Bloomin’ Brilliant


In Bloom London

The more I investigate ethical fashion, the more I realise that everything is connected and occasionally this interlocking web reveals something truly worth talking about.

At The Good Fashion Show several weeks ago, I met Emily Huc who designs ethical lingerie label, In Bloom London. With a background in international development, Emily previously worked with farmers in Costa Rica and saw, first-hand, how sustainable processes could positively affect their everyday lives. She craved a more creative outlet however, and dreamt of establishing her own clothing label. Making lingerie environmentally and skin friendly seems logical yet there is precious little on the market in terms of ethical design. Emily saw the potential for a range of sustainable lingerie and set to work, designing, sourcing suppliers and finding manufacturing facilities. Barely 6 months old, her first collection comprises a delicate and comfortable organic cotton range in white, pale pink and teal. Lingerie is difficult to manufacture, and like most clothing, has been long outsourced to far-flung destinations outside of Europe. Emily managed to find a family-run factory in Northern France with expertise in corsetry, to guarantee excellent quality results. All of the fabrics and trimmings are certified Oeko Tex 100, which is the highest safety standard for textiles, and the cotton is certified organic by GOTS.

In Bloom London Concept Store

A lot of people ask me where to shop, to avoid buying unfairly traded or sweatshop manufactured goods, without really having to think too much. Thankfully Emily provides at least one answer! She operates an ethical concept store in west London under the same name, In Bloom London, stocking her own lingerie label and a host of other goodies, ranging from clothing to jewellery, furniture and interiors. With more than a hint of Parisian charm, the store steps away from the hippie craft aesthetic that is often associated with ethical products to become a much more refined shopping destination. Nestled under the bridge on Portobello Road, In Bloom London is perfectly positioned to attract the Notting Hill set as well as Saturday shoppers at the bustling market. Emily and I spoke about the need for more “beauty” in the ethical industry. We agreed that it is very difficult to find ethical brands that can compete with non-ethical labels, on aesthetics and price points, yet still maintain their agenda. So often, I cringe at the products offered by ethical designers who focus solely on the substance and not on the style. For Emily Huc and her In Bloom boutique, the aesthetics must be right.

In Bloom London Concept Store

She’ll soon be moving to the unit next door and is beginning to take deliveries of Spring/Summer 2012 stock. New collections from L’herbe Rouge, Nancy Dee and Goodone will be shortly appearing, along with jewellery from Kokku (featured here).

If you would like to see for yourselves, go to the Portobello Green Designers Arcade, at 281 Portobello Rd (under the bridge), London. The In Bloom London lingerie range can also be purchased online here.

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Waste Not

Waste Not by Song Dong

Waste bothers me. Of course I dispose of things everyday and it’s inevitable, but it just seems so wrong to go through the process of manufacturing something for it then to be thrown away so easily. With this in mind, I went to see the Waste Not exhibition by Song Dong at the Barbican, London. I had seen a few images online beforehand and so I understood the visual concept, but I wasn’t prepared for the poignant atmosphere that emerged from a collection of everyday things.

Song Dong’s work deals with fundamental issues of family, and the things we surround ourselves with, creating a universal connection with every human being. He was born in China in 1966 and grew up in a modest household. The Chinese Cultural Revolution began the same year and ushered in an era of great change and upheaval. When his father died in 2002 his mother’s grief transformed into an excessive and almost obsessive practice of wu jin qi yong. This Chinese phrase, meaning waste not, stems from early communism and is a practical response to the fear of shortage. It essentially involves hoarding anything deemed useful so that one feels safe and prepared if and when something drastic occurs. Song Dong and his siblings felt it was unhealthy for his mother, Zhao Xiangyuan,  to continue to hoard so many things in lieu of dealing with the passing of his father. He decided to remove everything from his mother’s house and create an exhibition in collaboration with her, using her collected objects. Ironically his mother felt justified, exclaiming that finally all these things were useful and her hoarding had been worthwhile after all. This irony made me smile and it reflects our complex and emotional connection to objects.

