LCF Alumni Discuss Sustainable and Responsible Fashion
As the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, and UAL's Carnival of Crisis come to an end this week, we wanted to find out how those stepping into the industry are feeling about the future of fashion. We spoke with three recent London College of Fashion graduates who shared their views on sustainability, and how they incorporate responsible fashion practices into their creative process.
Apranji Sarah Kerketta is a multidisciplinary creative and recent BA (Hons) graduate from the Fashion Business School, specialising in Fashion Marketing. Her projects focused on sustainability and circularity, looking at how everyday action and fashion can have a huge impact on improving and helping efforts towards the climate crisis for people and planet.
Huihai Chen is a Chinese menswear designer, focusing on patterns, printing and silhouette design. He graduated from MA Fashion Design Technology (Menswear) at LCF’s School of Design and Technology, and now works for one of the biggest sportswear companies in China. Huihai aims to extend the limits of menswear design by applying modern techniques to traditional British tailoring. He is interested in unfair and inhumane phenomena, and calls attention to these at the core of his menswear collection.
Owen Davies graduated with a BA (Hons) in Creative Direction for Fashion from the School of Media and Communication. He is a multidisciplinary creative working at the intersection of fashion and technology with a focus on sustainability. He uses a wide range of mediums, both physical and digital to create immersive experiences for forward thinking brands and cultural institutions. His research-led practice aims to bring bold and innovative ideas to life, connecting audiences in meaningful ways and inspiring positive change. Along with other creatives from the Digital Maker Collective, Owen recently delivered an event exploring digital fashion and sustainability for Barcelona-based creative research lab IAM’s Weekend 21.
Could you tell us about your graduate showcase project and what inspired it?
APRANJI: From Chameli, With Love was my final major project, and has been in the works for more than a year. I undertook an Enterprise placement, which really helped me formulate my thoughts and ideas around sustainability and circularity. The project Chameli advocates for a slower, more thoughtful and meaningful form of fashion consumption, which is why I wanted to include made-to-order production and have a circular business model for this. I also tried to align this project with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on goals 8, 12, and 13. People and planet are at the crux of this project. It was all about respecting the planet, and the people involved in making the clothes, always doing the right thing – especially when no one is looking. A lot of the bigger fast fashion businesses are often overshadowed by greed and growth. For me and this project, it was important to focus on these things and show economic growth is very important, but it's equally important to focus on people and planet. There's a way to grow, to increase profits, whilst focusing on all these things, and that’s exactly what my whole project was about.
HUIHAI: Manimal is a project that mainly talks about the inhumane fur farming issues in the world. To study this issue, I started my whole project based on Asim, a Tiger in the London Zoo. He is like the mental image of wild animals and animals in cages. So by studying the behaviours of Asim I found some normal behaviours and things that animals want to do. I developed the printing design based on the tiger’s pattern and hairy layers. The camouflage system is developed from the tiger’s stripes, inspired by how it works with the forest. To make the pattern more interesting I added a hairier texture and different colours, which is the key point of the whole project. I used these elements to make designs for tailored jackets and jumpsuits which cover most of the body to hide the model in the forest. The stripes are part of the patterns with a gradient colour beneath them. The whole intent of my clothes design is to hide the model within the forest, just like a tiger.
OWEN: RÆMADE TOGETHER, my graduate project, was an immersive retail experience that I developed for responsible fashion brand RÆBURN. The experience harnesses the power of augmented reality technology to bring the brand's signature upcycled RÆMADE collection to life in a new and engaging way. The experience is designed to be both accessible in store and online, and it enables the audience to discover the stories, materials and processes behind these garments anywhere in the world. All you need is an internet connection, and a mobile device. Through accessing the garments in this new way, users are encouraged to upcycle their own clothes, and are equipped with the resources necessary to do that. This was inspired by some research that I conducted which revealed that because of the pandemic and the time allowed for people to reflect, people were becoming more conscious with their fashion choices, buying less and embracing sustainable practices. This is what led me to focus on the technique of upcycling and transforming unwanted clothing into new personalised styles that they'd want to wear.
How would you define sustainability?
APRANJI: Sustainability is a very broad and vague term. Over the years we've learned about how it has evolved to now include essentially everything. 10-15 years earlier, fashion and all these other lifestyle brands were talking about including sustainability in their operations, and it was all about materials. What materials can we include in our production, in our collections, that are more eco-friendly? Now sustainability is about everything. To me, sustainability is about doing the right thing. It's about being considerate. It's about including the needs of the planet and the people who are included in your business’ supply chain, because at the end of the day, they are important stakeholders as well, so to disregard them is not the right way to progress. Sustainability is about having a 360 degree idea, being aware of how your actions and how your business is going to have an impact on the rest of the world.
