Is it actually possible to reduce the fashion industry’s impact on the environment? Nine pioneering designers from five continents are showing that it is. Masterminding a series of solutions to some of the challenges facing their own communities, they demonstrate what we can learn from local indigenous knowledge and how to work within the limits of our natural resources.
In the lead up to Cop26, the designers were asked to respond to the climate change talks’ themes of adaptation, resilience and nature for a series of online workshops created by Fashion Open Studio (the initiative set up by Fashion Revolution) in partnership with the British Council. If you happen to be in Glasgow between November 4 to 11, you can take part in workshop events around the city, or to watch previous events and find out about upcoming workshops online, check out fashionopenstudio.com/events. In the meantime, here are the nine names to know:
BORA STUDIO, NEPAL
Bora Studio is a slow-fashion, environmentally responsible clothing brand founded by Meena Gurung in Nepal. The word “Bora” derives from Nepalese language meaning a jute sack, which Gurung repurposes to make the collections. From a farmer sowing seeds in his fields to harvesting the crops and selling the produce, jute sacks are used multiple times and are 100% biodegradable. All Nepali households have a jute sack lying around somewhere in their houses. “I wanted my clothing to be a medium to inspire people, to adapt sustainability and be nature-friendly,” says Gurung.
For the past three years, Gurung has been working with local indigenous communities all around Nepal through participatory natural dyeing training programmes, creating awareness on benefits of natural dyeing and sustainable choices that we can make as individuals. Recently, Bora Studio worked with an indigenous community from Koshi Tappu, Sunsari, Eastern Nepal, known as “Sardar” who are living in and around Koshi Tappu wetland area. The local community is facing a massive problem due to an invasive species water hyacinth which is taking over their lands and posing a huge risk for the river ecosystems. They have given women training on how to harness water hyacinth as a material which can be used for weaving matts, bags and curtains. It can also be repurposed as a natural fertiliser for their farm fields as it’s very rich in nitrogen which help to yield more produce.
SINDISO KHUMALO, SOUTH AFRICA
Sindiso Khumalo is a textile designer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Khumalo studied architecture at the University of Cape Town and worked for Sir David Adjaye in London before completing her MA at Central Saint Martins in Textile Futures.
Inspired by her mother, who was a political activist against the apartheid regime, Khumalo has been motivated to bring values of social justice into her eponymous brand which she launched in 2014. Her interests lie in the representations of black women from the turn of the 20th century up to the 1980s, looking at the portraiture of that time. Each garment tells a story about Africa, women and female empowerment.
With textiles and craft at the heart her collections, she works closely with NGOs and has a small workshops in South Africa and Burkina Faso, producing unique handwoven and hand-embroidered textiles for her collections. She employs women from a Cape Town-based NGO called Ignite Dignity which works towards rehabilitating those who have previously been trafficked and found themselves working in exploitative conditions. The brand also works with a workshop in Burkina Faso producing handwoven cloth from hemp, recycled and organic cotton and upcycled waste materials. From orders of 40 metres six years ago, they have grown to to 1,000 metres this year.
GARCIA BELLO, ARGENTINA
Garcia Bello was conceived in Tierra del Fuego province, in the south of Argentina, by Juliana Garcia Bello, a graduate in Clothing Designer from FADU. A brand focused on upcycling and reconstruction methods, it uses disused materials, donated hand-me-downs and old or discarded clothes combined with raw, biodegradable cotton to make its locally produced collections. Two types of zero-waste patterns are built into the pattern design, enabling them to use existing secondhand clothes as raw material and make the most of these rolls of cloth.
The brand works in what they describe as “a humane and unhurried time frame” and with a small stock. Each piece is genderless and its size adapts to different body builds. This allows them to create comfortable, timeless, durable items, with a low-impact on the environment – garments for everyday wear designed to be worn for a long time. Bello describes her method as “human-scale production”. She likes to show and share her working methods to invite others to follow the upcycling techniques.
RAHEMUR RAHMAN, BANGLADESH
Rahemur Rahman’s fashion brand is redefining what it means for fashion to be “made in Bangladesh”. Using design, print and weave to reinterpret and re-tell stories of South Asian identities, London-born Bangladeshi Rahman blends history and tradition with fantasy, playing with patterns and texture to create distinctive pieces “for the people who dream in colour”. The designer has a unique way of designing which he’s been perfecting since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2014. Only working with textiles made of natural fibres that are naturally dyed using a heritage wooden block technique from Bangladesh called Wax and Resist dye, he focuses on the “death of the garment”, whereby every design decision is considered by how it will disintegrate and decompose on the earth once it is disposed of. All these natural elements will take 10 to 20 years to fully decompose and become earth again for a new lease of life. Each garment produced by the brand also has a tiny seed hidden inside which will allow for a tree to grow wherever this product has its “death”.
Rahman hopes to engage with the community he grew up in through social engagement projects. Working with the World Fair Trade Organisation and World Crafts Council member, Aranya Crafts, in Bangladesh, Rahman creates sustainable and ethically produced textiles cultivating the traditional technique of natural dye, bringing textiles from the subcontinent to an international audience.
Taking inspiration from textiles in museums in the UK from pre-colonial West Bengal, the brand is focused on working to decolonise craftsmanship from the subcontinent through fashion and textiles, collaborating with young people from marginalised backgrounds for galleries and exhibitions across the UK to tackle the engagement gap of these communities in these prestigious art institutions.
Jakarta-based brand Toton was founded in 2012 by Parsons New School graduate Toton Januar and partner Haryo Balitar. Drawing on Indonesia’s rich culture, nature, and heritage, it is committed to working with local artisans and factories to preserve the heritage techniques that have been passed down by the generations before them and lessen the environmental damage caused by big factories and irresponsible use and waste of chemicals.
