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BORN TO DIE? – Taking the idea of circular from the product to a whole business strategy

If we look around, one could say large strides have been made in the fashion industry in the past 10 years to embrace a more circular method for the cause of sustainability.

There has been significant investment into material science and development, with a newfound market for cactus and pineapple based leather alternatives, and fibres spun from structures in seaweed and orange peel, to name a few.  Organisations such as Fashion Revolution have burst onto the scene, championing transparency and imploring a mindset shift from throwaway culture towards a space where fashion can “conserve precious resources”1 and empower economies in a positive, ethical manner.  

Yet…I can’t help but feel like this is still all happening at the fringes.  Brands from luxury to high street are still producing collections rampantly round the fast paced fashion clock, with more new ‘ethical’ brands opening shop in an already vast ocean of consumer choices (whether starting a new sustainable brand is a paradox in itself, is a whole other conversation) Landfill isn’t catching a break anytime soon.  Perhaps achieving a move towards the ideal requires more than pinning responsibility on consumer choices and product development; rather we should be looking at a radical change to a business strategy that is circular and intentional too.  

What does that look like?  We can take Bruno Pieters and his brand HonestBy as an example.  Having been at the helm of Hugo Boss, Pieters set up HonestBy with the aim of making progress towards the elusive territory of transparency.  Having this intention set from its conception, the motto was implemented throughout; those who wanted to know where the raw material crop was grown, where each component of a garment was sourced, who was putting the garment together, even to how much everyone across the supply chain was getting paid (including Pieters) could do so.  Having set a precedent, Pieters wanted consumers to know that they could demand information and change – something the industry had kept at bay.  The tragedy befalling Rana Plaza in 2013 galvanised support toward Pieters’ ethos, and led to the birth of the aforementioned initiative and watchdog, Fashion Revolution and their #WhoMadeMyClothes movement. 

A worker at the Herbal Fab mill in Ahmedabad, India, photographed as part of the #WhoMadeMyClothes series to show the faces behind the garments. Photo by Fashion Revolution. 

“ Perhaps achieving a move towards the ideal requires more than pinning responsibility on consumer choices and product development; rather we should be looking at a radical change to a business strategy that is circular and intentional too.  ”

Come October 2018, HonestBy announced that it was ceasing trade online and a year later, entirely. A statement from Pieters lauded the fact that “100% transparency is no longer a utopian ideal but it is now a reality, for several businesses, and a term goal for many others.”2 His goal of catalysing the fashion industry towards his vision of transparency had succeeded, and as is the case in a natural life cycle, he had wanted this impact to be the most tangible, rather than a physical footprint of his clothes through countless more fashion seasons to come. Although non-operational, the brand still maintains an Instagram page to post in support of relevant actions towards a more sustainable and transparent fashion future.

What struck me was the fact that this concept was so novel as a fashion business strategy. Many brands are set up with the aim to shoot for longevity as a marker of success. This often entails large twists and turns for brands to ‘keep relevant’ and switching tacks rather disingenuously, to keep producing for the sole sake of commerce. What if we saw a fashion business as means to achieve a certain goal – in some ways like a PhD with a hypothesis – and once this had been sufficiently answered, the chapter closed or evolved into something different? What if ceasing trade could be deemed not a failure, but a success?

“ What if we saw a fashion business as means to achieve a certain goal – in some ways like a PhD with a hypothesis – and once this had been sufficiently answered, the chapter closed or evolved into something different? What if ceasing trade could be deemed not a failure, but a success?.  ”

There could be big strides to alleviate some of the issues in this industry that are putting us ill at ease. For one, this natural life cycle of businesses would better allow young designers to come through and share their visions. In an industry where we are constantly looking to the future, it is crucial to allow the voices of those who are actually creating and living it in that moment, to be seen. Having studied at a fashion school, I have seen firsthand the struggles of graduates competing in commercial spaces with storied fashion houses who have the backing of legacy to cushion them in a very cutthroat industry. With this new limited life cycle model, young designers would truly have the opportunity to take the stage in their era.

Going back to the mention of legacy – which as a time span I define as longer than one average human lifetime – has on a global level has given rise to an aspect of elitism, and consequent problematic consumerism that we see trickling down into high street as well. The concept of nobility being emulated by the masses, and having to search for a new way to distinguish themselves – is not a new one. This is precisely what gave rise to the fashion cycle. The cultivation of legacy brands however, has arguably swung fashion to an extreme commercial realm where the name is more important than the craftsmanship. Consumers are, to a point drawn blindly by these large designer names by the cultural currency they have accrued through their legacy.

I have seen this whilst working at a luxury brand where components of the garment were crafted in both Turkey and the UK at an almost equal split. With some manoeuvring, production was calculated to have been 51% UK based, and as such the label read MADE IN THE UK. We often talk about vintage clothes being made with the utmost quality in exquisite fabrics close to the source. Heritage brands often bank on this same idea of local craftsmanship, however their growth has led to compromising such values, sourcing cheaper labour and materials for maximised production and sales.

“Having studied at a fashion school, I have seen firsthand the struggles of graduates competing in commercial spaces with storied fashion houses who have the backing of legacy to cushion them in a very cutthroat industry. With this new limited life cycle model, young designers would truly have the opportunity to take the stage in their era.”