Waste Not by Song Dong

The exhibition was first put together in 2005 and continues to tour. Since the death of his mother, Song Dong recreates the exhibition each time with his sister and wife, keeping the family bonds alive. The objects are laid out in a planned way, with groupings of similar items and materials evolving into the next. It’s funny, out of some 10,000 objects, I could see resemblances to my own upbringing and my adult life now. Some things seem downright silly to keep, like pieces of styrofoam, and others, like board games, aren’t actually being used, but it doesn’t seem logical to throw them away. There are sturdy carrier bags, plastic bottles, shoes, bird cages, record players, bits of metal, patched and fixed up chairs, pots and pans, chopsticks – pretty much everything you can think of. Song Dong’s mother belonged to a different era, one where rationing was severely enforced and hardship was a way of life. She clearly never forgot this. Even as more modern appliances appear in the collection and you can tell her economic situation improved, that fear of social and political turmoil remained.

Waste Not by Song Dong

A story by Zhao Xiangyuan herself is displayed on the wall at the entrance. She tells of the hand washing laundry process she endured as a ritual for many years. The desperation is palpable in her tale, where she describes keeping bits of rationed laundry soap and sticking them together to one day offer as a wedding gift to her children. She recalls the naivety of this act, acknowledging that she couldn’t have imagined her children would one day own washing machines. (You can see some soap in the grey basin below)

Waste Not by Song Dong

The collection of objects is astounding yet each piece seems somehow logical, and potentially useful. Two things struck me; the first was the environmental viewpoint that yes, most things are useful and we need to find ways to reuse and reinvent already fabricated objects and materials. Lots of people hoard but never find good uses for anything, and one day their collections end up in a skip, and all the hoarding was for nothing. The collections are sent to landfill and that’s it. Waste.

Waste Not by Song Dong

My second thought was that our connection with inanimate objects is very strong. I felt emotions emanating from the exhibition and could imagine the thought process running through Zhao Xiangyuan’s mind when she chose to keep these things. Anyone who has moved house and has had to de-clutter will understand, choosing between things you don’t really “need” brings out a string of strange emotions. There are tiny children’s shoes, old blankets, newspapers and toys. It is a collection of memories that could transport her back to forgotten times and places. In some ways, it makes the disposal of things harder, we want to hold on to memories in a physical way and the things we surround ourselves with represent our lives. Zhao Xiangyuan could not let go of her husband and created this physical collection as a way to feel safe and keep his memory alive.

Waste Not by Song Dong

Somehow all of this can become relevant to the way we view waste. Rather than unhealthily hoarding objects or constantly throwing everything away, let’s make things, construct, hammer, glue and tie; develop new hybrids from free trash. Keep your physical memories by making them useful. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well it is, and not that long ago, people did it everyday. Now of course we call it upcycling and it’s a kind of novelty, 50 years ago in China and many other places closer to home, it was a necessity.

The exhibition Waste Not runs at the Barbican until 12 June 2012

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The Good Fashion Show

The Green Scale by Sophia Fox

As a new fixture on the London Fashion Week calendar, The Good Fashion Show promised an event teeming with ethical designers, a marketplace, music, art, keynote speeches and a runway show. Held at London House near Russell Square, the venue was a little off the beaten track although attendance remained high throughout the day. I spotted many of the usual faces of the ethical world, and while it’s fantastic to get the unwavering support of the hard-line ethicalistas, I was hoping for new, fresh talent to emerge, along with companies aiming to bring new businesses to life using ethical and sustainable means.

I found four or five companies that were doing just that, and the two that stood out most for me were both producing jewellery. In one sense, I am continually disappointed that jewellery brands seem to be able to combine ethics and aesthetics more easily than clothing brands, but alas we should be grateful for things that are working, and working well.

Firstly I met Andrea Usai, a very engaging man who spoke passionately about his jewellery line. He encouraged me to smell spinning-top pendants, composed of metal and juniper wood. The gorgeous fragrance, he said, was the essence of his youth in Sardinia and it became apparent that Sardinian culture and heritage were intrinsic to his designs. He began the Kokku company only a year and a half ago with his wife Ansula, and every single part of the work, right down to the company logo, is imbued with symbolism and personal family touches. Andrea stressed the need to retain the artisanal filigree techniques that are inherent to the island of Sardinia and to continue to pass this knowledge onto further generations. I’m not sure if Andrea realizes that he is bang on trend with this approach, but his beliefs are very genuine and derive from personal experiences. Some years ago, he asked a local jeweller to make a piece for his wife. The jeweller explained that he was about to give up, that his craft was no longer appreciated or sought after. Andrea felt there must be a way to keep these age-old traditions alive and set up Kokku to blend traditional craftsmanship with contemporary styling.

