It was a case of thinking globally, acting locally for our first year National Diploma in Fashion & Clothing students. As part of a twelve week exploration of ethical fashion, they have been have been producing designs for a live brief set by Georgia Mack of ethical boutique Magic Number Three in Saltaire.
Students had visited the store to look at the ranges there and they were also able to draw on Lecturer Phionna Fitgerald’s extensive fashion industry experience where she worked closely with many overseas factories to ensure they met ethical standards. They had to devise a collection of dresses for a twenty-nine year old customer who was attending an ethical dinner dance in spring just months after having a baby. The students researched fabrics and textures, designer collections, high street fashion trends, and outside influences from technology to politics and economics to come up with their final designs which they presented to Georgia, explaining their influences and the processes involved.
Their collections used sustainable fabrics such as pea silk, soy silk, organic cotton, mixes of hemp and cotton with recycled rhinestones as embellishments. They showed great consideration for the prospective client having insecurities about not fully recovering her pre-baby flat stomach but still showed off her shape. They used clever draping and sensuous fabrics to make her feel glamorous and give confidence and produced really attractive designs.
Georgia explained “The customer profile that we came up with for the brief was an amalgamation of my customers and the dilemmas people face. This is realistic, not high fashion and I am so impressed with the response. The designs they have come up with have been really shapely and flattering as well as fashionable and green. They have delivered what real customers would like.” She told the students, “You have put so much effort into this and the depth of your research really came through in design boards,” before continuing to highlight some of the potential difficulties entailed in producing and retailing ethical fashion.
“Your task was to approach this from the design first, but once you tried to create this you would find how difficult it is to source fabrics. What is available would have to influence your designs. Running an ethical fashion business means you have to source, monitor and design so you have to be very committed. The summit on global warming in Copenhagen means that environmental issues are currently on the agenda. People will say that they care about the environment, but in everyday living they have other priorities. Research shows consumers are more concerned with helping their family, friends and communities before the environment.
When it comes to spending habits a lot of people have the idea that ethical fashion is expensive. We need to change habits one person at a time, getting people into the mindset to pay a bit more and buy a bit less. Ethical is not expensive, it is priced fairly, with people paid fairly right down the line and no excessive profits made. We need to educate consumers to invest in garments that last longer and that will stay in their wardrobes for years just updated with accessories. It is not enough for high street giants to say they have an ethical policy. They need to monitor all the factories their clothes are produced in all the time.”
Phionna spoke of her own experiences in working with overseas factories and explained how she circumvented attempts to keep her to the ‘official’ tour. Phionna explained that she deliberately arranged visits with a male colleague so that factory managers would think he was the person in authority, when he was actually the distraction, enabling her to look behind the scenes. She spoke of how she had built up trust and developed more open relationships but acknowledged that “as soon as you leave, you don’t know what is happening.”
Georgia suggested that one way round this problem was to work with small labels produced in the UK, but both she and Phionna agreed that sweatshops were not confined to overseas. Vulnerable workers who needed money were employed in UK and some employers were ruthless.
Georgia criticised “greenwashing – a nod towards green policy, such as using organic fibres but not taking on green policies.” She explained that this might mean that just a few pieces were produced for a small organic collection. “It is not only about the materials used but about wider issues such as work being done under fair conditions. Although it is a good thing that large companies have started to use organic cotton, sometimes the extent is misleading.” A garment might be marketed as ethical when organic cotton was only a proportion of the fibres used. Georgia advised everyone to “read the labels and delve deeper.”
Phionna also noted that a small collection could be trialled to test market interest but this did not mean that the rest of what a company sold was sustainable.
Georgia highlighted her own approach as a boutique owner. “When choosing stock I am reassured by transparency. It is such a specialist market at the moment that I go on recommendations. It is about the whole ethos. Ethical is not just about how something is made but how the company is run and how they deal with you. I talk to suppliers about how they to ensure their factories are fairtrade and I look for smaller labels. I find that smaller labels appreciate the direct feedback I can give them. It takes a lot of investigative work but my customers put their trust in me to find out. When I was younger I was really interested in fashion design but now my enjoyment is more in facilitating and changing people’s habits.”
Georgia concluded by urging the students to embrace ethical concerns if they became designers. “I really hope that thinking ethically is something you apply when you are working in the fashion industry. When you consider the ramifications of not working ethically it is so dangerous that it is in everyone’s best interests.”