CAFIN x ORSOLA DE CASTRO, CO-FOUNDER OF FASHION REVOLUTION
Orsola de Castro is a fashion designer, curator and campaigner. As the Creative Director of Fashion Revolution, she has shone a light on the fashion industry’s failings and rallied the world into asking for better solutions.
With Fashion Revolution Week full steam ahead, Rosie Harris from Catching A Fish In Norway spoke with Orsola to find out about her motivation, learn about the issues facing the fashion industry at present and inquire as to how we can bring about better change in fashion.
Photo credit: 1 Granary
CAFIN: How did you story start and what motivated you to focus on sustainability within fashion?
Orsola: I started in 1997 with a small brand called ‘From Somewhere’. I’m very much a creative and when I started the brand the reusing of materials was not called upcycling; sustainable fashion, ethical fashion - none of that existed.
My business started by crocheting around holes in Cashmere jumpers that were moth-eaten. We were very small initially, but it snow-balled quickly and we were soon being sold in high-end fashion stores and boutiques. We were about re-purposing, and with the growth, I had to find loads of things to customise. The brand was started very much from a creative need to tell stories, find things that were abandoned by others and bring them back to life. Our slogan at the time was ‘Redemption is Possible’.
It was because we grew so fast that I immediately became aware of the issue of waste. At that point, towards the end of the 90s, mass-production took a turn for the worse and fast fashion became mega established. I realized there was this massive massive problem that I could address by being a creative. That’s what really kick-started the rest of my career. I realized that as creatives there is a lot we can do and say that can affect the culture around us. I saw this as an opportunity to make amazing clothes with a very original story using lefts overs.
In 2006 the British Fashion Council approached me to curate a sustainable area at London Fashion Week, which I did and called Estethica. It ran between 2006 – 2014. That was a massive eye opener as I realized that there were a lot of brands internationally considering sustainable solutions and that were designing with sustainability in mind. What they needed was a uniting platform and a space where they could meet, showcase and be introduced to buyers, all under a very fashion umbrella.
The reason why we started Fashion Revolution was in response to the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. My voice, both as a designer, a curator and as a member of this community had grown in stature; and when the Rana Plaza disaster happened I realised something needed to be done now, and it needed to be wider and it needed to be more global. So, when one of my Estethica designers, Cary Summers, contacted me saying she had this idea for Fashion Revolution and asking whether I’d be interested in collaborating with her, I did. With me as Creative Director and Cary as Coordinator, we started Fashion Revolution.
So my personal journey is from that of a practitioner point of view, from a witness point of view. I saw the industry change under my very real eyes and so I understand this issue from a very intimate and personal angle. I’ve worked with brands from Tesco to Topshop to Speedo; I’ve showcased the high-end and the middle-end through Estethica. My own awareness was the spirit that made me interested in sustainability, which, in my case came from a creative and personal perspective first.
CAFIN: At the beginning did you find that people were resistant to the message you were trying to bring to the world?
Orsola: No, it was the other way around. In the beginning, people were really interested. When there wasn’t a stigma around sustainable or ethical fashion, when those words didn’t exist, people loved anything that was unique. That’s why my brand was successful. There was no bad will at all around the work or the message. We were the precursors of the movement that there is now, in terms of understanding waste. The stigma started happening in 2005, when, I think, the mainstream industry realised that this was going to be an epidemic.
It was still new as far as consumers were concerned, but I think the brands knew what was going to happen and there was an almost premeditated, very definite, ‘let’s put sustainable fashion down’ movement: “sustainable fashion is not good enough, ethical fashion is not good enough, none of it is fashion enough”. Then the media started saying “here is an ethical brand that you can actually wear”, implying that everyone else was unwearable! At that point around late 2004 / early 2005, the conversation surrounding these issues had increased, but it had a very negative effect on the industry; it became two clear factions: you were either sustainable or you were not. And the ones that weren’t were not interested in you; it was very much an upstream battle at that point.
CAFIN: At what point do you think it started to change back again?
Orsola: Now we are at tipping-conversation point. There is so much on offer now in terms of sustainability - 1000s of brands, organizations, ideas, innovations, and concepts but I do think, unfortunately, that Rana Plaza was the turning point. The inhumanity around the way we produce our clothes was so visible that it really provided a horrendous visualization of the problems that the industry was creating, as well as facing. It’s a little bit like the conversation around plastic which has increased in the media recently – it’s because we can see the plastic in our oceans, we can see the degradation that our waste is having on the environment.
Rana Plaza did that for the fashion industry, particularly for fast fashion. I don’t believe that fast fashion is the only culprit, but the light was shone on very cheap, disposable clothing, which was a very easy way to make the consumer aware that we could not exploit people for our love of a £2 pair of jeans. We are now at peak conversation.
CAFIN: How important is language when it comes to talking about sustainable fashion?
Orsola: There is a massive issue in the way that sustainability in fashion has been communicated and I think the wording is really important. I think if something is organic, you should take the time to say that it is, but you also want to talk about the cut and the fit. It’s not as if just because it’s made of an organic or sustainable material that everything else is being bypassed. We need to deformalize the conversation and the narrative around this and make it much more intimate and exciting. I would be more inclined to describe something as ‘organic’ or ‘fair-trade’, and shy away from ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ fashion as they are meaningless. Make it a part of the narrative instead of focusing on the narrative. Being organic is only a part of something that is beautiful; if it wasn’t organic it would not be less beautiful! Language is vital, we need to be careful with it.
