From high end to high street
Fashion Month consists of four weeks of catwalk shows hosted in the ‘big four’ cities. Taking place twice each year in February and September, the month starts in New York, before moving to London, Milan and finishing in Paris.
Women’s ready-to-wear shows gain lots of media coverage, making them the main event in the fashion calendar. But smaller fashion weeks happen in cities all over the world, all the time. While only women’s wear is shown during Fashion Month, leading designers show menswear, cruise, resort, bridal and haute couture collections outside of the four weeks.
The fashion world throws its doors open to exhibit and entertain during the month. The main cities host hundreds of catwalk shows, parties and events in a schedule full to the brim.
What is it all for? Catwalk shows introduce looks from leading designers, which are then translated into trends and available to the general public in stores around six months later. It’s a trickle down effect where higher and lower end brands alike take inspiration from the shows to create their own ‘consumer-friendly’ versions.
This has been the structure of fashion for at least the last ten years. Nowadays, with catwalk shows more accessible online, on-trend products often launch before the original design even goes on sale. And as a result, the gap between high end and high street is shrinking.
With this rise of the high street, has come something called ‘fast fashion’. It’s a disposable mindset, whereby garments are so cheap to buy they’re worn once and thrown away, or quickly replaced. For those who follow trends, every six months when the new designs have launched their wardrobe becomes outdated. So a cycle repeats where people buy more and more.
Questions are beginning to be asked
But the tide is turning against fast fashion. Today you can see a catwalk show live on your mobile and send a tweet directly to a fashion house. Because people are more aware of what’s happening in the fashion industry, there are more opportunities to ask questions. Do you pay workers enough to eat and live? Are you doing anything to minimise waste?
The creation of Fashion Revolution Day is a prime example, held on 24 April to mark the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh. During Fashion Revolution Day 2014, #whomademyclothes? was the number one trending topic on Twitter.
Brands sat up, took notice and started to reply to the volume of questions. Some responded well, while others hid behind pre-written phrases. This highlighted the varying degrees of transparency amongst labels, and revealed how much of a priority the wellbeing of garment producers is to different companies.
During April 2015, over 1,000 articles were written about Fashion Revolution Day, in publications from Forbes and CNN to Vogue and Elle. Fashion Revolution content was viewed over 14 billion times and now governments are taking notice, with the G7 and European Commission putting the responsibility of supply chains on their summit agendas.
There is also increasing focus on ethical and sustainable practices within key players of the fashion industry. Alexander Fury, the Fashion Editor for the Independent, recently stated at the Louis Vuitton exhibition in London that “Fast fashion is eroding away”.
This newfound momentum for sustainability has also been demonstrated by the way Fashion Month is changing – the popularity of ethical designers showcasing their work, and the media coverage they receive, is increasing.
There has already been an effect on the high street, and eventually we will see a sustainable, ethical and fashionable future for everyone.
Week one: NYC
New York is where the first week of Fashion Month commences. Amongst high and wide buildings and the buzzing of yellow taxis, the last New York Fashion Week showcased the catwalk show by EDUN. Founded by Ali Hawson and her husband Bono, the brand has always had ethics at the heart of its designs.
The production of EDUN garments has always had close ties to Africa, including the sustainable and ethical textiles factory SOKO Kenya. It’s the same factory where the ASOS AFRICA line is made. From the catwalks of New York, to online at ASOS, this may be an exciting example of an ethical trickle down effect.
The recent EDUN collection reflected the need for New Yorkers to take their outfits from nine to five and beyond. The graphic silhouettes, inspired by the bold colours and patterns of the ceremonial dance costumes of the Kuba Kingdom in Africa, were extremely restrained in their interpretation. Just light touches of fringed trim and hand-woven polka dots.
These are garments for the city that never sleeps, suited for work and drinks after. With the sophistication and modernity of bold, block colour juxtaposing with the movement and fun in the fringing, not only is the collection fashion forward, but also a way of demonstrating the preservation of African craftsmanship in a formal garment.
