Polly Brown: “I work best when I’m bored”

Photographer Polly Brown explores the damaging role of
airport security in her upcoming exhibition, Airportals

A couple of decades ago, airports were relatively innocuous places. Architecturally anonymous spaces with transient populations, people moved through them with little thought to the place itself, but dreams of their next destination. After 9/11, everything changed. Airports became intentionally hostile, increasingly associated with security checks and systematic racism. Filmmaker Richard Curtis scrambled to reclaim some form of nostalgia for airports, dedicating the opening sequence of Love, Actually to a romanticised notion of hellos and goodbyes in crowded terminals. But photographer Polly Brown has no such illusions. Her upcoming exhibition, Airportals, which opens at WE FOLK PRESENTS in Amsterdam on Thursday, explores the sinister side of airport security. Here, Polly explains why airports are such poignant places, how making mistakes is the key to growing as a photographer, and what inanimate objects can bring to fashion photography.

Your new exhibition, Airportals, revolves around airport security checks. Why is this topic so ripe for exploration?

When I was growing up, airports were these non-spaces, designed to be forgotten. They’ve got this nostalgia to them, this idea of adventure and notions of freedom of movement. But that’s totally changed in the last couple of decades and airports now stand for something totally different. When President Trump changed the law on immigration in 2017, people protested at JFK. In September, people held a protest at Hong Kong International Airport. You’ve also got the impending environmental damage that comes with airports and air travel as a motif, which has really come to the forefront in the same time period. And of course, the invasiveness of facial recognition and body scanners. So these points of entry have morphed from a seamless process to a real point of friction. I use film which has been damaged by airport x-ray machines, which gives the images quite a nostalgic look. It draws out this contrast between the glamorisation of air travel and how damaging that glamorisation can be.

Airports are often overlooked, but they reflect so many of the hypocrisies and tensions in our society. In that sense, this project is an extension of your other work, which magnifies everyday situations people tend to ignore. 

I also inadvertently look at the politics involved in architecture a lot, like with the office plant series and the book about gallery spaces. Those hidden rules. In airports, you’ve got secret corridors that people are taken down if your passport isn’t right or you have the wrong stamp. There are a lot of layers to how we function in those spaces that are designed to be invisible. I enjoy finding an element of that that can illustrate it, be it a plant or in this case the x-ray machine, to try and peel it back a bit.

Do you have any personal experience of the sinister side of airports?

I do, but only from making this project. I’m in a privileged position of being white and having a British passport, so there are a lot of biases that land me in the right queue. I started this project when I was doing a travel job, so it was very important that some of that film didn’t get damaged. So, I was quite often the person holding up the security queue, insisting on hand checks and arguing in various languages about whether they were going to pass my film through the machines. As soon as you start to cause any kind of suspicion, the atmosphere changes instantly. 

One time, I was in Argentina and I got taken into a side room. I thought I was going to be body-searched and actually they led me to a room with an ancient body scanner which was almost visibly radiating and they made me stand in the middle of it like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. They left the room, like doctors would in a hospital to avoid radiation. And then I spotted that they left my films – which I’d been trying so hard to protect – in the corner of the room. It was a horrible flight home, because I thought it would have screwed up all my images. It happened to be fine on that occasion, and that was the only instance of me being ferried off and going through that protocol. You don’t get anything explained to you.

“People are really willing to help and teach if you’re willing to admit that you need to learn.”

Taking photographs in those areas of high security is forbidden, so how did you discover that the X-ray machines would leave a mark on undeveloped film?

Like many photographers, I discovered it by accident. I left some boxes of film in my checked luggage. I’ve geeked out really hard on this now, so I know they have much stronger x-ray machines for checked luggage than for hand luggage. The images were no longer usable, but I thought it was fascinating that you could see points along the journey where I had taken some boxes out and shot them, leaving others in. You might get one round of damage, which would be a wave, but the more x-ray machines you pass through, the more it builds up. You might get multiple waves or fogging, which gets more extreme as time goes on. I loved that I could see the places I’d been through the pictures and there was this double exposure. It makes you question the whole nature of the photograph. You’re supposed to be capturing one moment in time with light on the celluloid and this was capturing multiple moments, documenting my entire journey. That was the initial spark when I realised I wanted to incorporate the x-rays and this idea of process and travel in a greater project.

This exhibition was three years in the making. How has the concept evolved over that time?

Initially, it was about reportage photos I had taken in airports. Everywhere I’ve gone for three years, I’ve carried film in my case and my hand luggage to see what I get back. In the show, there is a mixture of images shot onto the damaged film and then just the x-ray waves on unused film. They’re kind of these snakes of grain and colour. That was a big turning point in the project, when I started to think about those abstracts as photographs in their own right. It also took a while because not every x-ray machine damages your film. I’ve come to love the abstract images on unused film, because I’m constantly setting up little still lives, so there’s something amazingly freeing in the picture being removed from your authority. I didn’t press a button to take that picture. It was created outside of my control.

Did you end up with favourite airport x-ray machines? 

I only noticed this when I was putting the show together, but there were a lot of Japanese locations. You never really know, but you can judge the age of a machine, and you learn certain tricks about where to put the film in your baggage, and also the ISO of the film can make a difference. They’re older, and I went through a lot of regional airports, which helped. Big, international airports had more high-tech machinery. I also love the ones from Gander, Newfoundland, which is basically a shed with one gate and a machine which looks about fifty years old. I got chatting to an airport official there who gave me a tour of this unused section of the airport that hadn’t changed since the 1960’s. The only time it has been used since then is on 9/11, when flights bound for New York were diverted there.

“With photography, it’s incredibly daunting because there’s a lot of technical knowledge to know and you’ll never know everything. That nervousness of turning up on a set and worrying that you won’t know how to do something never goes away, but the best cure I’ve found for that is to be as honest as possible.”

More broadly, your work focuses on still life. You make mundane details and inanimate objects feel expansive and almost existential. What drew you to that style of photography and why do you think it’s so effective?

Initially, it was just an absence of models. I had no-one to take photographs of and I was hanging around on my own, making do with what was around. That’s like the joke answer, but the reality is that I work best when I’m bored. I’m mooching about on my own, looking at stuff and making up little narratives for the things around me, and I end up with a still life. I think if I have that space to be bored, I can see spaces or architectural things in a different way than if I was reacting to a person who was there. 

How do you think your photography has evolved since you’ve been working professionally?

I don’t know how much the style has evolved to be honest. I was at my parents’ house the other day and they had these paintings up that I did at A Level and they were all paintings of lonely objects with titles stolen from song lyrics. I had this moment of realisation that your interests don’t change that much. Even then, I was looking at how you could project human emotions onto inanimate things. There was a picture of a lamp with a Bob Dylan lyric as the title: ‘They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn.’ That said, I feel like I’m always trying to change. With photography, it’s incredibly daunting because there’s a lot of technical knowledge to know and you’ll never know everything. That nervousness of turning up on a set and worrying that you won’t know how to do something never goes away, but the best cure I’ve found for that is to be as honest as possible. The worst is when you pretend you know something and then you panic and have to Google it in the corner. People are really willing to help and teach if you’re willing to admit that you need to learn.

“I love sitting with a designer while they flick through their sketchbook and explain how these random pictures of reservoirs relate to a skirt they made. Maybe that’s what the fashion industry sees within my work – it hints to these other elements that can be drawn out of the clothes.”

Let’s talk about commercial work, because it’s something you do really well – allowing for corporate considerations without compromising on creativity. How do you maintain that balance?

I’ve been really lucky to collaborate with people who have given me a lot of freedom. I know that’s not always the case. The people approaching me generally really understand the work – they’re art directors or they’re in-house at a brand and they understand the humour and the comment. When people get it, it’s really easy to collaborate. I work so much on my own, so it’s nice to have other people to bounce ideas off.

You’ve produced work for Miu Miu, Tiffany & Co and Gucci, to name a few. But outside of those projects, fashion rarely appears in your photography. What role does fashion play in your work?

Even if I show an element of a human, so often that element is just an arm, which might have a glimpse of a white t-shirt. But I don’t generally include clothes, no. I always want human elements to be as ungendered and nondescript as possible. It’s just a symbol of something alive. So I guess it’s strange that I get commissioned by fashion brands, although I have a longstanding relationship with the fashion industry. I studied Fine Art at CSM, but I was friends with people studying fashion and that gave me a really good appreciation of the layers behind fashion design. I love working with designers who allow me to explore that. For example, I worked with Roksanda [Ilincic] for years and she’s got so many aesthetic influences that inform the collections, which go from materials to architecture and beyond. I love sitting with a designer while they flick through their sketchbook and explain how these random pictures of reservoirs relate to a skirt they made. Maybe that’s what the fashion industry sees within my work – it hints to these other elements that can be drawn out of the clothes.

This interview was published on 1 Granary. You can see the original article, including Polly’s arresting images, here.

Fashion Finstas or Worthwhile Watchdogs?

Anonymous Instagram accounts like Diet Prada have more followers than ELLE and Harper’s Bazaar, but none of the accountability. What does the rise of anonymous commentators mean for the fashion industry?

Meme culture has given us many things. It gave us the distracted boyfriend meme, the side-eye girl and you could say it’s to blame (or to thank?) for the rebirth of Crocs. It also gave rise to fashion-related meme accounts, many of which operate anonymously. @stressedstylist@givecredit_ and @skipdin are among the accounts posting fashion-related content from anonymous or semi-anonymous Instagram accounts. While each serves a slightly different function, their existence has bucked the boundaries of fashion commentary and poses complicated questions about the ethics of anonymous posting. 

It turns out, a lot of people have anonymous – or at least thinly veiled – Instagram accounts. These ‘finstas’ or ‘fake Instagrams’ are largely a way to post content for your close friends to see without worrying about the repercussions on your current career or future employability. In a time when everything is posted online, from political rants and what you ate for breakfast to drunken misdemeanours and dancing in your bathtub, anonymity feels increasingly appealing. Especially when online missteps can cause serious damage IRL. Just look at the legions of people who have been fired or dropped from campaigns over old tweets and new posts alike. The strange thing is that our craving for anonymity doesn’t undermine our desire to share our lives online. Some people simply take the vowels out of their name to avoid detection, others come up with Internet alter-egos reminiscent of their first email address (mine was shopaholic2000) or their old MSN names. Finstas are the Instagram equivalent of a digital magazine putting up a paywall, but the readers are your friends and the subscription fee is trust. 

For @stressedstylist, who started their account in November 2017, posting anonymous memes is a way to laugh off the sometimes comical realities of being a stylist without jeopardising their working relationships. “It’s really just about the daily struggles and experiences I’ve been through or I’ve heard of at work,” they say. “Stylists are often neglected in the fashion industry and outside of it most people don’t even know this job exists, so maybe, in a way, my page has raised awareness and created a more public platform for us.”

