Thursday, February 26, 2009

London on parade to show that ethical clothes can cut it on the catwalk

London Fashion Week has a longstanding reputation for creative exuberance. But yesterday it became clear that the city was gunning for a more grown-up label too: that of the most ethical of the four leading fashion capitals.

The British Fashion Council, who organise the five days of shows, chose to open the event not with a high-energy extravaganza from a bright young thing, but with the launch of Estethica, its showcase of ethical designer fashion.

The ethical initiative, now in its sixth season, has gained such standing that it has won government backing. Yesterday, Defra chose the event to launch its Sustainable Clothing Action Plan - Scap as it is rather unglamorously known.

Drawn up by leading names in fashion manufacturing and retail, Scap outlines commitments to make fashion more sustainable throughout its lifecycle - from design, to manufacture, to retail, to disposal. Many of the actions pledged by those involved are already underway and aim to have a marked effect on the environmental impact of throwaway fashion which sees two million tonnes of clothing end up in landfill every year.

As part of the deal:

• Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's have pledged to increase their ranges of Fairtrade and organic clothing, and support fabrics which can be recycled more easily.

• Tesco is banning cotton from countries which use child labour.

• Oxfam and other charities will open more sustainable clothing boutiques featuring high quality second-hand clothing and new designs made from recycled garments.

• The Centre for Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion will be resourced to provide practical support to the clothing sector.

• The Fairtrade Foundation will aim for at least 10% of cotton clothing in the UK to be Fairtrade material by 2012.

Lord Hunt, the minister for sustainability at Defra, boomed that he was "fantastically excited" to be launching the action plan at fashion week. From a lectern on the catwalk and dressed in a crumpled suit, Hunt said: "I couldn't think of a better place to be launching the roadmap."

Estethica aims to bring together like-minded ethical designer labels. It was founded by the fashion council three years ago to raise the profile of eco-sustainable fashion, making its image more cutting-edge and less worthy. The 37 designers in the showcase must adhere to at least one of Estethica's three principles: organic, fair trade or recycled.

Peter Ingwersen, the founder of Esthetica's most high-end label, Noir, said: "We all look to inspire the industry and consumers that sexiness, luxury, fashion, corporate social responsibility and ethics can work in harmony together without compromising style."

Yesterday's Noir collection highlighted the point that ethical fashion needn't be dowdy. The look on the catwalk was elegant with an edge, with a restrained colour spectrum that ranged from black leather to navy silk. Antique gold sequins and exposed zips provided the details.

This year London Fashion Week is celebrating its 25th birthday, but in keeping with the economic climate no inappropriately lavish parties have been planned. Instead, organisers are stressing that even in a recession, fashion matters. Figures were released showing that the event is worth £20m to the capital's economy in direct spending - from hotel bookings to food and drink - and generates clothing orders worth £100m.

The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, gave support earlier in the week by pledging to spend £40,000 to make sure that the world's top buyers attend. It had been feared that international buyers from the US would tighten their purse strings by skipping the event altogether and flying straight from the New York shows to Milan. A fear made more palpable by the fact that London Fashion Week has, this season, been squeezed into fewer days with longer hours. Johnson said: "Fashion, like other creative industries, plays a vital role in London's economic success. It is essential that we do everything we can to support the fashion industry." The investment from the London Development Agency will be used to fund 30 key buyers' trips to the event.

Despite the serious focus and the tighter schedule, fashion week is not expected to be a dull affair. Hilary Riva, chief executive of the fashion council, said: "It would be trite to say that the recession won't affect us, but London's designers have never had big budgets, and creativity comes out of the conditions our designers work in anyway. We've always been poor."