Fashion Week Insiders Call For Sustainability Clarity, Citing Confusing Brand Marketing and “Green-Washing”

Fashion month has come to a close and this season, more than ever, the industry has been under pressure to address its environmental responsibility. There are some steps being taken, whether it is the launch of the British Fashion Council’s Positive Fashion Initiative in London or Dior‘s zero-waste, plastic-free, fully recyclable set and tree replanting scheme at their Paris show, but what does that mean on the ground? What do the people attending the shows, working in the industry, buying the products and living their day-to-day lives think and feel about the role of sustainability in fashion? We took to the streets at London Fashion Week (LFW) to find out.

To delve deeper, Techstyler gathered a crew to find out exactly what people know about sustainability in fashion and how they integrate it into their daily lives, if at all. Continuing from our pilot research project back in February, this season we partnered with The British School of Fashion to develop a questionnaire that would capture individuals’ attitudes towards sustainability in fashion, consumer behaviours and personal views on the topic. We then interviewed hundreds of attendees of LFW, both inside and outside the official venues, over the five days. 

Image: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

This season saw pressure groups including Extinction Rebellion (XR) and PETA protesting against the environmental and ethical impacts of fashion, culminating in a “funeral” march by XR featuring a coffin inscribed with “RIP LFW 1983-2019” sending a clear message to the BFC and wider industry. While these groups were protesting outside the official LFW venue of 180 The Strand, Techstyler and “parent” company BRIA were inside presenting solutions, seeking to understand the current climate and calling for change, amongst other innovators. There are solutions and designers doing “good”, some of which were showcased in the BFC’s Positive Fashion space including Patrick McDowell, RE;CODE and the global movement supporting the UN sustainable development goals #TOGETHERBAND; but there is also huge consumer confusion which needs to be addressed before we can expect widespread change in sustainable consumption. We wanted to find out what’s actually going on on the ground, and this starts with you (yes, you).

Patrick McDowell at LFW. Image: Techstyler

The study found that the overarching sentiment when it came to sustainability in fashion was a resounding, and slightly concerning, “I don’t know”. When asked “which brands do you see as the most sustainable”, one respondent replied, “Tricky question. How do you define sustainability?”, and that, ladies and gentlemen, sums it up in a neat bow. This commentary could probably end right there, but there’s a lot at stake here. If we are out on the streets fighting for our future, we should probably understand what we are fighting for and our roles in the battle beyond the placards.

Image: Techstyler

After combining this past month’s data with our research from February, it is evident that there is a lot of miscommunication and confusion, and, let’s not forget, that the respondents are not regular consumers on the high street; they are buyers, designers, stylists, journalists and fashion students. In other words, they are those at the forefront of the industry. The answers were incredibly varied, showing a large gap in knowledge, but ultimately a desire to do better. Many simply don’t know how because the messaging is highly confusing; brands can say what they want around sustainability as key terms like “organic” and “natural” aren’t even regulated, never mind the word “sustainability”, which, to be honest, is anyone’s guess at this point. One respondent even said that the term “sustainability” is itself off-putting.

“There is too much negativity arising around the term “sustainable” and a huge part of it comes from the misunderstandings created when communicating it.”

Questionnaire respondent
Image: Techstyler

Respondents were asked to list the brands they see as the most sustainable, at which many reeled off those who are shouting the loudest but are not necessarily backing up their efforts up with facts. When telling us which brands they are wearing, high street fast fashion was ever-present, despite the interviewees claims to be concerned about the issues involved with fast fashion manufacturing and consumption. H&M was one brand that regularly appeared on both the “most sustainable” and “least sustainable” brand lists, thanks to their Conscious Collection campaigns. Eight respondents who said they were wearing Zara at the time of the interview then went on to list it as a least sustainable brand, which is sufficiently revealing alone. Five out of the eight claimed that sustainability was important to them, so there is a clear disconnect here which needs to be addressed. Overall many simply didn’t know what to believe. “I think there is too much green-washing going on with brands and the marketing teams confuse the sustainability message. They make it harder for consumers to understand sustainability,” said one respondent. 

