form as a threat to the climate is not solving these issues.” Asked about the response from Swedish designers, Jennie simply stated: “It always hurts to make a change.”

As Lucy Siegle so brilliantly put it in The Guardian, “the four premier global fashion jamborees (London, New York, Paris and Milan) continue to celebrate a system of production and consumption that is spinning us ever closer to ecological Armageddon.” But cancelling one is not enough, as Stockholm shows. Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, commented: “Fashion Weeks globally need to act in unison, because to cancel one would just increase the impact of the others. If nobody can come to London, more people will just travel to Paris or Milan.” In fact, most of Stockholm’s more notable brands were already showing elsewhere: Acne in Paris, and Rodebjer and J.Lindberg in Copenhagen.

Sara Arnold at the Helsinki Fashion Week Symposium in London. Image by Helsinki Fashion Week

We need to do better, not just boycott and ban fashion weeks 

Orsola, whose August blog on The Voice of Fashion advocated improvement over cancellation, was keen to point out the strides being made within the current LFW model. She spotlighted British designers Phoebe English and Richard Malone for their efforts to pivot towards a more sustainable business model while continuing to produce clothes and show on-schedule. 

Richard’s SS20 press release announced that the label would be “consciously dispensing with the idea of seasonality” from now on, while the collection itself featured panels reconstructed from previous seasons’ discarded cutting scraps. Meanwhile, Phoebe sat out from the February and June shows this year to focus on finding more sustainable methods for her brand to move forward with. “We have used this time to explore approaches and actions to making work which can be described as attempts at solutions,” she says. As such, her new collection uses zero-waste pattern-cutting techniques to incorporate carefully sourced, high quality deadstock and surplus fabrics. At her presentation, models walked around a board filled with information and ideas about sustainable design, presenting her approach to certifications and fabric sourcing in the most transparent way possible. Earlier this year, Phoebe even started a Whatsapp group to share her findings with other designers, saving time, resources and needless competitiveness in one fell swoop. 

“I’m not one for unnecessarily banning; I’m always one for improving,” continues Orsola. “Both Richard and Phoebe are switching, brilliantly, at their own pace, in their own time, following their own creativity. They’re not compromising their creativity, but they are questioning it.”

Her comments on creativity relate to a common criticism of the Extinction Rebellion call to cancel. Speaking at the Helsinki Fashion Week Symposium in London last week, Sara said: “I think people misinterpreted our call to cancel LFW as a call to end creativity, but creativity doesn’t have to be about creating things, it can be about creating solutions. The fashion industry has all this creativity which is currently being used to fuel a capitalist system. Why don’t we use it to solve problems and save ourselves instead?” Sustainable designer Patrick McDowell, who repurposes Burberry fabric and Swarovski crystals, happily agreed: “We have the ability to design systems. Frankly, I’d be bored just designing clothes.”

Image by Kylie McDowell

Positive Fashion: we need to celebrate genuinely sustainable solutions and remain critical of greenwashing

Chekii Harling, founder of TRASHMag, curated part of the Positive Fashion Exhibition in the BFC showspace at LFW this season. Her exhibition showcased 12 designers foregrounding recycled and/or natural materials in a fun and colourful way, aiming to dispel the myth that sustainable clothes are all hemp, beige and mushroom leathers. The creativity on display was incredibly striking, albeit not without its own issues: Coup melds together discarded footwear, inspired by 20th century cobblers. Hanging alongside them was Leo Carlton, who spurns feathers in favour of polylactic acid filaments made from fermented plant starches such as corn in his modern take on millinery. And then there was Adam Jones, who crafts clothes from bar towels and beer mats. 

“What’s key is that the designers I selected are not just thinking about this, they are acting on it,” says Chekii. “The mainstream mind-set is that the cheap high street brands are the enemy, and indeed they are but the big boy designer labels and the mid-rangers in between tend to be just as unethical. Introducing press, buyers and a small section of the public to the fact that there are less harmful ways of making clothes is the first step in reversing the disastrous impact that the industry is having on the planet.”

The BFC could undoubtedly do more to make LFW sustainable, but the Positive Fashion Exhibition was a step in the right direction. Without it, innovators such as Chekii and her designers would not have had the platform to share their ideas on the world stage. That said, the initiative has faced criticism for its inclusion of high street retailer Foot Locker, who only released a statement on Modern Slavery in 2018. Similarly, the presence of complimentary Evian plastic water bottles caused some controversy. 

Prior to Positive Fashion, the BFC hosted a sustainable fashion platform called Estethica, which ran from 2006 to 2014. Orsola, who co-founded the platform with Filippoi Ricci, was unimpressed by the corporate slant that Foot Locker and Evian gave Positive Fashion. “Estethica was rigorous, both in terms of design and the techniques,” she explains. “Positive Fashion is not rigorous, it’s corporate. It’s very different. Positive Fashion will describe Foot Locker as being about artisans and craftsmanship. It’s not. Positive Fashion put in a thing with Evian water saying they’ll be 100% recycled plastic by 2025, without writing on it in graffiti – ‘that’s too bloody late mate’ – which is something Estethica would have done.”