As well as posting their own experiences, they get ideas from followers, who have found a sense of community on the account. “It’s incredible how memes can really bring people together,” they continued. “Most of my followers are definitely people in the industry. So many stylists and assistants tag their friends or share my memes and this makes me super happy. We often have the same problems and face similar challenges at work.” As the account has fostered a close community of stylists, some followers have started to resent not knowing the person behind the memes. Their identity may be hidden, but the people commenting, liking and sharing posts do not have the same protection. “People often message me asking who I am or try to guess, but does it really matter?” For @stressedstylist, the motivation for being anonymous really comes down to being shy and not wanting their memes to define their career: “I made it anonymous because for now I just prefer not being exposed or recognised for that, there is no particular reason other than that and that I’m really shy. It’s kind of like I have created a character that speaks up for me.”

In many ways, anonymous fashion accounts like @stressedstylist fulfil the role that fashion forums like The Fashion Spot used to. In a Business of Fashion column defending the seemingly antiquated forum in 2016, blogger Susie Lau wrote: “There’s something about the anonymity (and notoriety) afforded by avatars, the moderators chiming in with reminders of posting rules, the threads of discussion that can go on for pages and pages with back-and-forth replies.” She argued that The Fashion Spot and other forums like it was a necessary space for people interested in fashion to share their authentic feelings about the industry. It wasn’t just a place to vent or gossip – in fact, it had strict guidelines on this, and encouraged credible research – it was a place where fashion-lovers could discuss the intricacies of by-gone collections and dissect current trends in microscopic detail. The anonymous forums filled a void left by mainstream fashion commentary. 

If #unfiltered is the ultimate Instagram badge of integrity, then it’s understandable that accounts like @givecredit_ are gaining traction for their honest content, void of brand affiliations. Their posts highlight cases of cultural appropriation in fashion, inviting brands to acknowledge their sources and do better. In this case, the anonymity of their account stems from being a broader team running a fledgling campaign. “The idea behind it was not to remain anonymous, but to promote our cause under a generic shared name,” says Andreea Diana Tănăsescu, a founding member. Their campaign recently called out Carolina Herrera for appropriating the colourful striped fabrics initially woven by artisans in the town of Saltillo, Mexico. The brand claimed that their Resort 2020 collection evoked ‘the playful and colourful mood of a Latin holiday’; in reality, it was ripping off indigenous designs. Other posts include Valentino Haute Couture 2019/20 copying Akha headdresses from Thailand and Kim Kardashian trying to trademark her shapewear brand, ‘Kimono’. According to Andreea, the account’s anonymity allows it to take a backseat and hand over the platform to the people whose cultures are being appropriated. “We are a platform that gives everybody the voice they need to be heard,” she says. “We are trying to have an open approach towards different perspectives, so as to find the best and most efficient way of solving cultural appropriation issues.” Crucially, they are not calling for boycotts of the accused brands and nor are they saying the designs cannot be used as inspiration. They are simply asking that brands credit and compensate their sources.

What @givecredit_ tries to do, which other anonymous accounts seem to neglect, is go through a rigorous verification process. Of course, an account like @stressedstylist doesn’t require much verification because it is based on personal experience and doesn’t implicate or accuse specific brands of misdemeanours. With @givecredit_, posts have the capacity to affect brands’ sales and therefore workers’ livelihoods, so the team are careful to do their due diligence. “Verification requires both time and knowledge,” explains Andreea. “Especially culturally, we should pay special attention when presenting a specific situation to the people.” In some cases, this process takes mere hours but in others, it takes months: “We have collaborations with partners all over the world. It is much easier for us to connect with native traditional-textile experts this way. We are undergoing the process of becoming official, through a collaborative partnership which we have started with Donna Bramhall of Haute Culture Textile Tours. This allows us to verify accusations with the communities which keep and maintain this essential type of knowledge, generation by generation.”

While @givecredit_ focuses on cultural appropriation, anonymous accounts like @shitmodelmgmt and @diet_prada have gained an audience for their handling of sexual assault allegations and calling out ‘ppl knocking each other off lol’ respectively. All face similar challenges with verification. While they allow people to speak openly about commonplace issues they face without fear of endangering their careers, their anonymity has arguably played a significant role in broadening the reach of a sensationalist call-out culture, often at the expense of a thorough, methodical approach to researching and discussing key issues. The anonymity becomes a little more sinister when the account is public and, instead of just posting drunken selfies, it posts call-outs. In some cases, this leads to products being pulled or customers boycotting brands, but others simply ignore the accusations. While followers have largely supported their claims about major brands ripping off start-up talent, Diet Prada have faced some backlash when critiquing young, independent designers. Last year, the pair called out Richard Quinn for supposed similarities to Demna Gvasalia’s designs for Balenciaga, only to be scolded by followers who reminded them that Quinn’s exploration of head-to-toe florals predated Gvasalia’s. It raised questions over the account’s responsibility to support young talent, which is often their justification for posting larger brands’ copies. It’s one thing to adopt a cloak of anonymity to protect your own career, but quite another thing when you do it to tear down someone else’s.

“Someone had to do this. I know it’s crazy that a meme account ended up being the person to do it, but it was just time. What would you do if you had thousands of horrific stories? Would you just go to bed at night knowing you had a way to help?”

At the end of February 2018, just a few months after the Harvey Weinstein story broke, Instagram meme account @shitmodelmgmt started posting a ‘blacklist’ of alleged abusers within the fashion industry. Soon, there were more than 450 names on the list, and those with more than three allegations levelled against them were marked with an asterisk. By the beginning of March 2018, the blacklist had been removed from the @shitmodelmgmt account, with the account holder telling followers, “I’m getting too many death threats and threats to ‘find my family’ and ‘make me sorry I did this’. I’m still not sorry for protecting models from future negative experiences. Someone had to do this. I know it’s crazy that a meme account ended up being the person to do it, but it was just time. What would you do if you had thousands of horrific stories? Would you just go to bed at night knowing you had a way to help?” With such high profile additions as designer Tom Ford and photographer Bruce Weber, it is understandable that the person behind the account would wish to remain anonymous. They may be problematic, but the people on the list are also influential, and speaking out publicly could result in the account holder being blacklisted themselves, albeit from work not because of an assault claim. The former model told Paper magazine, “I’m so glad that I didn’t [reveal my identity] because I would be scared.” Whilst the account itself is anonymous, the person behind it was wary to accept tips or allegations from other anonymous accounts. When someone messaged her from an account with no posts or followers and no screenshots of the alleged inappropriate messages, she chose not to share the allegation.  

Diet Prada is no longer anonymous – it’s founders were unceremoniously exposed as Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler – but the watchdog account still functions with an air of backstage whispers more akin to Gossip Girl than true journalism. Its early anonymity seems to have granted it a free pass to bitch and gossip, and it encourages similar bullying behaviour from its audience, who regularly send in tips. The ‘news’ shared on Diet Prada isn’t just office gossip spilt at the water fountain, it often comes with receipts: Instagram comments otherwise buried in a flurry of responses, illicit conversations and direct messages with the names covered up are all screenshotted and shared. The issue is that the accused rarely get a chance to respond to allegations before the damage to their reputation is done and the pair have been known to play favourites. Last year, Dolce & Gabbana were forced to cancel a show in Shanghai after Diet Prada drew attention to racist comments made by designer Stefano Gabbana, the New York Times reported that “the internet’s troublesome commentators” were now “too influential to ignore.” Many people suspect that Diet Ignorant, an account dedicated to calling out Diet Prada’s call-outs, is run by scorned designer Stefano Gabbana. On the other hand, brands like Prada and Gucci, who have invited Liu and Schuyler to narrate their shows before, have enjoyed relative impunity despite accusations of racism.

These anonymous accounts exist in a time when consumers pledge allegiance to fashion brands based on their social and political credentials. People brandishing logo t-shirts want to know that they aren’t guilty-by-association. So the allegations Diet Prada throw out have very real ramifications. Encouraging boycotts of brands they disagree with generally doesn’t damage the people implicated but the people working below them, the people who depend on that brand to make ends meet. The legacy of Diet Prada’s anonymity, combined with the fact that they lay no claim to rigorous journalism or research, seems to be that it relieves them of accountability.

The Business of Fashion recently referred to Diet Prada as “fashion’s most exciting new media brand.” The article went on to suggest that, in order to grow, Diet Prada might consider a more journalistic approach, “giving subjects the opportunity to comment, and more rigorously fact-checking tips and corroborating accusations.” The idea that an anonymous entity can play judge to a digital jury is a complicated one. Whether the public participation that platforms like Diet Prada encourage is a good thing is yet to be seen. Of course, in cases where there are sexual abuse accusations involved or racist slurs, there is an element of public interest. It took Diet Prada and @shitmodelmgmt calling out abusers within the industry for mainstream publications like Vogue to finally sever ties with the accused photographers.

“Anonymous communication in journalism is not a new concept, but technology simply offered more ways of hiding one’s identity.”

When Vogue reporter Luke Leitch called out Vivienne Westwood for copying Rottingdean Bazaar in March 2018, it prompted the brand to issue a PR apology. However, publications like Vogue haven’t made a habit of such call-outs. For the most part, anonymous accounts say what mainstream fashion commentators, bound by brand affiliations, cannot. Anonymous accounts may not be beholden to advertisers or affiliations but they aren’t totally exempt from possible consequences. Fashion law attorney Anna Radke helped shed some light on the issues that most commonly arise from anonymous accounts. “Some of the legal pitfalls that anonymous accounts can fall into include defamation, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement,” she explained. 

Legal action raises the question of whether account-holders should be able to retain their anonymity. “Being anonymous might not help one in avoiding liability, as the right of freedom of expression needs to be balanced with such interests as crime prevention or protection of one’s reputation. There are various legal steps of defeating a person or entity’s anonymity, and the approaches vary from country to country,” says Anna. “There was a case in which the court decided that Yelp needed to unmask anonymous user in a defamation case. There was also a copyright infringement lawsuit against an anonymous Amthrax blogger who posted a training manual copyrighted by Signature Management Team, but here, the court ruled that his or her identity did not have to be revealed.” For Anna, the internet has made anonymity more achievable. “There is no doubt that the Internet offers new ways of sharing information on important matters, which can be accessed globally,” she says. “Anonymous communication in journalism is not a new concept, but technology simply offered more ways of hiding one’s identity. There are, for instance, certain technical steps that could be undertaken in order to minimise the risk of being uncovered, such as making it difficult to tie a specific IP address to a particular person. There has been a rise in these cases recently, and it’s interesting to see how the outcomes vary in different legal jurisdictions. If they are not unified, it might become easier to ‘hide’ in one country than another.”

