The New Era of Business reports are focused on the future of important industries and include examples sourced from around the world.
Fashion forward – it’s a term typically used to describe the trendsetters in the fashion world, the fashionistas – but in today’s blog we are going to look at it from a different perspective, the future of fashion. Arguably the most unsustainable industry in the world, it’s time to put a new face on fashion and redefine the rules of the runway. Fast forward to a new era of fashion.
Fashion touches us all. The threads of the fashion world are sewn around us from our very first moments on earth. But the clothes we wear are not what they used to be. What started as a cultural tradition of artisan handiwork passed down through the generations has become a mass-market business of shipments being passed down the supply chain. The pressures of globalization has flipped fashion on its head – thoughtful fashion is out, fast fashion is in.
The time has come to redesign the system and move fashion forward. Within the wreckage lies an unprecedented opportunity to build an entirely new stable of brands who can bring sustainability to the world of fashion without sacrificing style and sensuality. Fashion forward begins from the bottom up.
Recently, we attended the second annual Beyond Fashion Summit in Berlin. The workshop brought together a series of experts, designers, and entrepreneurs from around the world to lead a debate about how fashion is evolving and what the future holds in store. The theme for the event was ‘Hypernature,’ a term loosely used to describe how sustainability, technology and fashion might interconnect as we move towards a new era of fashion.
While many new ideas and concepts were introduced, one theme remained constant, the industry needs to change – radically. The behemoths who dominate today’s fashion markets have built their brands behind a manufactured illusion of glitz and glamour without regard for the social and environmental consequences; a seismic shift is required. That’s is why in this post we are going to look at the future of fashion from three angles:
- Raw Materials
- Textile Production
- What it Means to be Fashionable
In each part, we look at high-level examples of brands who are catalyzing the change. We will follow that up with a look at our Market Beacons, companies who we think are redefining what it means to be fashion forward. Then we will look at how to take action and turn the sparks we are seeing today into a full on fire.
Let’s start with the materials.
The Raw Materials
To reinvent the fashion industry, we need to start with the core components, the fabrics and dyes used to produce the clothes. The fashion industry generally has two options to choose from when it is selecting materials to use for its designs, natural and synthetic. Natural materials are sourced from the natural world and include fabrics such as cotton and wool, whereas synthetic materials are created using chemistry and include materials such as polyester and nylon. Once the materials are selected, the majority are then dyed using an array of chemicals, many which have toxic properties.
Just because some materials are natural and others synthetic does not mean that one is necessarily better than the other. On one hand, polyester, the most widely-used material, is synthesized using an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of crude oil; cotton, on the other hand, grows naturally on cotton plants but requires a huge amount of water (2,000 L to produce the average T-Shirt) and large amounts of pesticides (10% of all pesticides and 22% of insecticides are sprayed on cotton globally). This environmental impact, coupled with the social externalities from these industries, is why we need to take a hard look at the materials used to make the clothes we wear everyday.
So who’s entered the market to start shaking things up:
People Tree : Fair trade and organic cotton
People Tree is an organization that is focused on bringing fair trade to fashion and helping to expose the realities that make the majority of the world’s biggest fashion brands so immensely profitable. Founder Safia Minney started her career in the advertising industry, but it didn’t take her long to see behind the curtain and realize what fashion was really about.
People Tree’s garments are produced using 100% organic and fair trade cotton from rural farmers in the global South. Cotton can be grown as a rotational crop, reducing water consumption by up to 60%, and without the use of heavy pesticides. The company, which started in Japan in 1991, has spread throughout UK and Europe, with over 450 Stockists and ever-expanding inventory of fair-trade artisan garments.
Rubia : Natural Clothing Dyes
Rubia produces 100% natural dyes derived renewable sources. The madder plant, which was used as a dying agent as far back as 1350 BC, is the primary agent used to create Rubia’s dyes; the plant was phased out of production last century as synthetic agents began to reach the market, but is making a comeback thanks to its environmental and chemical properties. The resulting dyes, which are produced in powder form, come in a variety of different colours and can produce a level of quality beyond that of synthetic compounds.
Ploughboy Organics : Waste to wearable
Ploughboy Organics is taking the waste from one of the world’s most controversial substances, tobacco, and turning it into clothing. Using their patent-pending technology, they are turning the waste from the tobacco plants into their Onatah Fibers and Avani dyeing agents. Scheduled to be released in 2013, Ploughboy is taking a waste from a previously unthinkable source and transforming it into a fiber with brilliant and enduring properties. The reused tobacco fiber contains 30% vanillin and has 29 colours that are lightfast, colourfast and meet all testing standards. Because tobacco can be grown anywhere where the tundra does not freeze, there is an abundant source worldwide.
While it’s not expected that we are going to suddenly return to 100% organic materials, or start making the majority of our clothes out of tobacco fiber, the transformation has to start somewhere. In the same way that only a few years ago organic food was seen as a high-end item, organically sourced materials may start out in higher-priced garments before becoming the norm over the long term. Here are a couple of examples of companies in the market who make it easier to source and evaluate materials:
a hip site dedicated to helping designers source sustainable materials from around the world
a material rating company dedicated to tackling the problem of material inputs, they have created their own proprietary black, grey, blue rating system to help brands manage and control the inputs in their production process.
