Strolling along Old Street yesterday, I came across a plastic waste installation created by Andy Billett for Corona x Parley for the Oceans to mark their ambitious sustainability collaboration. Well known for their work with Adidas, Stella McCartney and other brands, the Parley team have pioneered the use of ocean waste transformed into synthetic yarns which are then reworked into textiles and products including apparel and footwear. I then connected with the Parley and Corona teams and came to learn more about how for World Oceans Day they are reimagining and recreating the Hawaiian shirt out of ocean plastic and safeguarding 100 beaches.
In the lead up to World Oceans Day, Corona is using plastic from beaches to build sculptures in London, Melbourne, Santiago, Bogota, Santo Domingo and Lima. These installations serve as a representation of the issue with the local plastic seamlessly integrating into Corona’s paradise imagery. The “Wave of Waste” sculpture in Old Street, London, features Australian actor Chris Hemsworth surfing in a wave of plastic collected in the UK, including waste from Holywell beach collected by The Marine Conservation Society. It brings the total weight to 1,200kg of plastic, with over 10,000 individual pieces of plastic – representing the amount of marine plastic pollution found on the beach every two miles in the UK.
To mark World Oceans Day, Corona and Parley for the Oceans have created a symbolic Hawaiian shirt woven from recycled ocean plastic yarn, complete with plastic waste print design (toothbrushes morph into marine life, amongst waves) to drive home the issue of often unseen plastics infiltrating our oceans.
The team at Parley are known for their Parley For The Ocean drive and previous collaborations include Parley x Adidas swimwear, clothing and trainers. This time around, they are working with Corona to go beyond product collaboration, on an initiative that seeks to protect 100 Islands around the world by 2020, spanning Mexico, Australia, Chile, Dominican Republic, Italy and the Maldives. The initiative combines an educational drive to put in place preventative measures for plastic waste entering the oceans, collection of plastic waste from beaches and design and development to convert the recovered plastic into new products. ‘Avoid. Intercept. Redesign.’ is the overarching strategy.
With sustainability and materials waste an ever more important issue, it’s interesting to reflect on public perception of textiles that are natural, and often considered more environmentally sound, versus those which are synthetic. This Hawaiian shirt is 100% polyester, created from plastic bottles which are made of a synthetic polymer that is structurally equivalent to polyester. The bottles are broken into flakes, then turned into a liquid form which can then be extruded into filaments which are spun – the resulting yarn can then be woven or knitted into new products, like this Hawaiian shirt. By contrast, recycling natural fibres like cotton or linen is not nearly as simple or efficient, and currently does not yield sufficient quality yarn that can be remade into apparel and footwear. In this sense, achieving sustainability with synthetics is currently more achievable, a fact that is often overlooked in the sustainability narrative between brands and consumers. It will be interesting to see how this changes as consumers continue to seek more sustainable clothing options and request transparency over materials sources, manufacturing and environmental impact.
To know more about the polyester making process click here
To know more about the recycled yarn process take a look at Bionic Yarn
The limited-edition shirts can be purchased here and proceeds from each Corona Hawaiian shirt will go to Parley for the Oceans to help support its mission to protect our oceans.
H&M made a bold statement at the beginning of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, declaring their aim to become fully circular (which means moving towards using only recyclable materials and renewable energy sources) by 2030. I spoke with Anna Gedda, their Head of Sustainability to find out how.
Opening our discussion, I asked how H&M will become a fully circular company, with a particular emphasis on materials, which are a key challenge in terms of natural resource consumption and the challenges in recycling textiles containing multiple fibre types – cotton and elastane, for example. Here is Anna’s response:
“We have looked into different parts of a circular system and identified areas to focus on. We use 20% recyclable or recycled materials. We need to develop our current materials so that we can achieve 100%, and also replace some of the currently used materials with new ones”.
