Thursday, 4 December 2014

Design Without Sacrifice

Last weekend, small parts (thankfully) of the population nearly tore itself limb from limb in order to get their hands on some marginally cheaper merchandise. As one man on the news stood on a platform of some sort (probably formed from trampled fellow shoppers) and raised his TV over his head like a trophy from the hunt, it all got a bit too Lord of the Flies for my liking and I returned to making presents for family in my attempt to opt out of the madness. I may work in an industry fuelled by consumption but that doesn't mean I'm prepared to tear a handbag out of someone else's icy cold grip.

In the face of seasonal sale-related rage and quickly discarded gifts, Christmas is the perfect time to sit up and pay some attention to those who are choosing to do things a little differently. Sustainability can sometimes feel like just another buzz word offered up by brands in order make empty promises and highlight their hastily located morals when faced with environmental and ethical scandals threatening to taint their name. However, when it's done properly and used as a pillar of the design and manufacturing process rather than pegged on as an afterthought, it becomes the key to putting the breaks on an industry which sometimes feels like it's heading towards a point of no return.

So before you declare the end of man kind's collective sanity and cancel Christmas, here are some sustainable brands who show the kinder side of fashion:


I opened my Twitter app on Monday morning to see Riyka sharing an alternative Cyber Monday message; refreshing after the aforementioned scenes of mayhem seen over the weekend. This season they are collaborating on a range of dust bags made from end waste fabric created during the production process. 

Each bag is sewn by Elizabeth (pictured below), a 27 year old woman living in Gambia. After her Father died when she was 13 she was sent from her home country of Senegal to Gambia  to live with a family friend. When Elizabeth's guardians could no longer afford to care for her, GETS (Gambia Education and Teaching Support) stepped in and sponsored her final two years at school, where she was awarded Best Sewer upon graduation. For every dust bag Elizabeth sews, Riyka make a donation directly to her, and for every purchase you make over £100, you will receive one of these dust bags for free. An alternative to wasteful gift wrapping and a helping hand to Elizabeth in her journey towards financial independence.

Elizabeth at her sewing machine / A Riyka dust bag

This isn't RIYKA's first foray into sustainability, however, it's been at the heart of the brand since the start. Rebecca and Vedren, the husband and wife team behind the brand, have built RIYKA around 'love, attention to detail, simplicity, comfort, quality and sustainability'. Their designs combine the highest quality jersey, denim, and leather which come together in strong forms and geometric shapes. Panels clash and contrast, and each collection is peppered with shots of vibrant colour.

Every single piece is "created with love, sustainably made", and their AW14 collection features more organic and ethical fabrics than ever before. Inspired by Peggy Oki, the only girl in the original Zephyr skateboard team as featured in Dogtown and Z-boys, the collection draws on her pioneering spirit and tomboy appeal. This shines through in the masculine cut of the shirts, relaxed fits, and sporty, easy wear vibe. (I highly recommend you look up Peggy Oki if you're not familiar with her; she's a skating, surfing, environmental activist and artist, and all round super cool lady).


Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn is a pretty big name in this area. A quick search on him reveals that US Vogue declared that everyone should "remember the four R's: reduce, reuse, recycle, and Raeburn". That's some serious industry approval.

Raeburn first became known for his 're-appropriation of military fabrics', and his now iconic use of de-commissioned parachutes. Designing both menswear and womenswear, and working on a number of collaborations and further projects, his output has been huge since his graduation from Royal College of Art less than a decade ago, and his message of functionality and sustainability has never wavered. 

'Polaris/Aurora' for AW14 took its inspiration from Icelandic photographer Ragnar Axellson's exhibition, 'Last Days of the Arctic'. Axellson's images portray a harsh, bleak yet breathtaking environment and Raeburn has reflected this aesthetically in his colour palette, motifs, and glacial prints, and practically in the waxed cottons, faux fur, British made knitwear and technical fabrics. His garments are of the highest quality, yet are manufactured from sustainably sourced fabrics and even unused offcuts from the pattern cutting process. This dedication to re-making and re-using guides the design process and shapes the brand. Christopher Raeburn is definitive proof, if any were needed, that sustainability needn't and doesn't just exist on the fringes of fashion.

AW14 - 'Polaris/Aurora'


At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (less Polar, more poolside) is Auria. With over indulgence looming large, swimwear may be the last thing on your mind but this is a brand not to be overlooked. Sustainability isn't something you might associate with the synthetic fabrics that go hand in hand with swimwear, but Auria uses only 100% recycled polyamide, made from discarded products such as fishing nets and carpet. We are assured, however, that the fabric 'is in no way reminiscent of its flooring past'. Not that the playful prints and candy colours could evoke scenes of anything but floating on lilos and sipping cocktails. Each collection is designed and developed in London, and manufactured in England.

