Before we get going, could you explain exactly what is sustainable fashion is, and what it means to you?
Sustainable fashion is a movement going on at the moment that is a direct descendant from the early eco-pioneers. When the environmental movement started, people very quickly connected to fuel, food, and energy. Conversations concerning fashion took a bit longer to get going. The irony is that the clothes we wear — such as cotton — start in agriculture, and the synthetic fabrics we wear start in the oil industry. So fashion is intrinsically linked to these huge global industries.
The current fashion paradigm we’re in is based on the idea of making clothes, selling them very fast, and then changing the trends. We’ve got a huge through- put of resources coming in at one end, and a lot of waste being generated at the other. On a planet with finite resources, it’s not a very clever model for fashion. A lot of people would argue that the high street has hijacked what we’ve tradition- ally seen as fashion — enduring style, quality, workmanship — to build a business based on gross sales; making it into the monster it is today, where clothing doesn’t reflect the true value of what’s gone into it. Sustainable fashion is a vehicle to carry on making and wearing beautiful clothes, but to rethink the system around them. It’s about considering the millions of people around the world involved in clothing manufacturing, and thinking about the making, remodelling, repairing, and end-of-life opportunities.
Are fashion brands adapting to this movement?
It’s a very broad vision that so many different brands have taken in different ways. Some have really focused on materials, some are very focused on eco-production, and some on producing clothes that are going to be handed down through generations. There are all sorts of different approaches going on.
I do consultancy with big brands, and I would say there isn’t a single brand out there not starting to think about this. The reasons for that — first of all — are company policies that are starting to come in because of legislation; secondly, a business strategy based on buying more and more materials in a market that has a lot of fluctuating prices is starting to be reassessed by brands like Nike, who are using huge quantities of materials. They’re thinking that maybe if they could start using what we currently consider as waste in their supply chain, they’re actually going to be at a market advantage.
Is it just brands changing their way of thinking, or are consumer attitudes changing too?
There has been a big increase in consumers’ concern for sustainability, so there’s definitely an awareness there. But report after report says that consumers, while they want to know something’s been made in a responsible way, aren’t prepared to pay any more for it. Therein lies a real challenge: people aren’t going to buy something because it’s been made in a certain way; they’re looking for it to perform aesthetically. It still has to be a case of, “oh my goodness, I want that coat!” and then they will look into how the coat’s been made. Only a tiny percentage will go for it the other way around. It needs to be taken into a more mainstream place that is still led by its appeal. I think there are a lot of designers now who are training in design colleges and learning a lot more about these kinds of things and saying, “I want to be a designer, but I don’t want to contribute to this mess, so how can I use my skills?” But it’s still very hard to find a sustainable design position in a large corporation.
So how did you start out in this industry?
I started in the industry as an apprentice in a shoe factory in London, aged fifteen, then left and went to college. I already had quite a good idea of what the job opportunities were going to be like and always had the aspiration of running a brand. I love the process of making, and fashion designers so often don’t actually get the opportunity to do that. The design will be sent off to the factory, and then the sample comes back to a different department weeks later. I really wanted to be involved in the making process. That’s really important to me.
Did you find it difficult to start your own brand?
I never really questioned it. I think I was just young and naïve and went for it! I was so sure that there was another way to do things. I was a nineteen-year-old fashion student based in Leeds and I was finding it so hard to source materials I needed for my college work, yet there were just piles of waste clothing around where I was living in a big, shared house. I couldn’t buy denim by the metre for love nor money, but there was a pile of old, broken jeans by the front door!
I thought: let’s start with what we’ve got. So I started working with waste textiles, and, through the community and outreach work I was doing, I met loads of amazing women with machining skills who weren’t using those skills. I thought: is there an opportunity to have a brand that practices some of this pro-localisation we’re seeing in food and energy, but to try to model that with clothes? So that’s where I started from; from seeing the possibilities around us, it slowly developed into a brand.
When I was in my second year at uni, I took on a building with some other creatives and started our first local project, which is where we started seeing the incredible skills that were in the local area. I think that planted the seed that we can make here in Leeds; we can do this, and do something exciting!
And now you’re moving to do the same in Bristol?
I don’t feel like moving is the right word. I feel like we’re kind of ‘spreading’! We have so much going on up in Leeds, and we have more and more going on in Manchester as well. We’ve only just started moving to Bristol, and already we’re working with a Cornish knitter who is knitting waste yarn into traditional fisherman sweaters for us. We’ve already started to uncover what’s going on in the southwest, and that will be our job for the next six months. There’s a lot of lace making in South Wales, and there’s a lot of leatherwork near Frome, which was traditionally a glove-making area.
So these areas are still quite traditional in terms of what they produce? They have a long history of producing these items of clothing and these materials?
Yes. I’m only just starting to learn and uncover what bits of the industry are still here in this region, who they are, and what their skills are. We don’t really start with a product. We start with people, and then with the materials we can work into that system, and we build the collection up that way.
Antiform places a lot of emphasis on people behind the product. You work not just to sustain materials, but to sustain traditional skills and industries so that they don’t die out?
Absolutely. I’m talking to a company that’s still making trainers in Manchester, and I found a flat cap factory in Yorkshire. When I say ‘factory’, it’ll be a husband and wife in their sixties and one of their sons will work there. These are companies running out of garages, basements, and sheds. They’re micro-enterprises that have endured because they’re family-run.
Do you think there’s any new growth there? Is it dying off as those people get older, or are there younger generations becoming interested in it?
There is a real skills gap emerging. One of our best mills that we work with recently closed because they’re all in their seventies and wanted to retire. I think it’s difficult to find people who want to go into manufacturing work in the uk. I really hope that these enterprises will survive the retiring generation. Maybe with younger people at the helm, they might be more willing to tap into new technology, and find new ways to communicate, and reach customers and brands to manufacture for.
Has the recent culture in the uk of being thrifty helped the cause of sustainable fashion? Have you see this trend anywhere else in the world?
We run a clothes swap that is really well attended, and after doing some research I found clothes swaps across Australia, Europe, and all over America and Canada. So I think there’s an appetite for it. I think in the uk the kind of chintzy, make-do-and-mend kind of styling is probably something that’s relatively local.
Tell us more about the swap shops. What are they and what are they about?
After we initially set Antiform up, we really wanted to be provocative about what fashion could be. I was really happy with what Antiform was achieving, but it was still a product-led enterprise. There was still a possibility that someone could buy a jumper, wear it three times, and then put it in the bin. I thought: if what goes in at one end can be perfect, fantastic. But if the knowledge doesn’t cross to the consumer, and they don’t understand or treat the garment differently, then it could just end up in a bin six weeks later. After all the effort that goes into these clothes, I didn’t want that to happen.
So we decided to set up a variety of different projects and services that would work locally to engage people in clothing in a different way. It wasn’t about shopping and retail, but about coming together to do something with clothes that is quite radical today. We started off running shopping events on a Saturday afternoon that didn’t involve any exchange of money, just the exchange of goods. The idea really took off. We now have over 1,100 members and about 150 to 200 people come together for each swap. They swap out 2,500 items every month, in just one afternoon! That’s a huge turnaround of clothing. For me it supports the idea that fashion can be sustainable, but that doesn’t mean that you have to wear five durable pieces of clothing forever. There are other ways we can think about this.
Do you find that the Antiform brand looks after networks such as the swap shops, and all the community-based efforts? Is it important for your brand to be the umbrella of all of those happenings?
For me it is. I didn’t invent the clothes swap, but I think there was a bit of an identity crisis that existed in terms of reusing clothes — that idea of smelly clothes, jumble sales, that village hall feeling, charity shops; it really puts a lot of people off. When I started Antiform, I didn’t want to just preach to the converted, I wanted to challenge people about this idea of ‘new’ and ‘box-fresh’, and the story that is sold through the fashion media, always chasing newness. It could be new to you. You could still have that same thrill of purchasing. We’re trying to reposition the idea of second-hand clothing.
Do you feel that you’ve achieved that? Do you feel you’ve made a difference?
I’m always really impressed by the diversity of our customers and of the people attending the clothes swaps. It’s now transitioned into a community organisation and we have a board run by community volunteers, so it’s come out of the nest and has its own heartbeat. The clothes swap just stuck, and it took off. We couldn’t keep up with the momentum of it! If it continues to grow at the pace it did last year, we’ll train people from other parts of Leeds to set one up. That was the unanimous decision of our volunteers. It isn’t that we want to start an empire, but rather we want to help other people do this. I think it’s amazing to have bred that kind of philosophy into a project.