OWEN: I think we'd all agree that in recent years, especially in fashion, sustainability as a term has been thrown around a lot. As a result, in some ways, it's lost its meaning. There are cases where brands will use that word to attract demographics who have an interest in sustainability, but these brands are not genuine with their claim – it’s greenwashing. If we look at sustainability from a practical and environmental standpoint, it means for something to last, for it to keep going without detriment to the planet or without causing harm to people. When I was working on my final project with RÆBURN, they preferred to use the word responsible rather than sustainable, because they saw it as more appropriate to describe what they were doing as a brand – being responsible for their actions, trying to have the least amount of impact they could when designing their products, both on the planet and people. That is something that resonated with me.
What are you doing (or what do you want to do) to make your creative work more sustainable / responsible?
APRANJI: Right now, I'm just taking a break and deciding my next steps. It's very clear to me that I'm never going to work for a fast fashion company. I want to work within the business end of fashion, as opposed to design. I would say, to me, it's very important that a company focuses on being transparent about their actions. A lot of companies will say what they're doing in their sustainability statements and reports, but they don't necessarily say how they're going about it, or what change has happened as a result of the actions that they're taking. It’s very important that the company I do work with is very transparent, and the work reflects my values and my beliefs. It baffles me how companies and people can completely overlook all these problems that are facing the climate crisis, and just go on about doing business as usual. It’s important for me to be considerate and aware of how my work reflects my values.
HUIHAI: I want to find new materials or build a new kind of fabric that can replace real fur. In my final project I created a pattern design combined with a textured fabric to make a new type of fake fur which will provide the warmth and fashion sense of real fur. I just want people stop using the fur that is produced by fur farming. In my future career I will probably use more sustainable fabric based on the technique of the fibre, so that I can have more reliable fibre and fabric to build my collections from rather than using real fur. The fake fur pattern is changeable, it doesn’t only rely on the pattern of the animals, but I can control the different designs and directions or even combine different animal patterns together. This would mean I could make more unique patterns to build my garments. I want to change the fabric to a more sustainable one, which will lower the burden on the earth and water usage. And secondly, I want to find a solution to replace fur – which I think is quite unsustainable for the fashion industry.
OWEN: The more I've become aware of the issues that the fashion industry is a contributor of, the more I felt compelled to do something about it, especially through my work. As a creative and as a designer, I feel a big responsibility to highlight these issues, but in a way that is engaging and meaningful for the audience. It’s not necessarily shouting about sustainability with a project, it's just about it being there in the background, maybe being a bit more subtle. That's something that I was very careful about with my final project. The focus is on this collection, which just so happens to use this technique of upcycling, which is sustainable. I think that's a great way to engage with the issue. Moving forward, I definitely want projects I work on to have a focus on these issues, because it's a priority and we can't get away from it.
Have you been following along with the UN climate change conference? What are some of your thoughts on COP 26?
APRANJI: Yes, I have been following along mostly on social media. I follow a lot of these accounts or companies that are focused on the climate crisis across different industries, not just within fashion. Most of my information has been coming from Earthrise Studio, Slow Factory and sustainability influencers like Aditi Mayer.
I came across this quote by Greta Thunberg, which I think perfectly sums up not just the conference, but the action taken by world leaders towards the climate crisis. She called COP26 a ‘Global North Greenwash Festival’, which I completely agree with. A lot of these companies from the fossil fuel industry, they have one of the largest delegations at the conference, which really doesn't make sense. Historically, Shell, for example, have invested heavily in changing people's perceptions and convincing people that climate change doesn't exist. They interested in their bottom line, in their growth. So it doesn't make sense for them to be present at COP26 or other climate conferences. They're always going to try to weaken the agenda or to distract the people, in order to meet their profit margins. Most importantly, indigenous communities or communities of colour, particularly in the Global South, who actually face the climate crisis on a day-to-day basis, they aren't really given any significant seat, at least for any decision-making roles at these conferences, which doesn't make sense because these are the people who are actually being affected by it. Shouldn't they be included in these talks, since they're the ones who will have more to say and more to give based on their actual experiences? I would say the system is completely broken.
HUIHAI: I think it's necessary for us, especially the new generation, to do something for the earth. We need to lower the burden we make on the earth, especially for the fashion industry, because we are using tons of water and electricity to build fibres. In recent months, China has reduced electricity usage, and many factories close one day after the working day to reduce physical usage. This has caused a rise of cotton fabrics and will impact designers.
