Tailoring the Fashion Industry

You may have seen I was asked to give a talk to the industry late November for Sustain Wales (Cynnal Cymru). Now if there's anything worth knowing about me, besides my globophobia, it's that I am an awful public speaker. I'm not so much afraid to get up and talk, I can still very much articulate myself; I just tend to casually shake all over the place as my voice quavers. No idea why. Blame adrenaline. 

So the prospect of compiling a thirty minute speech and imparting whatever wisdom I could on individuals in the industry seemed too good an opportunity to decline. And we're also often reminded to step outside our comfort zones on a daily basis so I felt this a perfect time to do just that. It can't have gone too bad as I was offered a part time lecturing position on completion of my speech, yet another reminder to stay focused and create your own luck and opportunities. 

Given my recent success at addressing a room of my journey as a designer and my personal experiences which have led me to become so passionate about sustainability, I'd like to invite you to read through a selection of areas I covered in my presentation and hopefully my passion on the subject can translate through your screen. 

 Mid ramble in St Davids 2 Management Centre speaking to industry professionals about zero waste design and premium branding. 

Mid ramble in St Davids 2 Management Centre speaking to industry professionals about zero waste design and premium branding. 

I am a sole trader of my own clothing line Xandra Jane. I started my business in January and have already secured two London based stockists whilst recently being involved at a Pop Up event in the affluent area of Cowbridge. I have been a finalist for Sustainability Champion 2016 in the Sustain Wales Awards, and my debut capsule collection ZERO explores gender fluidity through a zero waste on textiles process.  I am focused on developing my profile as an Welsh pioneer in the sustainable and contemporary fashion field, and in the next twelve months I’m looking to draw the eye of the industry over the border into our creative land and show the world what we have to offer. Dare I say however advanced Wales may be in sustainability, I feel it’s running a little behind in what is has to offer in terms of high fashion, and certainly combining the two. 

I studied at The University of the Creative Arts, in their Epsom campus. There was incredible pressure to join the industry at your earliest opportunity through internships, which is how I found myself working alongside haute couturier Suzie Turner. The main role of an intern was to hand embellish these exquisite bespoke gowns, and for eight hours a day I would be sat individually sewing Swarovski crystals onto French lace. 

Suzie then trusted me to pattern cut for her. This was huge for an intern to be given such responsibility within an haute couture atelier, I’d experienced my first promotion… admittedly without the pay packet. And so another intern took my place amongst the team at the table and worked on the crystals. 30,000 Swarovski crystals were sewn onto this wedding gown. Each crystal required a double knot either side and should you touch your face, go outside for a cigarette or even sneeze or cough, you had to wash your hands in order to avoid tainting the cloth. It was my first introduction to the industry and the precision and accuracy within this world was to shape my future approach to design. 

After my time at Suzie Turner, I maintained contact, and still do to this day. About three weeks after I left, I get an e-mail from the studio telling me an intern had taken the lace to the heat press. £6,000 worth of work had been burnt on the iron - that was just the hem. The entire gown was scrapped. 6 months worth of work, 10 interns working 8 hours a day hand embellishing this fabric. Scrapped. Had I not been a pattern cutter, my entire time at Suzie Turner would have been spent working on a garment destined for landfill. You don’t recycle in haute couture. 

My university never taught a sustainable module. I spent thousands of pounds on toiles and collections, shout out to my Dad for the support. We weren’t allowed to recycle toile fabric as you had to document progression for coursework submission. Academically I understand the grading process, but wouldn’t photos, annotations and sketchbook analysis not suffice? They were training us for high end fashion, so only the finest cloth would do. Fellow students were marked down for shopping in Shepherd’s Bush as opposed to Soho. A university is an educational structure for the future generations. Sustainable fashion is the future. It’s a crying shame this was never brought to our attention. Instead year after year graduates are pushed into the industry with this wasteful nature of design. But design is all about problem solving, whichever medium you work in. So let’s solve the problems, as a designer this is the essence of our work. Anyone can churn out a white t-shirt in organic cotton, but how do I make something new, whilst tackling an issue at hand? 

