The Sustainable Moments Making Fashion Month 2021

Image: Marimekko AW21 Show

Digital innovation and environmental impact are perhaps the two biggest talking points of FW21 fashion month. Follow the conversation as we shine a spotlight on the big five fashion weeks’ sustainable moments.

Where once a parade of street style and front rows, one year into the global pandemic, fashion week has settled into its digital state. For SS20, catwalks were streamed in place of in-person viewing and the industry had begun to consider climate and social action in amidst of coronavirus. Come FW21 and virtual events were simply expected; now, rather, is viewed as an opportunity for digital and sustainable innovation.

Copenhagen

Though not considered to be one of the main events of the month, Copenhagen’s prioritisation of a sustainable agenda began the season with a consideration of supply chains, recycled materials and a commitment to a transparent industry. One year on since the launch of its action plan for a zero-waste business model, the Scandinavian fashion industry has released the first of its annual reports into its environmental commitments.

Perhaps one of the most ambitious and commendable targets set out by CFW is the call for brands showcasing to be able to comply with its sustainability requirements. Through instilling this weighted point system that looks for transparency and minimal environmental impact, the possibility of greenwashing is dramatically reduced. Instead, such an event can begin to champion critical change within the fashion industry and celebrate truly innovative sustainability. In amongst targets of reducing climate impact, resource consumption and waste creation, 2020’s global demands for better equality and social justice have seen the addition of concrete goals on racism and sexism to the three-year action plan.

House of Dagmar
Ganni x Nanna Bernholm

In an effort to champion Scandinavian efforts towards a more responsible fashion industry, CFW partnered with fashion platform Zalando to create the Zalando Sustainability award. The winner, Swedish brand House of Dagmar, was recognised for a “strong sustainable ambition” in its supply chain, commitment to replacing virgin materials with recycled options and prioritising the usage of less chemicals and water. In a presentation of looks around Copenhagen through the means of augmented reality, the digital show enabled the brand to continue its environmental efforts into the production. Quite simply, House of Dagmar’s commitment comes down to choices: “good choices, based on awareness, respect and care, in our daily life and future plans, for the planet, each other and ourselves”.

Runner-up to the award was Finnish design house Marimekko, having committed to creating seasonless capsule collections that focuses on the entire value chain. With ambitions to ‘leave no burden for the coming generations’, the brand’s sustainability targets are aligned with that of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In a conceptual film on timelessness, Marimekko projected repurposed archive print designs that it has since become synonymous with onto contemporary silhouettes.

Elsewhere in the show, Ganni reworked its rental collection with a collaboration with designer Nanna Bernholm to give new life to past season clothing. Though having made a point of not identifying as a sustainable brand, the Danish favourite also made steps towards its goal of using only 100 per cent certified, organic or recycled materials, having achieved this with 80 per cent of its latest collection.

Chelsea Paris
Ka Wa Key

New York

While usually a fanfare of high-fashion and big-name designers, New York Fashion Week 2021 instead put emerging talent at the forefront. Unlike that of Copenhagen, the event’s sustainability credentials fell to the responsibility of those showcasing with new designers taking the opportunity to create a more socially-conscious fashion narrative. The week’s schedule encapsulated that of the current global crisis, with digital presentations offering considered lookbooks, ‘COVID GRUNGE’ at-home uniforms, and a collection inspired by the year’s loss of human interaction and community.

Perhaps two of sustainable fashion’s biggest champions in the week’s schedule was that of Collina Strada, a ‘radically transparent brand’ and Ka Wa Key, a casual-wear brand whose collection combined Asian and Scandinavian heritage with sustainable materials. ‘Transcending trends’, Collina Strada’s FW21 collection, took the form of a conceptual film on the interconnectedness of humanity, nature and the animal world. Locally manufactured in New York, the brand’s ethos of making sustainability fun was actualised with the use of deadstock and upcycled materials, as the outcome of a collaboration with The OR Foundation to reduce textile waste.

In a similarly ‘fun’ vein, Ka Wa Key’s imagination-inspired FW21 collection embodied ‘larger than life characters’ such as Willy Wonka, Peter Pan and the Mad Hatter. With a consistent commitment to incorporating ethical sourcing and manufacturing to its clothes, its dream-like fluffy knits are primarily created using responsible mohair. But it is perhaps the seven garments produced in collaboration with Japanese manufacturer, Toray, that pushed the boundaries of sustainable fashion, using bi-component recycled materials and fibres.