Kokku – Nuvola Collection

His line is quite unusual but also very appealing for its discreet scale and intricate formations. The company name derives from the Kokku, which is a Sardinian amulet traditionally given to newborns, and hung over the cot to ward off evil spirits. I love meeting people who are so passionate about their work and so convinced that historical traditions should not be left to die out, at the whimsy of fashion diktats. Andrea and Ansula aim to preserve through promotion and the whole collection is handmade in Sardinia. The Kokku collections can be purchased here.

Kokku Filigree Ring

The second jewellery designer I met was Tanya Bowd who designs a range called, Candescent. Like Andrea, Tanya’s earnest outlook belies her highly resolved design style. Tanya was previously involved with the Fauna & Flora International (FFI) initiative in East Africa to encourage sustainable harvesting of the mpingo tree, also known as the African blackwood. Up to 20,000 trees are felled every year to create musical instruments like oboes and clarinets but illegal logging and over-harvesting have depleted the population in the last 30 years. Tanya uses sustainably harvested (FSC certified) African blackwood to support communities who are adhering to sustainable farming methods. Her oval designs were beautifully laid out on two elevated platters of canvas (of course, I was too busy chatting to actually take a photo) but Tanya’s aesthetic is obviously highly evolved and she has a keen eye for detail. Lustrous wooden shapes were adorned with tiny dots of gold and gemstones to create a discreet luxurious style. The 18ct eco gold is recycled in the U.K. and Tanya would like to use Fairtrade gold in the future. The pink rubies are  fair-mined in Malawi while white sapphires come from an accredited source in Sri Lanka. Candescent is awaiting Fairtrade approval, pending some arduous form-filling. The Candescent Africa East collection is available for purchase here.

Candescent - Africa East with Gold & Ruby - Bangle

Candescent - Africa East with Gold, Silver & White Sapphire - Earrings

Although some of the clothing stalls were a bit lacklustre and crafty, it is still encouraging to see so many people getting involved in ethical fashion. Unfortunately I didn’t stay for the actual fashion show in the evening, but by all accounts it was a great night. The keynote speeches I attended were also very insightful and I think this fixture  should remain in place for further editions of the event. Four speakers gave their views on ethical fashion, based on their own experiences and specializations. Ethical couturière Lucy Tammam gave a first-hand account of developing ethical fabrics and practices with artisans in India, Professor Esther Leslie gave a brief history of fashion, citing Marxist theories and accounts of the British Industrial Revolution. Dr. Maria Alvarez spoke of the concept of “good fashion” from a philosophical perspective and Reverend Jennie Hogan explored the notion of the uniform and covering the body to develop a sense of identity. The audience was clearly well-versed in ethical dilemmas and opined on the various intricacies of the business. It was a pity we didn’t have time for a more thorough debate. It is noteworthy that this type of discussion sits so comfortably with ethical fashion events; to be involved in this highly complex business, information is vital and when asked the question, “who made this?” the answer “I don’t know” just won’t suffice.

Although in its nascency, the Good Fashion Show was a timely response to the growing interest in ethical fashion and hopefully a sign of things to come.

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Is honesty the best policy?

This week I did something I never do; I investigated what people were saying about the subject before writing this post. Considering the awe-inspiring topic, I felt I needed to found out what the reaction was elsewhere. Let’s just say, it’s mixed.

I’m talking about the launch of a new label, instigated by Bruno Pieters, called Honest by. Pieters is one of those designers with cachet; Antwerpian, minimalist, known for considered lines and luxurious fabrics. So far, so boring. This is why his new project came as a bolt from the blue. He quit as art director of Hugo by Hugo Boss and shelved his eponymous label for a year-long sabbatical in India. There, he noticed people wearing clothing that was grown, woven and sewn locally, using raw materials that were readily available. Upon return to Antwerp, he set about developing a supply chain system that was sustainable with full disclosure. The resultant project is radical and special and completely unorthodox.

Honest by Bruno Pieters

Pieters has created a limited edition collection for men and women will full transparency. That means offering detailed information on where and by whom the collection was made. Right down to the zips and thread, we can view how many steps were needed to create each garment and how much each process cost. This is nothing short of revolutionary. There is no other company that offers this level of detail, in fact many are  possibly unaware of the details of each step in the supply chain.  Pieters is concerned with designing trans-seasonal garments that can be worn for years rather than months. This chimes with the emerging trend of returning to slower and slower purchasing patterns. We are already being forced to. Spring stock is on the high-street and it’s snowing so the sooner we drop the notion of invented seasons, the better.