The Positive Fashion Panel that closed LFW. Left to right: Bel Jacobs, Cameron Saul, Arizona Muse, Tamsin Lejeune, Phoebe English and Tamsin Blanchard

Progress is slowing down because commerce comes before creativity

Speaking at the opening breakfast for LFW, which was held in the Positive Fashion ‘Sustainability’ room, BFC Chair Stephanie Phair said, “I believe that collaboration between creativity and business is the alchemy to success.” Yet her assertion that “creativity and commerce have to go hand in hand” begs the question: is commerce squeezing a little too tight? As writer and Extinction Rebellion activist Bel Jacobs states, this is not an industry under threat. In fact, apparel consumption is expected to grow 63% by 2030, according to the Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report. Research collected by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that global clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, while Fashion Revolution submitted written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee last year stating that “the way fashion is produced and consumed has been dramatically scaled and sped up over the past 30 years.” It’s worth noting that London Fashion Week, which many see as a longstanding, traditional institution within the fashion industry, only began in 1984, just as fast fashion’s growth really took off. 

For environmental activist and model Arizona Muse, this shift in the industry has placed commerce at the centre of fashion weeks, making them into vehicles for consumerism. On a panel organised by the BFC to close LFW last Tuesday, Arizona said: “Fashion Week has come about to sell things, and creativity is second to that now. That’s the seeds of the problem. Fashion Week could be harnessed for so much good. We’re on such a complex path and the fashion supply chain is so complicated. We’re part of the metal industry, the agricultural industry, textiles and furniture… The change we have to make is enormous. It doesn’t work to do fashion the way we have been doing it. We need a more humane fashion system.” 

On the same panel, Common Objective founder Tamsin Lejeune took a slightly different approach, advocating the business sense of switching to a sustainable model. “Sustainability needs to change from something brands see as a cost to something they see as an opportunity,” she said. Common Objective appeals to the competitive nature of business under capitalism, incentivising change by ranking more sustainable businesses higher up on their site, which now includes more than 20,000 organisations. Among them are a ‘humanitarian lifestyle brand’, a ‘luxury baby alpaca wool label’ and an ‘eco-conscious designer swimwear brand.’ But, as moderator Tamsin Blanchard rightly stated, “we can’t buy our way out of this crisis.” 

The change we need to see in business models and mindsets is bigger than simply shifting to so-called sustainable fabrics. If we still operate within a capitalist fashion system built around colonial power structures and driven by financial targets, progress will always be limited. A representative of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion – who released a manifesto detailing their frustrations last year – explained: “The growth logic obstructs discussion about sustainability because continuous expansion of market share is incompatible with the finite limits of the Earth’s resource base.” The idea that we can conscious consumption can save us misses the point. As Extinction Rebellion have pointed out again and again, we have very limited time to turn things around and move away from critical tipping points which would heighten the climate crisis. “By the time you have implemented these incremental changes, the deadline will have passed,” Bel added. “We have less than 18 months.”

Legislation is seriously lacking 

The lack of legislation around fashion’s environmental impact is a sore point in almost every conversation on this subject. If it’s too late for incremental change, surely legislation holds the key? The government’s resistance is disappointing at best. In February, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report called Fixing Fashion. It made 18 recommendations, from tax incentives for environmentally responsible companies to placing a one penny tax on every new garment made, the result of which would be investment in better clothing collection and ‘green’ jobs. The participating MPs traversed the political spectrum, and the measured recommendations were informed by industry players with decades of experience. Yet the government rejected every single suggestion. 

Now, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion are working with Fashion Roundtable as secretariat to push for change. At the first meeting a couple of weeks ago, designers, activists and consultants gathered to share their thoughts on the subject. It was a necessary first step, but demonstrated the complicated nature of progress on this subject. The issue of sustainability in fashion is incredibly contentious, and ideas for what to do about it are thin on the ground. The APPG represents a definite desire for change within the industry, but whether the government will listen is less certain. 

Industry bodies have made vague attempts at progress themselves. Most notably, in August, French President Emmanuel Macron enlisted François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kering to form The Fashion Pact. The pact, presented at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, garnered 32 signatories, from Stella McCartney and Chanel to the Prada Group and Capri Holdings Limited, which includes Michael Kors and Versace. It details commitments to stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protects the oceans. So far, so promising. However, read the small-print and you will see that “the document is not legally binding and can be seen as a set of guidelines.”

