‘374’ is a collection of accessories and outerwear that includes: sleek, tan knee-high boots with a mid-heel; a belted suede mac with silver fastenings (and a second, interchangeable belt featuring cowhide pouches); a tan leather bucket bag with a silver clasp; suede mules; a cowhide jacket. Part of the collection – conceived, designed and created by Alice V Robinson – went on display at the V&A in 2019 as part of the exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate. Visitors were able to get a closer look at the solid silver plates and leather tags engraved and embossed with the number ‘374’, a reference to ‘Bullock 374’, a longhorn bullock from whom the entire collection was created.
Alice V Robinson graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2018. Her degree collection, the predecessor to ‘374’, involved her purchasing a sheep (‘11458’) from a farm nearby where she grew up, attending its slaughter and designing a collection to make use of the entire animal. The resulting cream-coloured knitted jumper, finger gloves and butter-toned leather bag, shoes and purse are elegant and contemporary. Burgers made from the leftover meat were served at the degree show, shocking some attendees.
Robinson’s approach to the ethical and environmental concerns of the fashion industry was based on the attempts of the food industry to tackle their own similar production problems. Using a by-product of meat, Robinson was able to address the issues around sourcing fashion’s materials: the hide of ‘374’ would have otherwise been incinerated, at cost to the farmer who raised him. Her resource-led process and a zero-waste objective enabled her to work creatively and respectfully within the limits posed by what was available: ‘it is all defined by the animal used’. While supply chains can be murky in both industries, Robinson’s small-scale, entirely localised production allowed for complete traceability and transparency. Her process also demanded slowness, that desirable but elusive antidote to rampant consumerism, leaving her ‘unable to stick to the same deadlines as others in my class’ as she awaited the completion of each step. Style, too, is one of the most significant aspects of the collections’ sustainability. Classic pieces designed and made thoughtfully from durable materials, they are built to last without needing replacement, thereby negating the need for future production.
It would be impossible to label this experiment as half-hearted greenwashing: it rips apart received ideas about sustainable fashion. Leather goods, like fur, have been demonised by some animal rights activists since the 1990s (unlike fur, however, leather remains prevalent and widely accepted) and, as in the food industry, veganism is considered by many to be the only ethical and environmentally-sound choice. Instead, Robinson confronts the reality of the cycle of production and consumption, including the violence, sometimes overlooked, that is undeniably present within the fashion industry. By identifying the once-living source of her materials by name, Robinson plays on the shame of many carnivores who admit that they would feel uneasy witnessing the death of their future food, or in this case, garment. The numerical name tricks the viewer-consumer, putting a figure to a life and, once the significance is illuminated, revealing the distance created between that life and its outcome. Wearing, like eating, is an embodied experience, which adds emotional weight to the subjects of fashion and food. Robinson’s method is certainly shocking to consumers accustomed to facing only the end product but, in some ways, violence seems the appropriate response to a system that is so frequently violent to its workers and ecosystem, in often only thinly veiled ways.
The ethics of Robinson’s project are far from clear-cut, but her exploration is valid and thoughtful. In its refusal to shy away from reality, it demonstrates a kindness that is missing from many attempts at sustainability in fashion. By borrowing lessons from the food industry, it builds ‘a bridge between farming and fashion where values between the two [are] mirrored’. This uncomfortable collection reveals that the most important directive for a sustainable system is to keep questioning, experimenting and reworking, because there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution.
By Lucy Corkish
Catherine Flood and May Rosenthal Sloan, Food: Bigger than the Plate (2019)
Alice V Robinson, personal website (https://alicevictoriarobinson.com)
Rebecca Speare-Cole, ‘Budding London designer who makes clothes from entire animals to promote zero waste on show at V&A’ (2019) (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/budding-london-designer-who-makes-clothes-from-entire-animals-to-promote-zero-waste-on-show-at-v-a-a4230996.html)
Rosario Morabito, ‘Fashion is a living thing: the RCA fashion show 2018’ (2018) (https://www.vogue.it/en/vogue-talents/fashion-schools-vogue-talents/2018/06/22/rca-royal-college-of-art-londra-fashion-show-students-2018/?refresh_ce=)