Like many industries, fashion is very good on the talk about sustainability, but its actions register on mumble volume. Where we buy our clothes still trumps what it is we are wearing. But before putting on a coat of gloom, there is a new generation of brands for whom sustainability is not just an accessory.   

Ruth Ossai x Bethany Williams x Magpie

2020 will be remembered as one of the bleakest years for the fashion industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has naturally played a major role in the crisis, disrupting supply chains, putting retail and fashion weeks on hold, and generally placing fancy clothes at the very back of people’s minds. But there’s more. The humanitarian crisis, and the recession that’s bound to follow, have shifted consumer behaviour adding another challenge to the industry.

Now the fact that consumption changes in times of crisis is no big secret. In this case, the change has first and foremost followed the dramatic turn in people’s lifestyles: social distancing paired with the need to balance work and family lives in the relatively small spaces of our houses, plus zoom; clothes-wise this translated into homewear, loungewear and sweatpants. Like it or not.

However, most brands were – seemingly – unable to foresee a rather different shift in consumer behaviour: the demand for sustainable products. This is actually surprising, because while lockdowns took us all by storm and were virtually unpredictable, the talk around sustainability has been going on for a while and the pandemic simply accelerated a process that was already there. If Covid-19 will hopefully one day be a memory, the critical conditions of our planet are here to stay and fashion has a lot to say about them; the commitment to sustainability should therefore be a priority for industry players, but the yearly State of Fashion report (2021) issued by McKinsey and Business of Fashion reveals different figures: 45% of fashion executives see “Covid-19 and the economic crisis” as the biggest challenge, followed by “Changing consumer demand and behaviour” (18%) and by “Physical retail and store footfall” (7%). In terms of opportunities, 30% regard digital as the biggest opportunity, while sustainability is regarded as such by only 10%.

There are some good ideas, Prada’s Re-Nylon for example, or Etro’s upcycled sweaters, but for the established names, sustainability as a practice still seems quite remote, even though clients are asking for it more clearly than ever before.

On the other hand though, the plethora of young and upcoming brands navigating the crisis show a rather different scenario. These brands were born with sustainability in their DNA, they regard it not only as the only possible way, but also as something that fuels their creative research.

Collina Strada, SS21, photo: Charlie Engman, courtesy of Collina Strada

Created by Hillary Taymour and based in New York, Collina Strada is definitely not your average fashion brand. Sustainability is the focal point for Taymour, and she’s transparent about the fact that she isn’t 100% sustainable, yet. Climate change represents her daily battle, but her environmentalist approach is not a gloomy one, in fact she uses the same optimistic narrative that she uses for her creations. “Fashion is always a platform people pay attention to, I try to use my platform to spread awareness; I want to make people feel inspired to be better humans and connect more with their communities. We manufacture everything in New York using deadstock fabrics and rose silk to create collections along with maintaining a sustainable mindset in the studio. We also work with the Or foundation to use single-use tees from the Kantamanto Market (in Ghana) which would otherwise likely be trashed in the ocean.” In this case, the changing consumer behaviour is actually helping brands like Collina Strada gain momentum: “During the pandemic I have seen a dramatic shift in customers,” Taymour explains. “They ask questions, they want to know why a garment is sustainable and they are conscious to buy directly from the brands to support small businesses.”

Taymour’s creative take on the fashion industry goes beyond the product, exploring new, more contemporary ways of communicating her brand and the values that go with it: “I have had a great time creating digital experiences for our customers like the video game Collina Land (presented this year at GucciFest). Instagram has been the biggest tool we have used to communicate and our community keeps growing.” All of Collina Strada’s imagery features a diversified cast and a fluid, non-binary approach to gender.

Collina Strada, SS21, photo: Charlie Engman, courtesy of Collina Strada

Today, Europe can also boast its fair share of innovative brands, including sartorially-conservative Milan. In the early Eighties, a new music-driven, post-hippy subculture developed around the Cosmic, a legendary club set near the shores of Lake Garda; they became known as the Cosmic Youth and gradually became a reference for tribal aesthetics in Europe. Inspired by the Cosmic Youth’s visuals and narratives, in 2016 Mauro Simionato and Giulia Bortoli launched knitwear brand Vitelli, combining Italian youth culture with contemporary knitwear.

Vitelli uses discarded yarns recuperated from knitwear factories in the region of Veneto; this means being subjected to working with what you find – colours, quantities and blends are totally unpredictable. The designers chose what to create according to the materials they manage to source: in this way, we could say that a sustainable practice is actually at the foundation of the creative process. “The textiles totally influence the finished product,” explains Mauro Simionato, “it’s a bit like in slow-food, where you use only local and seasonal produce and the chef’s creativity is expressed accordingly.

Vitelli SS21, Cosmic Youth collection, photo: Luca Grottell, courtesy of Vitelli

Fashion is suffering from a general disaffection: with brands pushed to produce a new collection every month it is really hard for designers to remain creative. But independent brands working outside the mainstream fashion system are not affected. “Our audience has different interests than the traditional fashion crowd. Style and aesthetics are still relevant but so are the narrative and, most important, the shared values. With Vitelli we have chosen to tell a story, placing people and their emotions at the very centre. Also, we are constantly trying to educate ourselves, pushing towards sustainability and inclusivity. I believe that people perceive this kind of honesty. Fashion as we mean it is not experiencing any kind of disinterest, but fashion as it used be is suffering, struggling to respond to contemporary society.”

Sustainability is not just about reducing waste and recycling materials: besides the environment, it is also the people, or at least certain people, that are ultimately affected by reckless consumption.

Ruth Ossai x Bethany Williams x Magpie

UK-based designer Bethany Williams launched her eponymous brand in 2017, committing to social change by collaborating with new charities each season. She sources book waste, second-hand denim and hand-woven textiles to create 100% recycled garments; she has collaborated with the Vauxhall Food Bank, The Mobile Library Charity and the Adelaide House women’s shelter, providing employment for female inmates and casting models from the TIH homeless modelling agency. Each season, a sizeable portion of profits is donated to the charities involved. Williams’ latest collection, All Our Children, celebrates the ethos of the Magpie Project, an organisation that works with children and mothers who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Ruth Ossai x Bethany Williams x Magpie

While Williams’ designs are cool and contemporary, the issues she sheds a light on – poverty, homelessness and hunger – are ancient and still very much a part of our society. Each collection takes the form of a social project, breaking the boundaries of fashion and capturing the interest of a much larger, more socially involved crowd. Fashion becomes not just a channel to spread awareness, but a means to actually challenge the world’s greatest problems.