Once the materials have been produced and the designs selected, the clothes go into production. While it may be natural to assume that only a few exploitive brands would engage in child sweatshop labor, as Nike did in the ’90s, the reality is that the process is as common now as it ever was. Countries such as Bangladesh compete to be the low-cost textile producer and setup factories in slums where child workers work 100+ hour weeks for a barely livable wage. Fashion editor Liz Jones wrote a story in the Daily Mail two years ago, ‘The Real Price of your £5 jeans,’ detailing the practices of fashion megabrands such as Primark who exploit child labour to make fast fashion as profitable as it is.
The whole cycle of textile production needs to redesigned from the ground up, and that starts with transparency. Rather than outsourcing production to foreign countries and using child labour to pump out cheap, generic garments, we need to return to the era of the artisan and localize aspects of production. And with so many clothes already on the market, many old clothes can be recycled, upcycled or simply rebranded (ie. vintage) to give them new life.
IOU Project : The return of the artisan
The IOU Project is a new social enterprise created by Kavita Parmar that is designed to bring back the story to the heart of the clothmaking process and connect consumers to the garments they purchase.
By sourcing fair-trade garments from artisans in countries such as India, the company endeavors to decommoditize fashion by focusing on the supply chain. While currently selling their garments online and through trunk sales, they will eventually be trying to white-label their platform to major fashion brands.
Junky Styling : upcycled
Junky Styling is a UK company that deconstructs and reconstructs men’s garments, including suits, blankets and anything else they can source from local charities and agents. They then remake and remodel these old clothes into a sexy, sassy collection.
For those consumers who have treasured olds garments that they loathe to part with, Junky Styling offers Wardrobe Surgery, a process whereby they will take the old garments and restyle them into something completely new and unique. Junky Styling is transforming would-be throwaways into something worth showing off.
Remei : end to end transparency
Remei is a Swiss company that has been committed to fair trade and sustainable fashion since its inception. Using their own bioRe® philosophy, the company adheres to stringent social and ecological requirements throughout their entire production process, which is audited by independent institutions.
To take their process to the next level, Remei is developing an end-to-end online system to show consumers the traceability of each and every garment produced by the company, including production, transportation and distribution. Starting in mid 2013, a consumer will be able to buy a garment and scan a unique QR code on the label to see the origins of the product.
While it won’t be feasible for every fashion label to implement end-to-end transparency, or source 100% of production from artisans, it all begins with a step in the right direction. Examples of big brands who are incorporating these principles into their actions include:
In July of this year, Top Shop introduced it’s ‘Reclaim to Wear’ collection in it’s Oxford location in London. The new collection is made from upcycled materials from surplus stock and production offcuts in collaboration with eco-fashion label From Somewhere.
Last year, Patagonia, maker of high-end outdoor apparel and one of the most sustainable companies in the world, launched their Common Threads initiative, allowing customers to resell old Patagonia jackets online through a partnership with eBay. Beyond being a well-thought out move sustainability wise, it was also a brilliant branding move by demonstrating the durability and endurance of Patagonia’s products.
What it Means to be Fashionable
While it’s great in theory to create fashion that is in-sync with the world around us, it won’t matter unless we change the culture around fashion and redefine what it means to be fashionable. Nobody wants to wear clothes made from toxic materials using exploitive labour practices, and yet the majority of the clothes we wear are precisely that. Why? Because it’s cool to do so. Fast fashion is chic, it’s stylish and it’s cheap, in the same way that ordering a Big Mac is filling, delicious and light on the wallet. We feel good for a brief period in the moment and then regret it soon afterwards. Why do we do it?
To try and reach the (unobtainable) image of beauty and stylishness fed to us by the media. We are surrounded by sexy models whose photos are fixed-up on Photoshop to make us believe in flawlessness and fed celebrity endorsements that paint luxury as must-have social symbols. Lost in the process is the natural beauty of people, the importance of individual style and the connection to the real designers.
It has to change. Fashion should be fun, energizing and customized. The days of traditional tailoring and hand-sewn everything may be gone, but the old-school principles can be reapplied to make a new era of fashion come to fruition. Here are a few examples of what needs to be done:
Sustainable and Eco → Sexy and Stylish
Most people don’t want to buy something that screams ‘Save the Whales’ or ‘I am Eco,’ nor do they want to buy a wardrobe full of hemp clothes and carry a purse made of burlap. Fashion being fashion, is meant to be sexy and give people the confidence to step out everyday and do what they do best. Rather than striving to be ethical or eco, brands need to embed these principles into the brand, be transparent about their activities and focus on giving consumers what they want (stylish clothes).