BFC’s Positive Fashion Panel. Image: Instagram

Alongside the confusion there was also positivity around the growth of the sustainability movement and a recognition of our individual responsibility, with one respondent saying “I think [sustainable fashion] has a potential to be huge in the future” and another recognising that, “it is so important to think of your wardrobe and how to make it last longer than a season.”

Many are calling for industry change: for designers to implement sustainable strategies, brands to be truthful and transparent, and fellow consumers to make the “right” choices.  And this sentiment has grown slightly since last season’s research, showing a steady change in attitudes in just a short time; short, but impactful, with the rise of Greta Thunberg and her Global Climate Strikes, XR mobilising groups across the world to call for action, and 150 brands signing up to the G7 fashion pact after a highly publicised 45th Summit in Biarritz. 

“Is there really a place for fashion week anymore? Seems out-dated and pretty distasteful given the current climate crisis… It seems like a parade of excess that isn’t needed”

Questionnaire Respondent
Image: Techstyler

In response to London Fashion Week being well and truly under the microscope this season, the British Fashion Council hosted a panel to discuss the climate crisis and fashion’s role in both causing and, hopefully, reversing it. Panellists including Bel Jacobs representing Extinction Rebellion, Tamsin Lejeune founder of Common Objective, Cameron Saul of Bottletop, and model and activist Arizona Muse were moderated by journalist Tamsin Blanchard on the final day of LFW to debate the best way forward. In an open and honest discussion, Bel Jacobs reiterated XR’s warning that we are “in the middle of the 6th mass extinction”, going on to say “we called for fashion week to be cancelled to use this as a platform to broadcast the climate emergency. Everyone will stop and recognise (the emergency) if the BFC does that. It’s too late for incremental change.” Arizona Muse proposed that “fashion week could be harnessed for good [so that it] reflects a more humane approach.” Fashion Week’s role in this change was agreed to be pivotal and the time is now.

Image: Techstyler

Reflecting on our time at LFW, there was a palpable air of eco-anxiety both inside and outside the venue. Although there was consumer confusion surrounding exactly how they can be part of the solution, there was an encouraging desire to understand and do more. The public are looking to brands and the wider industry for clear indicators and evidence of widespread change, with one saying, “The industry is on the right track [it] just needs to gather momentum”. Experts joining the discussion are calling for major change for the sake of our survival as a species, nevermind the survival of Fashion Week as we know it. Following this initial research, Techstyler and The British School of Fashion will be releasing more detailed reports in the coming months and replicating the study internationally in 2020. The need for change has never been so urgent, and to make these changes sustainable we must understand the issues at a grassroots level. There is still a long way to go, but change is in the air and how these changes manifest next fashion month will be key, as, this time, the world is watching. 

Image: Techstyler

We would like to thank the research crew for volunteering their time over the last two seasons. Keep an eye out for more results from our recent study, and news of the international research on Techstyler’s Instagram, Techstyler.fashion and by signing up to our newsletter.

The Dawning of a New Age of Augmented Reality-Led Fashion

If the title of this article has conjured up images of LED light-embedded bags and swathes of technophiles in VR headsets, prepare yourself for an altogether more sophisticated and integrated use of tech hardware and augmented reality where the result isn’t ‘in yer face geekery’, but more tech-enabled emotional brand experiences.  Leading this charge across fashion design and brand experiences is the London College of Fashion-based Fashion Innovation Agency, whose 5th birthday last week acted as a summary of five years of giant leaps in tech and bold experimentation that began with a smart phone dress (seems rudimentary now, right?!) and most recently a live CGI fashion show.  How and why such big leaps, and why does it matter?  Is the fashion industry really ready and open to placing a digital layer over the physical world?  Yes, and here’s why…