Founder and designer Diana Auria won the award for Fashion Innovation for her 2012 graduate collection and received press coverage from the likes of Vogue and WGSN. Spurred on by the success, she expanded it it to a full collection and debuted it under Esthetica at London Fashion Week. Auria has gone on to create a fun, accessible brand rooted in innovation and conscience.

Katie Jones

Firstly, let me say that I will sit and crochet until fingers fall off - I love it, so Katie Jones was an instant hit with me from the second I saw her MA graduate collection. Jones takes a 'waste not want not' approach to her design, "implementing a modern twist on traditional crafts; hand producing pieces in London that rework consumer waste, designer surplus and British made product into high fashion".

A Central Saint Martins graduate, Jones cut her teeth at John Galliano, Mark Fast and Romance Was Born before launching her first solo collection, 'Slab City' for SS14. Her reputation has grown quickly, and her AW14 collection was shortlisted in the Sustainable Fashion category at The Observer's Ethical Awards 2014. Although she often uses traditional manufacturing methods, Jones has carved out a style that is distinctly her own. Maximum design impact with minimal environmental impact.

SS15 - 'Granny Takes a Trip'

AW14 - 'K2TOG'

Termite Eyewear

Founded in the summer of 2012, Termite Eyewear made waves among London Fashion Week attendees last September as street style images were awash with Termite topped outfits. The product of Natalie Finch and Patricia Williams, the brand 'thrives to represent a creative, fun, youthful take on sustainable design. All pieces are laser cut and then hand worked, using materials which are responsibly sourced from independent, reclaimed/recycled wood organisations'. 

Palm Peach is the name of their SS15 collection, which was inspired by 1970s photography in Miami. The brand is nothing if not modern, yet the bold frame shapes fit seamlessly within a vintage aesthetic. Sunset yellows, leafy greens, rich purples, and dip dyes are nestled in amongst the organic tones of their signature raw finish Birch Ply. And this time round, they've experimented further with sustainability, incorporating scrap acetate into their designs.

This is a young brand - Termite was founded in 2012, but Finch and Williams only graduated last year and their determination to challenge the view that sustainability and exciting design are mutually exclusive has seen them quickly gain ground.

SS15 - 'Palm Peach' 

These are just a handful of labels who have sustainability at their core. They understand that the growth of fashion that considers more than just the biggest margins, rests upon the ability to provide products that come under this ethical umbrella without any sacrifice in design. It should appeal to those who care about the issue and those who don't; this way it stretches beyond its current champions and finds a new, far-reaching audience. But, for the time being, if you are the type to seek such brands out, this bunch are a good place to start!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

What We Save, Saves Us

As we hurtle towards the season of out-and-out consumerism, I'm heartened to see messages spreading among my friends and peers about supporting independent businesses, designers, and makers. It's easy to walk along the high street and buy everything in one fell swoop but if you want quality, sustainability, and beautiful design then you need to venture elsewhere. 

One such brand that perfectly reflects these values is Thisispaper, a Warsaw based online store launched in 2013 whose beautiful motto is the title of this post. While Thisispaper began as a magazine in 2011, and then grew into a creative agency in 2012, the online shop was opened "because of a need that we had long felt but failed to satisfy elsewhere. The need to be sure what we buy is made with care and skill, that it will last for years without losing its beauty or efficiency, and that neither the environment nor the makers suffer harm in the manufacturing process". This ethos is a breath of fresh air in the face of fast paced production and the ever-quickening turnover of seasons and micro-seasons making us feel that we need more, new, now.

The brand has quickly expanded from a 'modest collection of textile accessories and homeware, to include magazines, gardening tools, knitwear and more'. All products are either sourced from manufacturers and craftsmen in Poland or made by the Thisispaper team at their Warsaw studio. 

The studio is, by the way, an absolute dream. Their website features a section called 'The Process', which allows us in to explore their workspace and take a look at their careful, considerate manufacturing process. The images are very evocative - you can almost smell the leather and hear the clicks and whirs of the sewing machines - and offer an intimate insight into what is clearly a happy and creative working environment. This is something that is hugely important yet is often greatly overlooked, but here it shines through in the brand's imagery, their language, and their product. 

