Blueberries and roses. No, it’s not the name of a new candle. “That’s what we’re dyeing our organic cotton with this season,” says Genevieve Smart, who with her sister Alexandra runs the popular Australian fashion label Ginger & Smart. They’re using these natural dyes in their Akin label of weekend basics. But their main Ginger & Smart line also pushed a cleaner, greener agenda on the runway.
“Technology is changing all the time. More eco-friendly fabric options are becoming available,” says Smart. “Why wouldn’t we use them? We’re trying to get on board quickly so it becomes part of our core process. We’re replacing as many elements of our product mix as we can with more sustainable fibres.”
Their Resort 2018 show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales last week was a standout, inspired by artist Emily Floyd, whose primary-hued exhibition formed a striking backdrop. But it was their eco update that got people talking. “Our new swimwear is made from Econyl,” explains Smart, “a regenerated nylon fibre which turns post-consumer waste, in the form of abandoned fishing nets and old carpets, into new yarn.”
Wrap dresses, jumpsuits and colour-blocked skirts were cut from Lyocell fibre derived from sustainably grown Australian eucalyptus trees and processed in a closed loop. (Suppliers were at the Première Vision fabric fair in Paris last year.) The pleated skirts on the Ginger & Smart runway were cut from recycled polyester, and they’re in the process of switching to organic over conventionally grown cotton.
“We wouldn’t call ourselves greenies I don’t think, but we’re humans and parents,” says Smart. “We’re not trying to say we know everything, but I do think we all have a responsibility to take better care of our planet. That should be part of what we do as designers. When you can, you should try and dig deeper and find the answers, that’s what design is all about.”
Asked if she’s heard similar rumblings from her fashion peers, she says, “I don’t know. I don’t look at what other people are doing so much. I would say it’s not always the easiest approach – it takes time and research and can be more expensive. Sometimes with these new fibres you need to experiment because they behave differently. It’s about being open to change, but we quite like change!”
One of fashion week’s biggest drawcards KitX has been leading the eco charge in Australia. Designer Kit Willow relaunched her label with responsible production in mind in 2015. Her Resort ’18 show was titled ‘Transparency’, and that’s not just a wry wink towards diaphanous silks. Willow’s pushing supply chain transparency, and makes a real effort to communicate the origins of her materials to her customers.
This collection uses Fair Trade silk, organic linen, Indian cotton sourced through Artisans of Fashion and dyed using traditional hand-knotting techniques. Buttons were made from recycled glass in Ghana and reclaimed bone from Nepal.
“We are part of an interdependent, living planet,” says Willow. “We need to unite and protect our precious planet’s natural resources and the delicate ecosystems in which they prosper. We need to stop contaminating land and water for the sake of fashion, stop illegal logging, stop slavery and stop the massive global extinction of species. We need to understand scientific facts, collaborate, adapt and find solutions.”
That’s modern thinking. New generation designers are realising it’s up to them to flip the thinking on wasteful, toxic processes in the fashion system. Carley Wolski, 25, was one of Raffles College of Design and Commerce alumni to present her Carley Rose the Label collection at MBFWA. “I hate the idea of clothing ending up in landfill and the thought of the damage the industry is doing to our planet,” she says, admitting she often feels “at war” with herself “because I am absolutely in love with fashion”.
Her solution? To design sustainability and conscious consumerism into her collection from the outset, rather than attempt to add it later on. For her 2015 graduate collection, she used natural dyes derived from onion skins, red cabbage and beetroot.
“But natural dyes aren’t the only sustainable option,” she says. “This time, I explored hand-weaving, and hand-crocheted and hand-embroidered embellishments.” She roped in her husband and sisters-in-law to help make the work. Inspired by bioluminescent sea creatures, Wolski says she couldn’t find natural dyes to produce such strong colours. “I have to work with what I can source. These yarns are wool – I love natural fibres – and spun in small batches by ethically run community workshops in Uruguay.” Wolski says her peers are all over it.
“I’d say we are generally more aware of the environmental impacts of fashion than pervious generations. It can be overwhelming – I have a friend, for example, who is very active in trying to inform people about palm oil, and we often discuss the frustration that comes from trying to do everything: How can we eat a more sustainable diet, live a more sustainable life, design more sustainable products? But I do think fashion students have come to the realisation that those who went before us have made this big mess, and it’s up to us to clean it up!”
Follow Clare on Instagram