Top: Nokia smartphone skirt in collaboration with Fyodor Golan – Image: BT.com  Middle and above: Steven Tai x ILMxLab at London Fashion Week – Images: Techstyler

Backed by recent calamitous downturns by House of Fraser and Topshop, it seems fashion retailers have lost sway with consumers, who are increasingly shopping online, led by Instagram connected e-commerce, that allows single swipe shopping, delivery within hours and outstanding customer service.  Why go to a store?  Stores are impersonal and finding the right style in the right size can be slow and frustrating due to outdated and inaccurate inventory systems.  Zara is a regular disappointment in this area, boasting stock at specified stores when checking Zara.com, which isn’t actually in stock when visiting the store.  On a recent trip to Zara the staff admitted to me that their inventory is wildly inaccurate and the online stock check is not up-to-date.  Wasted trips equal dissatisfied customers and further back the case for shopping online instead.

“Retail on the high street is incredibly boring” were the frank words of Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the FIA during a panel discussion at their 5th birthday event recently.  As the matchmaker and orchestrator of five years of projects spanning the aforementioned smartphone skirt, the Sabinna X Pictofit Hololens mixed reality shopping experience and Steven Tai’s Live CGI presentation transporting the audience to Macau, the FIA are well versed in breaking new ground and facilitating fashion and technology collaborations for the benefit of both industries.

Images: SABINNA x Pictofit

The outcomes and learnings ultimately filter down to London College of Fashion students, arming them with next-generation tech skills in their fashion toolkit, helping them push the boundaries of fashion design and retail and shape the future of the industry.

LCF students have plenty of ideas on how to improve the retail shopping experience.  Most of these hinge on bridging the physical and digital realms, essentially draping a digital layer over physical stores to enhance and personalise them for individual customers.  The fruits of these ideas were presented at the Future of Fashion Incubator launch event, part of an ongoing partnership between Microsoft and the FIA.  LCF students teamed up with Microsoft experts to experiment with new technologies including Hololens, IoT and AI.  The students were mentored by the Microsoft team in their chosen technology in order transform their ambitious ideas into (often mixed) reality, harnessing what Maruschka Loubser, Senior Global Marketing Manager at Microsoft called the ‘inspirational and exciting’ vision of the students.  Their mission was to unlock the students’ innovation and here are the results…

One team of students created Hololux, a shopping platform experienced via the untethered Hololens Mixed Reality headset which presents 3D renders of products in online stores, bridging the 2D e-commerce experience with the 3D physical instore shopping experience.  Hololens headsets can be networked so that groups of people can shop together regardless of their individual locations.  Want your friend abroad’s opinion on an outfit?  Simply link up and shop together.  The team identified airport lounges as an ideal location for this experience, where travellers may want to experience luxury shopping while waiting for their plane, but at the same time avoid the chaos of the crowded and busy airport.  Totally imaginable.

Hololux in creation – behind the scenes  – Image: Microsoft

Augmenta also made use of the mixed reality Hololens, but this time for visual merchandising using holograms to simulate interior store layouts.  Their platform allows visual merchandisers to map the interior space with digital objects (furniture, fittings and clothing) via hand gestures and voice input quickly, cheaply and with less waste.  Colleagues can co-create by networking their Hololens headsets, again, regardless of location.  The team also identified an opportunity to enhance the platform with AI to provide integrated heat mapping to show the flow of people through the store and further refine and target the visual merchandising based on that.  Augmenta present at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

Team DiDi created a garment label that allows lifecycle tracking and transparency.  By using RFID and NFC technology the label can be scanned to access details of the materials and manufacturing of the garment, providing a more current and broader version of the FIA’s previous collaboration with Martine Jarlgaard.  What’s exciting about DiDi’s concept is their consideration of brand storytelling as part of their platform, which is tailored to help brands celebrate their back-story and share it with their consumers, really making it part of the overall brand experience rather than a cumbersome ethics and supply chain document delivered up via the CSR section of their website, as with many brands currently.

