Robb Read: Breaking Fashion’s Cycle

Luxury brands are finally taking sustainability seriously. But why now?

By Marc Abbott 25/05/2021

Using recycled and past-season fabrics is one of the most innovative things we can do right now—it’s what modern luxury looks like.”

Designer Stella McCartney doesn’t mince her words. Perhaps not unexpected given she’s long been carrying the (recyclable) can as fashion’s eco frontrunner and a standard-bearer for sustainability across the industry.

“And if we want to keep producing luxury fashion that’s not harmful to our planet, then it’s the way we have to go.”

Responding to the environmental crisis and various negligible, standard manufacturing processes has, until recently, proved little more than lip service— pledges have been made by some of the world’s commanding fashion figures with little actual action following.

But the past 12 months have proven different. There has been an unmistakable surge in the use of recycled fabrics, upcycled garments and deadstock materials, infusing stylish and exciting collections of menswear and beyond; garments designed and produced, ultimately, with newfound ethical credibility.

Many such materials are a direct response to the most widely acknowledged environmental crisis: plastic waste. Econyl—one of the most commonly adopted fabrics in notable collections from the likes of Prada, Gucci and Burberry— is a sustainable nylon yarn made from discarded fishing nets, carpets and other industrial plastics.

Recycled polyester has also been employed as a replacement for goose down in padded outerwear from the likes of Ralph Lauren and Ermenegildo Zegna. Wool, especially cashmere, yarns have been rewoven from factory and post-consumer waste to create sweaters and coats by Marni and the aforementioned McCartney.

Elsewhere, surplus fabrics have been pressed into action to create stunning pieces from Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen, Loewe has upcycled military tents into luxury garments and the choice of recycled menswear, as we continue into 2021, is vast.

McCartney frames such change by pointing to Covid-19. “I think the pandemic has really put everything into sharp focus,” she says. “It’s perhaps encouraged this trend for using recycled fabrics. For the first time in history, we can truly measure the damage done by human activity and we have seen in such a short period of time how incredible nature is and how she bounces back so quickly, so I think brands have really been inspired to act.”

Alessandro Sartori is the artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna. He agrees with McCartney’s sentiment—that fashion’s reaction to a global resource crisis has
been quickened by recent events.

“It’s evident that we need to take care of the planet and its natural resources to build a better world for future generations,” he offers. “And I think that the pandemic has accelerated attitudes.”

Sartori’s Zegna solution is encompassed by a #UseTheExisting brand ethos—clothes manufactured by reusing discarded materials from pre-existing garments and waste sources. A shining example of this is the ongoing Achill farm tailoring project—two-piece suits remixed and rewoven entirely with merino wool remnants from Zegna’s sprawling Australian farm located in southern NSW.

“This is an ever-evolving project to make the dream of zero waste possible,” says Sartori. “It’s our promise to rethink our supply chain by giving new life to pre-existing or post-consumer materials.”

This circular production process also informs Zegna’s outerwear, such as a 100 per cent recycled nylon padded jacket with replacement down insulation, as well as luggage and accessories across its most recent collection.

Recycled coating and layering pieces such as these have been a common thread in numerous recent capsule collections.

Prada’s Re-Nylon range came from repurposed ocean plastic and includes both long- and short-sleeved zipped shirts, a blouson jacket and sleeveless puffer.

Emporio Armani has worn its heart on its sleeve—or at least the torso—with a range of menswear staples under the umbrella of its “RE-A” capsule. The company’s “I’m Saying Yes to Recycling” motto is boldly emblazoned across standout pieces such as a recycled wool/polyamide sweater, field jacket and timepiece featuring a recycled nylon strap.

Burberry, meanwhile, turned up the heat with notable statement pieces from its ReBurberry collection of garments, born from the label’s commitment to recycled fabrics and bio-based materials. Its reversible check nylon puffer jacket, created from recycled polyester and nylon, features a Burberry house check and is also available as a gilet.

Polo Ralph Lauren’s Earth Polo is manufactured from recycled plastic bottles, while its Custom Packable vest and jacket not only employs repurposed plastic waste for its Primaloft padding and nylon for its outer but is also—as the name suggests—customisable with different colours, logos and even your name.

Maison Margiela and Marni are also onboard, with recycled and regenerated pieces proudly influencing recent drops.

In Milan, the recently reinstalled cool that has come to cloak Gucci also means a greater emphasis on sustainability—though the Italian standout has for some years now used recycled wool. Last year, the label—as led by acclaimed maestro of reinvention, Alessandro Michele—overtly announced that it had hit the eco button in a large way, with a debut Circular Lines “Off The Grid” collection. A typically lively and genderless array of ready-to-wear elements, shoes and accessories, it includes low-top sneakers (even the thread they’re sewn with is recycled polyester), a zip-up jacket and a vast choice of wallets and day bags.

The materials for the entire collection are either recycled, organic, bio-based or sustainably sourced. Crucially, many of these Econyl examples are not only recycled but also recyclable.

“Recyclable garments promote circularity and will not end up in landfill,” insists McCartney. “And this also provides opportunity for innovation.”