Another designer showcased at New York Fashion Week was Organic by John Patrick. He launched his Organic line in 2004, and pioneers the use of organic cotton, materials, and recycled fabrics in his collections. He has no formal design training but previously worked as a millinery designer and the owner of a vintage shop. His alternative route into such an exclusive world informs his design aesthetic and sets him apart.
His latest show took femininity on a journey, with the femme fatale in mind. He started with big, boxy silhouettes, challenging the preconceived ideas surrounding the definition of feminine. As the show progressed, shapes and fabrics got sheer and slinky. The woman he designed this collection for metamorphosed from androgynous to classically feminine. His story, told through the clothes, demonstrated a versatility that can be boyish one moment and super-femme the next.
It’s really important that ethical designers not only use innovation in their materials and process, but also push the boundaries of the fashion garment and styling itself.
Both EDUN and Organic by John Patrick show that ethical fashion can be just as groundbreaking as the other designs at New York Fashion Week. Ethical fashion must, first and foremost, be fashionable if it’s to break through to mainstream.
Week two: London
London Fashion Week runs on innovation. The lifeblood of the show is the chance to see something bold, disregarding elegance and balance in an ensemble if needed. London is looking to be shaken up every season.
The last London fashion week commenced with a presentation from Zandra Rhodes, who has previously collaborated with the ethical brand People Tree. Rhodes loves colour, with a particular penchant for hot pink. She’s also the founder of the Fashion and Textiles Museum in London.
Rhodes makes her garments in London and California. In her most recent presentation she included hand-dyed batik details produced in Malaysia. She visited the premises beforehand. She states that because her production is on a small scale, she can easily be ethical. It’s the little things – like keeping a bucket in the shower to catch the leftover water – that she feels add up to a big difference.
Overall, Rhodes kept her garments very simple and let the colours and patterns do the talking. Sizzling red, flashes of yellow and, of course, hot pink, were cooled by an icy blue, instilling a moment of calm amongst the bold and bright zigzag swirls. The simplicity of a shift dress instantly makes her intricate hand-drawn patterns wearable and elegant. With their visors and sunglasses, all of Rhodes’ models were ready to take summer by storm with her interpretation of pattern as embellishment.
For the third year running at London Fashion Week, the Green Carpet Challenge took place. Founded by Livia Firth, it sees a big name luxury designer create a collection using sustainably sourced fabrics and materials. This year it was the turn of Erdem, known for their flowing floral dresses.
For the first time, Mercedes-Benz, the official sponsor of London Fashion Week, partnered with Firth’s green event and a star-studded A-list was in attendance. This is a sign that surely ethical ways will be accepted as standard practice one day, with sponsors and celebrities alike already putting their faces to the rise of sustainable fashion.
Another acknowledgement came from Vogue’s Suzy Menkes. Included in her review was Christopher Raeburn, a fashion designer who has always used ethical practice. He’s now receiving the recognition he deserves, and is a newly established regular at Fashion Week.
Raeburn started out repurposing surplus army fabrics, like parachute silk, into coats and jackets. In 2009, Raeburn debuted his first menswear collection in Paris and received awards and support from the International Ethical Fashion Forum and Esthetica, allowing him to show collections during London Fashion Week 2010. Raeburn was the first ever designer to be awarded the Topshop NEWGEN award for both men’s and women’s wear in the same season. Recipients of single awards include, Mary Katranzou, Peter Piloto, Simone Rocha and J.W. Anderson – all big names in the industry.
Suzy Menkes is one of the most well respected and established fashion critics, so her Vogue coverage shows the old establishment of fashion is taking note of ethical changes.
In her article, she mentions the parallels between the Borneo rainforest and the fashion world. She alludes to the decline of resources and the need for change and preservation, not only in our rainforests, but in the jungle of the fashion world too.
