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How to get into ethical fashion, according to four labels already doing it

Rounding off Fashion Revolution Week, the designers behind Fortie Label, Birdsong, Hanger, and Such A Fan give their tips on embracing sustainable practices

Five years after the Rana Plaza factory collapse – which cost the lives of 1,138 people in Bangladesh – social enterprise Fashion Revolution continues its fight for greater transparency with the #whomademyclothes campaign on social media. Starting with the release of the 2018 Fashion Transparency IndexFashion Revolution Week has rallied a global community across events, such as open studios, thought-provoking talks and engaging workshops, to make ethical fashion the mainstream.

Part of those events was a panel hosted by collective and indie magazine gal-dem, who invited four up-and-coming designers – behind labels Fortie Label, Such A FanBirdsong, and Hanger Inc – to share their advice on growing sustainable labels. All different in their respective approaches, Essie Buckman of Fortie Label creates urban and luxurious garments with upcycled material for fierce, multi-faceted women, while Such A Fan’s Ibiye Camp paints portraits of pop-culture influencers, including Rihanna and Kanye West, on reclaimed denim. Sophie Slater appeared on behalf of feminist brand Birdsong, who work with women’s organisations to create sweatshop-free products, while rounding off the group was Claire Yurika Davis of Hanger, the eco-friendly Latex label blending British and Japanese heritages while remaining sexy and wearable. 

The discussion was intended to open up on the issues that sustainable fashion faces, from each of the designers’ own experience, to develop ethical business – or personal – practices. “If you care about the planet, about the world, you care about your business, your brand and your product, it will just naturally flow to you and it doesn’t have to become your main, core selling point,” said Buckman. “It’s just being smarter in your choices and your business and how you run things, and building your team and informing people.”

Here, we round-up the best tips for starting your own ethical fashion label. 

SUSTAINABILITY IS A LIFESTYLE NOT AN END GOAL

“It just takes time and a little bit of research to look at things a bit further. How can I make a certain aspect of my business a bit more ethical, a bit more sustainable, a bit more earth-friendly, human-friendly? It doesn’t have to be a massive step.” – Essie Buckman, Fortie Label

“It should just be a practice, it should be a thing that flows with the way you work and the way you’re implementing your business. It should just be something that is part of you, part of your business and part of your brand ethos, your USP. I feel like it becomes a bit gimmicky when it becomes your only UPS and your only thing.” – Essie Buckman, Fortie Label

RE-USE MATERIALS INSTEAD OF BUYING NEW

“I’ve always used whatever is cheapest and if you want to create, you always have to think about how much you’re spending and whether or not it’s worth going to the best art shop in East London to get the best canvas. Sometimes what is on your front door is more useful and the textures are more interesting so I’m more curious of that kind of work.” – Ibiye Camp, Such A Fan

“When you’re starting a label, it’s quite easy to be sustainable because a lot of the time you’ll be doing a lot of upcycling, finding things that exist and you don’t need to buy because you’ve got no money. Everything is about just reusing stuff naturally.” – Claire Davis, Hanger Inc

LOOK AT EVERY STEP OF YOUR SUPPLY CHAIN

“Offering flexible, really friendly work where it’s not like a factory where they’ve got deadlines, that’s the whole point of Birdsong. It’s not a factory, it’s a social cycle, and they can chat and bond. We know the names of every single maker and they come around the house for tea.” – Sophie Slater, Birdsong

“As a young designer, you have the power to see who’s actually making your stuff. You know where you’re getting your fabric, you know all of those small nuances within your chain pretty much.” – Claire Davis, Hanger Inc

PRODUCE LOCALLY

“There’s some things that are harder, like when you want to get a lot of fabric, it’s quite hard with sustainable fabric. Those kind of obstacles still exist and that’s why, me personally, all of my stuff is made in London. My factory for weaving is in Forest Gate, my t-shirts are printed in Leicester, and all the Latex I’ve been making in the studio in Hackney Downs. So at least I know that everything is manufactured by people that I know” – Claire Davis, Hanger Inc

“All of our clothes are manufactured by women’s groups and charities, mostly in East London. We have two groups of hand knitters, one based in Enfield and one based in Kingston. Because with ethical fashion it has to be product-led, it has to be amazing. You’re not going to sacrifice your style.” – Sophie Slater, Birdsong

USE WHAT YOU ALREADY HAVE

“There’s ways to practice using what you have, like going back to the craftiness. Cut the hem off, if you can’t sew get your friend – someone like me – who will take the hem off or leave it raw. There’s always ways, and obviously you can’t everything from your wardrobe change where it comes from now, but there’s ways to use that stuff to a better end.” – Claire Davis, Hanger Inc