 Fashion is second only to oil for how damaging it is to our environment, I learnt that through a Netflix documentary, not an educational system which I paid thousands to attend to learn the ins and outs of my industry. 

Fashion is second only to oil for how damaging it is to our environment, I learnt that through a Netflix documentary, not an educational system which I paid thousands to attend to learn the ins and outs of my industry. 

Have you heard of the fantastic movement Fashion Revolution and their slogan “Who made my clothes?” - and do you actually know who made your clothes? 

If you do that's great. So what I want to achieve at Xandra Jane extends that to ask: How long did it take and where did they make it? Where was the fabric sourced? Can you name the process from creation to wardrobe? 

             It’s frustrating that sustainable fashion requires a label. It’s clear that companies are beginning to pay attention to the increasing pressure, but all fashion should be sustainable. The demand for ethical products is evidently increasing, our customer is becoming progressively conscious of their mark. Making decisions to eat healthier, exercise more and generally be mindful of their consumer footprint. Yet there is no need to overwhelm our customer or ourselves. Taking small steps in the right direction can be the best approach. For example, with ZERO unfortunately I couldn’t afford organic fabric at the time, instead I ensured there wasn’t any textile waste. We can’t achieve the romantic status of eco warriors overnight, but we can do right by our customers, by our morals and by our planet and begin to make change. 

My partner first thought machines put certain garments together, like a car. But when one-in-six people are working in the global industry it’s obvious clothing passes through hands each day. So when a T-Shirt costs a fiver, who get’s short changed? 

At Xandra Jane, I offer my customer journey cards. Each one is unique and assigned to the relevant garment. They highlight who is involved in the chain of production, including, and I think importantly so, my interns who may simply cut fabric to create the yarn but are an integral part to the process none the less. As without interns, where would fashion houses be? 

Now I am laying my cards down: when I scramble for rent each month whilst setting up my business, I admit that yes, I don’t pay my interns - because I can’t afford to, unlike industry giants. I do take advantage of the free assistance available. A role I went through not that long ago, yet that leads me to work with compassion and ethics. My interns are in full time education at university, with an industry placement as a requirement for their course. They work two to three days a week, mostly at their convenience. Their hours are on average 9-4. Further to this I name them on the journey cards to give them the appreciation they deserve and I’m trying to introduce a commission basis where, if they design something I feel is in line with the Xandra Jane aesthetic, and I take it forward to production, I shall pay them. Ethics and sustainability go hand in hand. 

I want to talk about transparency. A brilliant company called Everlane go as far as to publish their pricing strategy so the customer can really see where their money goes. In such a capitalist trade we always feel cheated. Honest businesses will jump at the chance to answer questions from customers and respond to their reservations or queries. Our industry has lost trust; I say that from the perspective of a customer and a designer. These fast fashion sales at 75% off still make profit; so how extreme are these mark ups and production costs? I can’t get my head around a pair of jeans being able to cost £30. My journey cards offer transparency, build trust and reconnect my customer to their clothing. And it may currently be one of my USPs, but I couldn’t encourage brands to do this more! We need to stop competing in such a wonderful creative environment and start supporting each other towards the bigger goal.

            It’s also important to be aware that forcing this information down the customer’s throat is counter productive. I have varied target markets in which I reach, those that actively search for ethical and sustainable fashion (great!), and those who want stylish, fashion-forward luxury clothing. Yet by offering the information readily available and in a clear, gentle manner, many of these fashion hungry consumers have stopped to consider, and started to convert to our way of thinking. Plant the seed in their mind, nurture it through honesty, support and a fantastic product and you will see them returning for more and using the best advertisement tool around: word of mouth. Inject that trust into one customer, and you’ve already converted their friends.

