fashion is not frivolous

Fashion is not frivolous and there are some good arguments for designer fashion or any well though out outfits on any budget.

Fashion can be politics, power and protest, or it can be art and expression. Georgina Spencer the 19th century Dutches of York is reputed to have told her husband, “You have your speeches, all I have are my clothes.”


She was the ancestor and precursor to Princess Diana, who used clothes throughout her marriage to cover her submissive thin frame and after her marriage to display her athleticism and power to the world. We have no quote from Diana, but we remember her work and her clothes.

Fashion affects the economy, the environment and the lives of millions of workers. Typically a single item of clothes from crop to closet circumnavigates the Earth top reach us. India was colonised for textiles like cotton and silk, slaves were sent to America to pick cotton and the industrial revolution and its unemployed and raging weavers prompted the colonisation of Australia. Australia then grew off the sheeps back through its wool industry.

Fashion does not creates tribes, teams, cliques and enemies but uniforms, the antithesis of fashion, defines them.

Fashion tells the world of our beliefs, how we see ourselves and how we want the world to see us. The burka reveals as much about the person with as the bikini.

There is effort and energy in every thread and stitch. Each design and choice has a history.

The Ancient Cottons of Peru

I’ve done tons of research on cotton and learning how this thirsty plant drains rivers, creates deserts, is fed dangerous toxic fertilizers to grow in damaged or unsuitable soils and then is often hand-sprayed by women and children with dangerous pesticides. The cotton industry has been a magnet for exploitation for hundreds of years from the days when African slaves were taken to America, right up until today where kids are taken out of schools and forced to work in cotton fields.

However, travelling through Peru I was surprised to see small picturesque mixed food and cotton farms along the River Nazca, growing cotton in the same way they have for 1000 years.

The Nazca culture is best known for the giant and mysterious etchings drawn in the desert that are visible from the air. But they were also master engineers and farmers, creating aqueducts to irrigate their plots from underground water sources when the river dried up.   Cotton drove development and the economies of pre-Colombian and pre-Inka Peru, as the desert Nazcas made their cotton into clothes and nets which were traded with fishing villages (the Norte Chico or Moche peoples) along the coast in return for fish.

The native Peruvian cotton has four natural colours (white, yellow, brown and black) which the Nazcas wove into intricate tapestry and clothing. Pieces of these original cloth are still being found in tombs where they buried their mummified died (well dressed and ready for the next life).

Although there are bigger specialized cotton farms in Peru and the gin process is mechanized in large plants, for the most part the Peruvian cotton industry is relatively slow and idyllic.

organic cotton, Peruvian cotton, ethical cotton

Alternative Apparel uses Peruvian cotton

Some cotton from Peru is organic and some is not, but even the non-organic cotton measures well  from an ethical point of view.

I hope that cotton continues in Peru and a limited number of other areas, and that it is wiped off the earth from places where it is killing people and the planet for a cheap t-shirt.

Should you stop washing your jeans, really?

Many news agencies have picked up on the denim story of the decade- Levi Strauss`s CEO says ‘never machine wash your jeans’ and he practices what he preaches. I picked the CNN version of the story below and linked it-  for those who haven`t heard the revelation,  click on the picture.

CNN story Don't machine wash your denim, says Levi's CEO

CNN story Don’t machine wash your denim, says Levi’s CEO

However, this no wash or less wash jean theory is not new.  Tommy Hilfiger declared last year that he never, ever washed his jeans.

So, how serious and sensible are the millionaire ‘jeanistas’ and is it practical for the average Joe?

Chip Bergh, Levi`s CEO says he spot washes with a sponge or a toothbrush and hand washes after long periods (not sure if he does it himself).  But if he was completely true to Levi`s workman history he would be out wrangling cows in the dust and building up an all over sweat. Even for those of us who wear our jeans out dancing, this is not going to be enough.

If you are wrangling cattle or wearing your jeans in an unhygienic environment, you`d better wash them and live with the fact that they will fade and thin, and look vintage sooner. To reduce damage to the environment and the denim hand wash them in cold water inside-out with a natural wool wash such eucalyptus or lavender and hang them in shape to dry preferably out of direct sunlight.

For a white collar worker we can probably follow Bergh or even Hilfiger`s lead going many, many months without a machine wash or even hand wash.

As Chip Bergh points out to CNN and in other articles it is environmentally friendly too, using less detergent, electricity and with less dye running into waterways.

