"A career in fashion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Attending fashion school for one, and in my case doing the 4-year honours degree at RMIT in Melbourne, is gruelling + intensive.
The stresses are creative, emotional, financial + physical, with fatigue taking its toll after working until 3 or 4am most nights of the week in the final year working on your graduate collection. While immensely rewarding, there is no denying that it is incredibly challenging, and you have to be truly dedicated to the “fash life” to get through it. People are drawn to a career in fashion design for many reasons. I think a common one, and certainly the reason for me, is a love of creation + experimentation. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing one of your sketches coming to life in 3D form, and in turn seeing it worn and loved by someone – a sense that someone else appreciates your vision. These notions can be truly indulged in final year, where you spend a full year on your honours collection, an amount of time that you would never get the luxury of in industry, where brands typically launch multiple collections a year.
While the ‘S’ word - “sustainability” - was mentioned frequently in our degree, and some students chose to focus on it more than others, in my opinion for the majority, aesthetics took precedence. For me, and perhaps many others, it wasn’t until I started working in the industry that I truly realised the realities and implications of the fashion system. I moved to the UK and worked in London for two years in the accessories design team of a large international retailer. Working on up to eight collections a year, with countless new styles and a perpetuation of the need for newness all the time, I was a small cog in a large company generating a huge amount of product. Sustainability was undoubtedly a consideration for the business but was certainly not the main priority. I loved the working experience + my time in London was full of fun + travel - however, I came back to Australia, questioning the ‘churn’ of the product cycle in fashion + wondered what my next step would be.
Returning back to Australia, it has now been three years since I graduated, so I would say that I am still relatively at the beginning of my design career. Issues of climate change are at the forefront of politics, the news, and everyone’s minds, and the fashion industry plays a part in this. Some reports indicate the fashion industry is second only to the oil industry in terms of pollution. As a result, there is a big movement towards less consumption and purchasing – which is valid, but also a challenge, as it’s the very thing that drives the industry I studied so long for, to enter. I have only mentioned the environmental concerns, there are also other contentious issues surrounding the industry, such as gender inequality, human rights abuses + exploitation, cultural appropriation, animal exploitation + contribution to body image issues. I have, at times, felt myself become very disillusioned with this seemingly superficial + exploitative and fast-paced industry - and I do at times question my contribution as a designer to this cycle of consumption.
However - we all need to earn a living + I genuinely believe design can be a force for good. In order to feel ok about my position within the fashion industry, I have had to re-evaluate my priorities as a designer. Working for a “slow” ethical fashion business here at Sans Beast has allowed me to design and work in a way that allows more time and thought in the design process, less over-sampling, and an overall consideration of all materials (including the over arching ethos of not using animal products), components + parts of the production process. The biggest consideration is designing for longevity + collectability, creating beautiful pieces that won’t become part of our throwaway culture + offering people a design led alternative to leather handbags.
Last week I attended RAW Assembly – “Australia’s first sustainable raw material, ethical manufacturing + circular design sourcing event.” With a focus on innovative new materials and circular economies, this event hosted an incredibly interesting and knowledgeable line-up of speakers including Kit Willow from KITX in conversation with journalist Clare Press, Courtney Holm of A.BCH, and the CEO of the Australian Fashion Council - David Giles Kaye amongst others. All speakers emphasised the importance of responsible + sustainable sourcing as key to creating a more sustainable industry, and the need to put planet over profit.
In addition, there was a wide range of exhibitors presenting sustainable material and packaging solutions for the fashion industry. As a vegan brand, we are always on the lookout for innovative materials to add to the collection, and particularly those that can mimic the qualities + look of leather. Over the years there has been development in this space, and the most notable innovations are plant-based materials such as PINATEX made from the skin of pineapples, Frumat’s Pellemella made from the waste of apples, and most recently a cactus leather created in Mexico, that was debuted at Lineapelle (a key leather + material trade fair held twice yearly) in Milan just recently. Unlike the sustainable materials that are prominent in the apparel space such as Bamboo, Hemp and Lyocell that have evolved and been refined significantly, these plant-based materials are still very much in development, (some more so than others) and there is more work to be done on pricing, longevity + overall aesthetic. One of the biggest challenges is that while the substrate of these materials are often made from biodegradable materials, they are often coated with a PU solution to aid in their durability, meaning they are no longer biodegradable. I’m really pleased to be a part of a small business who are open to sampling new materials - and my challenge as a designer, is to marry aesthetics with environmental responsibility.
RAW Assembly certainly provided a lot of food for thought. It is incredibly inspiring that so many of the individuals and companies that attended are contributing in the way of sustainable innovations and practices to the industry. While it can feel daunting and at times depressing knowing that there is so much that is broken within the system, it is also heartening to know that there are many things we can be doing to help fix it. My view remains buy less, buy better, take care of your things + consider provenance of your pieces, particularly in terms of potential exploitation. Designers are key in this process, and I’m looking forward to developing my skills - both in material sourcing + designing for our community - with each season."