Creating a Sustainable Ecosystem for the Armenian Textile Industry

Image: Illustrations by the children in the Magpie Project, turned into prints and patterns by Melissa Kitty Jarram and later translated into Bethany Williams’ collection.

The latest in a series of workshops organised by Eco-Age saw award-winning designers Bethany Williams, Flavia LaRocca and Matteo Ward share their experiences of sustainable design. This is part of Eco-Age’s year-long project to promote economic development in Armenia, through setting up a sustainable ecosystem for Armenia’s textile industry.

In 2019, Eco-Age began working on a project to develop a sustainable ecosystem for Armenia’s fashion and textile industry. The project, funded by the UK’s Good Governance Fund, and in partnership with Fashion Design Chamber of Armenia, explores opportunities for embedding circularity principles across the industry. Investigated topics include raw material sourcing and capacity building for designers, as well as options for establishing a national textile recycling facility. As part of the project, Eco-Age organised a series of events for key players in Armenia’s fashion industry; in 2019, Eco-Age ran a workshop for Armenian manufacturers on the Basics of Sustainability, as well as a training session run by Eco-Age’s Charlotte Turner on Responsible Materials and Key Certifications.

The Armenian garment and textile industry, like most industries worldwide, has been severely affected by the challenges and uncertainties brought about by the global pandemic. Prior to this, the Armenian government had recognised the potential for the country’s garment production sector to promote national economic development, highlighting the sector’s rise in value of 23% from 2018 to 2019. The potential for the sector to boost economic development still remains, and the economic and political importance of the fashion industry is something that all three of the designers in Friday’s workshop touched upon.

The workshop, which took place on Friday, 5th February, saw award-winning British and Italian designers Bethany Williams, Flavia LaRocca and Matteo Ward share their experiences of embedding sustainability values into business. Each stressed the significance of fashion design at every level, from local communities to the global stage; a significance amplified even more acutely when viewed in the context of COVID.

Images by Bethany Williams: (L) Recycled material screen printed with illustrations, with the collars and pockets made from waste ribbon from a toy manufacturer.
(R) Garment made from deadstock yarns with waste ribbon woven through

Setting Up a System for Each Collection

Bethany Williams is a UK-based menswear designer, who uses fashion as a socio-political tool to promote social change in communities suffering from lack of economic inclusion and/or stability. Through partnering with different charities, Bethany’s uniquely upcycled collections tell the stories of the real people and communities behind the fabrics. Her designs, therefore, actively involve different communities and a percentage of sales is then later donated to the respective charity. In Friday’s workshop, Bethany described her “Women of Change” collection, made in collaboration with female prisoners and the San Partigiano drug and alcohol rehabilitation community in Italy. The entire collection was made with deadstock yarns donated by Italian mills.

Bethany also spoke about the role fashion can play to bring positive social change to those communities most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For her most recent collection, ‘All Our Children’, she collaborated with the Magpie Project, an NGO established to ensure that a spell in temporary accommodation does not have long-lasting negative impacts on children who experience it.

Relying on upcycled materials for her designs, Bethany explains that she doesn’t see this as a negative challenge and overcomes the limitations of the resource by setting up a system which ensures that each collection is unique to the retailer, giving the example of offering unique colour variations to each retailer.

Image: Flavia LaRocca’s Three Modules, Two Straps in a Small Bag

It Isn’t Just About the Materials, It’s About the People Too

A singular item of clothing becomes a top, a skirt, a bag AND a bandeau all at the same time, creating four looks from just one piece of clothing. Flavia La Rocca’s brand’s DNA is centred around modular concepts, essentially allowing her customers to create interchangeable wardrobes. Her aim is to encourage people to buy less whilst still maintaining versatility in their wardrobes. Flavia, who won the CNMI Green Carpet Talent Competition in 2019, keeps her products accessible by retailing directly to the customer and therefore  implementing a better take-back system. She says, “sustainability is not only about materials, it is about thinking of a new way of designing, producing, selling and consuming products. A way that has less impact on the planet. Sustainability is not only about products it is about people too.”

Flavia is not only the brains behind her brand’s beautifully minimalist designs but also manages the marketing and PR as well. She explained how through her brand marketing, she is able to reach people around the world and communicate her message with details such as the impact of her chosen materials.

Image: Matteo Ward

Challenge the Status Quo

Having grown up near a region with centuries of tradition in textiles (and also the fifth most polluted city in Europe) Matteo Ward, founder of WRAD, recognised the need for change. Indeed, one of WRAD’s goals is to develop innovative technologies to treat clothing through using non-toxic practices. Matteo, who participated in the GCFA’s in 2018, described how some of his early introductions into sustainable fashion were through documentaries like True Cost, as well as through the work of Eco-Age and Livia Firth.

Having founded WRAD after working in retail and achieving a degree in economics, Matteo recognised the need for a system shift: innovation and constantly challenging the status quo, should be interdependent. When asked what advice he would give to a designer wanting to embed sustainability principles into their deigns, Matteo explained “sustainability is a thing to be, not a thing to do, and for a designer the path forward needs to start with a key question: how can my design help address humanity’s true needs and enable each and every one of us to challenge the status quo?” Naturally, he attended the workshop sporting his own work: a bright orange jumper paired with a denim grey jacket, which, he told us, had been mineral dyed with upcycled bricks and upcycled graphite powder wasted by tech companies.

Armenian designer Vahan Khachatryan, who took part in Eco-Age’s GCTC competition in 2017 and is the President of the Fashion Design Chamber of Armenia, has been particularly active in co-ordinating this project, which is due to end in March 2021. Enhancing collaboration and knowledge-sharing opportunities across the fashion industry is important to Eco-Age and is a huge part of what has made this project so special.