Anna then mentions the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award, which looks for early stage sustainable materials via their annual global competition. This competition is a key source of inspiration and initial ideas for the development of new materials for H&M. She outlines some of the recent winning entries, including a textile that acts as a solar panel, a leather made of grape waste, and previously a citrus waste textile. She explains that it is not only new materials being proposed, but new processes for manufacturing textiles are also being devised. The winners may develop materials for H&M, Anna explains, but the competition has an altruistic outlook, which I interpret as meaning it aims to unearth great ideas and developments for their own sake, aligned with the company’s CSR mandate. Anna goes on to to say that whilst H&M aim to identify innovation and scale it, she concedes that many ideas that work in the lab are not scalable, and therefore not feasible for H&M’s products.
Grape Leather Innovation
Anna segues into the H&M sustainable Conscious Exclusive collection, which is in store all year round and uses innovative recycled and organic materials, including Bionic yarn created from recycled ocean plastic. H&M uses this collection as a testing ground for sustainable fabrics with the aim of increasing demand for, and awareness of, sustainable products amongst consumers; ultimately bringing the prices down. This ‘dipping the toe in’ approach is a safe way for H&M to experiment with introducing new technology and textiles into their supply chain without significantly impacting their bottom line, and without taking big risks.
Linking back to the Global Change Award, Anna explains that in addition to receiving prize money, the winners take part in a year long accelerator, which gives them access to the H&M supply chain to work in their suppliers’ factories. During this time they are able to test their materials and innovations within a live supply chain context, revealing whether they have the potential to meet the demands of cutting, sewing and finishing in the garment making process – a useful learning experience for the competition winners.
Drilling down in to the materials innovation effort at H&M, I ask about the level of involvement of materials scientists in the development process and ask “who is driving materials innovation?” Anna explains that scientific input is key to achieving the 2030 circularity goal. The development of materials depends upon working with academics to understand planetary boundaries and new technologies for agriculture – cotton growing alternatives, for example. Academia, innovators, and suppliers – the actual producers – are key in driving materials innovation. She added that suppliers see that the fashion industry is changing and they want to create new materials to better meet sustainability demands.
My next question for Anna, aimed at digging into the issue of fair wages and exploitation in the garment industry, is: “What would you say to consumers who are concerned about the transparency, or a lack of transparency in manufacturing. How can consumers feel comfortable about H&M and about going into H&M and buying something off the shelf and knowing that nobody has been harmed in that process and that a fair wage has been paid, especially as your prices are so competitive. What would you say to the consumer who is concerned about that?”
Anna’s response was as follows: “I would say that they can be confident going into an H&M store and buy things that they love, I mean, we really have high ambitions and we have a long term perspective and want to be part of this industry not just for the next three years, but the next thirty years – we are doing what we can to ‘future-proof’ the company, as well as the industry.” In an age when transparency is increasingly important, H&M have engaged with the SAC (Sustainable Apparel Coalition) and are using the Higg Index, which they hope will go a long way to achieving transparency. Anna sees third party verification as an essential part in increasing transparency. Anna mentions the Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report (summarised here) which uses the Higg Index, an open source supply chain and transparency assessment tool, stating that she believes this demonstrates how third party verification (from SAC) can lend credibility to the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts.
Wrapping up the interview, I ask Anna what she considers to be the most exciting and game changing technology in the industry’s efforts to become sustainable. “Finding ways to recycle from textile to textile – today you are not able to do this in a scalable and efficient way, because you don’t have the technology.” The aim is to be able to place any garment/textile in a solvent, recover the fibres and use them to make new textiles. “This will be a game changer for a circular system, and I think we will see such technologies within the next five years.” She tells me she has seen technologies approaching this capability already. Textile recycling is already possible in this manner, but there are limitations as to the fibres that can be recovered, and some blended textiles (woven cotton and elastane, for example) can not be fully recycled using current technology.
Content Thread for textile recycling
In closing, Anna makes a key point in terms of this recyclability versus design philosophy at H&M – designers being restricted to using one type of fibre or material can significantly restrict their creativity and, ultimately, the aesthetics of the garment. She suggests that single fibre designs may not satisfy customer demand for interesting products, so full recyclability of all textile blends in order to achieve circularity without a compromise on design appears to be the answer.
