by Kelly Schumann:
Most dresses are made of cotton, not cow-nipples. But Rachel Freire has a whole collection of couture cow-teat gowns, ranging from jet black to a pale, fleshy pink. The U.K. designer recently unveiled her peculiar creations at the London and Paris Fashion Weeks. Beginning with a cascading nipple breastplate, the dresses build off petticoat frames studded with nipple-rosettes and finish with a train of leather patchwork. Though the dresses were too heavy for the catwalk, Freire’s work still managed to raise a major fashion dilemma: Should intimate cow parts be used as fabric? Animal rights activists and British parliamentarians alike denounced the dresses as outlandish, grotesque, and repulsive. Seemingly overnight, Freire’s designs were flung into the middle of the United Kingdom’s ethical fashion debate.
Freire defends her work as merely an artistically inclined form of recycling. “I was developing couture leathers at the tannery and was interested in what was thrown away,” Freire said, noting the origins of her idea to work with scrap leather. The material is often discarded because “the nipples at the edges of the leather protrude. I love the fact that they are so narrative of the source of the leather, that it was once skin,” she observed. When asked about the public’s explosive response, Freire noted that she “chose to make something which was potentially provocative.” She added, “Logic dictates that if they wish to attack me they should also attack every person who wears leather.”
Lately the fashion industry, particularly in the United Kingdom, has been working to find a little beauty below the surface. While fashion looks pretty on the outside, underneath all the glamour lies a dark world churning out products at an unfathomable rate with dire consequences: sweatshop labor conditions, environmental degradation, and addictive consumption habits. According to the British columnist and book author Lucy Siegle, the world is suffering from “fashion malnutrition,” an affliction characterized by a general lack of substance or thought in products and purchases alike that runs from “wasting money buying ‘cheap’ items in bulk that look ghastly” to “gorging on ‘luxury’ handbags.”
London is emerging as a leader in the movement towards more thoughtful, ethical fashion. A tradition of quirky style gives the Brits free license to explore new design areas, Siegle said, making London the ideal frontier for green fashion. “There is a real attraction to innovate, and to try things that might fail, but to try them anyways,” offered Helen Storey, Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at the London College for Fashion. It’s individuals like Storey, along with organizations like CSF, the British Fashion Council’s Estethica showcase, and the Ethical Fashion Forum, who are driving the push towards more substantial fashion.
Brits are going beyond standard organic fabrics and fair trade practices—they have developed clothing that could actually reduce air pollution. With chemist Dr. Tony Ryan, Helen Storey has discovered a way to transform everyday fabrics into mass air-filtration mechanisms by infusing textiles with titanium photocatalysts during the wash process. Their Catalytic Clothing technology works especially well on blue jeans, which is “a very lucky break,” according to Storey. The number of jeans, “the most democratic piece of clothing on the planet,” exceeds the human population, providing many potential opportunities for sucking contaminants out of the air. Storey estimates that a marketable laundry product is just one year away, and she hopes that one product could touch off a larger trend in the fashion industry. She dreams that soon all will have “the capacity to revolutionize their wardrobes in this way.”
But will sustainable practices ever underpin all fashion? Freire hopes buyers will eventually lose their “flippant consumerism.” She hopes people “will begin to appreciate the value of quality again, and we will all slow down our consumption.”
Ethics, she believes, should form the backbone of any activity, even fashion—but for now green fashion seems to be merely a trend. “This is not altruism, it’s because they find sustainability seductive,” noted Siegle. “The difficulty about fashion in itself, is that it often picks up things that are far more important than it and then drops them,” Storey offered. The real problem, she continued, “is how to make sustainability sustainable in fashion.”
Kelly Schumann ’15 is in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.