Techstyler X BOTTLETOP: Designers Reshaping ‘Luxury’ Driven by Sustainability and Ethics

Rounding off our speaker series for 2018 was our panel discussion on the role of designers in shaping and influencing sustainable brands and changing definitions of ‘luxury’.  Much of what is discussed in the realm of sustainable fashion and lifestyle brands is in the context of materials, supply chain and waste management, but what of the impact designers have in making design  decisions that influence most aspects of the supply chain and the product life-cycle? Can brands achieve sustainability if their designers are oblivious, or have little visibility, of the impact their decisions make?

BOTLLETOP Regent Street Store.  Image: BOTTLETOP

The panel consisted of a cross-section of creatives from multiple backgrounds, spanning finance, textiles and music.  The thread linking them was a pioneering point of view and the fact that their design work and research has begun with identifying a problem to solve and harnessing design to do so.  Design as a tool for change.

Opening the conversation was Dr Kate Goldsworthy, Co-Director of the Centre for Circular Design at UAL where she oversees research and live industry projects that challenge current linear methods of design – that is where resources (including materials) are used to create objects that have a single lifecycle and are disposed of at end of life without recouping any of the resources/components of the product to re-use or recycle.  In order to challenge this linear system, designers work with all other members of the industry on projects that bring together all points of view – from retail to manufacturing to design to waste management, in order to redesign not just products in a circular manner, but the system itself. A striking example of how successful this can be was the case explained by Dr Goldsworthy where a team at Filippa K questioned the lifespan of garments and consumer appetite for longevity of garments. They hypothesised that the average white t-shirt is worn around 22 times before being thrown in landfill, a figure Kate deems generous.  

Dr Kate Goldsworthy, Cyclability Diagram

As a result, a concept for a paper t-shirt that looks and feels like a cotton one was devised.  The paper version could not be washed, but could be worn up to four times and then disposed of in household waste to decompose safely in landfill.  Analysing the total resource use and environmental impact across all areas of creation, delivery and consumption of the product, the disposable paper t-shirt had a fraction of the impact a t-shirt worn 22 times has, debunking the idea that simply wearing clothing more times reduces environmental impact.  The bigger picture here is that every action we take has an impact, including washing our clothes. Therefore a future wardrobe containing some clothing that is disposable by design may, in fact, be more sustainable.

Kresse Wesling MBE isn’t a designer.  She is the co-founder of lifestyle brand Elvis & Kresse and entered into their venture by way of a waste management consultancy career.  Reappropriating what is deemed ‘junk’ by many, Kresse and her partner Elvis set about turning waste into desirable goods by flexing their design approach and conducting ambitious research and development.  They conducted this R&D on whatever materials they could develop partnerships to rescue, diverting them from ending up in landfill. The design process, driven by Elvis, is reliant on the material inputs and strives to maintain the longest life possible of the goods by adopting modular design techniques that allow customisation and re-use of the component materials.  The most recent example of this is their partnership with the Burberry Foundation, from whom they take all of Burberry’s leather waste (which will amount to 120 tonnes over a five year period) and hand-weave it into new products, including wallets and cosmetic cases. Kresse explained that the core of their brand is the agreement to work with all stakeholders in the design, production and waste processes to ensure the work they do is beneficial to all involved, as well as the planet.

Elvis & Kresse, rescued fire hose. Image: Elvis & Kresse

Elvis & Kresse, rescued leather Image: Retail Gazette

Elvis & Kresse rescued firehose and leather products.  Images: Elvis & Kresse

This way of working started in 2005 when the discovery of the disposal of fire hose into landfill triggered their desire to make use of this beautiful material, but also to secure the waste input stream to ensure production requirements could be met. This bore an agreement for Elvis and Kresse to agree to take all the decommissioned fire hose “waste” generated by the London Fire Brigade and turn it into lifestyle products, donating 50% of profits to the Fire Fighter’s charity in the process.

Completing the panel was Oliver Wayman, Co-Director of BOTTLETOP, who unwittingly launched a sustainable brand during the promotional campaign of a record he was working on in Brazil.  The catalyst from a career in the music industry to fashion accessories and social enterprise was his mum. Visiting Oliver in Brazil, she bought a locally made bag made from disposed ring pulls, connected using a crochet technique.  To promote the record in his campaign, he had bags made using this hand craft technique, which, it turned out, generated more interest and sales than the record itself.

