Apr 8, 2019
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Bethany Williams: Luxury brands must take the lead on sustainability

Apr 8, 2019

2018 may have been the year that sustainability outgrew its status as a niche issue in fashion, at least if the surge in demand for eco-friendly clothing is anything to go by. It’s good timing for the labels driving change in the sector – including that of British rising star Bethany Williams.  The 29-year-old menswear designer is hoping to create change in the industry with her sustainable eponymous label, encouraging a move towards more ecological, ethical and socially conscious models, she tells FashionNetwork.com.

Bethany Williams

A graduate of the joint art residency programme organised by the London College of Fashion with Ermenegildo Zegna, the designer has so far found few obstacles in her roadmap to success. Since launching her first collection in June 2017, she has won the Queen Elizabeth II award and become a finalist for the 2019 LVMH Prize. The label also counts nine global stockists including top luxury multibrand retailers and global concept stores such as Farfetch, Not Just A Label, Galeries Lafayette, L’Eclaireur, and Seoul’s Rare Market. 

The success of the label comes at a critical point for sustainability in the industry as environmentally conscious consumers show a rising interest in traceability and ethical brands. At the same time, fashion brands are also coming under increasing pressure to reduce their environmental footprint, with a recent report from the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee calling for the implementation of garment taxes and mandatory environmental targets.

“I feel there’s genuinely such a big initiative now and it’s great to see all the new designers coming through and – and especially in the LVMH Prize as well -- there was really a focus on change-making and change in fashion in all aspects,” Williams tells FashionNetwork.com in Paris. Williams herself has been lauded for her imaginative use of recycled materials, but as she puts it, “change needs to happen with the way things are produced as well. Not just recycling -- we should be looking at all aspects.”

Driving change, for Williams, has so far been centred on making active contributions to local communities and the careful sourcing and selection of suppliers. For her third collection, presented at London Fashion Week in January, the designer showcased a contemporary streetwear collection featuring reconstructed denim sourced from waste collected by London textile recycling company Chris Carey Collections. Other pieces are meticulously handwoven from strands of waste plastic and deadstock yarns from Italian mills by inhabitants of the Italian commune of San Patrignano, a therapeutic community providing treatment for drug addiction.

It’s just the latest example of one of Williams’ projects to empower the local communities with which she has worked – her previous collections have benefited food banks and homeless shelters – and for Fall/ Winter 2019, the designer also partnered with women-centred community accommodation Adelaide House in Liverpool. Giving real clout to the initiative is the label’s 20% donation of the proceeds from the collection to the organisation. “I just like the idea of it being a menswear collection that supports women,” Williams says.  

The designer has opted to stay close to home as she carefully scales her business. Based in Peckham, London, she remains the sole full-time employee of her fledgling label, employing a freelance production manager and pattern cutter, and working with a handful of female creatives from her close circle. Illustrator and creative director Giorgia Charion, who sketched the portraits of the Liverpool women for the latest collection, is “a really good friend of my housemate,” Williams says, while several knitwear samples were made by her own mother, who has worked on every collection so far. 

“She’s also a pattern cutter so I’ve always been surrounded by textiles in the house since I was tiny,” she reminisces. “We’ve worked together throughout every collection – she taught me.” The designer credits her mother, who she describes as both “very environmental and socially aware,” with giving her the building blocks of her sustainable approach to fashion design, which began with an interest in sustainable development before she opted for critical fine art practice at Brighton University.  

“Maybe [that] gave me my ideas about creating an alternative system, through critical theory and fine art theory. I did a lot of research into if art has the power to make political change within industry,” Williams explains.

Fine art might be the right comparison, since the skilful detailing throughout the collection and the fair wages paid to the suppliers mean that the label retails at a very premium price point: a denim jacket from the collection goes for £1,849 and a T-shirt for £337. For an ethical label that contributes significantly to social causes, its audience remains niche. Does the reduced accessibility of luxury labels in the sustainable sector necessarily limit their impact?

 “I think the luxury market kind of directs every other market so that market trickles down into the high street,” Williams says thoughtfully. “If people with higher income are asking [the brands] the right questions and [asking them to] make the right decisions, that that will steer high street brands to do the same.

“My stuff is luxury and it is really expensive, but – when you’re producing something where people are getting paid and you know where the fabrics are sourced from – that is the true cost.”

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