Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forget Hippy — Ethical Fashion is Hip


Retailer interest in apparel brands that guarantee workers' rights and are environmentally friendly has reached such a peak that manufacturers now worry whether they can keep up with demand.

Until recently relegated to the fringes of the fashion world, ethical brands are fast becoming more mainstream. Widespread media coverage of the movement — plus platforms at events like Paris's Prêt-à-Porter trade show and London Fashion Week — have raised the profile of ethical fashion, so designers are becoming less concerned about how to find distribution than how to manage big orders.

"I don't know how we'll do the quantities," said Peruvian-born designer Judith Condor-Vidal, whose clothing and accessories made by 26 fair-trade cooperatives in South America and Asia will feature in PPR-owned La Redoute's winter 2007 catalogue.

"In the same way as people want to know where their chicken is from, they want to know where their clothes come from."
Averyl Oates, Harvey Nichols

As well as La Redoute, the ethical fashion movement has succeeded in capturing the attention of a broad spectrum of retailers, including high-end specialty chains.

"We've been watching this movement, looking at eco-type brands which have a strong fashion statement first," said Barbara Atkin, fashion director at Canada's Holt Renfrew, which has picked up Danish socially conscious brand Noir for spring.

"We're of the opinion that you can be fashionable and care about the world," added Averyl Oates, buying director at Harvey Nichols. The British retailer is hunting for other brands to stock alongside Noir, which it has carried for two seasons, and Edun, which it picked up this year. Edun is the socially conscious clothing brand created by Ali Hewson, Bono and designer Rogan Gregory.

"Provenance is key for consumers," Oates said. "We're finding that like the food market, in the same way as people want to know where their chicken is from, they want to know where their clothes come from."

Sales of ethically sourced clothing, which includes organic cotton, fair-trade clothes and recycled items, grew 30 percent in the U.K. to 43 million pounds, or $81 million at current exchange, in 2004, according to the Co-operative Bank's Ethical Consumerism report. Meanwhile, ethically motivated secondhand clothing purchases increased 42 percent to 383 million pounds, or $718 million.

While more recent statistics are not yet available, this year's Ethical Fashion Show, which took place in Paris from Oct. 13 to 16, suggests that growth isn't likely to slow anytime soon. More than 4,000 visitors, including scores of international media, attended the four-day event, a 54 percent jump over 2005. Featuring 60 brands from five continents, the third edition of the trade fair demonstrated how much the ethical category has diversified over the last year. Literally combining grassroots and high-end, designers ranged from newcomers like Yagan, a Chilean jewelry brand made from woven grass reeds, to better-known names such as Edun.

In addition to carrying ethical brands, major retailers are recruiting designers to make collections exclusively for them. La Redoute, for example, has carried its own fair-trade collection for two seasons and this year awarded two designers at the Ethical Fashion Show the opportunity to develop items for its winter 2007-2008 catalogue. Items by the winners, Brazilian brand Tudo Bom and Judith Condor-Vidal, will be available to La Redoute's 13 million subscribers next June. While Condor-Vidal had initial concerns about how she'll manage the orders, the designer, who is a member of the International Fairtrade Association and the U.K.'s Ethical Fashion Forum (EFF), is also an economist.

"It's an amazing opportunity. If big companies buy it, there is a much bigger impact," she said. "If I can help more people, well, that's my role."

Condor-Vidal has begun another partnership with hot U.K. retailer Topshop. The chain will take a collection of Bolivian waistcoats shunned by other retailers that have been redesigned by fashion students to create a line of handbags for spring-summer.

And Topshop announced at the Ethical Fashion Show that the winning designs of a Design4Life Ghana competition it supported are to be retailed at the chain. The competition was run by EFF in collaboration with the nongovernmental organization Tabeisa. The two winners' batik dresses, produced by Women in Progress, a Ghana-based fair-trade cooperative, will be available this spring.

"EFF on this occasion brought Topshop buyers to the table initially as judges," explained Elizabeth Laskar, director of global communications and events at EFF. "Through dialogue, this led to an even more positive outcome."

The backing of the fast-fashion retailer has lent kudos to the term "ethical" and given new confidence to aspiring designers hoping to tap into demand for fashion-forward yet ethical clothing and accessories.

