Sustainable fashion: Believe the hype

As hot and trendy as it may be, sustainable fashion remains a divisive subject. Eco-evangelists believe it’s the only way forward, while others cannot help raise an eyebrow or two. We invited leading industry professionals and fashion insiders to Brussels to discuss the issues at stake. As we settled down in the cosy settings of the Amigo Hotel’s Blaton suite for the day, the six participants could not wait to get started. The coffee had barely been served that thoughts were already being exchanged and minds educated.

Photography Merel ‘t Hart

Laurent — The problem I have with the word “organic” is that it is not perceived the same way in every country. Look at “organic cotton” for instance. How do you precisely define it? The same rules don’t apply to this label everywhere, depending on the area where the fabrics are developed.

Sonja — To me, “organic” means that no herbicides or pesticides were used to produce the yarns and this is something that is regulated and controlled.

Ada — There are a lot of rules actually.

Laurent — Still, the word “organic” is not protected by law the same way in every country. American regulations are therefore completely different from Indian or European ones.

Philippe — There are no real standards in place then, unlike the food industry where labels are clearly indicated.

Laurent — Let’s say you have produced organic cotton and want to dye it. How do you do that sustainably? We know there are some colours that cannot be reproduced with vegetable dyes only.

Ada Zanditon: London-based designer dedicated to innovative ethical fashion. She set up her eponymous company in 2008 and presented her womenswear line for the first time at London Fashion Week in September 2009.

Laurent Dombrowicz: Fashion editor and consultant. He styles for various international publications, casts models for shows and talent scouts for companies. He lives and works in Paris, but hails from the Walloon city of Liège.

Sonja Noël: Retail pioneer in Belgium and the owner of two designer stores in Brussels: Stijl and Haleluja, her latest project focuses on high-end, luxury sustainable clothes.

Sonja — That is something we know about and are working on. With Haleluja – my latest retail project in Brussels – I want to go much further than a bioshop and try to see how negative impact on the environment can actually be minimized.

Laurent — It’s not even the production that is the main problem. What do we do about the packaging and shipping of these garments? People should be informed about how these steps were carried out when they buy sustainable fashion.

Sonja — I completely agree with you. We try to use our common sense when it comes to such issues. I’m not here to impose rules on anyone; this is not what I’m trying to do. I guess we should be rational and logical about it, trying to see how we can improve on each step gradually.

Javier — I think it’s important to offer choice as well.

Sonja — I agree. It’s also about education, raising designers’ awareness on sustainability and how to create and produce garments that are kinder on our ecosystems.

Alexandra —How do you choose the designers you sell?

Sonja —It’s the result of a very long research. I spent quite a few years looking at new developments in the field and imagining what lines could sit well together. There’s still a lot of work to be done, because there are not so many known designers offering high-quality, sustainable collections, but I’m sure existing labels will improve and grow, becoming better each year.

Didier Vervaeren: Artistic director of Modo Brussels, an association promoting the work of Brussels designers in Belgium and abroad. He also teaches accessory design at La Cambre and is a firm fixture of the local fashion scene.

Javier Barcala (right): Belgium-based art director, photographer and filmmaker. His latest project, called “The Believers”, is dedicated to sustainable fashion and raising awareness across educational and industry circles.

Alexandra Lambert (left): Director of the Fashion/Design/Luxury Products department at the Foreign Trade Department of Brussels Export. She’s also involved in the creation of a forthcoming Centre of Fashion and Design in Brussels.

Laurent — There are not many people doing these kinds of projects right now. You have great knowledge of the fashion industry and know what you are talking about, but there are not enough people like you at the moment. Ideally, you would have someone doing the same sort of thing in France, Italy, Japan or the US. I know similar projects have been done in Germany and Sweden before, but that’s still not enough.

Sonja —It has to grow and more shops should embrace that concept. The world can only change gradually and I believe in small – but significant – steps. This is about new beginnings and I’ve always worked that way. I guess it’s an instinctive way of doing things. I’m not saying that the whole fashion world will become like that, but it’s one approach I believe in.

