Ekocycle: Make Do and Mend for the 21st Century?

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‘Will.i.am is building a whole new world, one recycled micron at a time.’ That is the claim made by the website of Ekocycle, the brand he founded in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Company to promote, design and sell clothing made from recycled materials. The company sells trendy, eco-conscious clothing created in conjunction with many different designers both online and in Harrods.

The whole thing is done in a very over-the-top, very will.i.am-ish way. However, it’s hard to forget that what they’re doing is actually a really good thing. Amidst the silliness – ‘until now recycling hasn’t been the stuff of legend- not the best selfie material’ – there is a hard-hitting and important message. The website states: ‘we see sustainability as “the” revolutionary social material of our time. Efforts to combat climate change and green initiatives are often sidelined by propaganda and political shuffling- but our goal is to help sow the seeds of change…’

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Many of the garments are made from 100% recycled plastic or PET bottles and are produced using the most energy-efficient methods available. The aim is to encourage people to recycle by demonstrating how already used things can be turned into some new, completely different and exciting. The idea is to evolve from a clothing range into a whole movement, which encourages people to recycle and encourage others to follow suit.

Exploring the Ekocycle website, and snooping through their range in Harrods (perhaps the only retailer where a backpack can sell for £1,415), I am prompted to consider the role fashion has to play in the future of sustainable living. Fashion is, by its very nature, one of the least sustainable commodities. In today’s culture, where novelty and individuality are desired above all else, clothing is bought, worn and discarded on a near seasonal cycle. We are taught to value the new to such an extent that our clothing habits can become somewhat wasteful. We rush to buy cheap clothing that we can wear once and throwaway, to ensure that our look is constantly being updated. However, this is causing huge problems for our planet. An estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing (worth 140m) is thrown away each year. Consumers today need to learn to change their shopping habits from bulk-buying cheap, disposable clothing to reusing, adapting and upcycling old garments. Ekocycle is attempting to pave the way for a new consumer who shops ethically. The problem with this plan is the cost. It is inconceivable for most shoppers today to spend the kind of money Ekocycle is demanding for its clothing. Until sustainable fashion is more budget friendly, it seems the inevitable truth is that people will continue to buy the cheapest clothing they can, and indulge their desire to constantly refresh their wardrobe.

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However, this view of clothing as something disposable is very modern. During the Second World War, and in the years that followed it, clothing was rationed, and so it was seen as a precious commodity. Nothing was thrown away if it could be restored, and old things were constantly being adapted into new garments. Campaigns such as ‘Make Do and Mend’ encouraged the kind of resourcefulness that is lacking in today’s consciousness. People were expected to wear a garment until it no longer fit, or had lost all structural integrity, but then, instead of throwing it away, it was changed into something new by reusing the material.

Perhaps what Will.i.am and Ekocycle are doing isn’t so modern, despite the futuristic designs of their clothes. It seems, in fact, that they are merely resurrecting an old ideal of reusing and readapting to prolong the life of a material. Our Grannies- the kind of women who would repair continuously to avoid throwing something away- would recognise something of themselves in this brand. The old curtains and tablecloths that fill anecdotal evidence about wartime clothing have been replaced by plastic bottles, however the concept of turning something old into something new remains exactly the same.

‘Second Skin’ Exhibition at London’s City Hall

Jennifer Rothwell's garment

Jennifer Rothwell’s garment

Natalie B Coleman's garment

Natalie B Coleman’s garment

Joanne Hynes' garment

Joanne Hynes’ garment

London’s City Hall is perhaps the least likely venue for an exhibition on sustainable fashion, however it was the setting for the recent ‘Second Skin,’ an exhibition that first opened in Ireland and came to London for a week in late March. It was part of the Irish Design 2015 programme and posed a challenge to four Irish fashion labels to source and create a garment totally within Ireland.

Lennon Courtney's garment

Lennon Courtney’s garment

The exhibition, nestled right at the bottom of the round glass building, displayed the finished garments, as well as photographs from the process of their manufacture. Starting with a series of fairly shocking facts about the fashion industry, such as ‘the Chinese textile industry creates about three billion tons of soot each year,’ and ‘in the UK 1.4 million tons of clothing is dumped onto landfills annually,’ it highlighted the ethical issues caused by the production and consumption of clothing.  In the past three decades, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been consumed, and therefore it is vital that the fashion industry adapts its practices. There are, of course, also the humanitarian concerns that the production of clothing creates, such as the sweatshop conditions that many people, often young children, must work in to make the garments that we buy. It is often easy to overlook the ethical and environmental issues posed by the fashion industry, so displaying them so starkly is an important wake up call for many people. The objects on display in ‘Second Skin’ address these issues, as they are created using purely locally sourced materials and by Irish workers who were paid a fair wage.

 Curator Louise Allen writes that ‘today we have become used to fast fashion [however] we don’t tend to consider the collective impact of our individual buying patterns.’ This desire for cheap clothing that is not made to last is a fairly new phenomenon. For most of the twentieth century, the emphasis was on high quality clothing that could be worn for a long period of time. Our contemporary throwaway attitude is one of the main problems facing, and indeed caused by, the fashion industry, and something that the designers in ‘Second Skin’ seek to address.

The garments created by brands Natalie B Coleman, Joanne Hynes, Lennon Courtney and Jennifer Rothwell for the exhibition are the opposite of cheap, convenience clothes. They are handmade and unique garments, all inspired by aspects of Ireland. Natalie B Coleman, for example, was inspired by books from her childhood, such as ‘The Enchanted Wood’ series by Enid Blyton, and worked with textile artist Caroline Schofield to create objects both dark and whimsical. Jennifer Rothwell drew her inspiration from folklore and mythology, working with artist Harry Clarke to create a dress that resembled stained glass windows. She used vivid purples, blues, oranges and reds to depict the Eve of St Agnes. She claims to want to reignite the Celtic revival of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries today.

Sonya Lennon, of Lennon Courtney, worked with a local furniture designer to create the wooden shoulder pads that adorn her dress. She says that ‘the real value of producing in Ireland is in developing collaborative relationships.’ This intimate working relationship, that used to be so important in homemade and handmade clothes, is lost when garments are made by many different people who are part of a large system. Joanne Hynes also worked with local craftsmen to create her knitted garment, however, her use of 3D printing is aspirational and looks towards the future of textile production.

The 'Second Skin' exhibition space

The ‘Second Skin’ exhibition space

This exhibition served to highlight the importance of sustainability in fashion, especially in the years to come. It also showed how unique and beautiful clothing can be when created by local craftsmen and using locally sourced materials. It also provided an interesting insight into the contemporary fashion manufacturing process. The one shame is that it was on display in London for such a limited period, and in such an unheard of and little advertised exhibition space.

 Sources:

http://www.nationalcraftgallery.ie/secondskin/essay