Initially set up in 1997 just to embellish existing items or create new clothing out of older pieces, a chance visit to a factory in Vicenza, Italy gave Orsola de Castro the idea that new collections could be made from scratch using offcuts left on factories floors – From Somewhere was born. Since then the brand has gone from strength to strength with supporters including Livia Firth (wife of Oscar winner Colin Firth) and Laura Bailey (one of the original supermodels). Orsola sees the concept of fast fashion as wasteful and recalls that as recently as the 1980s, if you wanted an item of clothing you had to save for it (Salter, 2010).
Even though her original idea for the brand was considered a little lowbrow, she has launched the idea of upcycling to new heights and other brands are making forays into the area. Goodone, an upcycling company and Junky Styling (now Operation Wardrobe) who sell ready-made upcycled clothing and also have a bespoke service where a client can take in old clothing to be refashioned, are two UK based companies thriving in the area. Over in the US, Piece X Piece, an ethical fashion label based in California work together with other California (Bay-area) based clothing companies to create limited edition collections emphasising timeless/season-less items. Again the theme here is recognising the amount of waste that would normally be discarded and using it as a valuable resource.
French footwear company Veja makes its trainers from rubber tapped directly from native rubber trees in the Amazon rainforest and organic cotton sourced from Cearà which currently supports around 350 families (Veja, 2011). Together with Bia Saldanha, a Brazilian environmentalist based in the Chico Mendes reserve, they help to sustain a further 20 families and 300 hectares of forest through the rubber tapping activities – a feat requiring skill and local expertise (Siegle, Bia Saldanha’s innovation: natural rubber, 2010). Veja advocates respect for human rights and uses tanning processes that avoid using chemicals like chrome.
One would expect the prices of Veja’s products to be higher than more mass produced items as the costs of their production is 3-4 times higher than competitors yet they are affordable (from £45 to £125) a similar price bracket to other well-known brands. This is achieved through a “no advertising” policy (including no celebrity endorsements) and tightly controlled production ensuring no extra stock is produced (The Hubble, 2011). In fact production is closely linked to the availability of organic cotton meaning that orders can be reduced to reflect fluctuations in harvests (Veja, 2011).
Keys issues faced by brands such as From Somewhere and Veja relate to the question of expansion while maintaining core values and individuality.
For a brand with a unique supply chain such as The North Circular demand for their product is such that they are currently searching for innovative ways to expand but within the parameters they have set as a company. Although much of the clothing is currently manufactured by hand, there have been discussions around the use of traditional knitting machines, which will both allow a more consistent high quality level of garments and ensure they can diversify their product portfolio. Nevertheless, it is not completely inconceivable that the lure of larger profits and notoriety eventually lead to manufacturing outside of the UK. For both From Somewhere and Veja, there are self-imposed restrictions which could be evaded with a simple change in core values. But that would undermine the integrity and reputation of both companies.
Meanwhile, the factors that limit the scope of the companies are also the same that enhance the desirability of the clothing. There is only a limited amount of sheep/organic cotton; there are only so many copies of outfits that can be constructed from end of line fabrics. Fashion is as much about exclusivity as fitting in and sustainable fashion is a part of that world and may in fact help to reverse the commodification that has occurred in the industry.
One of the interesting aspects of these smaller companies is that the model can be recreated across the globe and for many different items. Kresse Wesling of Elvis and Kresse currently collects old fire hoses which she then “upcycles” into handbags and accessories which are now sold in stores such as Harrods. To support fire fighters, part of the proceeds from that venture is then given back to the Fire Fighters charity (ElvisandKresse, 2011). The development of smaller companies encourages diversity in the world of fashion once in a world that is increasingly homogenised. Artisanal skills, traditional fabrics and innovating use of technology are starting to lead the way in fashion with a lot of these innovations emanating from smaller companies. For example, Catalytic Clothing, a collaboration between fashion and chemistry, has designed a new fabric that purifies the air.
Unlike before, these companies no longer need to be in touch with retailers in order to progress, the rise of internet shopping and sights such as Etsy and Marketplace by ASOS.com give up and coming clothing companies access to a global market while operating on a local scale. There is nothing quite as remarkable as seeing the First Lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, wearing an item from the SOKO co-operative in Kenya – something that would not have been possible only a few short years ago.
Esthetica and “eco” themed fashion shows
Esthetica was co-founded and is curated by designer Orsola de Castro of label From Somewhere. It is a showcase for up and coming sustainable designers and companies founded by the British Fashion Council in 2001. The Autumn/Winter 2010 presentation involved 20 of the most exciting upcoming sustainable and ethical brands. In order to show at the events, designers demonstrated one of these following: “principles of fair-trade and ethical practices, organic and recycled materials, and are selected for both their ethical credentials and design excellence (British Fashion Council, 2011).
While Orsola has been very influential is raising the profile of upcycled fashion, her work with Esthetica could be seen to be more of a success having launched the careers of young designers such as Christopher Raeburn and Ada Zanditon. The way these brands work also emphasises aspects such as collaboration and community. The smaller scale of the work reintroduces the human element into fashion allowing people to once again connect with their clothing in a much more personal way. Esthetica followed the creation of Paris Ethical Fashion Show and gradually more shows have developed showcasing ethical and sustainable brands. These include the Green Show Room and The Key.to both in Berlin as well as Pitti Fashion Week in Florence and So Ethic in Paris demonstrating the growing interest in this part of the industry.