Revolutionising the Runway: Is Fashion Doing Enough?

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Fashion weeks symbolise a cultural zeitgeist, providing powerful channels to convey crucial messages in unconventional ways. With the capacity to draw vast crowds from across the globe and dominate discussions in global media and on social platforms, the impact of fashion month is undeniable. This is why sustainability must be integral to brand showcases – particularly as the impact of a garment hinges largely on its design which influences resource consumption, manufacturing processes, the labour required and usage patterns.

Themes From A/W 2024 Fashion Month

Digitalisation and AI

There has been a noticeable trend towards brands providing enhanced digital experiences, partly as a consequence of the pandemic’s legacy.

Tech and AI were core themes at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) this season. Generative AI is emerging as a pivotal tool for the fashion industry – specifically the impact of AI on design and the product development process, which according to McKinsey analysis, is where up to a quarter of generative AI’s potential value may lie for fashion. While there’s a sense of industry scepticism, there’s a careful curiosity from some eager to understand how AI can work in harmony with human design.

In New York, Hillary Taymour, Creative Director of Collina Strada, who participated in the GFA Designer Challenge 2023, incorporated AI image-generation tool Stable Diffusion into her latest collection, ‘Collina’s Gym’, which emphasised feminine strength, inclusivity, and sustainability. Last season, her full collection was made by blending previous works using AI.

At Diesel’s Milan Fashion Week (MFW) show, a live-streamed behind-the-scenes concept was introduced, allowing people to tune into the show’s preparation for 72 hours before the actual event. This culminated in a live Zoom call during the runway with 100 participants getting virtual front-row seats.

While this accessibility is crucial for the democratisation of fashion and reduction of travel, it is essential to recognise that digitalisation alone isn’t a foolproof solution for sustainability. The often-overlooked infrastructure of the communications and technology sectors carries a substantial carbon footprint, contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Moving forward, it is imperative for brands to strive for a balance in mitigating the carbon footprint of both physical and digital events, preserving these potent mediums for communicating sustainability messages effectively.

On the other end of the spectrum, for guests attending The Row show at Paris Fashion Week (PFW), there was a no-phones policy, with attendees encouraged to take notes instead. This was met with a mixed response, with some arguing that it contributes to digital exclusion and elitism.

 

Animals Ethics

 

What was once synonymous with luxury fashion, it seemed that the industry was increasingly moving away from fur, as it reckoned with both the ethical and environmental implications of the material. In 2021, Global Fashion Agenda’s Strategic Partner, Kering, announced that it was going completely fur-free. Last year, The British Fashion Council shared that from 2024, fur would be banned from the London Fashion Week (LFW) schedule.

Despite this apparent trajectory, both real and faux fur were widespread this season, sounding alarms about the industry’s sustainability commitments. During Victoria Beckham’s PFW show, animal rights activists protested against the use of animal-derived materials in her latest collection. This is just one of many such incidents happening at recent fashion weeks.

 

The Overarching Issues

Despite their creative allure, fashion weeks ultimately centre around commercialism and consumption. The components that comprise a runway show – from the collection itself to the resources utilised in constructing and dismantling sets, catering, energy consumption, international travel demands, and the relentless rotation of collections that permeate mainstream culture as micro-trends – are fundamentally sustainable. This not only pertains to environmental and social sustainability across the entire value chain but also affects the wellbeing of those involved in organising and attending these shows, as well as individuals globally who feel compelled to stay abreast with ever-changing trends.

The magnitude of the issue becomes apparent, especially considering the over 470 brand collections showcased in this season alone (not including January’s menswear shows) across New York, London, Milan, and Paris, which only hints at the vast scale and impact when considering all fashion weeks and collections throughout the year.

The Sustainable Fashion Communication Playbook from UNEP underscores the importance of the fashion sector’s ‘brainprint’ beyond its footprint – highlighting the influence of fashion’s messaging on consumption patterns. Runway shows undoubtedly influence this cycle as they often prompt many ‘inspired’ collections from different brands. Purpose Disruptors, a collective of advertising insiders working together to reshape advertising to tackle climate change, advocate the notion of ‘Advertised Emissions’ – emissions resulting from the surge in sales driven by advertising. This concept holds particular relevance for the fashion industry and its various avenues of promotion.

