Betterness, not Newness: Fashion's next Revolution
The UK invented the textile boom: now it's helping do it again.
Exhilarating news! This is your overnight dispatch from London’s Docklands where a conference is happening that presents 10,000 climate solutions for the fashion industry. Sorry - that’s 10,000 commercially available climate solutions for the fashion industry, all ready to go right now.
It’s happening in the same week as the Copenhagen Global Fashion Summit and the voices could not be louder: business, science, government, finance and consumers all recognise we have a problem. But, as I used to say to my teams when I sat in the Editor’s chair, ‘Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!’ And at this week’s Future Fabrics Expo, you can find a great many of them, where an international crowd including Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Stella McCartney, designers like Patrick McDowell, Edeline Lee, Ifeayni Okwuadi and Felder + Felder, and untold authors, activists, professors and scientists have gathered to show it off.
“What’s exciting for me, is it’s finally happening,” exhaled Carole Collet, Professor of Design and Sustainable Futures at Central St Martins.
Before we get there, let’s pause a minute, and think about why this is so important. As Kassia St Clair writes in her wonderful book The Golden Thread: “we are surrounded by cloth … swaddled in it at birth, enshrouded in it at death. We sleep enclosed in it, and when we wake, we clothe ourselves in it to face the world and know who we are to be that day.” Her book looks at how the history of fabrics have shaped humankind, determined civilisation and ultimately our identity. The Ancient Greeks believed thread represented destiny - the three fates wove the course of each human life on a spindle and determined each death with scissors. Thread has also been one of the great sources of beauty in our everyday lives, as celebrated by Johannes Vermeer in his painting The Lacemaker. St Clair mostly celebrates advancement, but she also acknowledges the darkness that has come with the rapaciousness of our fabric consumption.
As you walk into the exhibition there is an illuminating timeline that describes the Stone Age to the Iron Age as the Age of Naturals: leather, silk, cotton and bast fibres like flax and hemp. The invention of machines in the middle ages allowed these materials to be produced at scale, which was then supercharged by Britain leading the Industrial Revolution, when the world’s population stood at 700 million. The early 20th century saw the Age of Synthetics ushered in, and now, the exhibition proclaims, we are in the Age of Recovery, as we learn to reclaim and biofabricate. With the world’s population projected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, these next generation materials have to be part of the answer to our current problems.
There is so much to report on I’m going back in today for more, but here is a quick snapshot, selected entirely randomly, but designed to show you the diversity of creativity in this sector right now.
Straight from the future is Evocative’s AirMycellium foam padding. We all know about mushroom leather, but this is using the magic fungi to promote warmth and comfort. This wonder material can be used as insulation in jackets, padding in shoe soles and even bras (yes! The first mushroom bras!). Evocative has figured out how to grow 3 million square feet of fibre in just one acre of land, and are talking to one famous Brit shoe designer right now to get it grown over here so he can have an EXEMPLARY supply chain. Reformation, Vivo Barefoot and lots of other brands they can’t yet talk about are on board.
The invention of (well I’d never heard of it before) ‘pharmo-synthetic’ research. Professor Tom Ellis of Imperial College London gave a thrilling talk about the many things his department are up to, including the ability to grow yeast cells in a laboratory to make keratin - which in turn will make fur. Incidentally Ellis was asked to imagine fashion’s future - he described a moment when we will all have something like a washing machine in our homes which will break down the fibres of our clothes, fashion a new textile and then produce it in a design we have downloaded from an app. Now that’s a supply chain.
The rise of regenerative: this is the buzziest word in agriculture right now, as it promotes a practise that restores carbon to the earth, as opposed to extracting it. Despite some grumblings from the organic lobby who point out regenerative has yet to have its own certification, it is convincing enough to many farmers, and also funders whose support of their businesses while they transition away from industrial practises is growing. On one panel four farmers gathered from Australia, the States, South Africa and the UK - all of them women.
New to me was regenerative silk: farmed silk worms have a horrible life and a horrible death. They also are fed on monocultures of mulberry trees which kill off any hope of biodiversity in vast tracts of India and China. Not any more! Regeneratively farmed mulberry trees are ‘inter-cropped’ with fruit trees, while the silk is made from wild moths that can be released after they have spun their cocoons.
Gabriela Hearst often says the answers lie in the past, and the company Ventile certainly thinks so. A legacy British fabric invented in World War Two to stop pilots getting wet when they hit the water, it’s treated 100% (recycled) cotton fabric is almost entirely biodegradable and presents one of a number of alternatives to GoreTex and other fossil fuel based performance fabrics. Fossil fuel based outerwear is a big problem for the industry as rivalling the performance of these materials is difficult.
Enjoying this bulletin? To help me sustain it going forward, I would be grateful if you would become a paying subscriber, it’s only £1.50 a week. My paying subscribers can read the rest of the post below. Or if you haven’t already, subscribe for free.