"Brands need to tell a compelling story," said Holt Renfrew's Atkin. "But consumers have to love it and be drawn it to first. Then when they find out that by buying [a brand] they are making a difference, they feel great."

Those were the motivations behind Numanu Label of Love, a collection created using fair-trade and organic silk, cotton and wool, which will open a freestanding boutique in Paris's lively Marais neighborhood next month.

Founded by Anglo-French couple Olivia Lalonde and Emmanuel Walliser, the brand is designed "to attract people who are maybe less informed about fair trade who just like the clothes," according to Lalonde.

Consumers then find out that by buying a silk top, they have helped support marginalized communities in India and Cambodia. Lalonde's former career as a children's rights campaigner and Walliser's as an international banker makes for a formidable business objective: "To create as big a commercial base for Numanu as possible in order to maintain sustainable incomes for the largest number of people," Lalonde explained. The brand, which won the Ethical Fashion Show 2006 award, donated two-thirds of its prize money to its cooperatives.

Likewise Les Racines du Ciel (The Roots of the Sky, in English), a year-old brand, takes its name from a 1956 novel by Romain Gary about the environment. The moniker is meant to highlight its commitment to environmental issues. Yet the quality and softness of the recycled kimonos, silk and organic cotton tops, in soft pinks and grays, are designed to draw a fashion-conscious customer who might be surprised to learn the items are naturally dyed with sweet potatoes and mud.

Nathalie Goyette, the brand's development manager, first saw the natural dyeing techniques when on a trip to China years ago. She kept some material, and a chance meeting with a Chinese student in France connected her to a supplier who helped create the environmentally sound collection. Demand has since boomed. "I started out ordering 50 meters of fabric, and now it's more than 1,000," she said.

Similarly, the founders of six-month-old brand Fées de Bengale (Fairies of Bengal in English) place fashion and ethics on a level footing. Their feminine collection of organic silk and cotton tops targets concept stores and ethically focused boutiques, yet the brand's name conjures up images of the women who hand-sew the collection in India.

"It's a mutual exchange. We wanted to make the most of the women's savoir faire," said Elodie Le Derf, the brand's stylist who previously worked at Vanessa Bruno, explaining the couturiers give them feedback and ideas for designs.

Art. 23, founded by the French Fair Trade Co. in September, is also aiming for a chic yet caring image. The trendy collection of minimalist shirtdresses and tuxedo-inspired shirts was designed by Adam Love, who has worked with Karl Lagerfeld and Antik Batik, yet its name pays homage to its social commitments, providing a decent living for the disadvantaged women who make it in India. Referring to Article 23, the universal declaration of human rights, "immediately prompts consumers to think of the respect of human rights," said Art. 23 commercial director Marie Mamgioglou.

As ethical brands multiply both in number and in style, not to mention marketing savvy, so do calls for greater transparency across the entire supply chain. Participants at this year's Ethical Fashion Show had to answer a nine-page questionnaire covering environmental issues and workers' rights, as well as social and business objectives. Each brand's ethical claims were then identified for buyers, either fair trade, traditional skills, recycling, organic or social projects.

Show organizer Isabelle Quéhé said deciding on a definition of what is in fact ethical is problematic. For Quéhé, pure silk ready-to-wear pieces and evening gowns from designer Torgo based on traditional Mongolian costumes epitomize what is ethical.

"It's about promoting the traditions in less-wealthy southern countries, where the older generation is dying — and that savoir faire with them," she said.

Equally, designers using recycled materials, such as Bilum, which makes funky bags from advertising posters and seat belts, fit her definition. And for the first time the show featured a Canadian designer who employs recycled fur. Quéhé's reasoning: "If it wasn't reused, it would be thrown away in land-fill sites. It's less polluting to recycle it."

The more the ethical clothing category continues to grow, the less it seems another passing fad.

"[Ethics] are part and parcel of modern life," said Harvey Nichols' Oates, pointing to the popularity of Al Gore's documentary on the environment, "An Inconvenient Truth," as evidence of growing sensibilities. "We are not saying that fashion is going to change the world," said Quéhé, "but these amazing stories are just many more drops in the ocean.

"http://50rx3annex.blogspot.com/2006/10/wwd-ethical-fashion-coverage.html

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