What if there was a way to have fashion without compromise? It’s often easier not to think about what goes into the making of what we wear—most of it happens very far away by people we’ll never meet, and millions of dollars each year are spent training shoppers to think about brand and style first and foremost without asking too many questions. And the fact is that the answers don’t get any more apparent once you start digging into sustainability, which is a pretty broad term for a production problem than encompasses worker treatment, climate change, modern-day factory slavery, land use and biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, water waste and stress, dependence on diminishing natural resources, and both consumer and corporate waste. These are clear and urgent problems, but they clash harshly with fashion’s preferred glossy image, and it’s only by taking a good hard look at the problem that we can find a way to move forward.
Enter the Victoria and Albert Museum, the preeminent archive of modern design. Since its founding in the 1850s, the museum has worked to support the creative industries, including the textile industry and the fashion industry, and it has always collected contemporary material, curating the best of modern design for over 150 years. Curator Edwina Ehrman dug deep to pull out examples of where fashion and nature intersected in the past (dresses decorated with live beetles? It was a thing) and how they’re working together now and into the future. She pulled looks from designers like Stella McCartney, J.W.Anderson, Jean Paul Gaultier, and H&M’s famed Conscious Collection gown worn by Emma Watson at the Met Gala, and juxtaposed them with classics from Dior, Claire McCardell, Paul Poiret, and many more to tell a story about how fashion’s love of taking inspiration from the natural world creates something of an obligation to preserve that natural world. “Nobody in this exhibition is 100% sustainable, but they’re all providing models—they’re all giving us options, alternatives, or ways we might get there,” Ehrman said. Luckily for all of us consuming fashion here on planet earth, here are some of those alternatives.
In the 1800s, tourists leaving Jamaica often came back bearing souvenir handkerchiefs woven from pineapple cloth. In 2014, Pinatex brought this idea back on a big scale, improving the design from a woven cloth to a nonwoven textile and turning the 40,000 tons of pineapple-leaf waste produced every year into a textured, leather-look fiber that’s being made into bags, clothing, and shoes.
Bolt Threads uses a genetically modified yeast fed with sugar, water, and salt to grow a fiber that mimics the protein structure of spider silk. The process uses no chemicals, land, water, or pesticides, and it can be spun and woven just like any fabric. If you bought a piece of Stella McCartney in 2017, you might be wearing it already—she launched her first pieces using the material last year.
Made from unbleached wood pulp and other organic materials, scientists have created a wearable “paper” fabric that can be made using natural dyes and laser-finished to a customer’s exact specifications, so no material is wasted. It’s inexpensive and designed to be worn for a short while and then recycled or composted—the ultimate in fast fashion.
Leather jackets made from wine? They’re real. Two of your favorite things have combined to create Vegea, a vegan leather made from the leftover stalks, seeds, and skins of the winemaking process. The Italian company launched its first collection designed by Tiziano Guardini in 2017 and also sells the product wholesale to designers looking for vegan, chemical-free leather alternatives.
Another innovation from Bolt Threads, a natural-looking leather called Mylo is produced by combining mycelium (the underground root structure of a mushroom) with a base of corn stalks and nutrients and letting it grow over about 10 days to the required size for the pattern. The resulting product can be customized by what you feed it and how it’s finished—and we can attest that it looks just as great as a fully vegan Stella McCartney Falabella bag.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that dyeing has on the environment, including groundwater pollution, animal deaths, and human illnesses. Colorifix developed a solution that takes microorganisms and modifies them to produce, deposit, and fix dyes to fabric all on their own. The cloth goes into a bath of these microscopic critters and an environmentally neutral agent is added, causing them to bind with the fabric. After it’s removed from the liquid, the cloth is exposed to heat, causing the microorganisms to rupture and fix the dye to the fabric.
Thanks to the Aperol spritz (at least in part), Italy produces around 700,000 tons of citrus fruit skins every year that are simply thrown out or composted. Orange Fiber takes those byproducts and turns them into an innovative fabric that looks like silk. Salvatore Ferragamo launched an Orange Fiber collection in 2017, mixing the fabric in with classic Italian silks that seamlessly created a high-end look.
Made of a blend of cotton and Tencel, G-Star Raw has developed the first denim to be Cradle to Cradle certified, which means it adheres to C2C’s principles of continual improvement in material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. While jeans are normally an environmental nightmare to produce, G-Star’s dyeing process is zero risk to people and nature, and no water is wasted in the wash process.
If you’re reading this website, you probably already own a pair of Nike Flyknits, which were a huge innovation in sustainability in and of themselves—the knitting is controlled by a computer program that ensures each panel is knit exactly to size, which more than halves the amount of waste produced by factories. In 2018, Nike took the next step in waste reduction, grinding off-cut leather with excess synthetic fibers to create a cool-looking textured leather sneaker that uses 90% less water and reduces the carbon footprint of a leather sneaker by 80%.
The show is on at the V&A until January 27, 2019.
If You Go
Stay: The Franklin Hotel is housed in an 1886 London row house in the heart of South Kensington, just a five-minute walk from the V&A, but don’t let the classic exterior fool you—the interior is all modern. Designed from top to toe by Anouska Hempel in 2016 with gray velvet banquettes, mirrored accents, and hand-painted wallpapers, it’s a fashion girl’s dream home come to life. Upgrade to a suite for a truly Instagram-worthy freestanding bathtub.
Eat: Fancy a spot of afternoon tea after your museum adventure? You’re just a 10-minute walk from The Pelham, where Pippa Middleton has been known to host her close friends for high tea in their private pink-and-cream salon. You’ll be presented with a personal pot of your chosen brew and the three-tier array of tea sandwiches, macarons, cakes, and scones of your fantasies.
Do: For a taste of classic London nightlife, do as the Rolling Stones did and head to The Gore Hotel, where the band launched the album Beggar’s Banquet. The ornately carved wooden bar is a cozy-chic hangout spot for locals and a popular party venue, whether you’re after a pint or a personalized cocktail. If you have so much fun you decide to stay the night, hotel guests can book a three-hour private tour of the city in a classic luxury car—we recommend the 1929 Rolls-Royce convertible to feel like a true fashion icon.