The original BOTTLETOP bag in collaboration with Mulberry. Image: Bukowskis

At that point, the power to harness a design technique that utilises local materials and generates income for local communities from waste was what drove Oliver to turn this process into a range of products fit for the global luxury accessories market in 2012.  BOTTLETOP now boasts a flagship store on Regent Street, London, a recent pop-up in Dallas, Texas, and has future sights on Asia.

 

The BOTTLETOP brand funds the Bottletop Foundation, which was founded by Co-Director Cameron Saul and his father Roger (Founder of British luxury fashion brand Mulberry) in 2002.  The foundation empowers young people with health education and technical skills training to enable them to make healthy choices and build their future.  It also supports musicians from around the globe to create collaborative work and showcase it through the ‘Sound Effects’ album series, poetically closing the creative loop on where it all began.

Bottletop Foundation.  Image: BOTTLETOP

In discussing the business models and design approaches of Elvis & Kresse and BOTTLETOP, alongside the design research driven by the Centre for Circular Design, new definitions of luxury emerged that encompass transparency and ethics.  The recent revelation that Burberry burnt millions of dollars worth of leather goods as a way of disposing of unsold stock caused a very public scandal, arguably threatening the image of luxury the brand aims to exude. This incineration is by no means limited to Burberry – it is common practice across the fashion industry at the value end right through to luxury.  In line with changing views of luxury from a new generation of consumers who value experiences at least as much as acquiring ‘stuff’, brands that create a community and engage in dialogue with consumers, including those on the panel, are increasingly valued and held in higher prestige than ‘faceless’, out of reach “luxury” brands, that in comparison, can feel out of step and dated.

Stay tuned for details of the next panel discussion during London Fashion Week in February, 2019.

Happy New Year!

More on Fillipa K’s sustainability efforts can be found here

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London College of Fashion Sustainability Initiatives “Fired Up” by Professor Sandy Black

Fashion’s future is about looking forward, however looking back with Sandy Black, Professor of Fashion and Textile Design and Technology at London College of Fashion, serves up a timely lesson for right now on running a fashion business and sustainability.

Professor Black provides the privilege of reflection – of pausing and drawing on decades of analysis of craft and technology and designer fashion businesses through her academic research and practice and asking the question ‘why has so little changed for fashion designers in terms of barriers to growing a successful business’?  Many of the difficulties Professor Black, a maths graduate from UCL (more on that later), faced when running her knitwear business in the 70’s and 80’s still exist today, especially in terms of financing production whilst investing in new collections and finding manufacturers willing to work with emerging brands in a dynamic and affordable way.  The conversation and landscape is changing, though.

Professor Black completed a maths degree at UCL whilst exploring, informally, her interest in craft and knitting.  Upon graduation she became involved in an artistic knitting movement that saw an explosion of her knitwear across the globe.  Sandy Black Fashion knitwear was stocked in boutiques in the US, Japan, Australia and Europe.  Her hand and domestic machine knitted pieces were intricate and painterly, reflecting a new creative and artistic approach to knitwear that thrust itself into the fashion realm, beyond its reputation as a domestic craft.

img_2117Coat by Sandy Black  Photo: David McIntyre

“Digital knitting began in the 70’s” states Professor Black.  The current knitting technology is an extension of, rather than a re-invention of, that knitting technology.  She forged links with Stoll, a world-leading industrial knitting machine manufacturer to have a machine installed at London College of Fashion, enabling students to immerse themselves in industry techniques and adopt new technology in their practice.

The excitement in knitting arguably lies in its fusion of craft and technology and Professor Black’s publications, including Interrogating Fashion, Eco-Chic: The Fashion Paradox and The Sustainable Fashion Handbook explore the impact of this fusion on fashion, in terms of manufacturing, sustainability and aesthetics.  Her recent work, in collaboration with a number of London College of Fashion-based academics, is an online platform allowing the exchange of information between fashion academics and the designer fashion industry to promote insightful, sustainable and collaborative practice for better business and environmental outcomes.