AI and neural networks are exciting technical tools which allow the training of a piece of software to recognise images and objects, based on processing a huge number of images and developing a visual ‘memory’ based on them.  This is a powerful tool for visually identifying consumers wearing certain brands, styles and silhouettes – for example shoppers in a mall walking past a camera connected to this software, which can then be used to target appropriate advertising to the passing consumer.  This is the principle of Smart Signs, created by another of the LCF team.  This tool also allows trend analysis of passers by, which the creators say could help retailers create more targeted clothing for local markets and reduce mass production waste of low-demand styles.  They say the next step is facial recognition for personalisation of the Smart Signs experience.  You may find it comforting to know that this platform is much like our human brain in that is ‘sees’ passers by, identifies their style and then dumps that data – meaning personal data is not stored.

Smart Signs demo at the Future of Fashion event – Image: Microsoft

‘Janet’ is a smart-phone-based instore shopping buddy that scans your outfit while you are trying it on in the changing room and suggests alternative styles and other garments to style with it.  It can also tell you where to get a similar style for a better price, or your size in an alternative location.  I love Janet’s everyday name, and I guess that suggests the team wants you to think of her as a really helpful and insightful shopping friend – she’s not judging, just helping.  I can imagine Janet being very helpful in a multi-brand or department store, but in a single brand store I guess Janet won’t be so welcome as she’s likely to recommend rival brands for the benefit of the consumer’s choice.

Casting my mind back to the FIA 5th Anniversary event and panel discussion, I remember the input of Mohen Leo of ILMxLab, the team which created the Live CGI for Steven Tai’s London Fashion Week presentation.  “You can achieve ‘stickiness’ in retail by adding a digital layer, providing a different experience each time”, he said.  Clearly this gives shoppers a reason to visit a physical store.  “Shopping is only about emotions and emotional connection”, said Matthew Drinkwater.  He then went on to say that technology affords an opportunity to enhance this connection and emotion.

   Images:  FIA 

For those attending Fashion Week, the all too familiar break-neck speed of the shows and presentations often leaves the audience with a feeling of visual overload.  Each show blends into the next, as there is rarely an experiential layer  – just the immediate visual presentation of the clothes.  This used to be enough, but not anymore.  The success of Steven Tai’s Live CGI show was its engaging combination of digital and physical worlds, that transported the audience to Macau in an ever-changing landscape which drew the audience into its subtle evolution as the models meandered around the stage alongside a digital counterpart.  To quote Vicki Dobbs-Beck of ILMxLab this was “storyliving, not just storytelling”.  In this recent BBC article, the House of Fraser team commented to say it “urgently needs to adapt” to “fundamental changes” in the retail industry.  An emotional and engaging experience is what retailers and brands need to offer, and the tools with which to do this lie in augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

For a snapshot explanation of the difference between VR, AR and MR, click here  Header Image: Microsoft Follow Techstyler on Instagram and Twitter

Fashion Data: Calculating the Cost of the Fashion Machine

A sister exhibition to Fashion Hacked at the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, Fashion Data is a stark reality check about the consumption of clothing and its societal meaning both in the West and East, along with the environmental implications for the planet. 

tmm_fashion_data_3_foto_johannes_schwartz tmm_fashion_data_4-_foto_johannes_schwartzImages: Johannes Schwartz

Fashion Data incorporates Fashion Machine: an installation by Conny Groenewegen in which she slashes and re-works a typical leftover product of the fast fashion/clothing industry, the fleece sweater.  Conny and her team of students cut up and ‘re-spun’ the fleeces onto giant spools and looped them onto huge looms’ to demonstrate the scale of waste and the banality of the fleece jumper, which is largely undesired as a second-hand product and regularly finds its way into mattresses at the end of its lifecycle, or worse still, landfill.  Conny makes thought-provoking statements about the role of designers in mass manufacturing for fast fashion, summed up in the set of stills below, followed by a film documenting the creation of the Fashion Machine installation. 

