Copenhagen Fashion Summit’s Voices of Politics, Diversity and Change

Former Dean of Parsons School of Design, Simon Collins, served up the most pointed of all questions to New York based designer Prabal Gurung when he asked “would you dress the first lady?”  Prabal, after some consideration, gave an applause-inducing answer, explaining that his brand stands for inclusion, celebrates diversity and does not discriminate.  He stands firmly behind his brand values, saying that on that basis, he would dress the first lady.  It is no surprise that his comments echo those of another immigrant designer, Ashish Gupta, who celebrated his status and called for racial inclusion and diversity at his London Fashion Week show in September 2016. 

Reflecting on the global political and economic climate, Simon Collins commented on the political dissent in Thatcher’s 70’s and 80’s Britain that gave rise to the punk rock movement and other beautifully creative genres that still resonate in Britain today.  So out of this current political upheaval, could there be a beautiful and positive outcome?  Can current dissent mobilise creativity – even drive it?  Maxwell Osborne, of another New York based fashion brand, Public School, commented that in this time of great change in the fashion industry, new show formats are arising, the rules are changing and traditional mindsets are being altered.  Public School’s latest show was an intentional pressure cooker, with editors and buyers sat closer than convention would dictate in the aim of  ‘making them a little uncomfortable’.  Their brand of Americana sells unity, not division, and their sellout hats bearing the words ‘Make America New York’ were a hit because they took the measure of what people on the street were saying and feeling in Trump’s America.  I imagine this to be somewhat like what Londoners were saying in the wake of the Brexit vote.  Public School speak to their consumer – directly, in the same language.  That conversation is not nearly as personal or direct for big fashion and lifestyle brands, and the challenges for them in defining and delivering meaningful messages on society and politics is clear, given the recent blunder by Pepsi, and the ill-judged and since dubbed ‘Feminism Collection’ by Karl Lagerfeld’ for Chanel.

In order to reflect the repeated focus of the summit on innovation and collaboration it would be remiss of me not to mention the key input from some suppliers on the textile and fibre side, where significant technological and scientific advances have lead to circular nylon fibre production in the case of Aquafil, and cellulosic (plant based) circular production, in the case of Lenzing.  Whilst perhaps not the sexiest subject matter (unless you have a penchant for chemistry and heavy machinery) these advances are game changing – that is, providing brands purchase such circular materials in favour of linearly produced ones.  Significant limitations of circular production are complexities arising from mixed fibres – for example cotton and elastane – where separating the cotton and elastane fibres in order to reuse them in new textiles is not yet fully possible across all textile structures.  The single most important advance in making textile manufacturing circular, according to a number of industry experts I spoke to at the summit, was finding effective and efficient ways of separating out all types of fibres according to their chemical properties in order to reuse them.  Microplastics – tiny particles of plastic – are finding their way from fibres shed in the textile washing and wearing process, into water ways and causing devastating pollution.  We need to pioneer new technologies to deal with this problem at the manufacturing stage. 

Overview of the Lenzing textile process of turning wood into a textile

Materials solutions are key to solving problems arising from our demand on natural resources, and an alternative to current cotton growing methods would be a complete game changer too, saving immense amounts of water (it can take more than 20,000 litres of water to grown just 1kg of cotton).  Creating new methods of making/growing materials is an area of intense research, and something being done by the likes of Bolt Threads and other smaller, more experimental materials labs such as the one at Aalto in Helsinki.  In 2013, Kering launched their in-house Materials Innovation Lab in Italy and entrepreneur Mira Duma has just announced a 50 million dollar fund to invest in materials and technology solutions aimed at solving fashion’s biggest problems in the road to sustainability and ethical transparency.  More on Kering and Mira Duma’s initiatives to come in future posts.  

Aalto recycled cellulosic fibre research and yarn

On the subject of transparency and supply chain traceability, blockchain is providing a useful platform for consumers to follow the journey of their products from origin to the shop floor.  London-based designer Martine Jarlgaard teamed up with Provenance, A Transparent Company and Two Rivers Mill to demonstrate how her alpaca garments are made and sold in a fully transparent manner.   She presented the results at the summit’s Solutions Lab, alongside Lenzing, Aalto and a number of other brands, labs and institutions. 

Technology can also enable the capture of large data sets in order to assess large scale manufacturing processes and detect areas for improvement.  Sensors placed in factories working in partnership with Li & Fung are ushering in a phase of assessment of resource use and areas for potential improvement.  Target is working with its suppliers to pilot the use of beacons to feed data to apps to track what is happening in their factories in real time.  In this area, technology can provide hard data to support change, in place of anecdotal or subjective views on current practices.  

Stand by for my in depth interview with Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International Institutional Affairs at Kering, Marie-Claire Daveu

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