Feb 17, 2020
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Positive Fashion at LFW: creativity meets sustainability

Feb 17, 2020

The British Fashion Council has continued to support a scaled-back-but-more-focused exhibition as part of London Fashion Week, with the latest edition of the Positive Fashion Exhibition.

Emily Frances Barrett uses natural materials as the foundation of her jewellery

The event is a complete contrast to the previous Designer Showrooms set-up that was more like a traditional tradeshow. In this case, Positive Fashion is all about a limited number of exhibitors with designers and graduates who are focused on an ethical and sustainable approach to fashion.

The event is always a great place to see interesting young designers blending art with craft and two really stood out to us this time. 

Emily Frances Barrett is a self-taught bespoke jeweller who came to the craft via art rather than jewellery making. She creates unique pieces that use natural materials such as shells, even teeth, and especially flowers encased in resin (a world away from those you might find in the mass-market).

She forages the organic materials, presses the flowers, works on building up layer after layer of resin to stabilise them and combines it all with silver in a 'slow-fashion' process that more than justifies a price tag of £200+.

“I've always been a maker and I'm very into nature,” she told Fashionetwork.com. “I collect things and work with organic ‘found’ objects. I work quite intuitively rather than sitting down and penning designs. It's about responding to the story and the natural shape within the object. 

Flowers aren't the only natural materials Emily Frances Barrett uses

Her work is currently available in the 50m concept store in London’s Belgravia, as well as at Gentle Wench in Shoreditch and she also previously had a month-long pop-up at Joyce in Hong Kong.

Another designer who seems to have something in common with Barrett, even though her work is very different, is Fiona O’Neill. This Irish womenswear designer (who trained at Central Saint Martins and is based in South London), also approaches creativity from an art perspective and spends a lot of time on handcraft.

She’s still evolving, having moved from initial completely hand-painted and bespoke collections to using print, an area in which she too is self-taught. She’s just launched ready-to-wear for the first time and told us that her inspiration is "1900s Halloween, kids dressing up over their own clothes”. 

Fiona O'Neill taught herself print techniques in order to move from bespoke to ready-to-wear

She’s worked hard to ensure that her screen prints are sustainable but just how easy is it for a small business to be sustainable? 

O’Neill said it can be hard and she’s had to make compromises: “I was trying to be fully sustainable, but it’s very hard to start a business that way as you're paying double for everything." And she had some encouragement for those in the same boat: "I've tried to make the best choices that I can. I was worried about that, but when I spoke to the BFC they said because I'm making everything in London and a lot of it is hand-printed, then it is sustainable compared to a lot of people. I was holding myself to too high a standard.”

What she’s come up with is certainly interesting a collection that’s high-end but has a wide price range. A knit buster is about £370, a roomy coat made of printed silk viscose velvet is £1,300, and a hand-screen-printed jacket is £700. 

It’s an energetic collection with a retro vibe that still feels very contemporary. “I’m quite 70s,” she explained.


Over at the Graduate Fashion Week stand, GFW’s selection of four designers for this season illustrated the energy and variety coming out of UK colleges at present — as well as the commitment to ethical and sustainable fashion that’s the whole point of this event. 

Yen Wong from Malaysia, who trained at Brighton, had created a collection inspired by “Americana, by the 50s-60s woman and what it means to be an ideal woman”.

That means pieces with powerful structure and pastiches of what the perfect woman might wear.

Yen Wong's collection is inspired by ideas of the perfect woman

There’s glossy gingham, a print that’s a version of a Chinese porcelain design and a suit that’s a tribute to Chanel. The jacket and skirt took three months to hand-make and feature a range of unexpected materials. “When you think of Chanel, you think of luxury and this is the opposite," she said. "It’s cheap luxury with woven polypropylene, straw, bits of friendship bracelets, Christmas yarn, lurex, and deadstock fabric”.

Meanwhile Leo John Caligan, originally from the Philippines but raised and trained in Manchester, has created a collection inspired by the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines.The focus here is on powerful colour and quirky patterns and graphics with heavy use of leather.

Leo John Caligan has used leftover furnishing leathers

“The leathers that are used in my collection are upcycled from a sofa warehouse in Manchester,” he told us. “I used redundant leathers and also pineapple fibres to give a nod to the national costume of the Philippines. I've also made accessories using the woven mats that you use for picnics. I love bold colours especially, being from the Philippines it's a very bright culture and just brings out smiles in people”.

This collection also features a focus on handcraft with handwoven leathers with lots of hand stitching, as well as leather bags with hand-carved detail. 

Caligan, who’s currently working for London-based designer Katie Ann McGuigan, said he wants to gain more industry experience and would love to create his own brand longer term.

From the UK, Sarah Thompson, who trained at Sheffield Hallam, has also also drawn inspiration from her own background but came up with something very different to Caligan.

“I grew up in a really rural area on a farm. You became quite resourceful,” she explained. “What intrigues me is farmers and the practicality of their clothes. Their clothes are really worn and appreciated and I think that’s something that's lost today in fashion. My parents have garments that are as old as me”.

Sarah Thompson gives new life to old materials

The result of this thinking is a patchwork collection based on the Japanese Bora technique but using pieces from British workwear. Each re-made item features patches and a credit to the original owner of the materials. She’s kept the rips and tears in places as she’s created new garments. 

And she’s also experimented with techniques such as ‘rust dyeing’. That means some old chickenwire that was enlisted to create a unique print. 
“You’d be surprised at what you can create from what's around you,” she said. “Everything is a bit ‘not perfect’.”

Currently a design intern at Self Portrait, her long-term aim is to run her own brand. 

And the last of the four, Africa Hernandez Martinez from Spain, shared the outlook of her fellow graduates, looking to her homeland for ideas.

This led her to create a collection based on Spanish festivities using secondhand materials. “It’s based on how families made the costumes,” she said. “They used whatever they had in the house. It’s that idea of upcycling bedsheets or tablecloths and using them to make a new garment”.

Importantly too, she said it’s about “having a partnership with” the people who make the pieces, working with makers in rural areas who are often overlooked by the wider fashion industry. 

Africa Hernandez Martinez is making the most of heritage materials from her native Spain

And she also wants to give a second life to the fabrics, “some of which are 100 years old and have been in the family for ages,” she said.

She’s currently freelance and based in Spain and is continuing to work on her final collection since leaving Epsom as she still has plenty of fabrics still to work through. 

And her long-term goal?  “I would love to work with sustainable brands or have my own sustainable label,” she said, adding that “we all have to work towards sustainability and to make fashion have less of a bad impact”.

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