Interestingly, as anonymous Instagram accounts have gained popularity, their counterparts in traditional fashion commentary have had to sacrifice theirs. Jess Cartner-Morley, Associate Editor (Fashion) at The Guardian, commented: “When I started, fashion editors were anonymous. Now we’re expected to be models. Blogging had such a huge impact on fashion writing; it essentially broke the fourth wall of fashion writing. It’s now a conversation between you and your audience.” Jess became Fashion Editor at The Guardian in 2000, about seven years before blogging became mainstream. She attributes the loss of fashion journalists’ anonymity to the contrasting visibility of bloggers and the trust that earned them with readers. “That was a huge tone shift blogging brought about; fashion writing is unrecognisable now and having your photo taken is part of that – when you’re having a conversation with the writer, it makes sense that you can see them in a physical way. It’s a valuable thing in a marketplace for people to know who you are.”

George Serventi is the semi-anonymous writer behind @skipdin, the ‘award-wanting meme account for people who love to hate fashion’. While several of George’s posts demonstrate a sharp wit, others err a little too close to bullying, aping the same gossipy tone that so often fuels Diet Prada. Ageist comments about middle-aged women wearing Simone Rocha and a post undermining the achievements of educator, little person and activist Sinéad Burke seem ill-intentioned. It begs the question of whether he would get away with these posts if not for the mask of anonymity. 

For George, the account is mostly just an extension of his satirical fashion magazine, SKIP Dinner. He says running an anonymous account, however malicious the content can be, has catalysed his career in mainstream fashion commentary. “I’ve been writing for various online fashwan [sic] publications for a few years, but the account has afforded me a few opportunities” he wrote via email. The opportunities he’s referring to include a column in LOVE magazine. “You’ve got to put yourself out there to get any interest, despite the fact it’s scary and lots of people might not like you.” 

It’s not just George getting attention from his (not so) anonymous account. @stressedstylist has been featured in i-D, @shitmodelmgmt in Paper and Diet Prada in every publication from Vogue to the New York Times. Whether or not mainstream fashion commentary has changed as a result of these accounts, it certainly has taken notice. Perhaps the two types of commentator can exist side by side or, like George, writers can straddle both. But as more and more people turn to social media as their main source of news (2.4 billion and counting, according to Forbes), it might be time to apply journalistic standards to anonymous commentators too.

This article was written for 1 Granary, where you can read it, memes and all.

No Fashion (Week) on a Dead Planet

Extinction Rebellion’s call to cancel London Fashion Week was
met with raucous resistance. But what would cancelling fashion
week actually mean? And what other solutions are out there?

When Extinction Rebellion first called on the British Fashion Council to cancel London Fashion Week back in July, the idea seemed absurd. News outlets rushed to question the validity of such action, and many dismissed it as an impossible ask. But over the course of fashion week, as protestors created a red carpet of ‘blood’, staged a ‘die-in’ and held a funeral for the fashion industry as we know it, people started talking. Many spoke earnestly, others in hushed tones, and some between muffled bursts of laughter. 

As part of our own investigation, we asked readers on Instagram stories whether they thought LFW should be scrapped. Answers ranged from “No no no darling” to “YES!!!!”. Some suggested only allowing sustainable labels to show, while others argued that the responsibility shouldn’t fall on luxury brands as much as their fast fashion counterparts. The general divide was 50/50, with very few sitting on the fence. 

Sara Arnold, a key member of Extinction Rebellion’s Boycott Fashion team, clarified that the action was about using a key cultural event to draw attention to the environmental crisis we are facing. “The call to cancel fashion week is primarily about starting conversations,” she explained. “LFW is a cultural hub, and culture should allow people to connect with the truth. We ask culture to stand up to that responsibility. We want the BFC to use Fashion Week as a platform to make this emergency known. We have to use our voices.” 

In light of the myriad, complex conversations around this issue over the past few weeks, we gathered everything together to try and make sense of it. Cancelling LFW may not be the right solution, but what else is there?

Cancelling London Fashion Week would impact young designers most

In our recent graduate roundtable, The State of London Fashion Week, the participants almost all agreed that cancelling London Fashion Week seemed counter-productive, as young designers would be worst hit. Matthew Needham is one such designer, currently completing the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins, but his upcycled garments have already received praise for offering a potential solution to wasteful design practices. “In London, the majority of us are promoting change,” he said. “It seems backwards to be targeting us and the BFC.” Fellow designer Jonathon Kidd agreed, pointing out that targeting London in particular magnified this issue: “I see LFW as mostly young designers. If you were asking me this question about cancelling Paris Fashion Week, the answer would be different as it probably would affect big houses much more.” Shortly after the call to cancel became public, Fashion Roundtable founder Tamara Cincik issued an official statement to similar effect: “LFW is not a showcase of mass produced hyper sale mega brands, these are small companies with marginal turnovers- all of whom buy into sustainable business practice. These are the very people who support XR and see themselves as a part of that message.”

Cancelling fashion week only works if you cancel all of them 

What would the cancellation of a major fashion week actually look like? Extinction Rebellion member and RCA Fashion graduate Laura Krarup Frandsen pointed to the cancellation of Stockholm Fashion Week as an example of how the BFC might respond. “Stockholm fashion week got cancelled with a month’s notice, to reevaluate itself in today’s context,” she said. “The UN Secretary General has warned that we are facing a direct existential threat if we do not completely change course by 2020 latest! Yet we are talking about how to best showcase fashion collections for 2020? 2021?” 

Stockholm Fashion Week, due to take place from 27th-29th August, was cancelled by the Swedish Fashion Council so they could focus on finding a more sustainable alternative to the biannual fashion weeks that were run since 2005. CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council, Jennie Rosén, says: “The fashion industry is in a critical situation, because the planet is. It’s that simple – the whole industry has to be disrupted and we have to act now. Saying we are aware of the problem, and then repeating what we have done before will not allow the necessary change to happen.” 

Her call for action is not dissimilar from Extinction Rebellion’s fight against what they call “business as usual,” but the response to the SFC’s decision raises questions about whether or not designers are ready to embrace this approach. Stockholm Fashion Week was cancelled a month before it was scheduled, meaning designers due to show had already invested time and money into their presentations. Their response demonstrated a lack of support for the decision. Swedish stylist Christopher Insulander aimed to fill the void with a series of events under the moniker Crap Diem Couture Week. Participating designer Emelie Janrell commented on Instagram that, “marking the platform where fashion can actually be shown in its art form as a threat to the climate is not solving these issues.” Asked about the response from Swedish designers, Jennie simply stated: “It always hurts to make a change.”

As Lucy Siegle so brilliantly put it in The Guardian, “the four premier global fashion jamborees (London, New York, Paris and Milan) continue to celebrate a system of production and consumption that is spinning us ever closer to ecological Armageddon.” But cancelling one is not enough, as Stockholm shows. Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, commented: “Fashion Weeks globally need to act in unison, because to cancel one would just increase the impact of the others. If nobody can come to London, more people will just travel to Paris or Milan.” In fact, most of Stockholm’s more notable brands were already showing elsewhere: Acne in Paris, and Rodebjer and J.Lindberg in Copenhagen.

We need to do better, not just boycott and ban fashion weeks 

Orsola, whose August blog on The Voice of Fashion advocated improvement over cancellation, was keen to point out the strides being made within the current LFW model. She spotlighted British designers Phoebe English and Richard Malone for their efforts to pivot towards a more sustainable business model while continuing to produce clothes and show on-schedule. 

Richard’s SS20 press release announced that the label would be “consciously dispensing with the idea of seasonality” from now on, while the collection itself featured panels reconstructed from previous seasons’ discarded cutting scraps. Meanwhile, Phoebe sat out from the February and June shows this year to focus on finding more sustainable methods for her brand to move forward with. “We have used this time to explore approaches and actions to making work which can be described as attempts at solutions,” she says. As such, her new collection uses zero-waste pattern-cutting techniques to incorporate carefully sourced, high quality deadstock and surplus fabrics. At her presentation, models walked around a board filled with information and ideas about sustainable design, presenting her approach to certifications and fabric sourcing in the most transparent way possible. Earlier this year, Phoebe even started a Whatsapp group to share her findings with other designers, saving time, resources and needless competitiveness in one fell swoop. 

“I’m not one for unnecessarily banning; I’m always one for improving,” continues Orsola. “Both Richard and Phoebe are switching, brilliantly, at their own pace, in their own time, following their own creativity. They’re not compromising their creativity, but they are questioning it.”

Her comments on creativity relate to a common criticism of the Extinction Rebellion call to cancel. Speaking at the Helsinki Fashion Week Symposium in London last week, Sara said: “I think people misinterpreted our call to cancel LFW as a call to end creativity, but creativity doesn’t have to be about creating things, it can be about creating solutions. The fashion industry has all this creativity which is currently being used to fuel a capitalist system. Why don’t we use it to solve problems and save ourselves instead?” Sustainable designer Patrick McDowell, who repurposes Burberry fabric and Swarovski crystals, happily agreed: “We have the ability to design systems. Frankly, I’d be bored just designing clothes.”

Positive Fashion: we need to celebrate genuinely sustainable solutions and remain critical of greenwashing

Chekii Harling, founder of TRASHMag, curated part of the Positive Fashion Exhibition in the BFC showspace at LFW this season. Her exhibition showcased 12 designers foregrounding recycled and/or natural materials in a fun and colourful way, aiming to dispel the myth that sustainable clothes are all hemp, beige and mushroom leathers. The creativity on display was incredibly striking, albeit not without its own issues: Coup melds together discarded footwear, inspired by 20th century cobblers. Hanging alongside them was Leo Carlton, who spurns feathers in favour of polylactic acid filaments made from fermented plant starches such as corn in his modern take on millinery. And then there was Adam Jones, who crafts clothes from bar towels and beer mats. 

“What’s key is that the designers I selected are not just thinking about this, they are acting on it,” says Chekii. “The mainstream mind-set is that the cheap high street brands are the enemy, and indeed they are but the big boy designer labels and the mid-rangers in between tend to be just as unethical. Introducing press, buyers and a small section of the public to the fact that there are less harmful ways of making clothes is the first step in reversing the disastrous impact that the industry is having on the planet.”

The BFC could undoubtedly do more to make LFW sustainable, but the Positive Fashion Exhibition was a step in the right direction. Without it, innovators such as Chekii and her designers would not have had the platform to share their ideas on the world stage. That said, the initiative has faced criticism for its inclusion of high street retailer Foot Locker, who only released a statement on Modern Slavery in 2018. Similarly, the presence of complimentary Evian plastic water bottles caused some controversy. 

