When you think of the phrase “sustainable fashion,” what comes to mind? Maybe some boxy little shirts upcycled from Victorian tablecloths, or diaphanous sack dresses made out of hemp fibers. Perhaps a pair of rubbery-looking sneakers with 100% recycled emblazoned prominently on them. Until relatively recently, the concepts of glamour and ecological consciousness rarely went hand in hand.
But a number of designers are shifting the nagging perception that environmentally friendly clothing needs to look like something a militant counselor at a Vermont summer camp might wear. By innovating new plant-based or recycled materials, rethinking their production processes, and getting creative about waste and deadstock fabrics, established houses and up-and-coming brands alike are offering everything from black-tie gowns to diamond necklaces to sleek carryalls that make a minimal impact on the planet.
Whether or not any new garment can be considered sustainable is a hotly debated topic. Every couple of months, it seems like some version of the same droll joke appears on my Twitter feed: The only way for a fashion brand to be truly environmentally friendly is for it not to exist at all. But the fashion industry isn’t going anywhere, and we can’t all subsist solely on secondhand T-shirts peddled by TikTokers on Depop in order to minimize our carbon footprint. So where does one look for elegant, sustainably made clothes? And can a brand-new party dress really be green?
“The most important question around sustainability is: How long will that product be worn and used? One of the most sustainable things you can do is buy something that will last a lifetime,” says Alden Wicker, a journalist who covers the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Designer pieces produced from high-quality materials by expert craftspeople, therefore, are inherently more sustainable than the shoddy garments made by the likes of Zara and H&M.
On top of that, some of the industry’s biggest names are being held to a higher standard than they used to be: In 2018, Burberry was slammed for burning tens of millions of dollars worth of unsold product. This year, under the current chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci, the brand has pledged to be the first luxury label to become “climate positive” by 2040, by cutting supply chain emissions by nearly 50 percent over the next nine years and investing in projects that restore and protect natural ecosystems. One element of this initiative involves working with sheep farms in Australia on regenerative agriculture systems, something Stella McCartney has also focused on, particularly in her winter 2021 collection. “Regenerative agriculture is also referred to as ‘carbon farming’ because it increases biodiversity, regenerates topsoil, improves watersheds, enhances ecosystem services, and sequesters carbon in soil,” McCartney says. “The farm we have been working with has restored thousands of hectares of degraded land through their farming practices.” At Chloé, the new creative director, Gabriela Hearst, incorporated by-product shearling and overstock pieces from seasons past into her first fall show for the brand, one of the many ways she made the collection four times less environmentally impactful—but no less chic—than the previous year’s.
But what about the excess fabric that inevitably gets left behind after all those fabulous things are cut and draped? In April 2021, LVMH launched Nona Source, a platform that makes unused materials from its brands (including couture houses) available to any designer. The company started with 5,000 rolls of deadstock: That’s 140,000 meters worth of crepe de chine and washed silk twill that otherwise would have been left fallow in warehouses, or destroyed, priced 60 to 70 percent lower than its original cost.
On the synthetic side, there are some interesting things happening too. Prada is aiming to make all of its nylon products out of ECONYL, a material derived from plastic waste collected from oceans, fishing nets, and old textile fibers, by the end of this year. Not only is it synthesized from recycled materials, it’s infinitely recyclable itself. Three slinky cocktail dresses from Ferragamo’s fall collection are recycled polyester, as is a series of voluminous, puff-sleeve frocks at Alexander McQueen.
Conner Ives, a London-based American designer whose debut collection consists of 75 percent recycled materials, sees designing sustainably as a welcome challenge. “It’s a problem to solve,” he says. “When you have limitations, I find it makes work better. When the world is your oyster, it’s like, well, where do you go?” One standout look, a bubble-shaped, sequined dress worn by model Natalia Bryant to the most recent Met Gala, exemplifies Ives’s approach: The base fabric, a white silk organza, was cut from a roll of deadstock given to him by his former boss Wes Gordon; each sequin is recycled PET plastic; and the beads that finish the threads that hold the sequins are vintage.
“When I first started, it was on the eve of sustainability becoming the hottest thing in fashion,” Ives says. “I think a lot of times, young designers are like, ‘Well, these are the problems with the industry.’ And yes, there are a lot of problems, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love it. For this collection, I wanted balls-to-the-wall fashion, fashion, fashion—almost heralding back to the ’90s, when the industry was like a caricature of itself.”
Andrej Gronau, an artist and designer who just finished his master’s degree at Central Saint Martins, thought about the end of the life of each garment he designed during the program: In a set of futuristic, disco-ready jackets made from deadstock Lurex and natural merino wool, he purposely did not mix the materials, to ensure that the recycling of each of the elements would be possible. “Most knitwear in the industry is made using mixed yarns, which usually can’t be recycled, as the thin filaments can’t be separated easily,” Gronau notes.
