With her latest book "ReFashioned: Cutting-Edge Clothing From Upcycled Materials," author and fashion expert Sass Brown has demonstrated two basic things. First: Sustainability is not a mere communication phenomenon, but a solid reality that is shaping creativity and manufacturing. Sustainability applied to fashion is no longer avant-garde; it's a mature mass phenomenon, appreciated and shared by a large portion of the style enthusiasts.
Second: Upcycled and recycled garments are becoming a necessity today, not only for their ethical correctness, but because it's something recognizable for people to select and recover. This isn't just nostalgia, but a drive towards the future: The post-modernist idea of the "endless new" is no more and Brown's book shows the future of sustainable fashion—ethical and experimental, without losing its focus on aesthetics. She spoke with CH about the ever-evolving world of fashion, and upcycling's role within it.
Fashion has traditionally been about decadence, and in turn obsolescence and waste. Isn't it a contradiction to talk about recycling and upcycling in fashion?
It's flipping the script, but then fashion has always been about changing the rules. Creativity thrives on challenge, and the challenge of making more sustainable choices as a designer, and choosing to recontextualize waste as resource has elicited some highly creative responses. The best of which challenge long held beliefs about what constitutes fashion. The Armani gown produced for Livia Firth for the red carpet, and made from recycled PET fiber, is no less a couture gown than if it had been made from pure silk. It could be argued that it is even more so, made as it is, with the same amount of labour, creativity, and craft, only with the addition of an environmental benefit, which brings with it its own value.
What's the role of creativity in this direction? Does this process involve retail, merchandising and marketing?
Creativity is paramount in design—all design. Clothing must be desirable to inspire change. The area of upcycled high fashion is predominately one led by emerging designers, meaning that the potential for more established brands and high street retailers to participate is enormous. The larger the company, the more waste they are producing, therefore the greater potential for upcycling on a large scale. Why not have one of the major high street retailers with a history of designer collaborations, challenge a high profile designer to reimagine their waste for a capsule collection?
Do you think famous brands and fashion designers can and will embrace this challenge?
Absolutely. Livia Firth already challenged a number of luxury brands—including Armani and Valentino—to fashion red carpet gowns from recycled fibres for red carpet season. H&M completed their third season of their Conscious Collection—some of which is produced from recycled materials. High street giant Topshop has a collaboration with Orsola de Castro's Reclaim to Wear, to utilise their left-over fabric at the end of the season. Clearly this is just a beginning, there is lots of opportunity for many more collaborations at all levels of the market, from the high street to luxury.
Can we call this a revolution or an evolution of the sector?
I think it's a bit of both. It does require revolutionary thinking on the part of the designer and creator, to recontextualize materials and revalue them through their labour and their designs. Ultimately, I think it's an evolution for the industry—and a challenge for them to broaden their concept of success from one based purely on profit, to one that encompasses the triple bottom line: People, planet and profit.
Is there a country you think is the most promising in terms of critical fashion?
Its difficult to pinpoint just one country as there is so much great work being done around the world. The UK, Berlin, and the Scandinavian countries all stand out from the crowd. The UK—with their love of vintage clothing—has long led the way with upcycled post-consumer waste. Berlin and the Scandinavian countries—with their more evolved ecological thinking—have also been turning out an impressive number of conscious designers with great talent.
If you were to give some suggestions to a young fashion designer wanting to follow this path, which would it be?
Research! Get to know what groundbreaking work is already being undertaken by designers around the world. Get inspired by their creative and conscious solutions, and don’t do anything by default. The mainstream fashion system is unsustainable, and needs to be challenged at every stage—from creation to end of garment life. So reimagine solutions instead of doing things the same old way just because thats the way they’ve always been done.
Images courtesy of Sass Brown