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Eco-fashion: how green became the new black

Lida Hujic

15th February, 2011

With London Fashion Week just around the corner, Lida Hujic, author of The First to Know, charts eco-fashion’s journey from naff to hip to even-sold-at Tesco

Not so long ago, eco-fashion was so insignificant that it simply wasn’t on the style map. It was either a non-issue or, at best, the preserve of so-called ‘tree-huggers’; a tiny proportion of the population who wore Birkenstocks, ate lentils and voted Green. In short, eco-fashion was hemp-based, hippyish and nowhere near the mainstream.

Of course, that doesn’t mean questions about sustainability in the fashion industry hadn’t been raised before. Katharine Hamnett led the way in the 1980s, with her range of slogan T-shirts making an appearance long before Esthetica [the British fashion industry’s green initiative] was even a twinkle in the British Fashion Council’s eye. The message was politically engaged, but apart from being pastiched by 80s pop bands, it didn’t resonate strongly enough to have the commercial impact that green fashion now enjoys. So what changed?

As with any movement that challenges the status quo, the trend for greener fashion can be traced back to a minority of mavericks. Coupled with a wider set of circumstances that allowed for their commitment to green fashion to flourish, these pioneers helped eco-fashion start its journey from hippy to haute couture. Let’s rewind to the late 90s when the seeds of the eco-fashion really began to blossom.

No doubt you will be familiar with the six degrees of separation theory,Speedo x From Somewhere which says that one person is never more than six connections away from another. In the world of the non-conformist, those six degrees can be reduced even further to a maximum of one or two.  That’s how my Italian friend Luisa unexpectedly became my one-degree of separation from eco-chic, when she introduced to me the idea of customising the black woolly cardigan I no longer wanted. She didn’t use that word because it wasn’t yet a mainstream idea, but although we didn’t know it at the time, the customising trend was on the verge of becoming a big deal with fashion brands, trainers in particular. All Luisa did was trim the sleeves and collar in white mohair with a crochet needle. Only, unlike the heinous stuff that your granny might knit for you, what Luisa did looked striking. And timeless. (I still have my cardigan.) The idea came from an Italian acquaintance of hers. To credit the friend whose idea it was, Luisa sewed a label onto my cardigan.  It read: ‘From Somewhere’.

Years later, I would meet Orsola de Castro, one half of the fashion label From Somewhere (the other half being Filippo Ricci). She had just co-founded Estethica, the then newly launched hub for eco fashion at London Fashion Week. It took me a while to put two and two together but when it eventually clicked, I emailed Orsola the photo proof that finally resolved the mystery of why her label was so familiar to me. From Somewhere has come a long way those early experimental days when she was exploring ways of turning fabric, destined to become ‘pre-consumer waste’, into premium fashion. As with any radical idea, it was a big risk and it took a while to flourish but it did. Its ‘upcycling’ model, revolutionary at the time, has now been adopted by other brands, most recently Speedo swimwear who have just launched a capsule collection made from unsold stock and surplus pieces of the ultra-high tech Speedo LZR Racer suit.

Shoreditch at the turn of the Millennium. Now a hipsters’ paradise, it was then a cultural wasteland which only attracting arty types because the rent and beer were still relatively cheap. The word on the street was spreading about a group who ‘turned jackets into trousers’. And it wasn’t just that; they also threw good parties packed with other creatives whose ideas really stood out. They called themselves Junky Styling but what they were creating with used business suits was impressive, in spite of the playful self-deprecating name. Theirs is another story of rags (literally) to riches (if you measure wealth in terms of the positive impact your ideas have had on the world). Junky Styling today are one of the most recognisable eco labels with a book, Wardrobe Surgery, published to celebrate their 10th anniversary, now going into a second edition.

Alongside Junky Styling, Dr Noki also deserves a mention as one of the pioneers of hip eco-fashion, whose seminal contribution in this field is the stuff of reference among connoisseurs. Bit by bit, through the efforts and commitment of passionate individuals, eco-fashion has become, well, fashionable. Outside of the fashion arena, other small-scale producers, in industries ranging from skincare to food, have become mindful of the environmental concerns pertaining to their own businesses. The willingness of early consumers to pay a premium price on sustainable produce showed that people actually cared about such issues. All this, simply because someone took a risk.

Sustainable design continues to inspire new comers. The ones to watch have all reinterpreted the idea in their own pieces. A personal favourite is Lu Flux, who made her debut in 2009 and made her mark with instantly recognisable style. Lu’s is a universe with a crafty yet undeniably edgy feel. There has been a lot of buzz around Christopher Raeburn since he received the New Gen award for new talent in 2009. By making use of reclaimed military fabrics, he creates intelligent, beautifully crafted functional, all bearing the legend: ‘proudly re-made in England’.  Raeburn once said that he doesn’t think of himself as an ‘eco’ designer. He is simply a fashion designer who likes to experiment and innovate by working out the ways in which fabrics such as vintage military parachute silk can be applied to luxury functional wear. That mindset maps out the way forward for eco-fashion. Once a minority concern, eco-fashion has become the norm and, hearteningly, there are plenty of wonderful designers coming up with lots of brilliantly sustainable ideas for the style-conscious to enjoy.

The Speedo x From Somewhere collaboration launches at the end of March to coincide with Climate Change Week. The pieces will be available at Selfridges and also on www.yoox.com


Lida Hujic is the author of The First to Know, available now from Amazon and selected shops including Rough Trade, Clerkenwell Tales, Labour of Love and Colette. www.thefirsttoknow.info



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