The world of sustainable fashion in Islington _DSC0006 Full view

The world of sustainable fashion in Islington

London Fashion Week returned this spring, showcasing 97 Autumn/Winter catwalk shows over five days. While reasserting the capital’s status as a leader in the global fashion industry the event also emphasised the absence of eco-friendly brands within the business

Clothes recycling near St. John Street in Islington


Despite the British Fashion Council’s Estethica initiative, founded in 2006 in the hope of prompting sustainable brands such as People Tree, Ada Zanditon and Beautiful Soul London, LFW’s 5,000 visitors this year were focused on fast fashion brands like Topshop and House of Holland.

A recent report by the London Waste and Recycling Board found that 130,000 tonnes of textile clothing from the capital go to landfills each year. The board’s Textile Reuse and Recycling Fund aims to recycle and re-use 5% of that waste.

Islington and Shoreditch are famous for their hipster approach to fashion, with numerous vintage, charity and eco-friendly community projects across both boroughs, but will these initiatives ever be enough to significantly reduce our textile carbon footprint?

Second hand shop blogger Anmarie Bowler predicts the interest in vintage clothing is here to stay. “There will always be some of us who enjoy second hand clothing more than brand new. There’s a creativity in second hand clothing, a chance to style yourself in a manner is both classic and contemporary,” she says.

Bowler runs the blog HuntressLondon, focusing on second hand clothing pieces found across the capital. Her play RE:TALE opened at the Hen and Chickens Theatre in Highbury in March. The story centres on women and their relationship with their clothes, and was inspired by her previous job as a shop owner.

Bowler started a blog focusing on second hand brands to share the personal excitement of a vintage find. “For me, traditional high street shops are so predictable. I love the stories behind classic brands, clothing that has had a life before it reaches me.”

She was born in America but now hunts through London’s thrift shops, such as the Sue Ryder Charity Shop near Highbury and Islington station. She recommends to look in charity shops near where you live, “because the trick is to go in often and know what you’re looking for”.

Despite the many positives of recycled clothing, her previous life as a shop owner has made her careful when shopping vintage. “Quality in second hand is important, it must be well constructed. If it’s falling to pieces, I don’t want it,” she says.

Similarly determined to change negative perceptions of recycling clothing is Judith Paris from Thrifty Couture, an organisation which runs workshops for young people to learn about ‘upcycling’, the process of converting waste into new materials.

The 2008 financial crisis was a driving force for Paris to start up an eco-friendly textile charity. Having already founded GetMoreLocal, an organisation which supports social enterprises in local communities, her second venture was closer to her heart.

“I have always up-cycled ever since I was a kid and the principle of reusing, recycling or reworking was instilled in me by my mum,” she says.

Thrifty Couture came into fruition through the Future Jobs Fund, a scheme set up to curb the growing unemployment among 18-24 year olds. Over 100 young people were asked to set up a series of social enterprises that focused on local production and consumption. One of the winning ideas was to recycle clothing and remarket it to local residents.

Paris found that “not one of the 63 young women in the team could sew. Several were ideal cat-walk material, and a few had actually studied fashion marketing, but not one could thread a needle.”

Paris finds creatively upcycling textiles rewarding and doesn’t even draw a salary at Thrifty Couture. The organisation runs initiatives such as Kool Kouture, a five-month programme of free after-school workshops to introduce the basic techniques of, and approaches to, ‘slow’ or sustainable fashion. The project incorporates fashion shows, showcasing upcycled kaki tops, evening gowns and bags accessorised with unloved ribbons.

Unlike recycling, which generally involves breaking down the original material and making it into something else, upcycling reimagines the use of an object without changing the original material. “When we run swishing workshops, we don’t undertake complex reworking but usually demonstrate how an old once-loved piece of clothing can be resuscitated at no cost,” says Paris.

She isn’t planning to move Thrifty Couture out of Islington anytime soon, hoping to make the most of gentrification in the area.

“Islington is a borough of extremes: extreme wealth and dire poverty. The wealthy are the source of good quality garments and the poor are recipients of great clothing and, if they want, the training to show them how to rework and resell these garments.”

Despite the popularity of second hand clothes, the market price of used clothing has fallen dramatically in the UK. Those shops that have managed to survive a series of closures in 2013 are still struggling to stay in business.

Paris says she is realistic about the impact that Thrifty Couture can have on the environment.

“It would need a sea-change in consumer behavior for reworking to have a significant impact on the 30 million tonnes of textile and clothing thrown into landfill in this country,” she says.

There may be inevitable difficulties but Paris has help in her quest to strive for a more sustainable textile future. Her partner, ReWorks, specialises in sampling reworked redundant stock for small manufacturers in the East End, as well as larger high street brands. ReWorks saves about 20 tonnes of ex-military and vintage garments from landfill every year, “which brings incremental change in consumer purchasing behaviour,” according to Paris.

Thrifty Couture’s success is also based on local trust. Paris believes that “if it’s good business, then it’s sustainable. To date, cheap oil has fuelled the import of cheap clothing. There is no more cheap oil. Relocalisation of production is going to change the landscape of high street fashion, and to keep those shoppers happy who are used to £3 t-shirts, shareholders are going to have to ‘bite the bullet’.”

The students and volunteers still find ways to use Primark rags though. “They make good pieces for beginners to start on, before they move on to that vintage dress they found in Shoreditch.”

Although the UK fashion industry generates more than £26bn for our economy every year, it’s estimated that a third of all clothing bought in the UK ends up in a landfill. Companies like Thrifty Couture and individuals like Anmarie Bowler are doing their bit to reduce our carbon footprint, but unless more businesses are willing to join them, their effort will likely remain a drop in the ocean.

Written by Kate Moore

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