Style Down Under

That One Time Sustainability Was Described As “Annoying”

Designers in Melbourne reveal how they strike the tricky balance between creativity and sustainability

That One Time Sustainability Was Described As “Annoying”
All images: Lucas Dawson/VAMFF; Anchor image: Featuring Toni Maticevski

Right before the world went into lockdown, Melbourne hosted its annual Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival (VAMFF), where we saw collections from more than 50 designers. Initially slated to run over 10 days, the event was cut short due to government restrictions in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, the city’s brightest design talents were ready to impress, and let us in on how they have kept their brands earth-friendly.

For one, much public misconception about circular fashion remains — a topic Courtney Holm tackles through her three-year-old label A.Bch, which champions timeless, minimalist cuts in a largely neutral palette.

As she says: “People call themselves a circular business if they’re reselling or renting clothing, but that’s not necessarily true. That’s part of the recycling economy but it’s not circularity; eventually, those flows will stop even though they’ll loop for a while.”

When Holm describes circular fashion as “the heartbeat” of A.Bch, it’s no lip service. Customers are made aware of production details, from how the cloth is woven to where the threads were sourced. The brand also publishes a full list of materials used in supply chains on its website, with each expounding on the pros and even cons of specific materials.

One example is bamboo, a material many leading fashion brands actively promote as eco-friendly. Holm likens it to a masquerade, because these brands neglect to explain how the process of turning bamboo into soft fabric generates harmful chemical waste. All this can create conflicting messages and leave consumers confused and misinformed.

To better educate its customers, A.Bch employs lifecycle assessment tests that include verifying how it biodegrades and ensuring that it doesn’t require specialised washing on every material before it reaches the retail floor.

The team constantly researches and explores how material composition affects the environment in terms of carbon emissions, chemical usage and the care required. It also regularly organises R&D pop-ups, where customers are encouraged to take home prototype garments to test and return with feedback. And unless they prefer to compost old garments at home, customers can even bring them back to the team so they can recycle the garments and yarn.

With so much attention on the technical side of the business, Holm chooses to keep product inventory relatively lean: A.Bch has released only 27 garments to date. “We’re never going to make millions of garments. I’m not trying to be the next H&M,” she states.

Holm is not the only designer who insists on producing smaller quantities to better control how her pieces are made. Over at Arnsdorf, Jade Sarita Arnott adopts a similar strategy and takes special pride in adopting a slower manufacturing cycle.

Arnsdorf, the label loved for its minimalist outerwear, silky slip dresses and the occasional dreamy ruffled skirt, counts actress Cate Blanchett and French It-girl Garance Dore among its celebrity clientele. Everything in its two stand-alone boutiques is made by Arnott’s small in-house manufacturing team, which includes six seamstresses and a pattern cutter.

“We produce slower, hence we can guarantee better quality for garments to last longer,” says Arnott. Rather than producing in bulk in anticipation of demand, more pieces are made only after they have sold out. Customers also get complimentary lifetime repairs and alterations, so “people keep clothing in good condition in their wardrobes for as long as possible.”

In effect, Arnott’s philosophy extends beyond sustainable production to helping customers make informed choices.

Arnott, who launched Arnsdorf in 2006, says her reckoning came in 2013. In April that year, the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which housed five garment factories, collapsed and resulted in more than 1,100 deaths.

“I wanted to have total visibility of the supply chain, and to ensure everyone working on my pieces is doing so within a safe environment and with fair pay,” she confides. “That was really the foundation of Arnsdorf: Respect for the women who wear our garments, respect for those who make the garments, and respect for our environment and sustainable practices.”

The going has been far from easy. For instance, the scope of fabrics she has access to is limited, while manufacturing locally by a small team drives up production costs — both of which will have bearing on a garment’s final price tag. And that’s just two of the problems.

The finale from a combined menswear show at VAMFF, presented by Global Victoria

Beyond investing in specialised technology and material studies, creating green fashion requires ready financial resources to secure materials, which are typically priced in bulk — something, smaller brands with smaller collections and inventories have difficulty committing to.

While he shares much of the ideology of Arnott and Holm, Chris Ran Lin feels that the small scale of his eponymous label has “made it tougher to be able to ensure eco-friendliness”. Lin has had to outsource many of his manufacturing processes, such as seamworking, to factories specialising in knitwear production.

The two-time nominee for the Woolmark Prize is carving out a niche with his innovative knitwear and gender-neutral looks. Knitwear is a difficult area for designers, Lin points out, in part because the myriad materials, yarn and fibres can be complicated to work with. To minimise wastage, faulty items are undone and the raw yarn returned back into production again.

At his runway presentation sponsored by Global Victoria — a government-run board that promotes Victoria-based businesses internationally — his modest line-up of 17 looks included gauzy knit tops that fluttered behind models as they strutted down the runway, and sleek tailoring for a grounding effect. Preppy sweaters were also spliced together to form a Frankenstein-ish jumper.

Instead of trying to promote his label as sustainable, Lin constantly reminds his customers to buy better quality clothing.

“My design approach is to offer products of the highest quality while using as much natural materials as possible. I think that is another way of practising sustainability,” he reasons.

Then there is Toni Maticevski, who closed the festival with a hauntingly romantic showcase of architecturally draped designs. With a loose theme of cowboys anchoring the collection, his procession of models marched out onto a dimly lit runway in voluminous silk dresses, ruffled skirts and sweeping capes.

His take on sustainability as trend-of-the-mo, however, is summed up in one word: “Annoying”.

Favoured by Hollywood A-listers like Jessica Chastain for his showstopping creations, this 20-year design veteran has earned enough clout to be candid.

“It just seems to be pushed as a trend at the moment,” Maticevski says during our meeting. “Sustainability is something I’ve focused on since I was a fashion student… I had to learn to make do with the bare minimum and have always aimed to make them count.”

At his atelier, reusing fabrics, recycling offcuts and reducing supply are standard processes — and he insists “it’s always been that way”.

Their approaches may be multifaceted, but as fashion designers at the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival show, they are striving towards the same singular vision of marrying sustainability and creativity.

This story first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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