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To view Conny Groenewegen’s fashion and knitwear design process in depth, watch this video.

In the film, note the polyethylene (PET) water bottles in the background, from which fleece jumpers have historically been made.  The recycling of PET bottles into polyester fabric to create fleeces is fascinating.  See the full process here.

Balancing Conny’s visual representation of physical waste is Fashion Data – a series of black and white (visually and metaphorically) statistics that give a context to the current European habits of purchasing, wearing and disposing of clothing.  I’ll let the numbers do the talking.

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The exhibition was curated by fashion historian José Teunissen.  Her publication Fashion Data is available to read online and fleshes out the numbers stated above.  It’s essential reading and explains the historic foundation of Fast Fashion, its environmental impact and the emerging slow fashion movement.  It is also a useful visual summary of the Fashion Data exhibition that’s as good as viewing it first hand.  To paraphrase Teunissen, 30% of today’s clothing is sold at the recommended retail price, another 30% disappears in the sales and 40% remains unsold or doesn’t even reach the shops.  This is the deadstock I spoke of in my previous post Fashion Hacked.   Today’s overproduction of Fast Fashion produces an enormous amount of waste with negative social and environmental impacts.  There are solutions being developed to make materials production cleaner and more sustainable, but the business of, and appetite for, Fast Fashion remain strong.

Fashion Data also alerted me to the work of Dutch fashion brand Youasme (womens) Measyou (mens), which launched in 2010 as the world’s first crowdfunded fashion brand creating slow fashion collections of high quality made-to-last knitwear and accessories.

youasme_measyou_pilgrimage_photo_j.w._kaldenbachImage: J.W. Kaldenbach

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.23 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.00.44 Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 10.01.04An understated androgynous collage – Youasme Measyou AW14 collection.  Images: Blommers/Schumm.  Styling: Maarten Spruyt

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On a stylistic level I was also struck by the natural ease of Youasme/Measyou’s androgyny – it feels tangible and forever.  This is in stark contrast with the overt androgyny expressed by some current fashion designers, including JW Anderson, whose work feels firmly ‘of the moment’ and deliberately provocative – more a scream of gender bending than a quiet dissolving of the aesthetic gender divide.  No doubt both have merit and power for different reasons but it strikes me that Youasme’s expression feels more real; more authentic.  Herein lies the ever fascinating aspect of fashion’s aesthetic debate – its subjectivity.

In addition to Youasme, a host of Dutch designers are utilising sustainable materials and practices, highlighted in conjunction with Fashion Data at Het Nieuwe Instituut’s Temporary Fashion Exhibition.  Here’s a roundup.

paulin1Pauline Van Dongen‘s washable, wearable solar panel knitted shirt.  Image: Liselotte Fleur

The parting insight delivered by Fashion Data comes in the form of award winning film Unravel by Meghna Gupta.  Shot in India, the film illustrates the end point of clothing from the West that is sent for recycling and reveals the gaping divide between East and West and the perceived value of clothing.

The film runs deep into value judgements about society as a whole.  It is shocking and revelatory.  Some Indian factory workers assume that clothes being bought from stores like Primark are very expensive, meaning that Western consumers are very wealthy and can afford to simply give away their clothes for recycling and buy new ones. They also draw the conclusion that Western women are more worthy and beautiful compared to Eastern women because of this excessive consumption.  One female factory worker ponders, while removing decorative crystals from underwear, what the wearer must have done to deserve such a fate – stones on her underwear?!  She concluded the woman must have been forced to wear it as some form of punishment for bad behaviour.  Her comment is a stark reminder of a practical and functional attitude towards clothing, and of patriarchal dominance. 

The full length film can be viewed here. It is a profound and perspective-inducing film that is equally compelling and educational.  Further clothing recycling information is available here.  For information about the sustainable fashion effort in the UK, click here

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