Honest by Bruno Pieters

Obviously this collection isn’t for everyone, with dresses at around €500, rising to over €1,000 for a coat I don’t think I’ll be making an impulse purchase. Pieters “modest chic” aesthetic also leaves me a bit cold, but thankfully (and cleverly) Pieters had enrolled a number of other designers to participate, with a new name set to appear every three months, selling collections based on the same honest philosophy. I really, really hope this works but there are a few aspects that may prohibit its success.

Luxury isn’t really in my lexicon but I get how it works. Consumers spend lots of money to buy a product or enjoy an experience that makes them feel special, takes them away from daily drudgery and makes them feel like they’re living the dream. It’s a fantasy world, and that’s not a bad thing when reality ain’t exactly rosy. But I wonder if this luxurious line is a little too real for the luxury consumer. Nitty gritty aspects of certifications, costings, and proscribed use of fur and leather? Where is the fun and the escapism? Maybe this is the new consumerism; working together to form a better world for all. We are already witnessing this change with the explosion of community groups, a return to shopping locally and more neighbourly interactions on a daily basis. Yes, I think this hippy “one love” approach is coming to a street corner near you in the coming decade, but is this a case of too much, too soon?

Is the fashion establishment ready?

Notoriously old-fashioned and hierarchical, the fashion industry is reluctant to break from the status quo. Pieters has the advantage of already being an insider, with enough clout to garner attention but can this collection have far-reaching influence or will it remain extremely niche? In an ideal world, his approach would influence other brands, at least in the same price-bracket and sphere as Bruno Pieters, eventually filtering down to cheaper, high-street brands. I’ve said before that this level of sustainability and transparency needs to become normal and I fully believe that one day it will. I applaud Bruno Pieters’ vision and I think he has the right to clap himself on the back until he’s black and blue, but whether this forward-thinking approach will actually resonate with other brands and more importantly with consumers, remains to be seen.

Honest by Bruno Pieters

Photos courtesy of


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Everything Must Go

Everything Must Go..........Photo Credit: Amy Davidson

I’m back! Yep it’s been nearly two months and in that time I’ve almost forgotten how to use WordPress and Twitter and everything else tech-related. I really dislike living online and I find the fact that it has become essential to my life both unnerving and frustrating. Ironically, I missed the best part of an important event last week because I hadn’t been checking my Twitter feed. Curses! Luckily my friend and sustainable fashion maven, Amy Davidson, alerted me before it was too late. Amy has also supplied all the photos on this post because she’s got a swish camera and knows how to use it. Thanks heaps!

The event in question was called Everything Must Go, and featured discussions and a series of installations, created as a culmination of 5 years of research. The research project itself, The Waste of the World, brought together researchers in geography, anthropology and materials science from a number of universities, including the University of Sheffield and Goldsmiths, London. The programme sought to rethink the concept of waste, by providing global analysis of current waste management and exposing the economic, social and environmental implications of waste in the fields of textiles, food, ships and nuclear energy.

Textile mounds arranged by colour......... Photo Credit: Amy Davidson

Last Saturday, a program of talks and discussions was held at Bargehouse, London, involving such doyennes of the sustainable world as journalist Lucy Siegle, Kate Goldsworthy, Director of MA Textile Futures at CSM, and Sarah Farquhar, Head of Retail, Oxfam. Of course I missed this part, because I was in offline mode. Grr! The following day I managed to view the installations that were both informative and thought-provoking. Visually, the set-up was quite impressive, especially since this aspect is often lacking at events that concern the environment or ethical fashion. The consideration given to aesthetics really elevated the subject matter and added poignancy to industrial practices. The Bargehouse itself is a series of meandering stairwells and hidden rooms with exposed brickwork and acted as the perfect location to reflect the industrial nature of clothing recycling. One small room showed a video of clothing being shredded by an imposing industrial machine with huge metal teeth. Trust me, once you’ve seen a cute child’s boot being unceremoniously eaten several times on a looped video, you begin to feel a bit uneasy. It just seems so strange, when confronted with the birth, life and death of a garment, I began to wonder again, how can we justify the excessive damage of fashion production?