 Credit: Everlane

Credit: Everlane

So, in terms of supply chain within ZERO, I begin the process by sourcing my jersey fabric from Leicester. As mentioned after returning from my time in London to set up my own business, I hardly had any money to inject into eco-lux fabrics, so the unfortunately the fabric doesn’t meet the organic ideal. To balance this, I then use a zero waste process to create the yarn in my atelier where my interns precisely measure two variations of strip sizes under my supervision and ensure the pockets are cut to shape to avoid scraps of fabric. They’re then sewn together without any offcuts, and formed into an oversized ball of yarn before being posted to Cornwall where my selected artisan Stacie, knits the garments on hand carved custom made needles.

    I can’t yet afford to board a plane to investigate the working conditions of foreign manufacturers, nor can I ensure zero waste is exercised within their walls. So keeping everything within the UK allows me to maintain a fair living wage for Stacie and monitor the sustainability of the process from design to creation. The garments are then sent back to me in Cardiff where I can carry out quality control, sew in the labels and assign the journey cards before updating stock on my website or sending them out to stockists. 

Moving forward, each Xandra Jane Autumn Winter collection will focus on zero waste in its approach and eventually, this will be inclusive of organic fabric. Though initially knitwear was a simple zero waste design solution, as you only use as much yarn as you need, I will be looking to progress to zero waste pattern cutting. This is basically the use of fabric as one big jigsaw puzzle, often achieved through drape on the stand. You can work to the design constraints of zero waste whilst still producing something new and fresh and often developing original silhouettes.

Exploring gender fluidity was another important factor to me when considering sustainable fashion. The essence of ZERO allows the garment not only to be passed down through generations, but genders. Half of my wardrobe consists of ‘men’s’ clothing. But I am looking to reverse the androgynous ‘tom-boy’ stereotype. As clothing is essentially an extension of your personality, what’s to say a man can’t wear a skirt or dress. Far too often in this industry I hear comments judging someone’s clothes or choice of outfit. As a designer, I don’t wish to dictate what you wear or how you should wear it; I simply look to offer you the sustainable option through an aesthetic that may appeal to you.   

And should the ZERO garment no longer find a place in your wardrobe, ultimately it can be unraveled and recreated into something new, like a throw, cushion cover or a garment of your choice. We often hear of designers who don’t want their clothes to have longevity, to keep sales coming in, but I couldn’t put my name to something that wasn’t going to last. I can draw my customer back with trust in my brand and inspiration in my ideas leading to a high quality, durable product. 

My Spring Summer collections take a different direction away from zero waste yet continue to celebrate sustainability. Currently working on my debut Spring Summer line CRYS, this focuses on the up-cycling of unloved garments and destroying the taboo of second hand clothing. I will be test trading my accessory line at an upcoming events throughout December showcasing entry-piece backpacks made from classic button down shirts. Sign up below for the latest and where you can find them!

            CRYS is Welsh for shirt and that’s the entire focus of the next line. I will be releasing unique garments that save clothes from going to landfill, all made entirely by myself in the atelier and no two items being the same. Should you not read the journey card, there is no way to tell the collection is made from ‘second hand fabric’. All of the recycled fabric is of impeccable quality, and with new clothing having to pass through a human touch to be created in the first place, what’s the difference between having been washed and handled that little bit extra? There’s no staining, no stereotypically associated stale second hand smell, it’s a real focus on reduce, reuse and recycle whilst maintaining to offer my customer new fashions.

Now what an idea it would be if charity shops took on the approach to up-cycle garments, and stock their own clothing lines. They could collaborate with students and the futures of design. Break the taboo of second hand clothing, reduce waste and discarded fast fashion, teach skills to communities! Fashion needs a face-lift, and the movement is bubbling under the surface. We all have a clear vision and an end goal of sustainability, it’s time to stop competing and start collaborating. 

Sustainable and ethical fashion can be high-end, innovative and push the boundaries of design, it doesn’t have to fall in the bracket of hemp dresses or boho chic. You may not like the aesthetic of Xandra Jane, but my role as a designer is to divide opinion, provide something new and test my own limits which is why it’s a job I love amongst an industry that could use some work. 

Alexandra Jane Wall1 Comment