“This thing we’re calling luxury fashion has become overly industrialised,” Gabriela Hearst, the creative director for French luxury brand Chloé told Vogue following her SS22 collection presentation. “It looks very machine made. I think it’s important to go into a re-education of what craft looks like.”
Having enlisted non-profit artisans from around the world — Mifuko in Kenya, who made the bags, for example — the Uruguayan designer, who ascended to the helm at the French luxury brand in 2020, brought to the label a fervent commitment to sustainability that seeks to buck the wastefulness and exploitation narrative that haunts luxury fashion at a time when it’s become increasingly difficult for industries across sectors to deny the reality of our time — sustainability is no longer a bonus, it’s an imperative.
Announcing her appointment, Chloé CEO Ricardo Bellini acknowledged this, hailing Hearst for her “vision of more responsible fashion”. He added that her creative leadership would be “a positive force in further evolving and expanding our founder’s original vision of meaningful and powerful femininity. Together, we share a conviction that we all have a responsibility to actively participate in the shaping of a sustainable future”.
In fashion, the words “sustainable”, “slow” or “ethical” have, for a long time, not been synonymous with style, let alone luxury; leading many consumers to think of it as either out of reach or downright undesirable. Some of the myths that exist around the concept include the idea that sustainable fashion is basic and dull, minimalist or expensive; the latter perpetuating what studies have often confirmed to be true — consumers want sustainability and value craft, but a gap still exists between that desire and what they actually spend their money on.
Fast fashion has, over the years, almost completely blurred the lines between itself and luxury, meaning consumers have access to a lot of the styles offered by luxury brands at much lower prices. It becomes necessary to redefine the meaning of luxury, and perhaps sustainability is where it’s at.
There are three pillars associated with sustainability in fashion and beyond. These include the environmental, economic and social dimensions. Most people still perceive sustainable fashion in terms of vintage, resale and second-hand clothing and, while these are all great ways of minimising waste — the single biggest issue with fast fashion, specifically — it’s not the only way.
Chloé is just one brand making it easier but a plethora of brands — old and new — have sought to make sustainability part of their luxury fashion offering, meaning they are creating their product with sustainability in mind from the get-go. Smaller, independent brands tend to be more agile in this regard as their size allows them to innovate at a faster pace than large conglomerates with bottom line priorities.
Johannesburg label UNI FORM, is a case in point. Speaking to Twyg.co.za, brand founder and designer Luke Radloff said: “I do not call my brand ‘sustainable’ but rather a brand that has sustainability as a goal.”
With this in mind, the brand collaborates with Barrydale Hand Weavers, a weaving mill in the Karoo that lists “slowing down” and empowering local communities as core founding principle.
In 2021, UNI FORM collaborated with Wren Design Studios, a company that recycles ordinary paper to make products — bags and device covers, specifically — that are durable and aesthetically pleasing.
Sustainability and driving socioeconomic change are at the centre of Cape Town-based 2020 LVMH Prize finalist Sindiso Khumalo’s eponymous label. Known for contemporary graphic prints and sophisticated minimalist construction, Khumalo was recognised for her efforts in sustainability at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards in 2020, where she won the best independent designer accolade.
Many more examples exist, but without the kind of history, reach and resources a Chloé has, for instance, brands like UNI FORM and Sindiso Khumalo can only rely on how educated the consumer is on the issue of sustainability. Is the consumer willing to pay a little more for an item of clothing that is not mass produced and can often be traced back to the hands that made it?
Chloé’s Gabriela Hearst certainly believes so. Part of her initiative to re-educate the consumer on what true luxury is includes putting labels on every item that is handmade, and naming the crafters who made it. This way, she says, “people will start to notice the difference”.