Pockets of Progress

Material Innovation

Signs of transformation are evident both within individual brands and across the broader fashion council landscape. During NYFW Stuart Vevers, Creative Director at Coach articulated a shift in perspective, stating that sustainability must now be central to the purpose of catwalk presentations. He expressed his intention to leverage his platform to explore avenues for scaling sustainability. Vevers latest collection featured distressed denim and scuffed leather boots, not merely as stylistic choices but as deliberate manifestations of utilising upcycled denim and leather.

The Gabriela Hearst show in New York garnered notable attention, highlighting the brand’s consistent emphasis on sustainability since its establishment in 2015. Featured garments in the collection cleverly mimicked denim and fur textures yet were crafted from the likes of cashmere and recycled cotton and linen. This approach underscores the importance of reimagining familiar materials through strategic choices, signalling a broader industry necessity for innovative material approaches.

During LFW, emerging talents like Paolo Carzana are leading the way on the sustainability front. Carzana’s ‘Melanchronic Mountain’ collection demonstrated how fashion can blend sophistication with environmental consciousness, utilising plant-based, and recycled materials alongside natural dyes.

In Paris, Stella McCartney once again seamlessly focused her collection on sustainability. McCartney is an exemplar in demonstrating how runways can be used as a real force for change – the collection opened with a manifesto narrated by Olivia Coleman and Helen Mirren, advocating for the protection of the environment. The clothing showcased an abundance of innovative materials such as recycled aluminium sequins and AppleSkin handbags as an alternative to leather.

 

Inclusivity

 

At LFW, Sinéad O’Dwyer continues to stand out in the fashion industry for her commitment to inclusivity. This season’s runway casting challenged the prevalent mono-size casting and showcased a diverse array of models with different sizes, abilities, and ethnicities. O’Dwyer’s unique approach highlights the need for broader representation in fashion, particularly as the latest Vogue Business size inclusivity report found there was an incremental decrease in total size inclusivity across New York, London, Milan and Paris this season.

At MFW, an agreement was signed by the Italian fashion council, a governmental anti-discrimination office, and a non-profit promoting African fashion, in a bid to “trace, identify and fight” discriminatory practices. The initiative will commence with a survey to provide a snapshot of the representation of women, people of colour and other historically underrepresented groups across the industry, from fashion houses to suppliers. MFW also featured the Fashion Hub, showcasing emerging designers from historically underrepresented communities. This, however, is happening just one year after Stella Jean, the only Black member of the Italian National Fashion Chamber (CNMI), quit MFW and initiated a hunger strike – a situation that highlighted diversity and inclusion challenges in the Italian fashion industry.

Copenhagen as a Blueprint

Despite these incremental pockets of progress, there is still much change needed for these activations to become environmentally and socially sustainable, inclusive, and ethical. The fashion industry is operating in turbulent times, but instead of becoming an afterthought, sustainability must be framed as a strategy for industry resilience.

One fashion week in particular sets itself apart from the others. Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW) and Global Fashion Summit were formerly factions of the Danish Fashion Institute. In 2018, Danish Fashion institute was renamed ‘Global Fashion Agenda’ to focus exclusively on sustainability and CPHFW became an independent company. Both organisations have continued to prosper in parallel based on this strong sustainability ethos, and GFA proudly supports the continued advancements that CPHFW has made.

In recent years, CPHFW has emerged as a trailblazer in sustainability, challenging the traditional norms of the industry. The Danish capital not only showcases coveted Scandi style but also boasts a robust sustainability strategy. Despite its relatively modest size, CPHFW’s stringent brand standards and bold initiatives are no narrow feat. The British Fashion Council (BFC) explicitly credits CPHFW for inspiring a similar set of standards for the BFC NEWGEN Programme which supports emerging designers. The pioneering efforts of this influential Scandinavian nation will continue to inspire similar approaches globally by demonstrating that responsible fashion is achievable without compromising creativity.

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