A recent visit to Ravensbourne has catalysed a shift in my opinion of ‘fashion tech’ as a discipline and led to an animated discussion around the reasons for the aesthetic gulf between fashion design and technology. The reason for my visit was the European Space Agency initiative, ‘Couture in Orbit’ – a fashion show at the Science Museum in May, featuring the work of five fashion colleges in Europe: ESMOD Paris, ESMOD Berlin, Fashion Design Akademiet Copenhagen, Politecnico di Milano and Ravensbourne London, which set about planting creative seeds for what will become a necessity – fashion in space. The colleges worked to a brief set by the ESA to present ideas and prototypes for fashion and accessories in the coming age of space travel. In response to a number of nasty and aggressive comments on their YouTube page in response to a video of this initiative, the ESA wrote this:
Couture in Orbit is a student outreach project. The students are using materials and technology in their designs that are a spin-off from the space industry. Each school had a theme linked to an astronaut’s mission, such as environment, health, sustainability, and their final designs had to have practical benefits for life on Earth. No funds were exchanged and material and technical support was provided by Tech startups.
Yes, the designs could be seen as somewhat ‘amateurish’ and ‘costumey’ in their concept and presentation and describing them as ‘couture’ and ‘fashion’ is not strictly accurate, however the idea here is key. Fashion’s robust approach to design and creation of cohesive, refined collections does not allow for this kind of playful theatrics, but if fashion and tech are to advance there has to be some latitude where the end result is concerned. It makes no sense to judge this by the same standards as a show at London Fashion Week, for example, which exists for an entirely different purpose and is part of a totally different creative and commercial conversation. The YouTube comments demonstrate an attitude that demeans the validity and power of fashion that I have seen previously hinder cooperation between fashion, science and tech sectors, but we will forge forward regardless.
‘Couture in Orbit’ designs
‘It is inevitable’, said Ravensbourne students Farid Bin Karim and Sam Martin-Harper of the fusion of fashion and technology in clothing to come. Their view was the same of space travel – we know for certain there will be inhabitation of other planets and commercial journeys to space, so we need to design clothing fit for space life. The brief provided to the students by the ESA included an array of materials for them to use in their garments and accessories, including Sympatex, woven fabrics by Bionic Yarn and 37.5. Being presented with a fixed set of materials is challenging from a design perspective, as fashion design often begins with selection of a fabrics to complement an aesthetic or theme held by the designer. Removing this from the designer’s creative point of view throws up further challenges and provides experimental opportunities. Karim leads me into a discussion about Design Fiction, a framework based on critical design which is the foundation of his speculative design approach on the Wearables MA course at Ravensbourne. The modelling of future scenarios using design fiction provides a robust outline for predicting what fashion design could be in an age of commercial space travel, for example. Karim selects three modes of technology – one that exists but he can’t access, one that exists that he can access and one that we can reasonably deduce will exist in the future – with which to begin to form a fashion tech product design scenario. This Design Fiction framework and critical design, attributed to Julian Bleecker and Dunne and Raby respectively, and adopted widely in London as a modelling tool, begins to give me insight into how design for a future that we can’t yet imagine is conceivable and believable.
Farid explains that his self-closing helmet and kilt are inspired by sojourners travelling to space and creating their own exoplanet. His concept hinged on the sojourners creating protective barriers around themselves that responded to atmospheric changes to give visual notifications allowing them to react and adapt. His self-closing helmet is powered by muscle wires and his kilt, printed in collaboration with print designer and MA fashion student Laura Perry, has heat responsive ink which disappears at certain temperatures – a useful visual notification when things are hotting up. Farid also used a UV responsive pigment – another useful visual alert. Karim’s work is inspired by an array of creatives including artist Lucy McRae, writer HG Wells and movement artist and coder Nicola Plant.