Having launched in September 2020, the Black in Fashion Council returned to NYFW 21 with a 16-brand showcase. In amongst the showroom are some of the US’ pioneering sustainable fashion brands: Come Back as a Flower, an LA based brand creating hand-dyed and 100% recycled garments; Marrisa Wilson’s RE/UP denim collection combining consumer’s clothes with deadstock by-products; and Chelsea Paris, a handmade footwear brand for ‘conscientious free spirits’ that relies on a blend of European craftsmanship and innovative contemporary techniques.

Gabriela Hearst‘s Saint Hildegard of Bingen-inspired collection rounded off the week, with the 11th century poet and philosopher’s belief that ‘courage that comes from those connected to the collectiveness of our consciousness’ providing the basis of Hearst’s FW21 collection. Consciousness remained prevalent throughout the design process for Hearst, with 40% of the collection having been created using repurposed deadstock fabrics. Working with not-for-profits in Uruguay and Bolivia, the knitted florals adorning the otherwise minimalistic garments took inspiration from Hearst’s 12-year old daughter Mia’s drawings.

London

London fashion week saw the celebration of sustainable design, a sharing of resources and developments in higher education. One of the week’s most noteworthy moments was Priya Ahluwalia, founder of Ahluwalia, receiving The Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. The accolade was given in recognition of the designer’s “work in pioneering responsible sourcing and manufacturing techniques, while telling the stories of those who make her clothes and the communities she works with,” said British Fashion Council Chief Executive, Caroline Rush. The award celebrates designers making a difference through their sustainable practices or community engagement, with previous winners including Bethany Williams and Richard Quinn.

The 2021 winner is already known for exploring the potential of vintage clothing and deadstock materials, re-imagining pre-existing textiles and traditions through a fresh lens. “It shows that fashion can be a vehicle for such positive things – it’s not vacuous or self-indulgent as stereotypes would lead people to believe,” Ahluwalia told British Vogue. Ahluwalia’s AW21 presentation took the form of a short film directed by Stephen Isaac Wilson, with music by Cktrl and choreography by Holly Blakey; the Harlem Renaissance being a key reference for the creative direction, with the film’s creators referencing a shared reading and materials list throughout the film’s conception. Ahluwalia reflected: “I was feeling, emotionally, that history can be really rich if it’s for everyone and not for a few. That’s what made me want to work with intensities.”

Inspired by several of 18th-century artist François Boucher’s rococo paintings, Vivienne Westwood’s FW21 collection saw upcycling and repurposing materials take centre-stage with 90% of materials used  pieces having a reduced environmental impact. 

On February 22nd, the Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, UAL launched Fashion Values, a free and openly-accessible education platform promoting sustainability within the fashion industry. The platform has been developed in collaboration with global thought leaders within design and research, with support from core partners Kering, IBM, and media partner Vogue Business. It will provide learning resources as well as informative content in the form of articles, videos and podcasts, while sharing key events from the global fashion calendar too.

In addition, the UK’s first higher education degree in digital couture was announced during London Fashion week. The Masters course, set to begin in September of 2021 at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, will equip a new generation of designers with the tools, skills and design expertise to create virtual fashion. The school’s head of fashion Professor Jules Dagonet told The Guardian: “The new generation is all about environment and sustainability. If something is going to be worn only once to be worn on social media, does it need to be made at all?”

Image: Olubiyi Thomas, Future Highlander
Image: Nehal Aamir for Art School's 'Ascension'

Preluding the week’s events was the announcement of Olubiyi Thomas’ shortlisting for the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund, an initiative supporting emerging talent within the UK’s fashion industry. The designer’s FW21 collection drew on elements of artisanal design showcased in the SS21 collection, ‘Salvage’, a term Thomas sees as an invitation “to save, to rescue, to raise, to recover, to reclaim.” With statement coats taking centre stage in ‘Future Highlander’, for Thomas longevity and seeing creation as a “catalyst for the advancement of any civilisation culturally through innovation,” evidently remain core to his practice. 

Art School’s ‘Ascension’ was dedicated to Sophie, the Scottish producer who died suddenly in January this year. Creative Director Eden Loweth sees the collection as a community truly coming together, with the genderless label bringing together its most diverse cast to date. Loweth says that Art School is “changing the goalposts for how real people, real voices can be represented in this industry […] It’s no longer a choice whether to speak up as a member of a marginalised community in a position like mine. It is a duty, it is an imperative. Ascension explores this narrative.”

As Fashion Month gets underway, stay tuned for the sustainability spotlights from London, Milan and Paris.