Besides offering a soft regenerated cashmere sweater and a recycled puffer blouson, her eponymous label led the way in recyclable pieces with its Loop sneakers. Using a method of attaching the upper to the sole without glue (usually full of harmful chemicals), at the end of their lifespan they can be taken apart and recycled. McCartney’s KOBA “fur-free fur”, introduced in 2020, is made from plant-based materials and recycled polyester, so it too can eventually be recycled.

“Right now, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is burned or landfilled every second; less than one per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing,” says McCartney. “This means 99 per cent of all textiles and fashion is waste—that’s about US$100 billion of materials wasted each year. It’s crazy, but it can be turned into a business opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that’s been fully grasped at Louis Vuitton. One of the biggest causes of the waste to which McCartney refers is excess “deadstock” fabric (which lingers unused in factories) and garments that are simply disposed of (having failed to sell by the end of a season or in a sale).

LV’s men’s artistic director, Virgil Abloh, found a creative solution for the label’s SS21 collection, creating more than half of the looks from either material recycled from deadstock, or upcycled from previous outings. Reconditioned garments at his 2021 Tokyo show last autumn proudly wore Louis Vuitton’s new “Upcycling Signal Logo”.

It’s been a similar scene at McQueen of late—its 2021 menswear collection was designed during pandemic-enforced lockdown and created predominantly from stock fabric which has been printed or over-dyed.

Such strong moves further McCartney’s assertion that “brands shouldn’t be afraid to use up fabrics they have left over from previous seasons.” But this use of surplus fabrics isn’t always restrained by the fashion house’s own stock.

Jonathan Anderson created a collection for Eye/Loewe/Nature strongly inspired by military surplus—repurposing army jackets, vintage fleeces, military tents and flannel check shirt patches for pieces such as shorts and a patchwork cotton shirt.

“Surplus and excess materials are abundant and only waiting to be incinerated; there is so much opportunity for creativity,” says Christopher Raeburn, whose RÆBURN label produces garments under its RÆMADE banner and which are upcycled from the likes of bivouacs, anti-gravity suits and air brakes.

Adopting an unwavering re-use approach is just one of several hurdles the industry faces if it wants to forge a better future. And McCartney believes that for further engagement of superior sustainability practices, greater external assistance, guidance and policy is required.

“One of the biggest things standing in the way of making real change is our governments,” she says. “We’re coming together as an industry because governments have failed to enact any meaningful legislation to the protect the environment.”

McCartney believes companies that choose to use sustainable materials, via the likes of recycling et al, should be incentivised via legislation.

“Offering lower import tariffs could accelerate the use of these materials. Right now, it’s a cost to the business which prohibits some from embracing more sustainable options.”

But are financial incentives of concern to some larger fashion houses clinging to historical industry traditions?

“I have great respect for the history and the craft of what I do, but the way things are done, the fabrics that are commonly used, they haven’t changed in a century. So, I do think there is a resistance to innovation in certain parts of the industry.”

McCartney has a firm ally in Alessandro Sartori—keen to stand by her, and beyond that, to prove that their aligned approach has finally moved well beyond fashionable tokenism. “If we all work together with the same mindset, we can make the difference,” states Sartori. “Zegna’s green philosophy began in the 1930s when our founder, Ermenegildo Zegna, began planting 500,000 conifer trees across the landscape surrounding his wool mill. We continue to maintain this ecosystem as our commitment to the future. And all the fashion industry should care about it.”

Ultimately, though, such change needs to be embraced at consumer level.

“I think customer attitudes towards sustainable fabrics have changed over the years and people are now more open to trying new fabrics,” offers McCartney. “As long as they’re getting a beautifully made product, it doesn’t matter if it’s not made from a traditional material.”

Given some of the newfound practices, consumers are not only offered beautiful products but those that are truly unique. “Based on the result of our upcycling, no two RÆMADE products are the same, resulting in truly exclusive, innovative and treasured pieces,” says Christopher Raeburn, who is also the global creative director of Timberland, another label to have committed to a net positive impact through a combination of circularity and regenerative farming practices by 2030.

“If anything, the exclusivity, uniqueness and craftsmanship behind RÆMADE is a strong appeal for traditional luxury consumers,” continues Raeburn. “Look, the pandemic starkly evidenced the dangerous cycle of overproduction and overconsumption we are in—we need to stop making more stuff. But I think we’ll look back on 2020 and, despite the challenges, we’ll know this was the moment we woke up to our obligations.”

That recognition of obligation, the spirit of collaboration and the need for accountability are points at which modern and youthful consumers make valuable brand connections. And McCartney firmly believes (as Whitney Houston once famously chimed) that the children are fashion’s sustainable future.

“Today’s youth have shown time and time again that they’re natural-born activists and are willing to say ‘no’ to the status quo. They’re the ones standing up and telling us our house in on fire and that we need to respond because we are in a crisis.

“It’s now cool and modern to wear something made from recycled or repurposed fabrics, and it’s amazing to see so many brands follow suit in recent years. But it’s clear we still have such a long way to go.”

That it has taken climate and health crises of global proportions to get us to this point is lamentable. But the rising number of designers finally showing a demonstrable commitment to finding a solution to fashion’s questionable former ways lends hope for the future.

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