Last September I graduated from Goldsmiths and began to develop a small London-based fashion label, fueled by a determination to have my garments made locally and by a passion for the the sustainability of design. With this vague brief in mind, I set about honing a design, and finding a dyer & a manufacturer—a spiral of discovery that’s led me to understand how individuals on a small scale are beginning to agitate change in the running of the fashion industry. Sustainability through design—how and where fabric is woven, how its components are made or grown and the dyeing & manufacturing process—is the driving force behind this.
The design process started with my attempt to find some fabric. Hitting the Goldhawk Road was the first option, but I knew I would need a wholesaler or supplier to be able to get a flexible amount of fabric as and when. I stumbled, or googled, upon Organic Cotton whom, in their own words, state: “Our fabrics are chemical free, fairtrade fabric, fair trade…”. A pretty admirable ethos and, since I wanted to start building long-term relationships with companies I respect, I ordered some samples. A doorstop of an envelope arrived, stuffed with swatches: bamboo silks, rough muslins, voile, taffeta and some hefty cotton jersey, gorgeously thick and soft—I fell in love. A month later, after an exchange of amusing emails with a chap called Phil (sign up to his newsletter for a giggle) who happens to own OC, I had 60m of this weighty, 220gsm, organic jersey on my doorstep along with a hefty hole in my bank balance. It’s worth every penny, GOTS certified and gorgeous, no-one and nothing has been unfairly paid or damaged in the production of this fabric.
Vegetable or organic dyes have a rich earthiness but, try as I might, I couldn’t find a dyer who uses them. I could find suppliers of the dyestuff but there was no way 60m of fabric was going to fit in my sink. Besides which, the fabric needs to be near-boiled, which would require one hefty pan and a hell of a lot of work. I turned to Phil who pointed out that vegetable dyeing is ineffective—“It’s a complicated business”—for anything other than home-grown projects. They burn up a lot of energy due to the water temperature, you can’t ensure an even colour-wash through the fabric and, for colour-fastness, they require harsh chemical mordants compared to the low impact dyes used in the UK. Low impact or reactive dyes are non-toxic, colour-fast, and don’t require as much energy to fix to the fabric—benefits all round. In the end, it was Blue Mill Ltd. in Leceister who took my oil-painted colour swatches and turned out 20m of dusky coral jersey and 20m of French grey. All told, door-to-door, this process took little more than two weeks, and due to the handy location of the dyers, it required little more than a delivery man to be passed between the two of us.
In comes the local manufacturer who, after a considerable amount of net-trawling, I found in London, less than an hour away from my flat. Ruslan and his team are passionate about bringing the garment-making industry back to England: “You have a top made in China for £2.50, it comes back with dodgy seams, you have to fly there to resolve the issue, you need more fabric… It’s not practical. Here, you can jump on a train and be with us within the hour.” We talked through import taxes amongst other things—a tax that means getting things produced abroad is not always cost effective, not to mention it racks up the air miles. And, quite frankly, who wants to have an email conversation when you could be doing it face-to-face over a cup of tea. When I forgot to give them back the sample when they were producing the rest of the tops (they use it as a gauge for details and quality), Ruslan himself dropped by the studio to pick it up, a box of chocolates in tow. That process wouldn’t’ve been half so easy if I had to airmail things abroad.
Working alongside other small businesses, having garments produced locally and designing for longevity has led me to see the relevance of sustainability in design. It’s happening now and resides in the processes behind the closed doors of the fashion industry. The story behind the garment, who dyed it, who grew the cotton and who made the top, these are the people who are working together to change the way the industry is run. People who welcome new-comers, change and innovation and who are pushing fashion towards a sustainable and transparent future so that you’ll be able to shop online or wander into town and know that any purchase you make has been made in a way that’s sustainable, through and through.