If you aren`t washing for months and they are visually clean but getting loose as cotton/denim does, or if you just want that straight-from-the-shop crispness the trick is to put them in a plastic bag in the freezer overnight (don`t expect to wear them the next morning).

It`s also important to note all of this advice is for 100% cotton denim. If you have a blend of cotton and synthetic stretch they will wash better and last longer after washing. The advantage of synthetic is also the disadvantage-  they last longer but put more chemical into the environment during the manufacturing and wearing life, and don`t biodegrade like 100% cotton denim so keep putting out chemicals in landfills.

H&M Awarded the World`s Most Ethical Company as Organic Pig Flies Over the Moon

“When I read headline,  I thought it must have been a repost from The Onion: “H&M Named World’s Most Ethical Company”. I sat at my computer for a few minutes in a hazy fog of confusion and disbelief while a running list of H&M’s fashion malpractices ran through my mind, ” writes Green Peace`s Shannon Whitehead. Click here to read Shannon’s article on which got my attention.

the world`s most ethical company, ethical fashion, conscientious fashion

Is H&M really the world`s most ethical company? Yeah, right.

I have personally blogged on  H&Ms sweatshop ‘mishap’ such as the mass faintings in Cambodia which have never been explained to this day. I’ve also questioned their organic credentials which turned out to be technically okay, for at least the parts they promised to be organic.

The problem with green wash is that you can call it organic if just one step in the process is organic, anything can be called ethical if someone else is doing worse and in any case the companies outsource the unethical bits and wipe their hands of responsiblity such as in the Bangledash factory collapse where several Western country called them ‘suppliers’ doing ‘samples’.

Cambodian Workers Camp Out, Hunger Strike Against Walmart and H&M

Bangledesh and Cambodia continue to have the lowest paid textile workers in the world and H&M continue making there for that reason.

Who is Ethisphere who awarded H&M ‘the world`s most ethical company’ ?

I had never heard of them until recently, this is probably because I tend not to look at multi-nationals, but rather focus positively on the middle and small brands who put ethics and profits in more of a balance.

According to the Ethisphere website, ‘The Business Ethics Leadership Alliance (BELA) is a membership organization of leading companies created to foster the sharing of best practices in governance, risk management, compliance and ethics allowing members to leverage the collective experience and expertise of their peers.’ Membership costs just under $10,000 (which might go in handy towards paying workers above living wages).

In Ethisphere’s defense, they do seem to concentrate on anti-corruption and corporate responsibility (ie. donations to charities) and that is their definition of ethical. Their membership includes a large chunk of mining and oil companies, and they encourage transparency and safety.  They are CEOs from another world, who talking about business sustainability and not environmental sustainablity.  A world without expanding profit is inconceivable to them.

The Ethisphere 2015 Honour List

The 2014 Honoree list of ethical companies include the Gap and Levi Strauss, as well as H&M. As you would expect there are  no organic company, nor companies that pride themselves on balancing profit and ethical treatment of workers. These awards are about transparency and lack of corruption from an sustainable business perspective. The companies nominated produce off-shore by ever changing suppliers which means they disassociate themselves with any ‘mishaps’.

Why H&M? Zara vs H&M

Zara vs H&M

Zara`s 2014 Lookbook

Even if they were to reword it to ‘the most ethical multinational‘ or ‘the most ethical fast fashion chain‘, I don`t see how H&M could beat Zara, who still make in their home country Spain and whose quality and the life of the garments is so much better then disposable H&M gear. (Of course  Zara couldn`t compete with several medium to large size brands like Tree People or the numerous niche brands producing organic and local made clothes in their home countries).

So, I`m confused but after research less so than Shannon Whitehead. Cleary these awards have no relevance to people interested in ethical fashion because they are about multinational issues and perhaps green wash marketing.


PS. In March H&M also had to pull a graphically anti-semitic  singlet from their lines after complaints. For more click here.

Last Threads? 3D Digital Printing

ethical fashion, 3D fashion designing, 3d fashion designers.

New York designer Michael Schmidt and architect Francis Bitonti have created a 3D-printed dress for Dita Von Teese.

Fashion may be undergoing a new revolution which means the end of sewing, seaming and patterns. New technology means the designers can dream something up on a computer screen and print a complete 3D outfit in hours. More than just printing clothes without seams, the clothes will be exactly to measurement and printed on demand.

These last two points could change retails, ready-made fashion forever and make fast fashion faster than ever. Sweatshops would be obsolete and possibly it means the end of us fitting into store sizes- we can just type in our measurements and print out the outfit. Don’t like it? Made a typing error? You can re-print.