Earlier this year, the Brazilian company OSKLEN launched its A21 collection in accordance with the Rio +20 Sustainability conference in Rio de Janeiro. Founder Oskar Metsavaht believes that the best way to advance the sustainability agenda is to embed it into the collection rather than letting it define it, and promote a mindset of consciousness about the world around us. Check out the funky collection below by one of the world’s premiere fashion brands (embedded above).
Mass-Market Generic → Customized and Co-created
The new era of fashion is all about customization and co-creation. To reverse the trend of fast fashion, brands need to get customers involved into the design process and build a community around a line of customized and creative apparel. Crowdsourcing certain elements of the production process will not only help develop more inspired designs, but also help create a deeper sense of connection to the clothes that are produced for everyone involved.
UK-based SketchStreet has created a platform to co-create design collections, which was built around the idea of ‘Let’s Do it Together.’ Everyday designers submit their designs to the site, which are then voted upon by the community. From there, samples are created, pre-orders are made and then the garments are sent into production. The new designs are then added to the company’s online Shop, making the SketchStreet collections fully co-created.
Model Mashups → Small Touchups
Many of the photos we see on billboards and in shops are no longer just moderately Photoshopped images, they are full on mashups. A few image touchups here and there might be necessary, like a pimple on photoshoot day, but to fully manipulate images to create a certain image of beauty is beneficial to nobody. The return of real models photographed as their natural self will help bring the expectations of what we need to look like down to earth.
Leni’s Models Management was the first ethical model agency to be launched. Former model Eleni Renton saw the effects that industry practices were having on young models and decided to create an agency around being natural. Beyond just finding the models contracts, the agency educates young models about how to manage themselves, eat properly and live life. The company’s mission is to ‘promote a more realistic image for women and reject the ‘size zero’ look.’
Puma, known for its stylish sports apparel, has started to bare its teeth in the ultra-competitive shoe and clothing industries, but with a slightly different strategy than its competitors – transparency. The company has taken reporting on its P&L statement (Income Statement) beyond just the typical greenwash jargon, and shown some new metrics to demonstrate the company’s environmental and social impact. In 2012, they reported on the overall environmental impact of the company’s activities on their P&L, but in 2013 they will take it to a whole new level by reporting on the impact of each individual product and displaying the overall environmental cost information on the price tag.
Along with reporting on their products, they have several design initiatives aimed at reducing the collective impact. Two years ago, they launched the Clever Little Bag initiative (embedded above) in collaboration with renowned designer Yves Behar. In 2013, they will be introducing a line of biodegradable shoes and shirts. PUMA is pushing the envelope in the world of sport and lifestyle fashion and building themselves a sustainable advantage in more ways than one.
Fashion.me is a new Brazilian startup that is fusing together fashion with the social web to create a collaborative platform where users can create their own looks and style collections using a range of designer labels. Conceived by two former investment bankers as an experiment, the original Fashion.me site was launched as a gift to the duo’s wives in 2008.
As of June, the company had 1,000,000 users in Brazil, and raised capital earlier this year from Intel Capital to finance their expansion into the US. Users can create their own looks from a few million different labels, interact with other users on the platform and even dress up virtual models. The site is bringing the fun back to fashion and showing the enormous potential enabled by collaborative platforms.
EF (Eileen Fisher) Lab– concept store
Eileen Fisher is an elegant women’s fashion label based out of the US that has built a strong following through its focus on simple design. The designer launched an Eco Collection that uses a variety of organic materials sourced from diverse countries such as Peru. To expand the company’s impact, they have created several philanthropic initiatives to support women’s entrepreneurship.
To merge the company’s vision together, they opened up the EF LAB store in New York in 2009. The LAB is unique because of the product assortment it offers: new clothes, last season’s clothes, samples and recycled clothes. To incentivize recycling, the EF Foundation setup the Recycling Reward program out above), which rewards customers for recycling gently used clothes. Any profits from the Recycling program are donated to one of the company’s philanthropic initiatives. The EF Lab demonstrates how a combination of creativity and vision can come together to bring sustainability to the consumer level.
The future of fashion will include creative uses and applications of high-level technology. One promising technology is nanotechnology, an advance that enables scientist to manipulate matter at a molecular level. Catalytic Clothing is a new project based out of the UK that is striving to reinvent what’s possible with fashion by creating a fabric that can clean the air while being worn.
Started as a venture between designer Helen Storey and chemist Tony Ryan, it is a large-scale partnership between the University of Sheffield, University of London Arts and the London College of Fashion. The goal is to use photocatalysts on their Catalytic Clothing to break down pollutants in the air. These catalysts are activated in the wash cycle, and have been applied to the first generation of products in the Field of Jeans project. The idea is that multiple people wear the products, air quality can be vastly proved. Who said fashion is only about style?
Fashion forward begins with the individual. The choices we make when we buy clothes, the way we talk about fashion amongst our friends, it all adds up.
The greater impact, however, comes through entrepreneurship and the creation of new models to build a sustainable ecosystem. The Blue Ocean opportunity that lays ahead is enormous and can be approached from numerous different angles.Tweet