Heat applied by the palm of the hand causes the ink to temporarily disappear
UV source applied to printed fabric
Visual alert to excessive UV rays
Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and reactive ink kilt, in collaboration with Laura Perry
Sam Martin-Harper presented an altogether more nostalgic proposition in which she expressed her belief (and hope) that we will always remain rooted to earth. Her love of biology and particular interest in the techniques for growing plants on the International Space Station, including the work of astronaut Tim Peake, drove her to create a 3D printed neck piece containing plant life. Admitting this is a conceptual piece, Sam explained how she used inspiration from the ingenious folding joint sections of space suits to inform the shapes and details of her design. Sam is completing her BA and is still exploring career options. One thing is for sure, she cannot see a future of fashion without the integration of tech.
Sam Martin-Harper’s 3D printed plant-filled neckpiece at ‘Couture in Orbit”
A discussion on the future work of Farid centres on his passion for data as a tool for creating responsive and adaptive design. He has been learning coding and electronics as part of his Wearables MA and sees future fashion as an extension of the individual – as ‘body centric’. On graduation, Karim is hoping to work with a multi-disciplinary research facility to conduct collaborative research and design. When I ask if he would consider a traditional design job (he is a fashion graduate, after all) he reflects on how he has had to unlearn and relearn aspects of his design approach through his Wearable MA training in order to realise his part industrial, part fashion creations. It’s clear he’s happier in unchartered territory.
The discussion turned to couture and obsolescence. Karim is curious about the possible inclusion of technology in couture techniques in order to aid their survival, but this is completely at odds with the fact that couture means made by hand. This meaning of couture would therefore need to change for this to happen. I ponder a possible alternative in the form of technologies so specialised, rare and unique that they create a techno-couture instead. Here we begin to think about fashion and design being driven by technology, rather than the other way around.
In these discussions, as Alexa Pollmann, Course Leader of the MA Wearable Futures course, points out, it is important to consider the designs of Sam, Farid and the other students from Ravensbourne as proposals and prototypes – not final ‘fashion products’ per se. Ask any fashion designer working in the industry today their opinion of fashion tech and they will overwhelmingly tell you that it is gimmicky, ugly and not desirable. Herein lies the chasm between tech and fashion. Looks really count, and so does magic. Fashion designers bring an ephemeral quality to their creations, says Alexa. Fashion designers dream up and articulate experiences better than any other design discipline. They create magic in a way that is often so difficult to define it just feels ‘right’. Fashion is entirely subjective and indisputably powerful. For these reasons, Clive Van Heerden, co-founder of vHM Design Futures studio in London, which develops materials and technologies for a host of Wearable Electronic business propositions in the areas of electronic apparel, conductive textiles, physical gaming, medical monitoring and entertainment, insists on having a fashion designer in his creative team on all projects.
Designs by students from Politecnico di Milano
Designs by students from Ravensbourne
But why are fashion designers resistant to incorporating tech into their designs and what is slowing down the advancement of the fashion tech fusion? One factor is that the development of tech-enabled/collaborative products takes considerable research and development, and therefore time. It requires dedication to solving specific problems related to firstly a single concept or product, which is at odds with designing, sampling and creating whole fashion collections which are visually cohesive within a strict time frame (weeks or months at most), which then have a finite sales period before the next collection is created (making the current one obsolete, for want of a better word) and the cycle continues. The traditional cycle of two main collections per year for high end fashion labels has switched to four in recent years, meaning there is even less time for research and development. Knowing this, it is easy to see why the work of fashion designers is at odds with the research and development required to incorporate tech, and vice versa. In a previous interview with designers Fyodor Golan, they pointed out that fashion tech collaborations often have a required fixed outcome within a tight time frame, limiting the amount of integration possible. This goes some way to explaining why sometimes fashion tech looks more ‘stuck on’ than cohesively and meaningfully designed and produced.
Read more about the technologies involved in the Couture in Orbit project here
Header image: Farid Bin Karim’s self-closing helmet and adaptable ink kilt at ‘Couture in Orbit’