Prior to Positive Fashion, the BFC hosted a sustainable fashion platform called Estethica, which ran from 2006 to 2014. Orsola, who co-founded the platform with Filippoi Ricci, was unimpressed by the corporate slant that Foot Locker and Evian gave Positive Fashion. “Estethica was rigorous, both in terms of design and the techniques,” she explains. “Positive Fashion is not rigorous, it’s corporate. It’s very different. Positive Fashion will describe Foot Locker as being about artisans and craftsmanship. It’s not. Positive Fashion put in a thing with Evian water saying they’ll be 100% recycled plastic by 2025, without writing on it in graffiti – ‘that’s too bloody late mate’ – which is something Estethica would have done.”

Progress is slowing down because commerce comes before creativity

Speaking at the opening breakfast for LFW, which was held in the Positive Fashion ‘Sustainability’ room, BFC Chair Stephanie Phair said, “I believe that collaboration between creativity and business is the alchemy to success.” Yet her assertion that “creativity and commerce have to go hand in hand” begs the question: is commerce squeezing a little too tight? As writer and Extinction Rebellion activist Bel Jacobs states, this is not an industry under threat. In fact, apparel consumption is expected to grow 63% by 2030, according to the Global Fashion Agenda’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry Report. Research collected by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that global clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years, while Fashion Revolution submitted written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee last year stating that “the way fashion is produced and consumed has been dramatically scaled and sped up over the past 30 years.” It’s worth noting that London Fashion Week, which many see as a longstanding, traditional institution within the fashion industry, only began in 1984, just as fast fashion’s growth really took off. 

For environmental activist and model Arizona Muse, this shift in the industry has placed commerce at the centre of fashion weeks, making them into vehicles for consumerism. On a panel organised by the BFC to close LFW last Tuesday, Arizona said: “Fashion Week has come about to sell things, and creativity is second to that now. That’s the seeds of the problem. Fashion Week could be harnessed for so much good. We’re on such a complex path and the fashion supply chain is so complicated. We’re part of the metal industry, the agricultural industry, textiles and furniture… The change we have to make is enormous. It doesn’t work to do fashion the way we have been doing it. We need a more humane fashion system.” 

On the same panel, Common Objective founder Tamsin Lejeune took a slightly different approach, advocating the business sense of switching to a sustainable model. “Sustainability needs to change from something brands see as a cost to something they see as an opportunity,” she said. Common Objective appeals to the competitive nature of business under capitalism, incentivising change by ranking more sustainable businesses higher up on their site, which now includes more than 20,000 organisations. Among them are a ‘humanitarian lifestyle brand’, a ‘luxury baby alpaca wool label’ and an ‘eco-conscious designer swimwear brand.’ But, as moderator Tamsin Blanchard rightly stated, “we can’t buy our way out of this crisis.” 

The change we need to see in business models and mindsets is bigger than simply shifting to so-called sustainable fabrics. If we still operate within a capitalist fashion system built around colonial power structures and driven by financial targets, progress will always be limited. A representative of the Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion – who released a manifesto detailing their frustrations last year – explained: “The growth logic obstructs discussion about sustainability because continuous expansion of market share is incompatible with the finite limits of the Earth’s resource base.” The idea that we can conscious consumption can save us misses the point. As Extinction Rebellion have pointed out again and again, we have very limited time to turn things around and move away from critical tipping points which would heighten the climate crisis. “By the time you have implemented these incremental changes, the deadline will have passed,” Bel added. “We have less than 18 months.”

Legislation is seriously lacking 

The lack of legislation around fashion’s environmental impact is a sore point in almost every conversation on this subject. If it’s too late for incremental change, surely legislation holds the key? The government’s resistance is disappointing at best. In February, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report called Fixing Fashion. It made 18 recommendations, from tax incentives for environmentally responsible companies to placing a one penny tax on every new garment made, the result of which would be investment in better clothing collection and ‘green’ jobs. The participating MPs traversed the political spectrum, and the measured recommendations were informed by industry players with decades of experience. Yet the government rejected every single suggestion. 

Now, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Textiles and Fashion are working with Fashion Roundtable as secretariat to push for change. At the first meeting a couple of weeks ago, designers, activists and consultants gathered to share their thoughts on the subject. It was a necessary first step, but demonstrated the complicated nature of progress on this subject. The issue of sustainability in fashion is incredibly contentious, and ideas for what to do about it are thin on the ground. The APPG represents a definite desire for change within the industry, but whether the government will listen is less certain. 

Industry bodies have made vague attempts at progress themselves. Most notably, in August, French President Emmanuel Macron enlisted François-Henri Pinault, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Kering to form The Fashion Pact. The pact, presented at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, garnered 32 signatories, from Stella McCartney and Chanel to the Prada Group and Capri Holdings Limited, which includes Michael Kors and Versace. It details commitments to stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protects the oceans. So far, so promising. However, read the small-print and you will see that “the document is not legally binding and can be seen as a set of guidelines.”

We need to separate fashion from the fashion industry

It all seems rather bleak when you think about the lack of government action and the limited time we have left, but London-based designers – including those showing at fashion week – are providing light in the dark. There are so many examples of how fashion can exist for good, operating outside of the industry norms that have proved so damaging. While far from perfect, Positive Fashion showed real promise and they weren’t alone. Even Gucci and Burberry both committed to carbon neutral shows this season, with further plans to slash emissions by 2025 and 2022 respectively. As Phoebe English rightly said: “The government does not have systems in place to deal with an emergency of this magnitude. If we don’t enact change, no-one else is going to do it for us.”

Orsola advocates for a return to community fashion, as a more inclusive solution. “I’m partial to a good boycott myself,” she says. “But the job of Fashion Revolution is to look at fashion, not from an elitist point of view, but from a universal point of view. My next-door-neighbour is a single mother with three children. How could she boycott fashion? If she takes part in Secondhand September, where is she going to buy school uniforms for her children? That needs to be communicated somehow. We can’t keep talking about fashion with a very high-end and mainstream point of view.” She points out that the solutions we are looking for may have been right under our noses this whole time. “When you think of specialities or regional food, we’ve got regional fashion too. We’ve just stopped looking for it and looking out for it,” Orsola continues. “The future is not just about technological advancement, it’s also about ancient skills. Just as much as we’re talking about the extinction of the rhino, we should be talking about the extinction of the artisans and those skills. These organisms are part of our culture, and have been for millenia. How patronising is it that we don’t listen to what they have to say?”

There is so much common ground in the way thought leaders are approaching this issue, despite the different ways they are manifesting those thoughts. As well as the renewed appreciation of craftsmanship that Orsola spoke of, Sara spotlighted Extinction Rebellion’s love of block-printing as an example of how fashion can be separated from the fashion industry and used to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis. At the APPG meeting, Sara wore an old t-shirt with the words ‘beauty’ and ‘fashion’ crossed out, and ‘truth’ and justice’ printed in their place. “Those are block-prints on secondhand clothing,” she explains. “We’ll have them during the rebellion, so people can bring old clothes and we’ll print on them. That alone isn’t going to save the world, but it does have a purpose. It’s been a really good way to spread the message.” The black and white prints are certainly striking. Business of Fashion’s sustainability correspondent Sarah Kent even suggested that the climate action group were ‘out-marketing fashion’, with their slogan t-shirts and dramatic protests attracting more media headlines this season than the catwalks themselves.

The need to reconnect with our clothes and how they’re made is one that many people working in sustainable fashion recognise. Fashion Revolution’s #WhoMadeMyClothes campaign seeks transparency in the supply chain, giving garment workers a platform to share their experiences. Building on that, their Fashion Transparency Index ranks brands by how open they are and Fashion Open Studio celebrates those centering craft and transparency. All of this helps to throw open the fashion industry, casting a necessarily harsh light on the exploitative practices that have been allowed to seep in. Bel Jacobs captured this sentiment when she said that “disconnection works at the service of capitalism.” Or, as Eco-Age’s Head of Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Charlotte Turner put it: “people need to understand the provenance and technicalities of their clothing to connect to it emotionally.” If anything, fashion weeks could be in a prime position to make this happen. Chekii’s exhibition presented information about the designers on washing labels by graphic designer James Barnardo, to convey the importance of understanding where our clothes come from and what they’re made of.

And finally: global goals need local solutions 

At present, the UN Sustainable Development Goals – often referred to as the Global Goals – are our best blueprint for what a more sustainable fashion landscape might look like, but we need to fill in the practical blanks with local solutions. For Orsola, this means using local and indigenous knowledge and rejecting Western, capitalist homogenization. “We should really be listening to how they recycle in China versus India versus Northern Europe, versus South America. Could those pearls of wisdom include solutions that could be technologised, advanced and upscaled to create a proper environmental solution?” she asks. “For me, it’s a constant learning curve that what’s happening in Zimbabwe is not relevant in Mexico and vice versa. We’ve just somehow put a big veil of gloss, or big veil or Gucci over it. Everything is the same, but we’re not. We’ve got more to learn from other parts of the world now than ever before. We just need to listen.”

Aside from less carbon emissions from travel (LFW welcomed guests from over 60 countries last year), what local fashion weeks offer is a glimpse into the creativity and innovation in the country that hosts them. At their best, fashion weeks are a celebration of the people making progress. That said, there is almost definitely a more environmentally-friendly way to run them. Perhaps, as one of our Instagram followers suggested, there could be a set of sustainable criteria for participating brands. In fact, Copenhagen Fashion Week plans to do just this from next season – whether this would work globally is another issue. Maybe we could scale fashion weeks back, showing just once a year instead of the ever-quickening cycle of seasons we’re trapped in right now. Ultimately, what fashion weeks offer is a platform with a captive audience; an opportunity for influential players to gather together and talk about where the industry is going. They could be meeting points of like-minds, where sustainability is top of the agenda and commerce comes last. As Sara Arnold so poignantly said last week: “Everything is up for questioning.”

This piece was written for 1 Granary – you can read it with all the glorious images here.

AnOther interview: Laura and Deanna Fanning

Designers behind Kiko Kostadinov womenswear, Laura and Deanna Fanning, partnered with Ward for their Spring/Summer 2020 collection

Sat in the corner of the bustling Kiko Kostadinov studio, a week before their London Fashion Week show, designer duo (and twin sisters) Laura and Deanna Fanning are explaining their new collection – their third womenswear offering for the brand – which is built around a collaboration with emerging British artist Rosie Grace Ward

Collaboration is fundamental to the Kiko Kostadinov design philosophy. For this season’s footwear, Laura and Deanna worked with Asics and Camper, creating football boot-like trainers decorated with constellations with the former, and low-slung heels adorned with similarly space-age crystals with the latter. In both, the sisters were able to colour between the lines of established footwear brands with their own aesthetic. “Creative collaborations allow you to expand your world,” says Laura. “Exactly,” adds Deanna. “You develop a visual language, you have a way to express it and then collaborating with different people allows you to explore it in different mediums that perhaps you wouldn’t get to do on your own.”