Week three: Milan
Now to Milan, with its grand gothic cathedral punctuating the city sky with hundreds of marble spires.
During the third week of Fashion Month, Stella Jean showed her collection in Milan. A designer of Italian-Haitian descent, she has used her roots as a starting point for her designs, marrying different cultures and inspirations to create a nomadic quality. Since 2013, she has partnered with the Ethical Fashion Initiative to include within her collections woven cotton textiles from Burkina Faso, jewellery ethically made in Haiti, and bespoke bogolan (a hand-dyed woven fabric) from Mali.
Stella Jean’s most recent collection is like a combination of EDUN and Zandra Rhodes’ collections. It’s gorgeous with a wealth of colour like Rhodes’, with the fringing and formality of EDUN. Yet Stella is put to a wide range of distinctly different silhouettes, as a canvas for pattern and rainbow colour. It’s a collection that definitely has a visual wow factor, without being too avant-garde in terms of individual garments. You could walk down the street in many of these looks and be complimented on your fun, yet elegant outfit.
Week four: Paris
We conclude Fashion Month in Paris, home of haute couture, romance and elegance. Everyone is well dressed, and the statement pieces, effortlessly pulled off, are the best street style ensembles you’ll see all month. Fashion is woven into the fabric of the city.
Stella McCartney and Dame Vivienne Westwood are both English designers who showcase in Paris, both also wanting to do some good in the world.
Stella McCartney has long been associated with luxury fashion that has ethical morals. The label first started out by refusing to use fur and leather, and has since taken further steps. Examples include Stella designing clothing to last, partnering with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (who link the most marginalised craftspeople with top designers), using care labels in clothing which encourage energy efficient washing, and sourcing sustainable wood for shoes and accessories.
The Stella McCartney aesthetic is always elegant, with flowing fabrics making an important appearance. Even the more masculine looks, such as the polo dresses, start with a structural element and flow down into a fluid skirt. It may be that McCartney is demonstrating the versatility of femininity just like John Patrick in New York, but using a softer expression. Strong and feminine in a refined and clean overall look, Stella McCartney is at home in the heart of Parisian fashion.
Vivienne Westwood is a different story entirely. When you think of the chic, refined Parisian fashion, Westwood is the opposite, not unlike fashion rock and roll. With her frayed hems and safety pins, scrunched-up silhouettes that are sexy in a rather raunchy way, Vivienne Westwood commands attention. Involved with worthy causes, Westwood is as loud and revolutionary as a Katherine Hamnett T-shirt. Her recent fracking protest involved driving a tank to David Cameron’s house, and her awareness of how she is a voice for social change and activism earns her a spot in this article. She is also taking steps to gain more of an ethical garment production process with the help of Stella McCartney.
She showcased her catwalk collection with a homage to Venice, sinking beneath rising sea levels. Westwood invited guests to the Climate, Justice and Jobs March in a note left on the seats of her show. Known very much for her tailoring, this was a consistent theme in her collection shown at the final week of Fashion Month. Carnival-esque, with flashes of colour and exaggerated silhouettes, decadent fabrics were shining and swishing up and down the catwalk. The city of Venice seen through the eyes of Vivienne Westwood is a magical and otherworldly place to be, and one we shouldn’t lose to climate change.
A new trend is emerging
Fashion Month is just a drop in the ocean of all the change ringing through the fashion industry. Like the trickle-down of clothing trends, as more luxury designers from the older establishment take an ethical standpoint, the more it becomes an aspiration for others.
Not only will we have smaller brands, born ethical and working from the ground up, we’ll have designers at the top of the luxury market working from the top down.
We won’t have a special term for ‘ethical fashion’ because all fashion will be doing its best to look after the world and the people in it.
No matter how on-trend a t-shirt is, it doesn’t justify the fact that the wellbeing of a person or a part of the world has suffered to produce it. In a few years, wasteful and harmful fashion will be so last season.
Edited by Catherine Wells