Friday, 29 January 2016

REVIEW: The Ethical Fashion Show January 2016

As you might have spotted recently from my Twitter and Instagram, last week I attended the January edition of the Ethical Fashion Show, a bi-annual event taking place during Berlin Fashion Week with over 160 eco-friendly and sustainable fashion brands from 19 countries. I was really looking forward to seeing what had changed since the last time I visited the show in July 2015, and I wasn't disappointed - there were even more brands, a bigger exhibition space, and what felt like a much greater emphasis on style and aesthetics, with the designers focusing on their place in the fashion world just as much as on ethical and sustainable production.

The Ethical Fashion Show has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 2009, and is now a fully-fledged industry event lasting three days, with two separate catwalk shows boasting the best in sustainable design. To exhibit at the trade show, brands have to demonstrate their adherence to strict ethical and environmental criteria, with at least 70% of their collections meeting these standards, and also show their commitment to social responsibility and transparency in their business practices.

This year, the theme of the show was "Circularity", a topic gaining more and more importance around the world as both brands and governments realise that simply switching to 'natural' alternatives will not be enough to tackle the growing problem of single-use products and the waste generated as a result. Fashion plays a huge role in this, both through the millions of tonnes of unwanted clothing sent to landfill every year and the less obvious, but perhaps more dangerous, phenomenon of microfibre pollution.

So what does "circularity" mean in a fashion context? For the denim brand and winner of "Sustainable Business Model of the Year", MUD Jeans, the ‘circular design’ principle of repairing, recycling and re-wearing forms the core of its business, and it's an idea that's catching on - just check out Adidas's shoes made from trawled ocean plastic or Sweden's new clothes sharing initiative. Other brands exhibiting at the Ethical Fashion Show are also tackling the topic in new and innovative ways - whether that's using sustainable and fully biodegradable materials like accessories brand Rewrap, or making new garments from excess fabric scraps, such as clothing label Reet Aus.

Examples of 'circular' design from Rewrap and Reet Aus
Of course, the challenge facing any sustainable brand today is how to grow its business and convert more customers, which was the topic covered in Tuesday's opening panel discussion, “Eco-fashion on the sales floor: how the conventional fashion trade can integrate eco-fashion into its assortment”. The panel consisted of retailers who already had experience of stocking eco-friendly brands, as well as those on the start of their ethical journey, who were all of the opinion that the biggest challenge facing the sustainable fashion industry is how to educate the customer, whilst breaking down existing stereotypes about what "green" fashion really is.

The main takeaway from the discussion was that price and style still come first in the customer's mind, with any additional eco-friendly aspects merely a bonus. Today's eco-brands have to be style savvy and keep pace with conventional fashion brands, so that customers will want to wear their products first, before discovering what they are and where they come from. This philosophy works because it opens ethical brands up to the whole fashion market, rather than a small subset of 'conscious consumers' - demonstrating why brands such as Reformation and Matt & Nat, who advertise their fashionability first and sustainability second, have been so successful.
Lessons in sustainable style from Reformation and Matt & Nat
The good news however, is that according to the retailers, demand for ethical fashion is growing, with younger customers in particular more aware and therefore more likely to ask questions. The current trend for 'Scandi chic' - minimalistic forms and a pared-down colour palette - has also had a profound influence on sustainable brands, with its timeless aesthetic lending itself beautifully to the quality fabrics and thoughtful design that place ethical fashion somewhere between premium and mass market. The labels at this year's Ethical Fashion Show had definitely upped their game from last year, with their upcoming SS16 collections all showing off a much cleaner and more confident look than the previous AW15 season. My clear favourites were Elsien Gringhuis for premium designer style, Muka Va for playful prints and Oh My Bag for classic leather accessories. All in all I had a great day, and I'm already looking forward to what the next season's edition this summer will bring!

Clockwise from top: separates from Elsien Gringhuis, classic leather from Oh My Bag, prints from Muka Va
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