Even on the Oscars red carpet, a realm notorious for glittering gowns that are worn only once, there’s a movement to shake up the way we think about the intersection of glamour and sustainability. This year, the organization Red Carpet Green Dress, founded by the environmental advocate Suzy Amis Cameron, partnered with Vivienne Westwood to outfit the actress and producer Marlee Matlin in a crystal-studded gown cut from Tencel Luxe, an innovative, silky new textile produced from wood pulp.
“On the red carpet, we need people to say, ‘Whoa, who made that dress? Tell me about that dress!’ And you can only do that if you focus on design first,” says RCGD’s CEO, Samata Pattinson, about the company’s approach. “You can’t wear the message—it’s not like the gown is printed with text about how it’s made.”
Tencel is just one of a new class of plant-based materials that are making their way into the luxury sphere. Faux or “vegan” leather, which many argue is more detrimental to the environment than actual leather because its production often involves the use of toxic chemicals and polyurethane binders, is about to enter a new, greener phase. Two start-ups, Bolt Threads and MycoWorks, are making leather-like materials out of mycelium, a subterranean network of fungal threads that can grow on a sheet of sawdust in a lab. McCartney designed a tough-looking top and pants (both garments were prototypes and not for sale) out of Bolt’s material Mylo; Hermès partnered with MycoWorks on a one-off concept version of its Victoria bag, fashioned out of caramel–colored Fine Mycelium and trimmed with canvas and calfskin. Neither material is commercially available yet, but both are expected to hit the market soon.
When it comes to the question of faux fur, it can be difficult to figure out what’s worse: raising high-carbon–footprint animals solely for their pelts, or making a garment out of microplastics. (And in terms of data, it’s basically impossible to find a scientific study that wasn’t commissioned by one side or the other.) But minimizing the use of animal products—particularly factory-farmed ones, like mink fur—is an important and environmentally responsible step to take, and brands like Burberry and Prada, and even the legacy fur house Fendi, are making extra-luxe coats and accessories out of the fake stuff. McCartney is working with the chemical company DuPont to develop an alternative made from natural fibers. Demna Gvasalia, in his debut couture show for Balenciaga earlier this year, opted to mimic the look and fluffiness of a fur jacket by individually embroidering fine, loose silk threads that poked out of a base fabric like tiny hairs. (Silk, Wicker notes, is always a good choice, because even though it’s an animal product, “It’s incredibly beneficial to rural economies in Asia, and especially to women.”)
Jewelry, an essential component of any exciting getup, can be made green too. “There are two ways to look at it: One is reusing stones and recycled metals,” says Wicker. “The other is to acknowledge the vital role that mining can have in supporting rural economies, even though, as a rule, it is dangerous and exploitative and terrible for the environment. However, there are those who will tell you that in certain parts of Africa and South America, it is the only income that some people can get. There’s a movement to support mines that are doing it the right way.” Industry leaders like Tiffany & Co., De Beers Jewellers, and Chopard are making efforts to become more sustainable central to their business, with initiatives that range from using 100 percent ethically produced gold to sourcing stones from mines in Peru that have zero impact on the local water table. At Chopard’s facilities in Switzerland, everything is powered by renewable energy.
All of this is well and good, of course, but where does it really get us? If there’s still massive overproduction and consumption happening all over the world, can the more glamorous side of fashion ever really become environmentally friendly? Vivienne Westwood’s global brand director, Christopher Di Pietro, isn’t convinced we’ll ever make a significant enough shift. “I am not sure there will ever be a truly sustainable fashion industry, but we can make massive reductions to our impact on the planet,” he says. In order to make any progress, we need to reexamine the core tenets of consumerism: Circularity, resale, and repair need to become central parts of the industry. Government regulation is also essential—something in which the United Kingdom is leading the charge, by investigating “greenwashing” claims on various consumer products, including clothing.
McCartney takes an optimistic, holistic approach to the whole thing. “I love hearing stories from my customers, who, on many occasions, have said they didn’t realize their Stella McCartney handbag wasn’t made from real leather,” she says. “We have worked so hard over the past two decades to pioneer a movement that is growing by leaps and bounds, and I really do believe the best is yet to come.”
In a few short years, maybe we won’t even blink at the idea of a starlet at Cannes outfitted in a dress sewn from what used to be ocean plastic, heels crafted from a fungus, and recycled gold earrings. For now, I’m just waiting around for a chance to buy a MycoWorks Birkin.
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Market Editor: Laura Jackson