Six fashion brands are pushing circular design beyond recycling


A new book from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation features pioneering fashion designers and brands who share their approach to designing for a circular economy. Here, editor-in-chief Elodie Rousselot selects six of the most innovative.

The Circular Design for Fashion book is part instruction manual, part manifesto and features practical insights from over 88 contributors ranging from luxury conglomerates to independent labels from London to Lagos.

Following on from the foundation’s more general guide to circular design, this latest publication focuses on the global fashion industry, which emits more greenhouse gases each year than France, Germany and the UK. United united. Eighty-seven percent of textiles used to make clothing end up incinerated or landfilled.

Nigerian label Orange Culture (top image) contributed to the book Circular Design for Fashion (above)

But over the past few years, many brands and designers in this space have started taking steps to remove waste and pollution from the lifecycle of their products.

“I think we are seeing a beautiful moment in the industry, where many are actively looking at how they can change their businesses and how they design products that fit the circular economy,” said Rousselot, head of strategic design. . at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Circular design is about regeneration

This means thinking beyond end-of-life solutions, such as turning plastic bottles into T-shirts, and moving instead towards the active regeneration of ecosystems and local communities.

“Circularity is about designing for systems change, for a future where instead of being a source of global challenges like climate change or biodiversity loss, industry can become a solution to those problems,” explained Rousselot.

“Fashion is a huge lever in the global economy because it touches all of us, and it also has ties to how we manage land and agriculture because of the crops we use to produce fiber. “, she added.

“All of the contributors we have in the book go beyond designing aesthetically appealing and sustainable products with sustainably sourced materials, and integrating aspects of community, place, and design for a better system.”

In his research, Rousselot has found that this shift from an exploitative to a reciprocal relationship with nature often goes hand in hand with the rediscovery of indigenous knowledge and expertise.

“There is a real movement back to what is already known,” she says. “Circular design is a new thing in Western countries. But when you talk to some designers in China or Africa, they’ll tell you that’s how they do things.”

Below, Rousselot highlights six contributors to the book who are leading the charge towards a circular fashion industry.

Model holding tote bag with flowers from Orange Culture's SS22 lookbook, photographed by Jolaoso Wasiu Adebayo
The photo is by Jolaoso Wasiu Adebayo

Orange Culture by Adebayo Oke-Lawal

Adebayo Oke-Lawal designs flowing garments that are produced using a 90% local supply chain in Nigeria that covers everything from material sourcing to dyeing and printing.

Through his Lagos-based label Orange Culture, the designer ensures that the money stays in the community while educating his suppliers and staff on sustainable production methods so they can translate the learnings into other projects.

“Orange Culture uses offcuts from its manufacturing process to form new products or elements such as the lining,” Rousselot said.

“They’ve also started asking their customers to return unwanted clothes, so they can be turned into new clothes and resold. It’s more than a repair service. It’s almost like giving another clothing story.”

Model wearing beige puffer jacket by Christopher Raeburn

Raeburn by Christopher Raeburn

Christopher Raeburn began working with surplus fabrics and garments while studying fashion design in London in the early 2000s, buying unworn 1950s military jackets for £1 each and turning them into new ones clothes.

Since then, he has worked to step up the use of salvaged materials for mass production through his own British Fashion Award-winning Raeburn brand, as well as transitioning Timberland to regeneratively grown leather in his role. creative director of the footwear brand.

“He was one of the first to bring this practice to a commercial scale, in a way that was appealing and different from what you would expect from an ‘eco brand,’” Rousselot said.

“The community he creates around circular design is the best thing about his job. He now has a space in east London where his team run workshops so people can learn new techniques and sew together. “

Woman holding a chicken while wearing a fluffy white cardigan from the Chinese brand Icicle

Icicle by Ye Shouzeng and Tao Xiaoma

Founded by husband-wife duo Ye Shouzeng and Tao Xiaoma in 1997, Chinese brand Icicle relies on five core materials – cashmere, linen, wool, silk and cotton – which are responsibly sourced and minimally processed to keep the emphasis on the natural beauty of the fibres. .

All of the brand’s design and manufacturing is done in-house in its own factories, to ensure traceability while safeguarding the well-being of garment workers.

“They bring this different perspective to circular design, which is based on traditional Chinese philosophy and goes against the Western idea that we are born, we die and then that’s it,” Rousselot said.

“In many Eastern countries, life is already seen as a circular system of reincarnation. So the philosophy of the Tao is to live in moderation and in balance with nature. It’s a very regenerative way of looking at life. and Icicle really brings that philosophy to every detail of what they do.”

Pile of discarded household linen to be turned into clothes Marine Serre

Navy Tight

Beyond her crescent moon print, French designer Marine Serre is known for making 50% of all her collections from upcycled textiles such as linens (above), rugs and towels.

Winner of the prestigious LVMH award in 2017 and stocked by major retailers such as Selfridges and Browns, Serre’s work shows that trash can have a place in the luxury fashion space – despite its dirty reputation.

“She is extremely avant-garde in the way she designs with these textiles,” Rousselot said. “In fashion design, students are typically taught to define a color palette that will guide their collection, and then find the fabrics to match.”

“But of course when you start designing for the material, that guides the color palette and everything else in your collection, so that’s a totally different place to start.”

Man wearing yellow crochet hat, white shit and black jacket from the Fibershed and Phoebe English collaboration for COP26
The photo is by Asia Werbel

fiber shed

Fibershed is a non-profit that helps brands access hyper-local textile supply chains, using regenerative farming practices that trap carbon in the soil rather than just emitting it.

Working with her regional branch in South East England, designer Phoebe English recently created a range of clothing presented at the COP26 climate conference (above), for which all textiles were grown, dyed , spun and processed within a radius of 250 kilometers around it. London workshop.

“This approach means you’re not growing acres of cotton, you’re growing different types of crops that naturally thrive in the area, like nettle or hemp,” Rousselot said.

“These crops are grown in a way that is balanced with the environment and actually helps rebuild soil health, sequester carbon and combat biodiversity loss.”

Close up of the weaving process of Dakala fabric by Nkwo Onwuka using blue and orange yarn

Nkwo by Nkwo Onwuka

British-Nigerian designer Nkwo Onwuka has developed a new African textile called Dakala, which looks like hand-woven fabric but is made by stripping and sewing together discarded pieces of denim.

With the aim of “turning waste into wealth”, she is now training local women in Abuja to use their skills in traditional textile craftsmanship to create new clothes from the mountains of clothing waste that has been shipped to Nigeria from Western countries.

“She also started looking to source cotton locally,” Rousselot explained. “Nigeria does not grow much cotton, but unlike Kyrgyzstan where it is a cause of desertification, in Nigeria it can grow under rainfed conditions and therefore does not require additional irrigation.”

“She creates this system where the profit is distributed locally so that the living and working conditions of local communities can improve through her activity.”

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