OWEN: I have been following from a distance. From what I've read in the news, there have been some important commitments made, such as the global methane pledge, and the pledge to end deforestation by 2030. All of this is very encouraging, because I appreciate how difficult it must be to get all these world leaders who have different values, beliefs, and philosophies to agree on these targets. However, I still think they're not as ambitious as they need to be. If we just think of the IPCC report that came out earlier in the year, declaring this decade as code red for humanity, then I'm not sure if the commitments reflect the severity of the issues we are facing – and this was a sentiment echoed in Barack Obama's speech. Another speech that I watched at COP26 was the one by Greta Thunberg. It's hard to disagree with her statement that the climate conference can seem to be a bit of a greenwash festival. She called it a ‘two week long celebration of business as usual, and blah, blah, blah’. I also saw in an article that there were more delegates associated with the fossil fuel industry attending COP26 then from any single country. It's hard to really argue with that. While COP26 has resulted in some meaningful commitments being made to help solve the climate crisis, I still don't think it goes far enough. Why is it that we're waiting to stop deforestation by 2030? Why not now? Why only cut 30% of methane by 2030? Why not 50%? We all want to see our world leaders take decisive action on climate change. They should not underestimate people's ability and willingness to adapt, just as we've seen with the pandemic. There's no reason why we can't do the same for the climate crisis. It comes down to that question, if not, now, then when?
Overall, how are you feeling about the future of sustainable fashion?
APRANJI: There’s definitely potential in the industry moving towards a more proactive, positive state where there'll be tangible change. But at the same time, that can only happen when people who actually care about these issues are given important roles at bigger companies. For example, I've always said H&M is a very delusional company. They produce so much, so many collections, so many clothes daily, weekly. Yet the head of sustainability completely failed to see the relation between the overproduction and their sustainability initiatives. If the amount you're producing is responsible for all the problems that the industry is facing, then your 1% recycled collections are doing nothing. I believe opportunity should be given to younger people, the students who are graduating now and in the next coming years. I strongly believe they are more focused on tackling their issues, and their work captures the struggle in the industry.
HUIHAI: I think designers should be responsible for what they designed. You can't just draw some amazing pictures, to make them you have to be aware of environments, and the materials you use. You should be environmentally friendly. This will probably restrict designers in some way, but it is an important challenge. Sustainable designers should think carefully about their designs and try new fibres. Most factories are starting to develop new kinds of material that are very sustainable fabrics for designers to use. It's a good start, but I think the most important thing is awareness of unsustainability. In many countries, people aren’t conscious of sustainability. It should arise from the designers in that area who studied, for example, in the UK, and then brought the ideas back to their countries. They should spread the ideas to the local people through their collections and their materials. I think it's very important to plant the seed in people's minds about the idea of sustainability. In China, most cities have the conscience to buy sustainable clothes, but in some rural areas, people don't care about sustainability in fashion, they just want to find something cheap. So the ability to be sustainable is quite reliant on the area’s development. Once they get to a new level, they will accept the idea of sustainability and buy clothes that use nicer fabric. They will be able to see that it's sustainable, even if it's more expensive.
OWEN: I'm optimistic. Seeing the work that other people are doing, especially students, gives hope that there is a brighter future for the fashion industry. A few years ago I wasn't aware of these issues, I only discovered it through a seminar session I had in which they showed the trailer of The True Cost documentary. From then on I never saw fashion in the same way again. It's great to see that the issue is being taken seriously, and that young people are wanting to make a positive difference through their fashion choices.
What would you suggest to new or prospective students who are interested in sustainable fashion?
APRANJI: Be curious and question everything. The climate crisis is becoming more apparent, and a lot more people are aware about these issues, so most fashion brands are scrambling, trying to greenwash and come up with campaigns that meet their agenda. It's really important to question and to think critically about what their campaigns are actually putting out there, how it's impacting people and planet, and if it's having any tangible results.
HUIHAI: Always bear in mind that you have to be a sustainable designer. You should be aware so that your work won't burden the earth. Your sustainability values should influence your work, and even if you don’t say it, people should be able to feel that sustainability is necessary through your usage and designs. In many colleges back in China, students just want to find fancy materials, they don’t know how it will burden the environment, or how it will degrade in the next decades. They just think the material is good and they want to use it. But it's not right, young designers should find the right materials that work for their design language, especially when they’re facing higher end customers. These customers will care more about these things, they will think protection of the earth has equal importance to the clothes and design itself.
OWEN: Continue exploring that interest. Continue learning, do the research on the issues surrounding the fashion industry, because there's so much out there that you can discover. There are some great resources now, such as Fashion Revolution, and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. Have conversations with your peers around the subjects, even those who aren't necessarily showing an interest in the area. As students of fashion, I think we're obliged to know what's going on in the industry. Immerse yourself in the area, visit brands that claim to be sustainable, speak to their members of staff. Ask them what it is they're doing to be sustainable, get involved as much as you can. You already have that awareness, which is incredible. I'd encourage you to continue exploring that and championing it and telling as many people as possible about it. Afterall, it's this very interest in sustainability that will help create a more positive future of fashion.