Another rather moving piece was a short film by Meghna Gupta, called Unravel. In it, the world of textile recycling is explored through the eyes of textile workers in Panipat, India. The women in the film react incredulously to the types of Western clothing they process, and surmise that water is so expensive in the west,  it must be cheaper to buy new clothes rather than wash them… indeed.

George Parker, New York Times Magazine, March 2002........... Photo Credit: Amy Davidson

Sadly the above quote still accurately describes the textile recycling industry. Think about all the clothes you’ve graciously donated to charity over the years. Where are they now? Some have been reused, some were shredded and recycled into shoddy blankets in India and some are lying in landfill. One thing that emerged quite clearly for me, was the difference between upcycling and downcycling. I think we all know what upcycling is by now; the concept of altering or adding something to an unwanted garment to evolve it into something better. Downcycling it seems, is the opposite; where perfectly wearable but unwanted garments are shredded, resulting in low-grade fibres that can only be used to create something of low value. We recall the perfectly wearable child’s boot becoming dust before our eyes.

The point it seems, is that we need to take responsibility for our own fashion consumption and resultant waste management. Think about it like this… you give five old T-shirts to charity in your annual spring clean-out, the tees are kind of faded and a bit stained, they sit in a black plastic bag for a while and then someone decides they are unsellable. They get sent to somewhere like Panipat in India and are shredded into fibres that are then recomposed into car polish cloths. Summer comes, you think, it’s time to polish the car, you go to your local supermarket and buy a 5-pack of new cloths. Wouldn’t the original old T-shirt have done the same job? Hmm…

I am aware of how over-simplified, and possibly condescending/sanctimonious that sounds, but if we thought more about every item we were about to give or throw away, maybe we could find actual uses for things, rather than patting ourselves on the back for giving clothes to charity, which are often more of a hindrance than a help.

Key issues raised by the research include the need for designers to assess how their products will be disassembled, and what the broken-up fibres might become, as an integral part of the design process. Likewise, there is a need to dispel the myth that recycling is “clean and green” when in fact, most of the time it is dirty and dangerous work. For more information, take a look at the Waste of the World YouTube channel.

The title of this exhibition, Everything Must Go, recalls the Manic Street Preachers’ song of the same name, with the lyrics, “I just hope that you can forgive us, but everything must go” As we speak to future generations, is this the only excuse we can offer?

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From Rwanda with Love

I spent yesterday on a misguided Christmas shopping blitz. Without a plan, I headed for Oxford Street (yes, I have lost my mind!) in search of inspiration. I knew the Fair Christmas Fayre was happening at the Salvation Army so I ducked in there to escape the throngs. The Fayre is an ethical marketplace selling Fairtrade, recycled, eco and ethical goods. I managed very quickly to buy my first gift (gorgeous and ethical but I can’t reveal what it is yet- the recipient might be reading!) Then I came upon the Cards from Africa stand. Chris Page was manning it along with a lovely multilingual volunteer whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch. They proceeded to explain a little about the company and I was honestly blown away by the innovative approach and resultant success. Chris was living in Rwanda for several years and wanted to do something to help orphaned young people who were left with the responsibility of looking after younger siblings. He asked young Rwandans what they wanted, and their response was – a job. Rwanda has experienced many difficulties over the past decade, not only the atrocities of genocide in 1994, but also needless deaths from AIDS and malaria. As a result, about half of the 11 million population is under the age of 18.

Cards from Africa was set up by Chris Page and artist Gabriel Dusabe in 2004 with £80 investment, and within 6 months they were selling cards. With some further investment, Chris and Gabriel developed the designs and trained  young people to make the handmade cards which, by the way, are super cute and funny. Resourcefulness, once again, is a key factor of their success; CFA uses scrap paper destined for burning to redevelop its own materials. By re-pulping the waste paper, dyeing it and letting it dry in the sun, CFA’s materials are completely environmentally friendly. Chris told me that CFA now employs 90 people in Rwanda and sells cards globally. After the initial set up and training, the Rwandan site is now completely self-sufficient and run by the Rwandans themselves. CFA is also fully committed to the principles of Fairtrade and notably encourages the staff to unlock the poverty cycle for themselves by working in a sustainable manner and saving what they can after feeding and clothing their families, and paying school fees.