As far as fashion goes 3D digital fashion goes right now, we can copy most synthetic textiles, including those that impersonate natural fabrics well. The technology can output the imagination and coding of complex geometry needed to create the likes of beading and embroidery.

Will it mean more synthetic clothes going onto big waste piles, or will we be smart enough to recycle the plastic, like we do with paper printers?

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

It has already been taken up by a handful of haute couture  designers such as Iris Van Herpen (although these outfits can’t be called ‘haute couture’ as they do not follow the French Cultural Ministries’ definitions of hand-sown and fitted on a human model a certain number of time).

One problem for high-end designers is that the work needs to be exquisite even though it’s be avant garde. The examples of Van Herpen 3D designs included in her 2013 “Voltage” run way show in Paris… decide for yourself …..

ethical fashion, 3d fashion designing

Iris Van Herpens 3D designed dress

A close up look at Van Herpans 3D materials looks like cheap plastic and reminds me of tumors. I can’t imagine she’d ask any one to hand bead this and that if she had, she would have looked at it long enough to know it was not attractive.

3d textiles, 3d fashion design, ethical fashion, conscientious fashion

Close up of Iris Van Herpen’s digital textile

I wonder if Van Herpen got so caught up in the dazzling technology, that she didn’t use her eyes and instincts as she would with one of her pieces that required months of hand stitching and checking. Will designing on computers change designers tastes and moods? Will we dress like the Jetsons?

Below is some of the 3D designed shoes she used in her Paris runaway show and an interview with the designer.

So much potential and so many dilemmas. I’d like designers and the public to start talking about the parameters and ethics, before this new fast world of fashion is dumped on us without thought. I’d love to know what you think.

Fashion Philosophy & False Luxury

“If you buy unsustainable fashion, you are telling brands it is okay to be unsustainable.”

Bruno Pieter told the UK Guardian in March 2012.

Pieters was formally a designer at Hugo Boss and  had just launched his own label, Honesty By, which claims to be a 100% transparent fashion brand, but doesn’t promise to be impossibly perfect in terms of every aspect of ethics.

His idea and the term he coined ‘fashion transparency’  has started a lot of buzz in the fashion industry for it’s plain logic- we good-willed fashionists have had our heads spin with greenwash that sometimes contradicts itself (organic but draining rivers, vegan but made in sweatshops…).

Fashion transparency simply list how things were made, by whom, where and with what- then you choose to buy it or not.


Another core argument of Pieters is the integrity of luxury brands.

He argues that a brand that made its name for being Italian quality should be made in Italy and that a brand that is iconically English should be made by the English in an old fashion iconic way, or something that boasts American quality and innovation, needs to be made in America by legally paid Americans.

“If you look at luxury brands, they gained their consumer trust when they were small and hand-crafted. Everything was done to a high quality. Sure, you paid for it but you knew what you were getting,” he told the UK Guardian.

He explained that you no longer get the handmade heritage item, it’s made in supply lines like budget fashion (and the fakes the luxury brands complain about), but you pay for the mark up as if it was handmade by their own specialist artisans and workforce.”…the heritage of what people are buying into isn’t what is being delivered.”

Essentially, if it’s not made the way the brand presents itself, it’s false luxury and you’re a fool to pay for it (my words not his).


The African Thread- Biffi Boutique Fashion Show Milan



Another video from the Ethical Fashion Initiative and a peek at the trend of new high-end European (and Western designers) who are partially producing in Africa, and the stunning quality and creativity it’s catalysing.

Once I was afraid that designers might use traditional designers from Africa under their own name, inadvertently stealing culture handed down through generations in the name of, say, a funky ethnic looking bag for one season. I’m not so worried now, as I see Africa more of a semi-conscience thread that runs through the new designs and so it should.

Everyone who works on a design puts a piece of themselves into it from those who pick the cotton or weave the silk, through to the seamstresses and embroiderers.

Contributing designers and labels to the Vogue backed fashion show in Milan include;  Stella-Jean, Swiss design duo, PortenierRoth with Christie Brown and Kiki Clothing (both based in Accra, Ghana).


Karl Lagerfeld and the Vegan Heel Debate


karl lagerfeld, Melissa, vegan shoes, vegan plastic, ethical fashion dilemmas

Karl Lagerfeld Ginga for Melissa

“To do this job you must be able to accept injustice. If you want social justice, be a public servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.”

