Fast Fashion and the Myth of Greater Choice

In a world of instant gratification, is boredom to blame for our need for a fast fashion fix? In fact, which came first, the constantly changing availability of variety or the need for instant gratification? Either way, if you truly love something, do you get bored of it? Or do you take care of it, cherish it, wear it to bring you luck and grieve for it once the day finally comes and you have to admit it's time to part.

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Back Stage At DesignedBy Runway Show

DesignedBy was one of the many innovative events taking place to celebrate and promote local design in Northern Ireland's first city, Belfast.  Staged at The MAC, Belfast's contemporary arts centre, DesignedBy was a curated exhibition of clothing and accessory designers by fashion stylist and journalist, Jessica Fok.  Jessica was keen to put on a fashion show that focused on design rather than trends and Belfast Design Week was the perfect fit.  

We were invited to participate in DesignedBy to show what sustainably designed clothing looks like and were delighted to show alongside Northern Irish designers including Attune Womenswear and Marie Claire Ferguson.

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Northern Ireland's pre-eminent Arts Centre is always buzzing and there's always lots happening, so The MAC proved to be the perfect venue for the DesignedBy runway show.  

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Back stage, the designers fitted each of their looks to one of the models from the Maureen Martin Model Management. The Charleville Dress is ready to debut... 

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Runway models were attended to by hair and beauty designed by Hair Artist Kelly White and Chief Make-up Designer Joanne Gray.

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Models backstage awaiting their moment to walk:  Ella wears All Seasons Dress in indigo Irish linen and Lauren is dressed in the cotton Kinsale Shirt.  We partnered with CrossEyes spectacle specialists, whose retro styles perfectly complimented our sustainable clothing.    

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A favourite image of Vuitton wearing the Gabriel skirt in wool tweed and side buttoned top in Irish linen.  Curator and organiser, Jessica Fok ensures the schedule is seamless.

Linen As An Ethical Fabric

How much do we know about the fabric our clothes are made of and it's environmental impact? Looking at the labels in our clothes will tell us whether they are made of natural fibres like cotton or wool or from synthetic fabrics derived from petrochemicals, such as nylon and polyester. There are various aspects to consider when understanding how ethical a fabric is, including the use of pesticides and fertilizers, water consumption and the pollution caused by treatments such as dying and printing the fabric. Fabrics made from petrochemicals are highly polluting and the production of these fabrics is a named cause of global warming; nitrous oxide is release during the manufacture of nylon and is a known powerful greenhouse gas. In addition they are non-biodegradable which means they don't break down easily and remain in landfill for centuries after they've been dumped.

Irish Linen

Linen is one of the worlds oldest fabrics, dating back to 8000BC and the antithesis of nylon, polyester and other synthetics. It is believed that the flax plant, from which linen is made, was grown in Ireland as far back as 1000BC and there is certainly evidence that Irish linen clothing existed 2000 years ago. Linen clothing must have been widely worn by the population of Ireland in the 16th Century as Henry VIII wrote to the town of Galway telling them to cease using excess amounts in their shirts and smocks and the limit was set at 7 yards per garment. However, the decree was mostly ignored and up to 30 yards of linen was often incorporated and was very likely a necessary means to keeping warm in the damp Irish climate (although 30 yards seems like a huge amount for one smock).

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Up to the early 1800's, Ireland was self -sufficient in growing flax for linen, but good cultivation practices were neglected and the quality suffered. Supplies of superior flax became available from Europe after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars and flax began to be imported from Belgium and Germany from this time. During the 20th Century, the arrival of man made fabrics caused linen to be regarded as old fashioned and demand for linen clothing fell. It was only at the latter part of the century that interest was revived in natural fibre fabrics and Irish Linen's unique quality appreciated. Nowadays, the term Irish Linen refers to fabric that has been woven or knitted in Ireland and contemporary Irish Linen is acknowledge worldwide as being of the highest quality

Irish Linen

Irish linen isn't certified organic, but it's ethical credentials are good. The flax used is brought in from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which means the workers and the environment are protected by EU laws regarding working conditions, pay and ecological impact. And the carbon footprint is low compared to importing the raw material from countries on the other side of the world. The cultivation of flax uses much less water and fewer pesticides than cotton. After harvesting, the crop is laid out in fields to 'ret' allowing the linen fibres to naturally separate, the seeds are removed and used for cattle cake or linseed oil and the bark is used for chipboard - no part of the flax plant is wasted.  This are welcome practises for sustainability.

The fibres in linen fabric are very strong making it highly resistant to tearing and it's stability as a fabric means that garments retain their shape and don't shrink. The reason linen is so popular in summer is that it's light and cool to wear and conveniently absorbs perspiration, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be worn all year round. Linen clothes are easy to launder and will withstand numerous washes as the fabric actually becomes stronger when wet. If correctly looked after, linen clothing has the potential to last a very long time, which combined with coming from a renewable resource and being biodegradable, makes it an ultimate sustainable fabric.

A characteristic of linen is that it creases easily, although new technology is developing different finishes which are 'easier' to care for. The wrinkles identify linen as linen and you either love the look or you don't. I was brought up to think that creases were undesirable and fabrics that creased should be avoided or repeatedly ironed - perhaps the result of how the 'new' synthetic fabrics were marketed, back in the day. However, I've come to love the creases in linen; when you first put on a freshly laundered linen garment it's crisp and a little stiff. After an hour, the first creases stand out like lone footprints in the sand. By the end of the day, the garment has softened, draping in a way that only linen does with tiny, multiple creases that crisscross, reflecting the life lived that day. Of course, polyester doesn't crease and never needs ironing, but where is the sense of history and charm in that?

Irish Linen is durable, but it's durability is meaningless unless we rethink our attitude to clothes shopping and how we regard our clothes. The number of clothes that we buy has increased massively in recent decades. Clothes shopping has evolved so that buying as many items for as little as possible has become something to boast about. The reality is that we've been persuaded by clothing brands and the media that this buying habit is a good thing, something to be commended, but the reality is that it's not right; in so many ways, it's really not ok. We need to begin valuing each individual garment in our wardrobe, starting by choosing something that we truly love wearing, then taking care of how we launder and maintain it when it needs repairing. It is a different way of thinking about the clothes we own and Irish Linen, with it's heritage and elegance, should merit a place.

Designing Clothes For Sustainability

Design, be it good or bad, is the main factor in determining the lifespan of a garment, so the fashion designer has a responsibility to make good decisions from the start. Sustainable fashion aims to derive longevity from clothing, meaning that it should have a useful life for a long time; one of the main objectives is to keep it from being thrown away. Every year around 350,000 tonnes of clothing are dumped in landfill in the UK and this is especially bad news when it is made from synthetic fabrics like polyester, which not only does not decompose, but can also release toxic chemicals into the environment. Sourcing fabrics which have a less harmful impact on the environment as well as ensuring that the supply chain respects the human rights of workers worldwide, is one factor we as a sustainable clothing brand must consider when sourcing fabrics and manufacturing.

But what about the garment itself? The average time a garment spends in our wardrobe is about two years, but this may not mean it has actually come to the end of it's lifespan, just that we've got bored of it. A fashion blogger wrote that she knows it's time to have a wardrobe clear-out when she's run out of hangers, an experience perhaps familiar to many of us as the consumption of fast fashion has encouraged us to think it's ok to turn over the contents of our wardrobes at an ever increasing pace, particularly when we anticipate that some items only last a few washes anyway. According to WRAP (the UK organisation helping businesses and individuals reduce waste, develop sustainable products and use resources in an efficient way), extending the average life of clothes by just three months of active use would lead to a 5-10% reduction in each of the carbon, water and waste footprints.  

What of the designer's role in this? Designers love seeing the clothes they've designed being worn by people living real lives and it's the greatest affirmation of good design to discover a garment still being worn, years after it was first produced. From the designers point of view designing for sustainability should be an opportunity rather than a constraint with the main aim to show that ethically produced clothing can be gorgeous - and stand the test of time. Undoubtedly, the style of the garment is the primary consideration for the wearer; something that looks appropriate for the demands of the day, whether it's being professional at work, doing the school run or an evening out. A garment serves us best when we know that we look good, but we feel we look good, too.   

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A range of decisions by the designer affect the life expectancy of the garment: choice of fabric, trimmings, washability, construction and finishing will determine how hard wearing it is, but the styling and aesthetics of the garment are more subjective, although nonetheless crucial for longevity. It is probably true that tailored or semi-fitted garments are longer lasting as they frame the body favourably, although looser fitting pieces offer versatility of fit and therefore can also be long lasting. It may seem dull, but clothing in the 'core' colours of black, white, grey, red, navy and beige tend to stand the test of time.   

The clothes we design and make at Tamsin Blackbourn are the clothes we want to wear ourselves - and we expect them to last. Designing for longevity means bringing together the elements of style, function, quality, colour, proportion and fit. One of the main reasons people don't wear the clothes in their wardrobes is because they no longer fit, so we try to leave extra fabric in the seams so they can be let out and in the hems, so they can be lengthened. We're also looking at incorporating adjustable fastenings in the future so that the fit of our clothes can be more flexible. We don't believe in unnecessary detailing; to mis-quote Coco Chanel, where there is a button there should be a buttonhole and where there's a pocket flap there should be a pocket, meaning that it's a waste of labour and materials to add something purely for show – all details should have a function. When appropriate, we prefer to fully line our clothes; we think most clothes hang better for it and it increases the strength and durability. It also saves having to search for an under-slip that isn't quite the right shape or length. When cutting the garment from the cloth, we look at the width of the fabric itself to be sure we're not creating unnecessary waste – better to have a little extra swing in the skirt than for the excess fabric to land wasted on the cutting room floor! We cut pattern pieces as cleverly as possible, but inevitably there will be offcuts, which we keep for trimmings. A Tamsin Blackbourn homeware collection is planned to repurpose left over fabric.

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Sass Brown is a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and has written two books on ethical fashion. She suggests, “Design at it's best is problem solving. It's finding a way to make the world a better place. And fashion has really got away from that. Fashion by default becomes something about trends and keeping up appearances as oppose to solving problems and investing in solutions. We've lost a real material connection to our clothing.”.  

We love this idea of design helping people re-connect with their clothing, it's a holistic way of thinking about creating; remembering that clothes must look beautiful, but must also be something we want to wear again and again, because they meet a practical and an emotional need. The role of the fashion designer is to consider the whole life cycle of a garment, where the designing and making is only the start of making clothing with timeless style that will endure through the wearing and caring stage, for a long, long time.