Where are the brakes?

This is such an exciting company and acts an an excellent example of business success in Africa. It really proves that small changes can make a huge difference to someone’s life. If you would like to buy Christmas cards, there’s still time, click here. CFA makes cards for every occasion and you can also become a card seller to earn a little extra cash by selling cards in your local community or you can design a card. I love CFA’s “trade not aid” ethos but the people involved go further in offering support to the workers. There is a counselling service available to the staff and group activities foster a family environment for those who have lost their parents at such a young age.

If you’re very lucky this Christmas, you might even receive a CFA card from me!

Happy Christmas

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The Tipping Point

I feel the need today, to reflect on all the developments I’ve discovered in the world of ethical fashion and to ponder where this movement is headed. There are a lot of amazing things happening, from fabric innovation to creative methods of production, which are making ethical brands more sophisticated and relevant to contemporary fashion. That’s great news, but at what point will ethical methods become “normal”? This week I’ve been reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and as those of you who have read it will know, it offers an explanation as to how certain trends go from being niche to mainstream. This got me thinking about the tipping point in ethical fashion and when or how it’s going to happen. I fully believe that it will happen but I’d like to think that maybe we could influence the changes to occur by concentrating our efforts in the right areas. Maybe I’m wrong?

In some ways, we may have missed the best opportunity or maybe it’s the case that the opportunity came too soon. Several years ago, when all things “green” were trending in the media, there was a chance to change attitudes but the infrastructure wasn’t in place to have any real effect. When people realized that it wasn’t that simple to switch to “being green” a lot of consumers kind of dropped the cause as soon as they had picked it up. But this isn’t a trend, it’s a movement and movements take time and effort to grow.

A few recent developments gave the ethical movement opportunity to tip or at least cause enough clatter to actually make people sit up and think. One of these was the controversial cancellation of Gulnara Karimova’s New York fashion week show in September 2011. Karimova is the daughter of Uzbekistan’s leader, Islam Karimov, and is an influential figure in politics in her own right. She also happens to design a fashion range. Uzbekistan has been censured in the past for its enforced and state sponsored child labour during the annual cotton harvest. In light of these abuses, activists called for Karimova’s scheduled show to be cancelled. The show was cancelled and 60 brands have since stated that they will not knowingly use Uzbek cotton in their production. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Uzbekistan’s cotton production continues to be extremely exploitative and it’s a highly complex system involving economic, political and social factors. This incident wasn’t enough to tip the balance. For a few weeks the news story circulated and put the spotlight on the need for ethically managed supply chains. But where is this story now? Largely forgotten about?

I asked Lianne Ludlow, founder of eco fashion site, her thoughts on the triggers that could tip ethical fashion into the mainstream. This Q&A took place via Stylist’s online Lunchtime Masterclasses.


Do you think there is one particular event or legislation or any other factor that can really push ethical fashion into the mainstream?


Hi Louise

What really helped about four years ago when eco was suddenly ‘hot’ was celebrities really getting behind green living. Cameron Diaz, Leo DiCaprio and more were all in their Honda Prius’ and doing shoots for the likes of Vanity Fair and Vogue that made being eco very very cool. And where Vogue goes many other publications follow which was an incredible boost to the industry at the time.

It would be lovely if that happened again, but I suspect it won’t…

I think now if some very cool designers, artists, models etc got behind an eco event combined with some kind of government push in promoting ethical and fair trade fashion (British Fashion Council already support eco fashion via Esthethica as part of London Fashion Week and there is Fair Trade Fortnight) but with a great big hyper trendy push, that would be fantastic.

I think now a lot of it us up to eco brands to make themselves relevant and desirable so people want to purchase the product, whether they care about the ethics or not, and that is where the growth and development will come from… you know be the next Alexander Wang, or Zara but be eco…

She makes an interesting point, and it’s one I’ve heard echoed  by several designers, that the fashion must come first, and the story must be sold through aesthetics. Then later, once  the consumer has been drawn in, wow them with the ethical values – just as an added bonus. I agree that this is a sensible approach and is the only way to generate sales to consumers who don’t really care about where their clothing comes from. Continued support from high profile figures, government backing and initiatives by big brands will eventually push this agenda to its natural tipping point. But is there anything else, more immediate or simply obvious, that we can do to enforce this change? I don’t think I’ve found the answer.