Ada — You can have a big, bloody revolution, but it doesn’t necessarily improve anything. Systems change over longer periods of time and it’s something that gains momentum. That doesn’t happen overnight. What annoys me sometimes about the design world is that people keep on telling you that everything has been done before, which is a terrible message to give. This is certainly an area where there is a lot to do. For me, it was a conscious choice and an innovative one. People like Katharine Hamnett have given several talks about such issues throughout their career and this has definitely inspired designers to investigate this approach. Companies like Junky Styling – which has been around for more than a decade now – have become cult and successful in London, selling to international stockists. As a designer, it’s my intention to create some- thing beautiful, and it’s no longer beautiful if there are negatives consequences attached to it. If I could choose a different path, I’m sure my life would be much easier, but, at the end of the day, what I create has to be aesthetically pleasing and fair at the same time.

Laurent — My field of expertise is luxury and that is what I specialize in. When you look at luxury clients within emerging markets, such as South-East Asia, Saudi Arabia or Russia, they do not care about sustainability at all. These people are the ones keeping the luxury sector alive and they don’t even think about the environment.

Sonja — These clients will always be there, we know that, but I think luxury and ecology can go hand in hand. I don’t see any contradictions there.

Javier — It depends on the market you’re looking at. If you go to the UK, for instance, sustainable fashion is huge. There are more brands competing within that segment and a lot more options, too. I guess the challenge is to pick and choose the best designers within that field. Consumers are confused in terms of image, because they often have this vision of sustainable fashion as bland and boring. Still, sustainability is a wider process that does not limit itself to clothes: food, design and architecture are also part of the same movement.

Alexandra — It’s about having a certain lifestyle, like eating slow food or avoiding planes. People are bringing sustainability into their lives, depending on the level of awareness they have.

Javier — It’s a lifestyle and a trend, too.

Ada —I don’t want to fight against the system as a designer. It’s just not realistic for me. I’m not going to produce one single collection a year to advocate this idea of slow fashion. Being able to match what the rest of the industry is doing – in terms of fabrics or production – is the most challenging part. What scares me the most is that this is a trend that may eventually fade. There are designers with this so-called ethical aesthetic who actually give the press an opportunity to put sustainable fashion into a box, isolated from everything else.

Laurent — They give sustainable design the wrong image, too. It ends up having this cheap, boho look that nobody wants.

Ada —That is precisely the problem. How can we expect the customer who has been exposed to that kind of fashion to actually understand and appreciate what we are doing? You cannot go to one of these big companies that promotes this look and ask them to evolve their design style.

Sonja —Sustainable clothes have to be desirable products, otherwise there’s no point selling them. My role is to bring that sustainable message into the luxury segment, which is the hardest aspect. There’s nothing such as overnight success in fashion. You have to be patient and grow your business slowly.

Philippe — Why do you think the UK has been so instrumental in promoting and developing sustainable fashion?

Ada — I live in London and there have been several initiatives supporting it in the city, such as Estethica for instance, which was created 5 years ago and funded by the British Fashion Council. These projects have focused on creating a specific area for sustainable fashion, based on principles of fair-trade and ethical practices. London Fashion Week reacted on that creative movement quickly, which was a smart move.

Sonja — At London College of Fashion, you can actually do a Master’s in Fashion and the Environment. In fact, they have a proper Centre for Sustainable Fashion, too. This is currently not an educational option in Belgium. Schools here don’t even know about this.

Didier —I teach accessory design at La Cambre and guess this is something that is not part of our culture. I find it interesting though. To be honest, it’s all very new for me and I don’t know that much about the subject. If you want to inform and teach students, you need to know exactly what you’re talking about. It’s a tricky area, too.

Ada —I also think high technology can play an important part in developing sustainable fashion. The problem I face as a small designer is mainly availability. It’s hard for me to get hold of these newly developed materials, even though there are incredible recycled materials out. The problem is that they are not used in fashion, but in different industries. What we have at the moment is a gap between amazing technological advances in textile design and the availability of it to designers who are supposed to benefit from that progress. I really hope we can find solutions in the near future to make the use of such fabrics easier for people like me.

Ada Zanditon adaz.co.uk
Laurent Dombrowicz laurentdombrowicz.com
Javier Barcala lafortunaknows.com
Modo Brussels modobrussels.be
Brussels Export bruxelles-export.be

Haleluja
Place du Nouveau Marché aux Grains 6 Niewe Graanmarkt
1000 Brussels
+32 (0) 2 513 42 50

With special thanks to Nadine Neuckens at the Hotel Amigo for her help in welcoming our guests in style.

Hotel Amigo
Rue de l’Amigostraat 1 – 3
1000 Brussels
+32 (0) 2 547 47 47