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The platform, FIREup, has fuelled debate around changing business models for sustainability.  It intends to unlock the potential of industry and academic collaboration, and is designed to help designer-fashion businesses in London access knowledge based in the university’s research centres and academic staff across three prestigious colleges: Central Saint Martins, London College of Fashion and Chelsea College of Arts.  The FIREup initiative is now expanding across the UK. 

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Professor Sandy Black in discussion with Michelle Lowe-Holder, Martine Jarlgaard, Kiwy Huang and Ben Alun-Jones at the Creativeworks Festival, King’s College London – Photo: CSF

As part of the FIREup initiative, four projects were undertaken to allow designers to conduct research to inform their business decisions.  This research involved a sort of ‘forced reflection’ and contemplation.  Recent exits of high-profile designers from global fashion businesses (Raf Simons from Dior and Alber Elbaz from Lanvin) were allegedly, at least partly, the result of frustration at a lack of time and space to pause and reflect because of the relentless cycle of punishing product deadlines with no time for contemplation and development.  Although running a smaller business with fewer product categories is arguably less time-pressured, it is absolutely true that the pressures Professor Black faced whilst running her business and that often lead to added strain on small businesses have not yet been resolved.  It is the mandate of FIREup to allow designers space, time, academic support and funding to conduct reflective research and steer their business forward in a more successful and thoughtful way.  Christopher Raeburn is one such designer involved in the FireUp Catalyst Project.

Raeburn’s ‘REMADE’ products are crafted from re-appropriated military fabrics.  The jacket below was remade by deconstructing and shredding original German snow ponchos, the Schneetarn (German for ‘snow camouflage’) Parka.  A limited edition garment, it is one of a maximum of 50, proudly remade in Raeburn’s London studio.

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The women’s Ceremonial Biker Jacket is reworked from original British military ceremonial garments, traditional British military wear that have held the same design for the last century.  The jacket, typical of British cavalry, artillery and infantry, is also a limited edition piece (a maximum of 50) also remade in the Christopher Raeburn Studio.  Shop Christopher Raeburn here.

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Currently promoted on the FIREup platform, and being hosted by Professor Rebecca Earley and Dr. Kate Goldsworthy is the Mistra Fashion Future Conference on textile design and the circular economy which is part of their research aimed at creating the vision of designing for a circular future where materials are designed, produced, used and disposed of in radical new ways. “Circular Transitions will be the first global event to bring together academic and industry research concerned with designing fashion textiles for the circular economy.  The themes will explore the design of new materials for fashion with approaches ranging from emerging technology and social innovation to systems design and tools.”  For more information about the conference in London this November visit FIREup or Mistra Future Fashion.

It’s clear that Professor Black’s research and industry involvement, along with the work of her fellow academics at London College of Fashion, is helping shape the discourse around designer businesses and sustainability.  The broader discussion, encompassing the impact of our lifestyle choices (including fashion) on the environment has been explored by Professor Helen Storey in her recent Dress For Our Time project.  Developed in partnership with Holition, the dress digitally displayed data – extracted from a major study of the global risks of future shifts in ecosystems due to climate, which showed the impact of climate change on our physical world. It showed the planet as it will be, if we don’t do enough.  The film below demonstrates the shocking and compelling figures related to the refugee crises and displacement across across the globe projected onto the Dress For Our Time:

Professor Black and Professor Storey are both also instrumental team members at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at the London College of Fashion – a Research Centre of the University of the Arts London based at London College of Fashion. Our work explores vital elements of Better Lives London College of Fashion’s commitment to using fashion to drive change, build a sustainable future and improve the way we live.  In 2014 the CSF announced a five-year partnership to work closely with Kering to support sustainable practices in education for the fashion industry. The partnership is a three-way approach to ensure new ways of thinking about sustainability in fashion: The Kering Talks, The Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion and The Empowering Imagination module for MA students at LCF.  This year’s Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion will be announced on November 14th and I will be attending and writing about the finalists, so stay tuned!

To learn more about CSF initiatives, click here

To find out more about FIREup and see current opportunities here

Header Image:  Christopher Raeburn, who uses re-appropriated military materials in his collections

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