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Patriot Gains

The latest project from ProjectRepat

I hate the idea of this blog becoming a collection of, “I think this is cool – look at it” posts, without much opinion or analysis but unfortunately (or fortunately) this project ticks all the boxes, so I don’t know if there is much to add. I came across an article on the GOOD website last week about ProjectRepat. Set up by several enterprising Bostonians, the project looks at the business of mitumba, which is a Swahili term meaning “bundles”. Many of you are possibly unaware (as I was until recently) that excess clothing donated to charities in the U.S. is sold to bulk buyers in African countries for distribution and resale. Mitumba is a somewhat controversial concept. A lot of generous donators don’t realize where their clothes end up and many aspects of the mitumba system leave the chain of bulk buyers, brokers and retailers in precarious economic situations. For example, clothing is bought by the bale and is generally unseen in advance, so the buyer could end up with really bad quality merchandise or clothing that is unappealing to their customers. Meanwhile local artisans and producers of new clothing go unsupported – because mitumba is so cheap and trendy.

A customized shirt repatriated from Kenya

It’s funny how we often overlook the concept of fashion trends in developing countries, but local trends are a key element in shaping local society, no matter where groups of people are located. It only takes a couple of influential people to start wearing a particular style for a new trend to be born and this phenomenon can be seen across Africa, where desire for Western clothing is rife. ProjectRepat also made a documentary and in it, most people are wearing Western clothing as opposed to traditional dress. In some ways that could be seen as a sad reminder of globalization but I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing. Kenyans are opening themselves to global influences and they’re wearing American clothing with Kenyan flavour. Mixing Kenyan and North American cultures to customize something unique for the people themselves signals a new sense of identity and self-confidence.

This system has been in place since the 1980s but ProjectRepat sought to look at the mitumba phenomenon in reverse. Ross Lohr and Sean Hewens raised enough money to fund the initial project to take a trip to Nairobi and buy 500 expat T-shirts. The tees are emblazoned with humorous slogans and retro brands. The locals seem to like the colours and the graphics but the irony is lost on them. To complete the circle of recycling, ProjectRepat essentially repatriated the 500 tees to the U.S. and is selling them back to the American consumer for a profit (Buy one here). Each tee has a stamped logo explaining where the item was bought and when it returned to home soil. I love the idea that an ubiquitous item like a T-shirt can fall out of fashion and be donated to charity, travel to Africa and then (possibly years) later can find itself back in the Western wardrobe. It is recycling at its finest and creates an economic loop between the U.S. and Africa, which can only be a good thing, right?

The second instalment of this project, called No More New, has just been launched. Having witnessed the upcycling and customization of tees in Nairobi, the people at ProjectRepat were inspired to do a little upcycling themselves. A series of jersey tees, bags, skirts and scarves has been designed and will utilize more of these excess T-shirts to actively develop new products. This innovation adds value to a seemingly worthless item and invents something new using existing materials. I think the key is: the inspiration came from the Kenyans themselves. This resourcefulness and adaptability needs to be harnessed to contribute to further economic growth. We’ve seen projects before, using bottle tops or plastic, and I think this inventiveness and creativity is central to the development of African fashion businesses.

The project needs funding however, and still needs to raise about $4,000 by December 16th. A fair wage for workers in Kenya has been agreed and all profits of the sale of these garments goes to non-profit organizations in Kenya and Tanzania. Depending on how much you pledge, you will receive one of the items that is about to be created. (All info on the Kickstarter funding page)

Another funny find!

Looks like I had something to say after all…

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I Love Lucy

To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? by Lucy Siegle

Ethical fashion has been lurking in the back of my mind for a few years but I only recently discovered Lucy Siegle. She never registered on my radar before, probably because living in France obscured my vision of most British cultural developments… Lucy is a journalist and writes a weekly column on ethical living in the Observer. She’s also on telly, currently as a reporter on the BBC 1 programme, The One Show, and has written two books. The second book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, documents the current state of global clothing production. If my copy (photo above) looks a little battered, it’s because it’s been in my handbag for the past seven weeks – this is not exactly light reading, despite its novelesque size.

Lucy researches the complex clothing supply chain, from growing raw materials to treating, dyeing and sewing final products. She also explores the environmental impact of clothing production, including the poisoned Ganges in Kanpur and the desertification of the Aral Sea, as well as reporting on the daily struggles of the average garment worker in India, China and beyond.

