Patrick McDowell: Being a Designer in a Changing Climate

In leading the charge for a lower impact fashion industry, Patrick McDowell has garnered the attention of everybody from Anna Wintour to Rita Ora. Beatrice Murray-Nag talks to the young designer about how sustainability calls for systematic change, and how the cultural agency of fashion can be used to pioneer a new way of thinking.   

“At the end of the day, no-one is 100% sustainable.” 

It’s a bold statement, but one that demonstrates Liverpool-born fashion designer Patrick McDowell’s profound understanding of issue at hand. “If you looked at it in a black and white way, the most sustainable thing to do would be to just stop designing altogether, and probably not even to wear clothes. But the reality is that we don’t live in a black and white world, and that’s not how culture works.” 

After graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2018, Patrick has quickly established himself as a leading name building a more sustainable future for the fashion industry. Having been widely recognised for his graduate collection crafted from Burberry studio waste and upcycled Swarovski crystals, the young designer made his name through using remnant or locally sourced materials and has dressed activists including Sinead Burke and Wilson Oryema. Nonetheless, he is one of the first people to recognise the crux of being a fashion designer in a changing climate, and the problematic nature of the term ‘sustainable fashion.’

“There’s definitely an argument to say that you are sustaining a system which is broken by using the waste, and I fully understand that,” he explains. “However, there is a big part of me that thinks that if it already exists then it’s the best thing to use. In the same way, all my knitwear is new but it come from ecological, fairly paid farmer collectives. All the wadding in my collection was made from recycled plastic bottles, which again has its issues with microplastics. In the name of full transparency, I’ll also admit that none of the trims in my collection were sustainable unless they were the ones that I reused from my first one. But I’m very conscious of what I’m doing and the side effects of it – I’m honest about that with everyone.” 

Alongside his fabric choices, Patrick’s approach to sustainability permeates his designs through the strong personal connection they bare to his own life. While the fast fashion cycle has made our relationships with clothing increasingly superficial, the young designer’s work evokes childhood memories to showcase the emotion behind what we wear. “Sometimes people say that they don’t think my clothes have any identity, because they only see the clothes, and they’re not used to thinking about the wider story around them. But as long as I know it looks like that thing from mum or dad or that thing from me when I was five, for me, that’s one of the most sustainable parts of all of it. Everything comes from me and where I’m from.” 

Yet if there’s one thing that becomes increasingly clear as we talk, it’s Patrick’s understanding of how fashion’s role in the climate question goes far beyond the designs and materials used. While carefully chosen fabrics can certainly lower the impact of our clothing, he has been quick to latch on to the idea that fashion’s real possibility to ignite change comes from its cultural agency. Critics such as Dana Thomas have long put clothing’s power to address bigger issues down to its universal relevance and Patrick is no stranger to the idea of clothing as a communication channel. “I really like this analogy from Sinead Burke, who says that fashion is the only part of culture that you legally have to engage with,” he explains. “If you walk out of the house naked, you would literally get arrested.” 

The highly reactive nature of the fashion industry has also positioned it as an international stage for socio-political and environmental commentary. “If you look at cultural sources like art and architecture, fashion reacts the fastest out of all of them,” continues Patrick. ”While this could be considered bad, the truth is that something could happen in the world today and I could react to it and create an outfit or an idea tomorrow. It’s quite rare to have that instant impact, so I think fashion has a huge role to play in pioneering things.”

With this in mind, the crux of the matter comes down to harnessing fashion’s widespread influence to promote a better future for our planet. For Patrick, his role as a designer goes beyond simply creating a product to using his platform for systematic change. “To me, sustainable fashion is about creatively redesigning systems to create positive or neutral impact on people and the planet,” he explains. “For example, the biggest problem with fashion is the wholesale business model. After graduating, I made the decision not to do any wholesale at all and now I make most of my money through speaking with other people and hosting workshops. My collections act as think tanks on sustainable ideas which are open source, so anyone can find all that and share it and do what they want with it.”

“I went into fashion to meet people and have meetings,” Patrick emphasises. “A lot of designers don’t have time to do anything like that because they are shackled by this industry and it’s driving them into the ground. They are so stressed all the time, and it’s not sustainable. I hate the word now, but it is not sustainable to do it. Regardless of what fabric you use, you’re ignoring the elephant in the room which is that it is never going to work. I chose not to do wholesale because it doesn’t make me happy, and isn’t that fundamentally what sustainability should be; something that makes you happy?”

If fashion is going to have a positive impact on the world, it is clear that new designers must follow this example and start to prioritise people over product, and planet over pocket. “You can value your business in different ways,” Patrick points out; “It’s called the triple bottom line business model. The reality is that if you value humans, planet and money the same amount, you might not be a millionaire, but you’ll still be fine.”

So how can we encourage the spread of new, disruptive initiatives to longstanding industry traditions? Challenging the system is more organic than you might think. A self-described creative education advocate, Patrick believes it’s all about setting people up with the right way of thinking. “We basically have an education system that was designed in the industrial revolution, when the mentality was all about taking more and producing more,” he tells me. “We still educate children like we’re sending them out to fail by shutting their minds down to suit an industrial life which we simply don’t have any more.” 

With the future of sustainable fashion in the hands of new designers, what is to stop them repeating previous mistakes? “We need to redefine creativity in our education system” he comments. “I think a lot of time we think of it as exclusively linked to art and design, which isn’t right. You can creatively educate anything. Through creative education you give people the tools to think for themselves, and to then create their own sustainable futures through thinking differently about the problems that face them.”

As a young designer facing a climate crisis, one question remains; does Patrick feel positive about the future of fashion? “I do think there are technologies that can help and I think that through creatively educating you’ll create brains that will solve a lot of the issues that we have,” he summarises. “If you could do that for everyone then I’m sure we’d be in a better situation than we currently are.”