For the Fannings, independent research and the freedom to explore their own ideas are critical to collaborating successfully. After Deanna stumbled across Ward’s sculptures at an exhibition at Hannah Barry Gallery in May, they decided to take a similar approach for their Spring/Summer 2020 collection. “With that show, I really felt like I’d entered another universe,” says Deanna. “It felt like an alternative narrative or a parallel thinking that really resonated with me.” Ward’s work, developed independently, spotlighted themes that were already beginning to emerge from the twins’ early toiles. “In the clothes, we were looking at things that are curved, and emblems,” Deanna continues. “Allusions to infinity and divinity.” A couple of studio meetings soon gave way to working separately and sharing updates via email, but the results are remarkably cohesive. “It felt very organic,” says Ward. “There’s a call and response between our work in the show and the set.”

Circular motifs are rife in the collaboration. The wearable amulet Ward has made curves in a spiral towards a neolithic arrow made of resin, while fabric drapes from circles hidden within Laura and Deanna’s garments. The amulet appears as a necklace, a prop and an adornment for keyhole cut-outs. But the references run even deeper. It’s often said that fashion moves in cycles, harking back to past trends to inspire future progression. Ward’s work toys with time in a similar way. “I try to machine time with my work,” she explains. “I’m not trying to make work that reflects right now, I’m trying to project it forward a bit, using history.”

In their first collection for Kiko Kostadinov, Laura and Deanna looked inward, contemplating an anxious woman and the politicisation of her body. In February they turned to the past, reimagining bandidas for the modern day, while their latest collection, styled by AnOther’s senior fashion editor Agata Belcen, ruminates on the future. “It’s not our role as artists or designers to save the world,” says Ward. “But it is our role to experiment with possibilities.” Inspired by history, they muse on the future. The result is a fantastic kaleidoscope of off-beat colours and optical illusions.

This interview was commissioned by AnOther Magazine, and appeared on their website, here.

The State of London Fashion Week

We gathered young designers, fashion students, journalists and casting agents into a group chat and asked them what they think of London Fashion Week. From their first time sneaking into a show to presenting their own collections and stepping off-schedule completely, they have experienced the highs and lows of an event often likened to a circus. With Extinction Rebellion calling to cancel fashion week altogether, our group chat of graduates tackles the existential questions surrounding LFW.

1 Granary

First question: Have you been involved in London Fashion Week before? In what capacity? (Attending shows? Volunteering backstage? Modelling? Showing your own collection?)

Laura K. Frandsen

I’ve attended a few shows by designers that I know personally, but in general I’ve never had much interest in fashion weeks.

Peter Movrin

I got a ticket to a Burberry show when I was on the MA at CSM. For butcher from Slovenia that was a whole new level of experience. Even nicer was when we had the graduation show and I was lucky enough to be chosen. I was so full of emotions.

Bianca Batson

My first experience was modelling Meadham Kirchhoff and Fashion East shows! Then I was working for Ashish and shot backstage for 1 Granary. I guess I had a personal relationship with most of the designers, so for me it was all positive and quite fun! It’s been a few years though. 

Marvin Desroc

I’ve always seen it from backstage – mostly volunteering. I’ve attended a couple of shows and, thanks to the MA, I guess I was able to show this time around. Backstage is madness but the adrenaline is great. Attending shows is not what excites me the most. It excites me more to actually work towards that show. And seeing people’s reaction to your work the day after. 

Célia Fröhlich

I attended and modelled at Berlin Fashion Week when I was younger, at the beginning of my studies. It was something I had never experienced before and I felt this sense of exclusivity. Like I was attending all these events I had only seen in magazines before.  During my MA, I helped NEWGEN recipient Paula Knorr with her presentations as an intern and a friend. I helped with everything backstage and got to know what it means to work towards London Fashion week as the person who creates this one climax and goes through a mentally and financially challenging time to achieve that. 

Josephine Jones

I’ve been working as a model for designers, including my friends such as Charles JeffreyVeronique Leroy and ARTSCHOOL for years. Last year I signed with Elite Models so fashion week is rather manic for me now! I also attend a few shows, these days in a more official manner. Fashion East and Christopher Kane are personal favourites and always very fun. However, I’ve been sneaking into loads of shows for years and it is way more exciting than getting an invitation! 

Sidonie Wilson

I’ve worked at four years of fashion shows, so 8 seasons and about 8-10 shows each season, in London. I’ve managed shows from seating plans, invitations, managing press, photographers, VIP management and seating. Always working long hours, in the lead up to and over LFW and always wearing black.

Emma Louise Rixhon

Both in NY and London, I’ve only been when I’m working – either as a casting assistant or journalist or in this case creating content. I can’t imagine wanting to go if I hadn’t been a part of the process.

1 Granary

You’ve all seen fashion week from different angles, so I imagine your thoughts on this will differ, but does London Fashion Week in its current form excite you? Is it something you actually want to be part of?

Josephine Jones

I think people go too fast and too hard with showing at fashion week. It depends if it’s an artistic or commercial endeavour. Sarah Mower told me the point of a runway show is, ultimately, for sales. So personally – although I invested time and energy into having a presentation on schedule – it’s not something me and my team feel particularly fussed about doing again now we have mainstream brand awareness. I don’t regret it. It was one of the most empowering experiences ever. However I’m working abroad to save money to show another presentation and capsule either next LFW or off-schedule in January or December. No one needs to be tied to a schedule! Especially since competing for attention, even with the best PR, is really challenging.

Jonathon Kidd

Fashion shows are weird. I feel like being invited to something is quite exciting but the reality is less so. Sometimes you’re just sat around and you see a lot less than what you would on Vogue Runway. Nothing from fashion week feels like it’s going to be historic anymore. Every season it seems like something really cool happens, but nobody seems to care afterwards. I feel like social media just changes the game massively. 

Laura K. Frandsen

When I’ve attended shows of my friends, knowing how hard they’ve worked for it and seeing everything coming together being so well executed… you can’t help but feel proud and amazed. I just don’t like the context of fashion week and would never go for the fun of it. The promotion of extravaganza and excess is not only completely out of tune with the climate and ecological emergency that we are in, but dangerously undermining it. It’s neither valuable of valid anymore.

Bianca Batson 

I find traditional catwalk can be a bit boring if there are a thousand looks.

Marvin Desroc 

It is too saturated in London. It’s fun, the energy is amazing overall but it is just way too much.

Matilda Söderberg

The hype, hysteria and speed of it all really puts me off. It could be a great platform for showing and exhibiting work. It makes it simple for buyers I guess? But as Marvin just mentioned, it’s super saturated with stuff. You lose track of it all and potentially miss out on some brilliant work.

Célia Fröhlich

I believe that we forget how orchestrated everything is and how it is intended for “outsiders” to not feel like they belong. 

Sidonie Wilson 

I don’t think that it’s orchestrated to make outsiders think they don’t belong, I just think this is the fashion industry’s time to show off. It’s exclusive yes, but not in a negative way. The point of it is for sales and press to see the exciting new talent and then for them to showcase it to the rest of the world. PR’s role in fashion week is just to keep the cogs moving. 

1 Granary

What is the main function of London Fashion Week in your opinion?

Michella Oré

For buyers, to introduce the next season which will (ideally) result in sales. For press, to highlight and make accessible the next wave of design and creativity that is being made public for the first time.

Fabian Kis-Juhasz

As of now I’m not sure since all of it could be done digitally and online. I guess it is a huge publicity stunt and advertisement. The buyers will see the collections in the showrooms so it’s mainly just for the press.

Emma Louise Rixhon

At its best, theatre. At its worst, cash. 

Laura K. Frandsen

To keep consumerism going!

Sinéad O’Dwyer

Exactly! It feels like selling is the ultimate function. Or else it wouldn’t need to be everyone in the same place and time.

Josephine Jones

Irreverent expression of ideas. Also sales, but for me it’s an opportunity to see a wide range of people’s ideas and philosophies/manifestos take shape all around us. It has to mean something. I believe these events shape culture and motivate designers to stop procrastinating and actually show something.

Laura K. Frandsen

If fashion really is about shaping culture, shouldn’t that be a good enough reason to move away from this dead-old broken system and lead the way?

1 Granary

To the designers in the group: do you feel that showing at fashion week was worth the money you invested in it?

Bianca Batson 

I showed off-schedule and did my presentation very DIY so, in terms of money, it was cost effective. It gets people talking, but ultimately I think producing an amazing shoot or video can do the same. I don’t think you have to present during fashion week. 

Josephine Jones

Exactly, Bianca. You definitely don’t have to be on schedule! So many designers, like Wales Bonner are rebranding as artists or artisan designers and staying away from brief fleeting runway shows where you see the clothes for a few minutes, in favour of presentations or exhibitions of the clothing. As a print designer, my work doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a runway context. No regrets, however my bank balance had a heart attack that I couldn’t have predicted. Saying that, I’ve always preferred my money where I can see it, hanging in my closet… (not a great business model)!

Michella Oré

I would second that – the notion of seasons has long become irrelevant. We’re transitioning to series-based collections which aren’t held to a specific time frame. Hopefully this will cause both people in the fashion industry and those consuming to reconsider what they purchase and how frequently they do so. Because if you’re buying a piece for the quality and design (and because it makes you feel good!) you should be set for years.

1 Granary

If you could change London Fashion Week in some way, what would you do?

Sinéad O’Dwyer

Make it less often. 

Fabian Kis-Juhasz

You see a lot of lacklustre or repetitive work because designers don’t have the time to develop innovative ideas for each season. Fewer seasons would mean better quality and less waste.

Michella Oré

Make it more accessible to new talents who may not have the financial means or social ties to join in. While there are platforms, groups, and mentors opening doors for new designers and faces, there still remains a large bubble in which the same familiar names (i.e. schools, agencies) bounce around.

Laura K. Frandsen

The UN Secretary General has warned that we are facing a direct existential threat if we do not completely change course by 2020 latest! That literally means no business as usual if we are to have a future worth living. We are talking about how to best showcase fashion collections for 2020? 2021? Should we keep fashion week – well, the fashion industry at large – alive at the cost of our future?

1 Granary

Building on Laura’s point: Extinction Rebellion have called upon the BFC to cancel London Fashion Week. What are everyone’s thoughts on this? What would your concerns be if BFC were to cancel LFW? Who would it affect the most?