Karl Lagerfeld

Karl Lagerfeld, not usually the hypocrite, has teamed up with vegan shoe maker Melissa to produce some futuristic heels. I suspect the Chanel designer and fashion industry icon didn’t just sign up to save the animals. I think he sees some style in the Melissa plastics. This is a good thing because ethical fashion cannot survive if it’s not fashionable.

To some extent he’s right, ethical fashion is not angelic fashion; it comes with compromises and there is no better demonstration of this than the debate about ethics and  vegan shoes. Vegans don’t want to harm animals, but vegan heels are generally plastic which mean they effect entire eco-systems.

The Problems with Plastics

These day synthetic shoes can looks and feels as soft and flexible as leather; the reason is a chemical called ‘phthalate’. Phthalates have been identified as reproductive and developmental toxicants,  and as probable human carcinogens.  While the cancer expose is more likely to effect workers than wearers, overtime they leach out of products and diffuse into the air, water, food, house dust, soil and living organisms.  For more of the science, click here.

Petroleum-based plastics are produced from non-renewable fossil fuel resources and generate greenhouse gases.

Bio-based plastic are made from plant materials such as corn, soy, rice, wheat and linseed. They use of large quantities of pesticides in industrial agricultural production  and are  associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The bio-plastics may end up competing with food sources for the world’s poor, pushing prices up and causing hunger (as the bio-fuel industry has been accused of). In addition, not all bio based plastics are even biodegradable.

The Best of the Vegans

vivienne westwood's anglomania, melissa vegan shoes, vegan plastics, ethical fashio dilemmas

A handful of shoe makers such Melissa make from recycled plastic which will reduce landfill. At the moment recycling plastics requires a lot of energy and its an expensive process to do safely. It also requires the collection and sorting of select plastics . However, potentially it means using recycled plastics rather than throwing them in the sea or landfills.

What Melissa do is really interesting because rather than imitating leathers, they come up with new designs that suit their plastics, so they are playful and even futuristic looking (and this is what I believe drew Lagerfeld in).

Whatever the answer is to ethical fashion’s many dilemmas, it must be creative. It means reinventing fashion to suit the new  low impact materials or going completely back to the days when silks and linens ruled and synthetic hadn’t yet been dreamed.  I’d like to see a bit of both.

Jason Wu, ethical shoes, vegan shoes, ethical plastic

Jason Wu’s Jean for Melissa

Designers Sass & Bide Take an Artisanal Tour of Kenya

The first thing I love about this video is that Sass & Bide are touring, meeting artisans and learning- rather than walking in with as the Westerners ready to teach and change.

The second thing I love is seeing factory workers looking happy.

The third thing I love is the work.

Made To Be Remade- Textile Recycling

We are always giving kudos to recycled fashion but how about the other end- fashion that is made to be remade and can be returned and recycled.

One company already incorporating this idea is Okabashi footware who make sandals and flip-flops (for men and women). They are also made in America for Americans to reduce the carbon print. I’m all for local fashion so I’d love to see a company set in Australia, in Europe, in Japan etc.

Frankly Okabashi are more practical than fashionable, but what a great concept! And we all own a pair of flip-flops for the beach or travelling, right?  Learn more here: 

Around 40-55% of paper is now recycled in most developed countries and around 25% of glass. So why not start working towards recycling textiles.

recycled synthetics, ethical fashion

Recycled synthetics from EcoGir

Outdoor brands like Patagonia and the North Face have been doing it for a few years, and fast-fashion mega chain H&M began a garment collecting initiative last February in the UK with 1,500 stores excepting returns for a voucher. Though no paradigm of ethical fashion because of the wages and conditions of workers for me, it seems hopefully.

Nudie jeans are also recycling them denim into new fabric. Click here for more info.

While economic realities probably keep start-up brands (where most of the great ethical ideas begin) from embracing returnable and recyclable fashion, there are possibilities in the future should the textile industry get serious about it.

samantha pleet, recycled fabrics, recycled textlies, upcycling and vintage fabrics

Samantha Pleet looks for upcycled and vintage fabrics, synthetic or natural.

It is possible to recycle synthetic and natural fabrics, but the reason the industry hasn’t developed further is the expensive . It also requires a lot of energy so may not have a great carbon footprint too. Blends complicate the matter further because you need to separate fibres. For this reason ethical fashion designers have to work with upcycled and vintage fabric or look for organics (depending on their bent on ‘what is ethical fashion?’

Justine R Kelly

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: