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Livia Firth Highlights the Independent Designers Taking Matters of Sustainable Fashion in Their Own Hands

As we re-emerge into a new world with new values, emerging fashion designers will have an important role to play.

Sindiso Khumalo. Photo: Courtesy

When you look at the current fashionscape, you can often feel caught between a rock and a hard place – on one side fast fashion (aka disposable) and on the other luxury fashion (aka unapproachable). While these two suffered immeasurably due to the pandemic and still don’t have a clue on how to go forward, another sector has figured it out: the emerging and independent designers. Will 2021 be the renaissance for small producers giving us fashion as it used to be? With this question in mind, I turned to some of my friends to shed some light.

Stefan Siegel founded Not Just a Label in 2008 to showcase independent designers. “It’s sad that fashion needed something as catastrophic as the pandemic to happen so that it can finally adopt new systems. What we’re seeing now is what we’ve been predicting for years. There are still eight conglomerates holding on to what is left of the fashion industry. When we started Not Just a Label, we had 500 independent designers. Now we have 49 000! There is creativity coming from every country around the world. And there’s a right for them to exist. We’re also seeing new ways of running businesses as designers come up with things like cut-to-order, where they don’t make the product until they receive the order. There’s customization coming in, there’s personalization and, with that, there’s a different type of appreciation.”

Designer Sindiso Khumalo. Photo: Getty

Christopher Bevans, a former Nike designer and founder of Dyne.Life, is about to launch a game changer in the industry: The Hallway, a digital platform for emerging and independent designers to speak to each other and share textile orders, mills, and manufacturers to optimize their production. “Fashion never truly embraced technology in the way it easily could’ve done but chose not to, because of the way the infrastructure is being controlled. With my brand, I wanted to change the conversation around how you shop (by using Blue Bite NFC technology, for example) to disrupt the industry, disrupt retail, and connect with consumers in a more meaningful way. The Hallway is the evolution of all of this. It’s about creatives communicating directly, sharing everything, including sketches.”

Designer Priya Ahluwalia. Photo: Getty

This speaks to Sindiso Khumalo, the textile and fashion designer based in Cape Town, South Africa, who recently won best independent designer at the Green Carpet Fashion Awards. “The biggest struggle is access to materials or trade shows,” she says. “And even once you have access, you have the hurdle of minimum orders. But I’m positive because so much has happened in the last few months that has awakened consumer consciousness. My brand is intrinsically sustainable, since the way we operate is small and intimate. I’ve been approached twice by investors but I know what’s going to get compromised, and I’m not ready for that. For me, the future is about more brands that are intimate with people and the planet, rather than loads of big brands.”

Ahluwalia. Photo: Courtesy

Priya Ahluwalia, whose brand gives new life to vintage and deadstock clothing, says, “Big businesses run in the same way – they put profits over people constantly and consistently. It’s time to talk openly about the fact that white supremacy and sustainability are intrinsically linked. And we need to change this. For me, it’s been interesting that people are starting to wonder if workers are being treated fairly across the globe. We need to find a way of backing communities in other countries, while also supporting locally. At Ahluwalia, we have been thinking about ways that benefit our local community. Now the big question is, how can we change the collective mindset, when we get so many adverts from fast fashion online retailers? When what’s marketed as interesting is buying loads of clothes and looking different every weekend?” Bevans says, “These big brands never really know what to do; they always look to us, the smaller emerging brands, to validate them, not the other way around. But now emerging designers are building bridges in big ways. It’s our moment, and it’s going to stay our moment for a while.”

Designer Bethany Williams. Photo: Getty

Bethany Williams is a menswear designer committed to effecting social change by collaborating with new charities each season, while addressing problems from all angles of the industry, from agriculture to communication. She looks at what kind of fashionscape we could have in a few years from now: “We work with social manufacturing projects and I often wonder, in the years to come, if there were lots of smaller businesses like ours, working locally, would that be a better way? There wouldn’t be mass production and we would all source sustainably. This last year has shown us the power of coming together and as far as emerging brands go, I like the power of our collectiveness.”

Bethany Williams. Photo: Courtesy

Talking to all of them made me hopeful. I can see the tide changing, as Siegel explains so well, “The winning argument here is that independent designers can solve all the problems we have in fashion, because they can create items that are loved, that people do not throw away. They make something bespoke, they know their supply chain, they adopt zero waste policies, because they cannot afford to be wasteful. They don’t over-produce. It is sustainable fashion at its best.”

Read Next: A New Blueprint: Livia Firth Wants Us To Shop Ethical Denim, Here’s Why

Originally published in the January 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia

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