Josephine Jones

I think cancelling LFW is a bad idea, we need to change LFW somehow not destroy it, in my opinion. Every designer I know big or small is working to make what they do sustainable but it does take time. Do I think we need to do better ? Yes. Do I think people can change everything overnight because of one individual protest? Nope.

Jonathon Kidd

Firstly I want to say Extinction Rebellion is like the coolest thing to happen in the UK in a long time but, honestly, the problem isn’t with most the designers that show at LFW. The problem is Zara, H&M, Topshop and so on. I see LFW as mostly young designers. If you were asking me this question about cancelling Paris Fashion Week, the answer would be different as it probably would affect big houses much more. 

Célia Fröhlich

Fashion week as it presents itself feels like a very stubborn system that we keep up and nobody knows the exact reason except for convenience and sales. Fashion likes to be seen as being at the forefront of developing towards the future, but as an industry we still don’t develop new concepts that take on the responsibility and forward-thinking that is necessary. I believe that a more open “fashion week” presentation system could be put into place that celebrates fashion and its value. But the value of fashion and garments would need to be reinterpreted as well.

Bianca Batson 

I think it would be a shame for young designers. But like I said before, you can do your own thing, show off schedule and still be successful. There are lots of brands doing this. It is a great platform for exposure though, especially with initiatives like Fashion East who have put so many designers on the map. 

Célia Fröhlich

I believe the BFC should go the radical way and cancel to think of a more sustainable concept. Like the Swedish Fashion Council putting this as a priority on their agenda. I have high hopes that they can come up with something that profits our future and celebrates the emotional value of fashion in our society.

Laura K. Frandsen

Continuing business as usual will most likely impact the lives of everyone. And everything we do from now on will decide whether we are going to meet that narrow window of opportunity or not. We can’t possibly still justify spending our time and scarce resources, promoting something that we don’t need, nor can we afford.

Bianca Batson 

It’s not business as usual if changes are made. Cancelling fashion week would impact the young designers, not the big cogs of the wheel who are churning out crazy amounts of product. And making changes to fashion week is at least a start without killing business immediately. 

Célia Fröhlich

I see where you are coming from, Bianca, but wouldn’t you believe that something interesting could come from a meeting of young designers who get the opportunity of a clean slate? Also, there are a lot of big business causing harm that don’t show at fashion week at all and reach their audience in different ways. How do we create a turning point that puts pressure on big businesses?

Laura K. Frandsen

Continuing fashion week sends a clear message, from the forefront of so-called culture, that the climate emergency is nothing to worry about and that the climate science should easily be ignored. That is the opposite of leading the way. We don’t have time for small incremental changes now.

Bianca Batson 

Not if changes are implemented to help work towards something better. Suddenly cancelling something that people have been working hard towards, and are relying on for sales of the business, to pay their staff, is not the solution. All I’m saying is that there are ways to drastically change fashion week without killing it.

Emma Louise Rixhon

I agree with this – it’s not young designers that are the problem, nor is it really the brands who show at fashion week. It’s the massive mainstream industry that is catering for 99% run by incredible powerful high street conglomerates. Change needs to happen at a societal level around ideas of consumerism and worth attributed to ownership. If anything fashion week revolves around fantasy. There is room for art and beauty and if anything we need it now more than ever – fashion can make powerful statements. The problem is that they get capitalised on. 

Laura K. Frandsen

Definitely echo this! But art and beauty and creativity dies within big business, and so do we. We do need creativity so meet what’s ahead of us, but that shouldn’t have to compromise our future.

1 Granary

Thinking about the changes people are making to try and be more sustainable – How could the fashion industry continue in a more environmentally conscious way?

Bianca Batson 

Well if everyone stopped using Uber for a week I feel like that’d have a nice impact on carbon emissions…

Laura K. Frandsen

I completely appreciate and acknowledge young labels doing things in a more ethical way. It is just not going to solve the crisis that we are in. The fashion industry at large, can never be sustainable, simply because the main problem is overconsumption.

Célia Fröhlich

During my time shadowing a politician in the German Parliament, I saw first-hand how slow the political process is in reacting to change. I believe it has to come from the industry itself and Fashion Councils are there to develop guidelines for the industry. Also, it is important to educate the consumer.

Emma Louise Rixhon

I think transparency would be a radical first step. To make consumers aware of the travel, labour, materials, the intensive hours and processes involved in every garment would make people more aware of what they are paying for and why, and help them decide whether to even purchase. A mass-scale consumer-led commitment to slow fashion. People need to learn to fix and rework their clothes or buy second hand. This obsession with the new needs to be stopped.

Laura K. Frandsen

The UK Parliament has straight up refused to legislate on the fashion industry.

Josephine Jones

I think Matthew Needham’s approach to repurposing old collections to make new ones from discarded materials is so innovative and to be celebrated. He’s really leading the way in this in my opinion!

Emma Louise Rixhon

Yes, this and Bode (who use pre-existing materials) or other designers who commit to re-using. The new knitwear hype (brands like Rui Zhou or Kepler) are also interesting because, as a process, it uses less material and doesn’t produce off-cuts.

Célia Fröhlich

A sustainable way of creating and designing seems to work in many small-scale businesses, but only to a certain extent. Should there be a limit on production? Why not build up a think tank that develop future fashion scenarios and new concepts of engaging with fashion, sustainable design and so on and have designers apply for a platform that explores and celebrates that. Not looking at stockists and how to sell much, but rather exploring how to create value that can sustain a brand whatever form it has?

Laura K. Frandsen

The problem with the whole talk about “sustainability” is that is leads us to believe that if we design better products, using different materials and put more heart into it, it will “solve” a problem. The fashion industry is predicted to increase by 63% by 2030. That is the problem. Consumerism and the promotion of it, is the problem. I’m not judging anyone for pursuing their dreams or doing what makes them happy. But we need to reevaluate the way we live and consume, in the context of a climate emergency. It will change before we know it, but our chance of controlling that change is very limited.

Célia Fröhlich

I just think we shouldn’t see this push for change (this time coming from XR) as something to be frightened of, but rather especially as young creatives to use a time in which a lot is questioned to stand out with new ideas and erupt what is perceived as given. 

This was such a fun piece to cast and moderate. I conducted the group chat over Whatsapp – to see photos of the participants and view the content in colour, head to 1 Granary.

Six Times Fashion Paid Homage to the Vulva

Wearing your politics on your sleeve is a longstanding tradition in activism. People wore badges to protest nuclear weapons; second-wave feminists eschewed high heels and bras for flat shoes and dungarees; Democrat women wore white to Congress to promote the economic security of women. Over the last decade, fashion has found a new way of dressing for politics, by placing the female reproductive system front and center.

When female reproductive organs appear in fashion, it tends to be in the name of a feminist cause, be that donating profits to Planned Parenthood or encouraging conversations about the state of gender politics. The trend raises questions about whether fashion can truly be feminist and whether female reproductive organs are an appropriate symbol to represent the movement. Though their intentions and aesthetics vary, these six sartorial moments make up a brief history of the female reproductive organs in fashion. Viva la vulva!

Randy’s Reproductive System sweaters by Rachel Antonoff


Named after Rachel’s favourite gynaecologist, her Randy’s Reproductive System sweater was designed to raise funds for Planned Parenthood: 10% of the profits from each item is donated. Also available in a t-shirt and sweatshirt, the reproductive system design proved popular with customers happy to wear their heart on their sleeve (or in this case, their uterus on their chest). The New York-based designer created the sweater as part of her Fall 2015 collection, which explored the intersection between biology and botany. Actresses Rowan Blanchard and Lena Dunham were among the celebrities snapping them up.

Pussy Bow


Pussy Bow is a project by performance artist Christen Clifford. During a residency at the Ace Hotel in New York in 2015, Clifford projected images from inside her vagina onto the walls using a vibrator that doubled as a camera. The images showed warm pinks imbued with streaks of cool blue that captured Clifford’s imagination. Giving new meaning to the term ‘pussy bow’, originally popularised by Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, she turned the stills into silk scarves, following Antonoff’s lead in giving 10% of the profits to Planned Parenthood.

Emelie Janrell’s uterus dress


In November 2016, Swedish pop star Tove Lo appeared on the Australian Music Industry Awards (Arias) red carpet in a mesh dress complete with a leather uterus. The dress was designed by a fellow Swede: fashion designer Emelie Janrell. When the dress received less-than-positive responses, Janrell told The Guardian newspaper: “I’m actually very surprised by the overall impact the dress has made. After all, it is just a graphic image of the female anatomy. The fact that that is such a shock may call for more uteruses.”

A year later, in the midst of women’s marches sweeping the globe, Janrell took the idea one step further, presenting two purple dresses, each sporting their own fallopian fashions. The first featured an oversized image of a uterus on a long-sleeved mesh dress. The second was liberally dotted with the textbook-style diagrams, a true ode to ovaries.

Namilia SS18


For SS18, Berlin-based design duo Namilia presented an unapologetically yonic collection. ‘The Indiscreet Jewels’ was inspired by Denis Diderot’s novel of the same name, published anonymously in 1748. In the allegory, Louis XV is portrayed as the sultan Mangogul of the Congo. He possesses a magical ring which prompts women’s genitals (or ‘jewels’) to talk, revealing their past encounters. Namilia’s take on this fuses their signature Berlin club kid style with the 18th-century courtiers who populate the novel. Lapels resemble labia and soft pink vulvas decorate ornate paniers, while bondage-inspired bikinis stretch across curves and centuries alike.

Even the shoes were on theme: towering heels fronted by pink and red vulvas with delicate pearls in place of a clitoris. Designed in collaboration with fellow Royal College of Art graduate Kira Goodey, the heels were a play on chopines, a towering Venetian overshoe worn from the 14th to 17th centuries. The original chopines protected wearers from filthy streets; Goodey’s interpretations raise women above the patriarchy’s dirty tactics. “Once again the shit is piling up, so it’s time for shoes to be elevated accordingly,” Goodey’s website proclaims.

Janelle Monáe’s ‘PYNK’ trousers


Back in April 2018, Janelle Monáe released the queer anthem ‘PYNK’, five years after her second studio album. The pansexual singer appears in the video wearing what could be described as vaginal chaps. The blooming pink trousers were dreamt up by Dutch designer Duran Lantink and promptly stole the show in the video.

Even better, the singer clarified that her message, which celebrated femininity, was an inclusive one. Speaking to Billboard, she said: “Sometimes I think people interpret those as vagina pants, they call them vulva pants, they call them flowers, but it just represents some parts of some women.” Several dancers in the video wear the pants, while others simply wear leotards. “I don’t believe that all women need to possess a vagina to be a woman,” Monáe explained. “I have one [and] I’m proud of it, but there’s a lot of policing and controlling that people are trying to have over our vaginas.”

From September 2018 – January 2019, the vaginal chaps were even exhibited at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Dr. Valerie Steele, the director of The Museum at FIT, told Vanity Fair: “I really wanted to show all the different facets of pink. So often people just think it’s this kind of namby-pamby sweet feminine colour associated with little girls. There’s so much more to it.”

Gucci’s uterus dress


When Gucci sent a dress embellished with a uterus down its Spring/Summer 2020 runway, people had mixed feelings about it. Some claimed it as a feminist triumph, others questioned the usefulness of a uterus on a dress. Northern Irish pro-choice activist Emma Campbell told the Huffington Post, “There is something incredibly significant about wearing your politics on your body when it’s your body being policed by the state.” Concerned about Gucci’s intentions, she added, “There is a world of difference between supporting a campaign by buying and wearing their merchandise to further their activities, and a designer jumping on a bandwagon for fast fashion or controversial value.”

In defense of the dress, Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele told WWD: “It’s unbelievable that around the world there are still people who believe that they can control a woman’s body, a woman’s choice. I will always stand behind the freedom of being, always.” The collection also featured a blazer that said, ‘My body, my choice’, and clothes inscribed with ‘May 22, 1978’, in honour of the date abortion was legalized in Italy. After the collection debuted, Gucci made a statement on Instagram clarifying their pro-choice stance and highlighting its longstanding commitment to gender equality. The brand’s Chime For Change campaign has advocated for sexual and reproductive rights since it was founded in 2013.

This article was published on the American magazine, Perfect Number. Check it out on their website for the full monty (it’s just sartorial sexual organs, no unsolicited pics here).

Radical Softness: A Strong Vision, Softly Spoken

Hyperfemininity is challenging the suit to its power-dressing crown. Could radical softness be the new frontier of femininity in fashion?

In 2015, queer artist Lora Mathis coined the phrase “radical softness as a weapon,” summarizing a feeling that many women will be familiar with. The niggling feeling that patriarchy isn’t working, and maybe there was a better way to live. Maybe empathy and inclusion, vulnerability and courage, could work a little better than power struggles, oppression, and warfare. Maybe if we softened the edges, life might be a slightly easier pill to swallow. Their message went viral: “In a society that presents stoicism as strength, sharing your emotions openly is a political move.” I rediscovered Mathis’ work recently, and it got me thinking about how radical softness could be interpreted in fashion. The way we dress says a lot about who we are, but it also speaks to how we want to be perceived, and right now, radical softness feels like a pretty good aspiration.

At its most basic, fashion — or maybe more fittingly, clothing — is there to shield us from the elements. It keeps us warm in winter, cool in summer and dry when it rains. But clothing isn’t just a physical armor, it also serves as an emotional guard. On the days when vulnerability veers on weakness and insecurities seem overwhelming, fashion can act as a decoy, tricking both ourselves and the people we meet that day into thinking that we are totally fine. So the idea of power dressing is nothing new. The problem is, in the fashion lexicon, power dressing means assimilating to patriarchal ideals of power; to the white, male default. How many times have you reached for a ‘power suit’ over a dress? Just look at Hillary Clinton. She has a whole rainbow of pantsuits carefully curated to mimic her male counterparts; the standard pop of color is her only nod to femininity.

Radical softness comes from professor/speaker Brene Brown’s school of thought, harnessing vulnerability as the key to courage. As Brene says in her new Netflix special, “You’re going to know failure if you’re brave with your life.” In other words, in order to live a full life, you have to accept that vulnerability will be part of it. What that means for power dressing is this: we need to subvert what we see as powerful. For so long, power dressing has meant wearing a suit, dressing like a man and minimizing femininity, because it is associated with softness. But if vulnerability and strength go hand in hand, so do femininity and power. 

I asked Lora what they thought radical softness looked like in fashion. “As I was beginning to create visual work exploring radical softness, my style became hyper-feminine and focused on pastel colors,” they said. “Much of this was influenced by artists in Montreal who I also consider a large part of the concept of radical softness: Stella Starchild, Ambivalently Yours, Laurence Philomene, Flora Fauna. They had their own community and were wearing soft colors and played with lots of pinks.”

For Lora, exploring radical softness in fashion also meant exploring their gender identity, grappling with traditional notions of femininity and power. “I was questioning my gender and not feeling like a woman,” they continued. “The pastels felt like a dressing up of femininity, of being inside it but in a contrived, performative way. Emotions and pink are both often written off as purely belong to the feminine realm, and therefore being attached to weakness. Perhaps my tendency to dress head to toe in the color was to poke at this idea of it being weak.”

Perhaps radical softness looks like hyperfemininity, the style embraced by Molly Goddard, Giambattista Valli and Simone Rocha. Instead of small doses, their clothes allow you to swaddle yourself in softness: hot pink bubbles of tulle and billowing marshmallow parachutes. Maybe it is the unapologetically yonic trousers Janelle Monáe wore in her Pynk music video, designed by Amsterdam-based designer Duran Lantink. This hyperfemininity is hardcore softness, taking up space and refusing to shrink itself.

Swiss designer Pauline de Blonay has her own version of radical softness. The Central Saint Martins graduate recently won second place in the L’Oréal Pro Young Talent Womenswear award for her take on “fragile strength.” Crayola-colored suits with exaggerated shoulders and cropped flares are paired with molded silver armor, strapped to the chest with soft and supple leather. In another look, enlarged metal nipples mimic medieval chainmail. ‘Breastplates’ in the most literal form, these feminine forms represent an armor ill-equipped for combat, and a wearer who is entirely okay with that. “Doing the soft body parts in soft, heavy metal was an expression of that fragile strength,” Pauline explains. “It’s a vulnerability that everyone has in themselves, but we don’t see it because we don’t talk about it or people hide it.”

The collection dances on the line between strength and fragility, external assumptions and internal truth, masculinity and femininity. “We can look really strong but be quite fragile inside,” she continues. “You can put out a strong image of yourself, but there’s always more inside that we don’t see.” Several items in her collection are made from paper-thin fabric backed in aluminum tape, allowing the wearer to play sculptor and shape the clothes to their bodies. For Pauline, this translates to a malleable strength, one that adapts to difficult situations and endures changes: “In my work, I wanted to do these things that don’t just have one shape. It can look really strong and powerful and big, but you can remold it, break the shape. It’s strong and fragile at the same time.”

Pauline isn’t the first designer to use the female form in clothing. Alexander McQueen’s Autumn/Winter collection in 1999 featured curvaceous body casts in cool silver metal. Skim the images of Irish designer Sinead O’Dwyer’s first collection and you may think it looks entirely unwearable, more like art than fashion. In fact, it’s a critique of the way fashion fits women’s bodies – or rather, doesn’t. Inspired by the experience of trying to squeeze her hips into skirts that sagged around the waist and contort her breasts into tops that gaped around her shoulders, Sinead decided to flip the idea of sizing on its head. Her designs are made from plaster cast molds of her models, perfectly hugging the parts of their bodies they love most. The result is a collection of fiberglass molds, marbled with silicone paints in pastel hues, that are simultaneously soft and strong. They are unapologetically feminine, shaped by the female gaze and made to celebrate the body parts the wearers loved most, not hide their insecurities. A perfect representation of radical softness.

This article was written for the American publication, Perfect Number. For pictures of Lora and Pauline’s work, you can view the article in its original format here.

1 Granary: Mastering Graduation


Tomorrow, a fresh crop of Parsons MFA Fashion Design & Society graduates will present their designs at New York Fashion Week. The two year course, led by Shelley Fox and JOFF, takes an interdisciplinary approach to fashion education, normally culminating in an exhibition as well as a runway. This year, the exhibition was postponed until after the show, so the runway tomorrow will mark the 2019 students’ debuts. We asked 10 Parsons alumni to share their thoughts on the new approach, plus the pressure and potential of showing at fashion week, dealing with the post-graduation blues and navigating the beginning of their careers.

What are the things you wish you knew beforehand?

Stephanie Frig: You need to go into it accepting and allowing anything to happen. Earrings may be too heavy or beads may fly off. Be prepared for changes. Remain open and positive.

Amy Crookes: Sometimes you have to move sideways in order to go forward. 

Annaliese Griffith-Jones: I wish I took time into consideration more. When you are making such intricate, handmade garments, fabric and embellishments, these things take time…a lot of time. I think that is the biggest struggle working up towards the show because you want it to be of the highest quality as it is a pinnacle time within your career to reflect what you represent and your image as a designer. I do not recommend working until 7am and running to the show.

Zoe Champion: Eat before the Prosecco!

Tingyue Jiang: I should have planned what my long-term goals were as a designer. After graduation, I had to figure out a plan for my future, not just follow what school let me to do.

Gahee Lim: I wish I had better understanding of grad school vs. reality. Grad school is a curated and protected environment that is nothing like the real world. Merit is only a small fraction of what matters to work at a company or to run your own business. 

Do you have any last-minute advice for this year’s graduates?

Caroline Hu: Believe in what you have done and persist and be brave. Whether you want to be a brand or go to work, you must work hard and be humble.

Annaliese Griffith-Jones: Enjoy watching your clothes walk. I think you can get so caught up with perfection that all you see is what you could have done better.

Amy Crookes: Get as much experience as possible and use the time post-graduation to explore and find your focus. Ask for advice, BUT know that you don’t have to listen to all of it.

What did the show do for you and/or your career?

Annaliese Griffith-Jones: The show gave me a lot of exposure and also a chance to collaborate with different photographers and creatives. It also allowed me to take a step back from the collection and see it as a whole.

Venice W: Physically more people see your work which is a good thing. It was mentally drained as everything you have been working on for one full year was wrapped up toward a sort of conclusion (runway show) in less than 10 minutes.

Snow Xue Gao: That process really made me start to think who was going to wear it, who was going to buy it. Design gets exciting when you dress a real person.

Gahee Lim: Opening the Parsons MFA show in 2016 was huge for me and my career. I had an amazing amount of editorial exposure and job opportunities. I had the very good luck of freelancing at different places for a couple of years after graduation, then I worked at The Row for a year. And I started working at Thom Browne women’s runway design team.

Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in the first few months after you graduated? 

Amy Crookes: No, I used the few months after graduation to relax and re-group whilst freelancing and continuing to work on my own projects. It was really important for me to try and find a healthy work/life balance after graduation. 

Tingyue Jiang: I wish I could have taken a long break after graduation. Once I started to work, it was hard to take a long break.

Rui Zhou: Apply for jobs ASAP.

Annaliese Griffith-Jones: I would definitely stress less! I was really caught up with deciding what I was going to do with my future and felt there was a ticking clock for exposure time, but I think in reality it doesn’t work like that. People still appreciate your ideas, processes and intricacies of your collection far beyond the show.

This article was originally published on 1 Granary, where you can view it in all its glory – including sketchbook and runway shots.

Did I mention my trainers are vegan?

PETA-Approved is the ethical certification du jour, but is vegan fashion just another strain of greenwashing?Scroll through the PETA website and you’ll see a whole host of brands proudly signed up to their vegan certification, from British mainstream retailer Miss Selfridge to Japanese fair trade fashion pioneer People Tree. Veganism is a hot topic, and fashion is, understandably, fanning the flames. In 2019, over 250,000 people worldwide pledged to join the Veganuary campaign. Meanwhile, the UK saw a 75% increase in products described as ‘vegan’ from 2018 to 2019, with the beauty and footwear sectors leading the charge.For Nina Marenzi, founder of not-for-profit consultancy The Sustainable Angle, vegan fashion is an entrée to the complexities of sustainable fashion. Veganism has become synonymous with sustainability in common parlance, easier to digest than ideas of regenerative agriculture and conscious manufacturing. “It’s difficult to communicate sustainability,” says Nina. “But fashion and food connect us all.”From an animal welfare perspective, vegan fashion is a step in the right direction, making it easier for dietary vegans to adopt a full-fledged vegan lifestyle. PETA-Approved products contain no leather, fur, wool, skin, exotic skins or any other animal-derived fabric. But does that mean they’re sustainable?

The strong presence of plastic in vegan products is a sore point. British supermarkets are required by law to charge for plastic bags, while single-use plastics such as straws and cotton buds will be banned in the UK from April 2020, and in Canada from 2021. Eight countries, including the US and Italy, have banned the production and sale of microbeads. But as plastic faces a public backlash elsewhere, it’s having a moment in fashion. In a bid to chime with sustainably-minded customers, many brands are swapping animal-derived fabrics like leather and fur for synthetic alternatives. According to sustainable consultancy Common Objective, synthetic fabrics, derived from non-renewable fossil fuels, now make up more than 65% of fibres used in the global textile and apparel industry.

New York-based journalist Sophia Li is keen to point out that vegan leather is not the only tactic employed by big businesses to divert attention from deeply-ingrained issues with sustainability: reusable coffee cups and canvas tote bags are equally surface-level changes that facilitate guilt-free consumption without actually altering much. Speaking at the Slow Factory x Study Hall symposium in London back in April, she said: “I don’t need my shampoo to be vegan. I need sustainability to be a reality.”

The particular brand of veganism that has led to fast fashion retailers selling vegan shoes and shampoo is often referred to as ‘white veganism’. It’s based on a view that veganism was invented in Britain in 1944, when the term was coined by The Vegan Society founder Donald Watson. But this overlooks the fact that eastern religions like Buddhism and Jainism have advocated vegetarian and vegan lifestyles for centuries. “The fast fashion industry as we know it is colonisation under a new name,” says fashion consultant Aja Barber. Research by British charity Oxfam shows that the richest 10% of people in the world produce 50% of carbon emissions, while the poorest 50% (mostly people of colour) produce just 10% but are worst hit by the effects.The idea that brands can use sustainability to sell more clothes is inherently contradictory. Among the many brands trying to do so are Topshop, The Kooples and British retailer Marks & Spencer. The latter has a range of over 350 vegan shoes, spanning womenswear, menswear and children. But if a brand is encouraging fast fashion consumption, producing in factories where staff are overworked and underpaid, and using synthetic materials, are they really sustainable? The £19.50 or $25 price tag on a pair of vegan sandals certainly throws the supply chain into question.However, any steps brands take to be more sustainable should be appreciated, no matter how small. According to the Higg Materials Sustainability Index, leather from cows is almost three times as damaging to the environment as vegan leather, while wool is twice as harmful as polyester. Besides, sustainability takes time to implement, especially in established business models.What’s worrying is when complacent companies use sustainability as a means to drive sales without any intention to develop their efforts further. Claire Bergkamp is Worldwide Sustainability & Innovation Director at Stella McCartney, one of the few luxury brands known for its long-term commitment to sustainable fashion. “It is great to communicate sustainability, but it cannot become a marketing tool,” she warns. “With environmental sustainability, a lot of it comes down to science. We need to approach this with rigour.”

Most commentators agree that veganism is not a long-term solution to the environmental crisis fashion faces, and nor is it viable in every community or corner of the world. Luxury conglomerate Kering is now advocating regenerative agriculture, meaning that it will develop a new network of farms that use grazing animals to restore biodiversity. In a similar vein, trend consultancy Stylus has suggested that tomorrow’s planet-positive diet will be “post-vegan”.

A few brands appear to have hit the sweet spot between animal welfare and environmental impact. Canadian sustainable accessories stalwart Matt & Nat has been committed to vegan design since its inception in 1995. Rather than rest on its laurels, the brand continuously invests in researching more sustainable fabrics: its archive contains recycled nylons, cardboard, rubber and cork. Since 2007, it has only produced linings made from 100% recycled plastic bottles.Sneakers newcomer Allbirds sold more than one million pairs in its first two years. Farming merino wool from flocks in New Zealand (where sheep outnumber humans by six to one), Allbirds crafts breathable shoes that are simple, comfortable and sustainable. The brand works with ZQ Merino to ensure high standards of animal welfare, but also has vegan options made from TENCEL Lyocell and sugarcane.

So, before you sink your teeth into a PETA-approved spending spree, consider the reality of vegan fashion. It’s not easy being green, and brands need to work a lot harder.

This article was published on Fashion Unfiltered. Feature image: @project_stopshop by Elizabeth Illing. 

Fabian Kis-Juhasz and her Devilish Damsels

Miss Havisham models lounge around a red and pink boudoir, reading the Satanic Bible and toying with the chokers around their taut necks. Powder and rouge stain their distant faces, offsetting the saccharine surroundings with a dollop of dark kitsch. Bloody corsets protrude from piles of mattresses like a sinister take on The Princess and The Pea and church organs ring over the unsettling scene.

For a split second, immersed in the demonic depths of Hungarian designer Fabian Kis-Juhasz’s imagination, you forget that you’re in the British Fashion Council’s Designer Showroom, with crowds and cars pulsing along The Strand above. And that’s exactly how Fabian wants it. “A catwalk show is on for ten seconds, and it’s harder to appreciate the details,” she says. “With a presentation, you can communicate much more of your identity. I wanted to make a visual statement of the things I like.”

“Femininity is such an unattainable image. It’s not realistic for most people who identify with it. It’s aspirational, but it also makes you feel shit about yourself.”

This is Fabian’s first presentation at London Fashion Week. Like Josephine Jones, whose on-schedule debut the night before featured an all-trans cast, Fabian used mostly trans and non-binary models. Many were close friends and collaborators, people who have appeared in all of her collections to date. In Fabian’s work, femininity is a guise that can be put on and taken off. Her moulded corsets, complete with phallic waistlines and drooping breasts, offer a more inclusive womanhood, where the body beneath it has no bearing on its validity: “Femininity is such an unattainable image. It’s not realistic for most people who identify with it. It’s aspirational, but it also makes you feel shit about yourself. So I love this idea of femininity being performative. The idea that femininity is not definitive of who you are, but just a thing that you can be, might help you feel more comfortable in your own skin.” It’s a tool for expression, of what you can be, as opposed to an intrinsic expression of who you are.

Thanks to set designer Gillian Hyland and stylist Danielle Goldman, the devil is in the detail: dried flowers wither in faded pots and the vanity mirrors stare back at you with lipstick flowers. Eggs are scattered across the floor and surfaces, as a symbol of womanhood and fertility. As the show wrapped, Fabian’s fellow designer and RCA alumna Sinéad O’Dwyer scooped them up to take home for brunch.

“I was really interested in the Church of Satanism,” continues Fabian. “The whole thing is about not believing in anything, contesting the idea of God, religion and faith. So I had the Satanic Bible in the set.” The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed was an obvious addition, a firm favourite on Fabian’s bookshelf. Similarly, Julia Kristeva’s exploration of the abject in Powers of Horror influenced Fabian’s separation of femininity and womanhood, where clothes are the borders that define and contain the monstrous body. Amidst the academic allusions, Wuthering Heights lent an air of romanticism. The literary props were as much about entertaining the models as they were about reflecting Fabian’s process. “I started thinking about how uncomfortable it must be for the models to stand around for two hours with nothing to do, so I gave them books to read,” she laughs.

“Because we used fabrics on the walls, I had to flame-proof them, which I didn’t know was a thing.”

Thinking up things for the models to do was just one of the invisible tasks Fabian didn’t anticipate when she applied for a presentation space. “There are so many ridiculous details,” she says. “I was told I had a space four weeks before the presentation, so it was a tight turnaround. The BFC provided a production team to help you assemble things, but I had to bring my own set, models and make-up. I had so many set designers cancel on me, and one of the models did the soundscapes the night before. Because we used fabrics on the walls, I had to flame-proof them, which I didn’t know was a thing. I was running around London the day before and I spilled the flame-proofing liquid in an Uber. So I fire-proofed an Uber by accident!”

“It’s so strange because you have the presentation, which is such a huge moment and everybody is congratulating you, and then you go home to your cold apartment where the heating is broken and you go to Tesco to get food and it’s not glamorous anymore. It’s such a 180 from what you just experienced.”

The process of staging a presentation is a steep learning curve for young designers like Fabian, but one she would wholeheartedly recommend. “Doing a presentation on-schedule is great press,” she says. “You can start to gain a following, maybe get some interviews and build your image. I had a feature in LOVE Magazine, which was pretty cool.”

“Getting freelance fashion work is almost as hard as showing at London Fashion Week.”

The main downside is the cost. “There’s never a clear number attached to what you’re going to get out of a presentation or how much you’re going to put in yourself. I’d do it again if I suddenly came into a huge inheritance or something!” Here, the realities of being a fledgling designer set in. “It’s so strange because you have the presentation, which is such a huge moment and everybody is congratulating you, and then you go home to your cold apartment where the heating is broken and you go to Tesco to get food and it’s not glamorous anymore. It’s such a 180 from what you just experienced.”

The main lesson Fabian has learnt from her foray into Fashion Week? “I think you have to milk every opportunity you can get out of your graduate collection. The market is so saturated with people, and there are so few opportunities. Getting freelance fashion work is almost as hard as showing at London Fashion Week. Just because there isn’t a cool name attached to something, don’t turn your nose up at an opportunity. You can still grow through it, you can still learn something.”

I interviewed Fabian after London Fashion Week in February. The interview was published on 1Granary – you can read it in it’s full glory (images and all) here