Extinction Rebellion activists with their block-printed clothes. Image by Gareth Morris

We need to separate fashion from the fashion industry

It all seems rather bleak when you think about the lack of government action and the limited time we have left, but London-based designers – including those showing at fashion week – are providing light in the dark. There are so many examples of how fashion can exist for good, operating outside of the industry norms that have proved so damaging. While far from perfect, Positive Fashion showed real promise and they weren’t alone. Even Gucci and Burberry both committed to carbon neutral shows this season, with further plans to slash emissions by 2025 and 2022 respectively. As Phoebe English rightly said: “The government does not have systems in place to deal with an emergency of this magnitude. If we don’t enact change, no-one else is going to do it for us.”

Orsola advocates for a return to community fashion, as a more inclusive solution. “I’m partial to a good boycott myself,” she says. “But the job of Fashion Revolution is to look at fashion, not from an elitist point of view, but from a universal point of view. My next-door-neighbour is a single mother with three children. How could she boycott fashion? If she takes part in Secondhand September, where is she going to buy school uniforms for her children? That needs to be communicated somehow. We can’t keep talking about fashion with a very high-end and mainstream point of view.” She points out that the solutions we are looking for may have been right under our noses this whole time. “When you think of specialities or regional food, we’ve got regional fashion too. We’ve just stopped looking for it and looking out for it,” Orsola continues. “The future is not just about technological advancement, it’s also about ancient skills. Just as much as we’re talking about the extinction of the rhino, we should be talking about the extinction of the artisans and those skills. These organisms are part of our culture, and have been for millenia. How patronising is it that we don’t listen to what they have to say?”

There is so much common ground in the way thought leaders are approaching this issue, despite the different ways they are manifesting those thoughts. As well as the renewed appreciation of craftsmanship that Orsola spoke of, Sara spotlighted Extinction Rebellion’s love of block-printing as an example of how fashion can be separated from the fashion industry and used to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis. At the APPG meeting, Sara wore an old t-shirt with the words ‘beauty’ and ‘fashion’ crossed out, and ‘truth’ and justice’ printed in their place. “Those are block-prints on secondhand clothing,” she explains. “We’ll have them during the rebellion, so people can bring old clothes and we’ll print on them. That alone isn’t going to save the world, but it does have a purpose. It’s been a really good way to spread the message.” The black and white prints are certainly striking. Business of Fashion’s sustainability correspondent Sarah Kent even suggested that the climate action group were ‘out-marketing fashion’, with their slogan t-shirts and dramatic protests attracting more media headlines this season than the catwalks themselves.

The need to reconnect with our clothes and how they’re made is one that many people working in sustainable fashion recognise. Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign seeks transparency in the supply chain, giving garment workers a platform to share their experiences. Building on that, their Fashion Transparency Index ranks brands by how open they are and Fashion Open Studio celebrates those centering craft and transparency. All of this helps to throw open the fashion industry, casting a necessarily harsh light on the exploitative practices that have been allowed to seep in. Bel Jacobs captured this sentiment when she said that “disconnection works at the service of capitalism.” Or, as Eco-Age’s Head of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Charlotte Turner put it: “people need to understand the provenance and technicalities of their clothing to connect to it emotionally.” If anything, fashion weeks could be in a prime position to make this happen. Chekii’s exhibition presented information about the designers on washing labels by graphic designer James Barnardo, to convey the importance of understanding where our clothes come from and what they’re made of.

Image by Kylie McDowell

And finally: global goals need local solutions 

At present, the UN Sustainable Development Goals – often referred to as the Global Goals – are our best blueprint for what a more sustainable fashion landscape might look like, but we need to fill in the practical blanks with local solutions. For Orsola, this means using local and indigenous knowledge and rejecting Western, capitalist homogenization. “We should really be listening to how they recycle in China versus India versus Northern Europe, versus South America. Could those pearls of wisdom include solutions that could be technologised, advanced and upscaled to create a proper environmental solution?” she asks. “For me, it’s a constant learning curve that what’s happening in Zimbabwe is not relevant in Mexico and vice versa. We’ve just somehow put a big veil of gloss, or big veil or Gucci over it. Everything is the same, but we’re not. We’ve got more to learn from other parts of the world now than ever before. We just need to listen.”

Aside from less carbon emissions from travel (LFW welcomed guests from over 60 countries last year), what local fashion weeks offer is a glimpse into the creativity and innovation in the country that hosts them. At their best, fashion weeks are a celebration of the people making progress. That said, there is almost definitely a more environmentally-friendly way to run them. Perhaps, as one of our Instagram followers suggested, there could be a set of sustainable criteria for participating brands. In fact, Copenhagen Fashion Week plans to do just this from next season – whether this would work globally is another issue. Maybe we could scale fashion weeks back, showing just once a year instead of the ever-quickening cycle of seasons we’re trapped in right now. Ultimately, what fashion weeks offer is a platform with a captive audience; an opportunity for influential players to gather together and talk about where the industry is going. They could be meeting points of like-minds, where sustainability is top of the agenda and commerce comes last. As Sara Arnold so poignantly said last week: “Everything is up for questioning.”