For all this research however, the book moves from topic to topic quite quickly. This is both a good and a bad thing. While providing a general overview for novices, there’s also some serious detail for those already well-versed in the clothing supply chain. Lucy looks at the system from many angles, including government policies and flawed auditing, in a clear and concise way, but I find myself wanting to know more about everything. In saying that, the book is replete with an astounding amount of facts and figures and sneaks in some really specific information. For example, I didn’t know what mulesing, salaula or perc were before, and now I do. Likewise, the inclusion of historical information and trends gives context to each of the aspects explored. I imagine Lucy has a library of collated information and I dream of a day when she publishes the encyclopaedic version of this book (unrealistic, I know). Meanwhile, I think the publication really reflects ethical fashion’s current standing. Although some progress has been made, we are very much at the beginning of this process of change, and a book that dips its toe in each area expresses this reality.

Siegle has been accused of forensic levels of investigation into the infinite processes of production and while they might seem tedious to some, the truth is, if we are to effectuate real change, we must discover exactly what’s going on and the ramifications of current practices. The information is blunt and relentless however, it ranges from human exploitation to irreversible environmental destruction. About halfway through, I felt like I was drowning in toxic sludge myself, and that the problems were insurmountable or certainly beyond the realms of my control. There are hopeful moments of clarity though, and Siegle’s straight-talking writing style just about keeps the book buoyant, while an honest portrayal of her own less-than-perfect wardrobe is cheery and realistic. Rather contrary to the rest of the book, the last few chapters focus on practical solutions and ways in which the individual can reform this fast-fashion extravaganza. Most of this section was not news to me, but is a very useful guide for anyone wishing to change the landscape of his or her wardrobe.

Overall it is a fascinating read and a real eye-opener, whether you are interested in ethical fashion or are unburdened by injustices in the garment industry. My favourite thing about this book is, while Siegle expresses anger and frustration, her approach is generally balanced and offers the facts without judgement at several points, notably with regards to fur and animal management. This is the new face of ethical fashion, one that focuses on education and encourages the consumer to make informed choices.

I bought the book at Brick Lane Bookshop and I’m sure it’s available online. If anyone else has read it, please chime in with your comments below.

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MADE makes the grade

MADE Nne Moja set of four brass rings

I’ve been a fan of MADE jewellery since I first purchased a pair of MADE earrings in Topshop a few years ago. I wore them to death i.e. until I lost one… and then immediately purchased another pair. Last week I again succumbed to the wonderful artisanal brassiness of MADE’s signature styles and allowed myself a gift from The Outnet. I love everything about this company. For those who aren’t aware, MADE was founded by Cristina Cisilino in 2005 with the aim to produce directional jewellery while promoting ‘trade not aid’ in Africa. From the base in Kibera, one of Nairobi’s worst slums, MADE has established a safe and fair working environment where workers gain new skills and are trained to make the jewellery collections. Using sustainable local materials such as brass, recycled glass and beads, MADE contributes to recycling and repurposing efforts. Each piece is unique and I especially love the slightly imperfect, handmade finish.

MADE’s success lies in clever collaborations with designers and celebrities. People like, Laura Bailey, Pippa Small, Livia Firth and Hattie Rickards, give the brand some clout and elevate it from ‘charity workshop’ status. I love the irregular characteristics but your average Saturday shopper may not appreciate the rough-hewn finish, and some smart associations can go a long way to raise the profile of a brand. Retail stockists have also played a huge part in keeping MADE in the spotlight. As I say, I’ve purchased from Topshop and The Outnet, and select MADE pieces are also available at ASOS, Whistles and John Lewis, along with a host of dedicated ethical websites. My recent purchase was a set of four stacking rings, which arrived in a printed cotton pouch (produced by an ethical manufacturing facility in Kenya, called SOKO). The rings are made of brass and can be worn in various configurations or alone (apologies, having a Q.V.C. moment…)

Another key factor of MADE’s charm is the on-trend appeal. While I admire and encourage fair working practices and aims to alleviate poverty in Kenya, I wouldn’t buy MADE pieces unless they suited my taste and budget. At £32 this set is reasonably priced and satisfies my brassy, mismatched and misshapen desires.

One of the many ways to wear the stacking rings

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