Further to this point, from the perspective of aesthetics, what does it even mean to own an item from a legacy luxury house?  I interned at the Céline fabric department towards the end of Phoebe Philo’s tenure there in 2017.  I remember seeing how clear of a vision had been constructed, from the material selections my seniors made, to silhouette sketches, the finishes on the accessory hardware, to the objects and furniture dotted around the studio (for which there was a department too).  It was all curated with an impressive precision.  I then recently visited the Celine store on Mount Street, which now holds Hedi Slimane’s collections.  Whilst some of Philo’s most successful accessory designs have been carried over into the new epoch, the air had moved from minimal, aloof power dressing to a playful, rocker identity

I distinctly remember thinking the Philophile Céline woman must have been so confused.   This is all to say neither of these directions reflect what Céline Vipiana, the namesake and founder of the house, had begun her vision with.  For this reason it can be hard to understand a legacy brand due to the variety of narratives it has been given – often the result of investor and capital led decision makers for the purposes of commercial viability.

Stages of Céline – L- R Céline Vipiana , Phoebe Philo’s time, photographed by Juergen Teller,  created by Hedi Slimane for his first collection at Céline.

By giving a fashion house a limited life span as a sustainability strategy, would we see more purpose and clarity in design direction? Perhaps more honesty and intention with what they are trying to say and who they really are? Demna Gvasalia co-founded Vetements as a result of “being bored” of the system, with the intention of subverting high fashion with clothes for the ordinary person. Gaining much acclaim and ironically landing him the berth of Creative Director at Balenciaga, he left Vetements content that he had achieved his “mission of a conceptualist and design innovator.” 3

On a more philosophical level – longevity in this instance begs the question, who are we to play god? Throughout the story of mankind, leaders and colonists have been obsessed with the notion of keeping lineage in power, continually making their mark. However, in fashion, some of the most beautiful things that we still reference are from the designers who were greatest in their fleeting moment in time, from Madame Gres to Roberto Capucci. There is something quite poetic and also logical about a brand having a human life cycle, as that aids the idea that a brand truly is living its vision alongside us in that era. It also gives us a chance to re-evaluate what isn’t working on a regular basis so this knowledge can be carried forward to new brands as was the case at HonestBy; it is often easier to set a precedent upon inception than to change tactics within an established structure.

This model of a goal directed brand does not fit in as a foolproof method for all. It takes a different process to set up a company for a temporary life in terms of staffing, marketing, and leadership structures. As is the case with Bruno Pieters, his built reputation through his time at Hugo Boss and his eponymous label gave him a platform to build something that was in a sense, against the grain. Creatively, there is also no crime in evolving – it is essential for culture that we do so but with intention beyond global commerciality. As larger movers and shakers adopt this new idea, it opens a gateway for the rest to follow and benefit. Both consumers and designers will work closer together in the future as transparency grows, and this model could be a part of the key towards a fashion industry that pushes aesthetics and culture, as well as respect for our resources and planet symbiotically.

CITATIONS 

1  About: Fashion Revolution [https://www.fashionrevolution.org/about/

2  Instagram Post: HonestBy (@honestby_official) 8 October, 2018 [https://www.instagram.com/p/BoqdTqTFaCR/

3 Hore-Thornburn, Isabel ‘Demna Gvasalia is leaving Vetements to “Pursue New Ventures” High Snobiety, 16 September, 2019 [https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/demna-gvasalia-leaves-vetements/]

REFERENCES

Borromeo, Leah ‘Bruno Pieters’ HonestBy: a fashion label built on transparency’ The Guardian, 8 November 2013 [https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/sustainable-fashion-blog/bruno-pieters-honest-by-fashion-label-transparency]

Fashion Revolution, 4 May 2020 [https://www.fashionrevolution.org/]

Fedorova, Anastasiia ‘Demna Gvasalia – 10 ways the Vetements founder revolutionised fashion’ The Calvert Journal, September 2016 [https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/8157/new-east-100-demna-gvasalia-vetements-georgian-fashion-balenciaga

Flux Magazine, ‘ Honest By – Flux Interviews Bruno Pieters’ 7 March 2012 [ https://www.fluxmagazine.com/honest-by-bruno-pieters-interview/#]

Fury, Alexander  ‘The label Vetements is the most radical thing to come out of Paris in a decade.    So what’s the big idea?’  The Independent, 16th October 2015 [https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/the-label-vetements-is-the-most-radical-thing-to-come-out-of-paris-in-over-a-decade-so-whats-the-big-a6692211.html]

Hore-Thornburn, Isabel ‘Demna Gvasalia is leaving Vetements to “Pursue New Ventures” High Snobiety, 16 September, 2019 [https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/demna-gvasalia-leaves-vetements/]

Noël, Aya ‘Bruno Pieters: Reinventing the system through honesty’ 1Granary, 25 April 2017, [https://1granary.com/interviews/designers/bruno-pieters/]

Tudor, Elisabetta ‘ Honest Man’ Vogue UK, 7 March 2012 [https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/bruno-pieters-launches-honest-by-label]

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