Having been in the fashion industry all my life, I am following with keen interest the changes and trends within this field. There has been a growing awareness about a more sustainable alternative to mass produced fashion, and everything from organic to recycled is being thrown into the mix. This, at times, with confusing and frustrating results for us designers.
To gain some more insight I visited the Ethical Fashion Show in Paris in September with great anticipation.
This event, conceived by Isabelle Quehe through her association “Universal Love” in 2004, is now being run by Messe Frankfurt France, and is supported by major players like LVMH and the french textile and fashion industry. Aside from manufacturers and small designers of fashion, accessories and cosmetics, there are also artists in attendance.
My initial question was: “how do you define ethical?”
The Show committee has a code of ethics for Designers and brands that wish to participate. Each application is carefully examined and given the ‘go’ or ‘no’ according to the socio-economic context in the country of origin, creativity, involvement in social and environmental issues, and the materials used.
Once accepted there are six symbols used to identify the category in which the exhibitors belong .
- Organic Materials
- Natural Materials
- Social Projects
- Fair Fashion
While walking the show I had a chance to talk to many of the exhibitors and artists about the industry, their expectations, and what hopes they harbor for their products in the future. I heard quite a few fascinating stories about life and struggles and overcoming obstacles. The hopes included of course gaining an audience for their products, raising awareness, being creative and helping others. Few were expecting fame and fortune.
As varied and contrasting as the people and the products were, common threads did emerge:
The desire to balance the prevailing culture of fast and short lived with something more slow and meaningful. The effort to create something lasting and individual versus mass produced, soul-less throwaway items. To find beauty in materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill and instead give new life to them.
Designers are still trying to find their way in this space, and that was apparent at the show, which had a somewhat confusing variety on display. I personally liked the pop-up concept store UPCYCLING from Berlin, because they provided a very clear statement. Everything in the store is made from recycled materials, but far from having an air of ‘old,’ the lines felt refreshing and avantgarde. The idea of owning a piece that nobody else in the world has is somehow very exciting.
“Ethical means trying to live with the sources we have and not to damage our environment much more,” says Andjelko Artic of Sag+Sal, one of the brands whose bags made from old printing blankets are carried by UPCYCLING. “For us, that means our product is made, to very high standards, from industrial garbage. The printing companies collect the blankets for us, otherwise they throw it away because it’s no longer useful for the process of printing, but the blankets are perfect to be used for our bags.”
Aside from the mostly European exhibitors, delegations from Africa, Peru, Madagascar and a few other emerging countries were present and brought an interesting cultural diversity to the show. I would have loved to see a delegation from the US and Canada and more South American countries as well as Asia, if only to complete the range and show a truly International front.
The artists and designers from countries outside of Europe showcased wonderfully handcrafted fabrics and items made with local resources, providing their fellow citizens, especially women, with a means to make a living and raise themselves above poverty levels.
“Ethical to me is doing things fairly without exploiting labor and environment,” said designer Sammy Adbella, whose label Sammy Ethiopia exhibited at the show. “It’s doing business according to the law and being conscious of the effect production has on people and surroundings. We produce our hand made items to preserve the cultural element of hand work, create employment and use about 98% local resources.”
On the last day of the exhibition it all came together in form of a joyful fashion show, which captured the spirit of the past few days. A wonderful mix of clothing, accessories and jewelry presented by beautiful models gave sense of what is possible when people put their mind to something and work together to achieve it.
Here is what I learned:
Ethical fashion, in the broadest sense, means different things to different people. For some, it means giving decent wages to disadvantaged people, staying clear of child labor, using sustainable resources and being mindful of the environment, to others it is a political statement against a world becoming more and more wasteful. It is very hard to be all things to all people. But, whatever the cause, ethical fashion does not have to be ‘alternative looking,’ it can be a true alternative to mass market. Change rarely comes from above, but from innovative people offering something different, which, when accepted, can become the standard.
The last day of the show was not only for industry insiders, but open to the public as well. This, in itself, is a step in the right direction, because consumers should also be educated about the options in the marketplace and ultimately demand more ethical practices from their preferred clothing labels. Pressure from the public has forced big companies to rethink their policies in the past and this trend continues, with more and more people becoming aware of the importance of sustainable thinking and ethical practices. As designers, we have to make sure to stay on the forefront of this in order to stay relevant.
All photos, except when noted, by Claudia Romana