Thisispaper share their message of sustainability without preaching. While their ethics are strong and made clear throughout their website, their approach is gentle as they allow the products speak for themselves. This brand doesn't care for swaying to trends or chasing low costs, they care about providing high quality with the lowest possible impact on the environment.

The A/W offerings all adhere closely to the values the company has built itself around. Their range of bags and rucksacks are all manufactured from materials sourced in Poland and are made to be functional and long lasting. Natural sail cloth and linen makes up the shell of the bags, which are then lined with soft but durable cotton and embellished with vegetable-tanned, high quality leather details. 

Adding to their existing range of bags, the brand have recently launched a new line, 'Regulars', everyday essentials which revisit designs from Thisispaper's first collection. Made from thick cotton and denim for durability (which, of course, are made in Poland), the bags take inspiration from their city and are emblazoned with the line 'Handmade in Warsaw' in 14 different languages to proudly spread the message to all who see it.

The pride in their hometown is evident in Thisispaper's collaborations. They currently have two limited edition knitwear lines in stock. First up is Thisispaper x Córka Rybaka. Córka Rybaka (Polish for Fisherman's Daughter) is a Warsaw-based brand who have developed three new exclusive styles of hand-knitted hats, all made from 100% Peruvian wool. With only 60 hats being made in total by Monika, the maker behind Córka Rybaka, this certainly is limited edition. Quality, and support of local craft, over volume. 

The second of the knitwear lines is a beautiful, simple, and impossibly cosy looking range of of gloves and slippers. In another act of support for both their city and local craftsmanship, the gloves and slippers were all handmade by Pani Czesława, a Warsaw native who Thisispaper describe as a master knitter. 

The team have worked hard on perfecting the shape and fit of the gloves and slippers, which is clear when comparing them to designs from previous seasons. I particularly love that the mittens come to a point at the fingertips; a sweet, unusual design feature. They are also wholly unapologetic when it comes to the nature of their 100% wool composition: "The sheep's wool may itch a little at the beginning, but the itching is a natural feature of wool and will go away after a while, leaving only the feeling of pleasant warmth". Just as certain metal or wood weathers and develops its own unique patina, natural fabrics wear with you and reveal their individual characteristics. 

20 hats available in each colour

Thisispaper x Córka Rybaka

Slippers and gloves handmade by Pani Czesława

Thisispaper's aesthetic is all about functionality and design without excess. But this doesn't mean they come anywhere near the territory of being boring. Take the product photography on their website for example. Simple, yes, but beautiful, tonal, and considered. Despite their minimalist tendencies, this is a brand that exudes warmth, and that welcomes its customers into the studio to see where their bag or slippers are being made. If they haven't made it, they tell you who did; they tell you where it's come from; they tell you, where possible, how many have been made; they tell you exactly what it's made from. They are transparent and open to the end, all so as to stay true to the principles upon which they were founded.

Product photography

To take this back to my original point of eschewing mass production and seeking out designers and makers who don't put money and volume on a pedestal above all else, I think the what Thisispaper have written about their 'Studio Culture' can be placed at the heart of this issue: "When businesses grow and their production scope expands, the satisfaction that comes from the process of making might get lost, turning what has once been a passion into a mundane duty. To not let that happen, we're very cautious to preserve the pleasure we take from making products that will be cherished by their users, and to stay true to our original intentions. Refusing to be rushed, we have established a studio culture of patience and carefulness that fosters balance between hard work and well-deserved rest. The waiting time for our products can sometimes seem long, but it is only due to our desire to stick to our ethos and be honest to our customers - in other words, to practice what we preach".

When companies make cuts in material costs, in standards, in taking the time to treat their staff with respect, and so on, simply so they can 'pass those savings onto the customer', it comes at a price. Unhappy staff don't care about the customer; cheap materials don't last; fast production leads to mistakes and exhaustion; cheap production paves the way for exploitation; mass production depletes the Earth's resources. None of this leaves anyone better off. 

Thisispaper's commitment to their values, and particularly their honesty that they're willing to preserve this even if it means you can't get your order as quickly as you might elsewhere, might be unconventional in an age where instant gratification is the bedrock of retail and customer service but it's completely necessary. Sustainability doesn't just apply to materials and resources, it applies to people and business models too. Our attitudes and expectations aren't sustainable and Thisispaper are actively changing them, swaying those who buy from them towards a viewpoint based on patience and respect for the process. 

It's a big issue, and one that many don't even know where to start with but what better way to start than with a nice pair of slippers?

Homeware. All images throughout, courtesy of Thisispaper.