CAFIN: You ran a hugely successful campaign with ‘who made my clothes?’, what can we do to minimize the problems facing the industry today and how can we incorporate sustainable practices into our lives?
Orsola: The beauty of the solution is that I could probably be here for a year if I told you all the things that could be done. The reality is that fashion relies on individualism and sustainability in fashion relies on individual solutions. So what is right for me isn’t necessarily going to be right for you. I went the whole hog and became a campaigner and travel all over the world telling people the bad news and the good news. The way that I explain it is that everybody right now understands that clothes don’t grow on trees; that there is a supply chain and that this supply chain is not sustainable, it is very convoluted, very difficult to comprehend, very non-transparent. So for me, consumers need to imagine that our own wardrobe and ourselves are at some-point in that supply chain, that clothes begin somewhere, they live with us and then we dispose of them.
We come about ¾ of the way in the fashion supply chain, so of course to ameliorate, to get it to work better we also need to be a part of the solution. It doesn’t help sitting here demonizing the problem or boycotting this and boycotting that. What is best is to analyse what is best and right for each of us as individuals. For some it will be not buying anything for a year, for others, mending all the clothes that they’ve got that are broken and not wearing. For others still, it could be swapping or learning how to do something new, like making your own clothes. There is not a one size fits all, in fact, that’s one thing that pisses me off the most about the industry right now – it’s so discriminatory. It’s the same with sustainability, it’s about finding out what the problems are and then which aspects of the conversation that are interesting to you.
Some people are much more drawn to the social aspect so they want to make sure people making their clothes are paid correctly; others are interested in an environmental conversation such as toxicity; some may want to find out more about sustainable materials. Some people are outright fashionistas and for them, it could be finding and supporting young brands that need custom and support. There are multiple solutions. But the first one will always be one’s own curiosity. Be curious about this. Sustainability is a very complicated issue and we need to celebrate that complexity and study it - it’s a new science, a new issue, so there’s a lot to be discovered. That’s the first step, as it’s only by informing yourself that you will know what the right action is for you to take.
CAFIN: Where can our readers find out more information about these issues?
Orsola: You can start with the Fashion Revolution website; we have great further reading, get-involved packs and fanzines - one is on the living wage and the other on waste. We try our best to inform audiences worldwide and are present in over 100 countries.
Other great resources can be found on Green Peace’s website and the Ellen Macarthur Foundation - who’ve published a great report on waste recently. The Global Fashion Agenda also has a great website full of information.
CAFIN: Moving forward, where do you think the power lies now, with new designers or consumers?
Orsola: The power is still with the money, the mainstream leadership. But the reason why I’m so excited is because in my life, first being a designer and then a curator and then a campaigner since 2006, I’ve been regularly speaking and teaching. That is the biggest change I’ve seen and it is palpable. when I started at Central Saint Martins there was not one mention of the word, and now I’m surrounded by students who actively seek me out to speak about these issues. This is the biggest change. I feel that I am an interim vessel between the last and next generation to take control. Each time a new batch of students come out of university, more of those kids are interested in these issues and more and more are talented as designers and communicators and as business people. So when they enter the mainstream they already know the right questions to ask. They are the CEOs of tomorrow. That is when the power shift will happen. That is the point of change for me.
CAFIN: Estethica finished as a platform in 2014; is there any sign of it re-emerging?
Orsola: Not in the forum that it had previously but I do believe that there is a massive massive gaping hole when it comes to showcasing fashion in general. So I’m keeping an open mind and I’m still working on showcasing ideas because I think the Fashion Week system is not working successfully, particularly for young designers right now. We’ve just had London Men’s Collection and it’s amazing and a triumph of creativity but how sustainable is it? How much are these brands selling? How much are they penetrating into the mainstream? How much are buyers prepared to buy and pay? There needs to potentially be a new system. What I think the most exciting thing happening right now is that pioneers don’t have any reference points to start from, so they make their own rules. This is a moment where in terms of creativity not just in design, but in communication, in selling, in business, in innovation, in material, this is really like ground zero so everything can grow from now. When I did From Somewhere I would say 90 percent of people would have described me as being mad, yet now so many other brands are doing similar things. This is what is very exciting, that now you can be really genuinely creative in the way that you start your proposition, whether it’s a fashion label or record label; the way you start can be very new which I find incredibly refreshing.
CAFIN: What sustainable brands are you particularly excited about at the moment?
Orsola: On a larger scale, I’m very interested in the work that Stella McCartney is doing. And I love what Reformation are doing. They’re both on opposite ends of the scale but both are innovating. Personally, my passion is with the very young and emerging and I very much believe that we need to look at upscaling 10,000 small brands, rather than putting energy behind just one. If I have to name drop who I’m very keen on now I’d say, Bethany Williams, Alexander Skelton and Bruno Pieters.
Fashion Revolution Week is here. Play your part by asking ‘Who Made My Clothes?’