In 2017, the brand started to work with repurposed and recycled denim to create a collection made entirely from materials found in their home and studio. It jump-started not only working with denim from post-consumer off-cut waste, but pre-consumer denim waste from small to medium factories around Jakarta, too. The limited nature of waste material pushes the brand to be more creative in researching sustainable techniques for both aesthetics and production. Since then, Toton has worked exclusively with waste materials for its denim pieces in every collection, with an average use of denim waste around 150 m3 to 200 m3 per month. “It is still such a small number but we hope to increase them in a very organic way,” says Januar. “We want to produce pieces that last, not just another product that soon would be destined for landfill again.”
VIMBAI NATASHA NAOMI, ZIMBABWE
Vimbai Natasha Naomi is a Zimbabwean brand founded by Vimbai Mupfurutsa. The brand uses upcycling, innovation and experimentation with careful use and reuse of locally sourced discarded fabrics, samples and pre-loved clothes. “I carefully consider fabric consumption, recycling and waste management, with regard to their contribution towards people, economies and the environment,” says Mupfurutsa, who uses rejected fabric samples that have been rescued from a local cotton mill that recently shut down. By reviving unwanted textiles, she wants to encourage the fashion ecosystem from mills to consumers to adopt sustainable methods such as focusing on quality over quantity, valuing people over profit when manufacturing, and encouraging upcycling by purchasing secondhand clothing. Working with women who come from disadvantaged communities and backgrounds, she teaches them how to repurpose fabric – specifically how to create new textiles so that they may be equipped to continue sustainable practices and teach others in their communities to reduce waste, as well as pollution.
“Pollution is one of the biggest contributors to this titanic climate change we are experiencing today,” she says, “and unfortunately the lives that are most affected are not responsible for it. In developed countries, consumerism is paramount, where individuals buy excess that is then later discarded in ways that do not favour the environment. This way of life continually fuels unethical fast fashion practices such as labour exploitation, unfair trade and the mishandling of the earth’s natural resources.” Mupfurutsa anticipates consumption increasing in Zimbabwe too, and sees herself as a role model to inspire a slower, less wasteful pace and discourage the practice of incinerating samples and excess stock. “As a designer who was born and raised in a developing country, mobilising resources for my community will have long-term positive impacts towards social sustainability.”
IRO IRO, INDIA
When Bhaavya Goenka launched her label IRO IRO, she started with a question: why did something as organic and natural as clothing and fashion have to be so polluting and harmful for the environment? Her solution was a business that uses hand-woven fabrics which are upcycled from discarded textiles, woven with love and care by weavers from a village near Jaipur, India. Every finished IRO IRO product represents the revival of a dying craft tradition and each one sold supports a family of weavers, enabling them to pursue a profession they are passionate about.
Specialising in the reuse and upcycling of industrial textile waste through indigenous craft practices of India has helped Goenka to help spread a new circular system of production; as such, Iro Iro collaborates with other businesses to upcycle their waste into textiles for fashion and interiors, generating work for 20 artisans based in a village near Jaipur. “Our constant motivation is to reimagine the system of making fashion and not just limit our innovation to the product,” says Goenka. “From a system that shares its losses and not its profits we aim to make fashion that shares prosperity throughout its value chain.” Buy the kit to sew your own Iro Iro jacket here
Bhukram is a Thai fashion brand founded by Pilan Thaisuang which uses clothes as a medium to tell stories about the Phu Phan community’s way of life and its natural environment. The embroidery art reflects the relationships between community members themselves, community members and outsiders, and humans and nature. The brand uses a community participatory process to work with members of the Ban Nang Toeng Village, Phu Phan District, Sakon Nakhon Province in Thailand.
For each collection, the design team oversees the overall design aspects including silhouettes, fabrics, and subjects to be depicted through embroidery, after which they coordinate with a diverse pool of artisans, especially the embroiderers who are the main storytellers and share their stories to raise awareness of environmental protection and the preservation of the traditional way of life. Bhukram’s subdued colours are taken from nature, reflecting the nature of Phu Phan, the traditional way of life and traditional knowledge.
“The current mainstream processes of industrialised fast fashion are killing traditional agriculture, craftsmanship, and biological, social, and cultural diversity,” says Thaisuang. “Bhukram enables small-scale zero-mile production, regional fibre systems, creation of local and sustainable jobs for communities.” With co-design and participatory practices, many important decisions are made locally by the artisans directly involved, so “ much of the decision-making, know-how and cultural and economic value remains in the hands, minds and pockets of the local community.”
Huner is an Istanbul-based accessories brand which repurposes used sails to create durable bags and accessories. Although the base material of sail cloth is made out of carbon fibre and plastic coating, by turning this material into bags that can be used many more times that its original form (sails are used only a handful of times before they lose performance and have to be replaced) they commit to finding a long-lasting use for a very specific material waste stream.
“Our main goal is to produce, without having anything virgin produced for us,” says Hüner Aldemir, who founded her limited-batch brand in 2017 having grown up making things from scrap fabrics at her aunt’s house. She received her BFA in Fashion Design from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and then apprenticed with designer Peter Som in New York. She then worked at various e-commerce platforms in Istanbul, where she felt uneasy about the levels of mass consumption and production. “We believe the best way forward for reducing our impact on the earth is through reducing our consumption first, but also our production of things. That’s why Huner is firmly positioned as an upcycling brand, says Aldemir. “There is so much material in the world already just waiting to be purposed into useful things, it seems irresponsible to add to the production of virgin goods. There are alternative ways of producing our goods and we can alter our ways of thinking and doing in order to change this course we’re on.”