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Vivienne Westwood AW19
Vivienne Westwood AW19Photography Christina Fragkou

Where’s the sustainable beauty at fashion week?

From glitter to petrochemicals, many environmentally conscious designers are mismatching their fashion values with their beauty ones

Fashion week has become a platform for brands to launch their latest sustainability efforts, whether it’s cactus leather jackets, a return to handcrafting, or reused materials. But often absent is any mention or consideration of the sustainability of the beauty. Yes, fashion week is primarily about fashion (the clue’s in the name), but beauty is integral to the finished vision and the brand’s messaging for the season, so why is it being left out?

Harris Reed, known for repurposing Oxfam-sourced bridalwear, Collina Strada who uses biomaterials and deadstock fabrics, and Matty Bovan who has elevated upcycling to new levels, are among many ostensibly eco-aligned brands who use Estée Lauder-owned MAC products for their beauty looks, the duplicity of which was noted by Jessica DeFino. Other brands of a similarly sustainable bent, such as Richard Malone, Conner Ives, and Marques’Almeida also use products from beauty giants like MAC, L’Oréal, and Toni and Guy, hardly known for their hard-line stances on the people and planet. Not to pile all the blame on the younger crowd, plenty of more established brands, from Stella McCartney to Marni, mismatch their fashion values with their beauty too, partnering with “unsustainable” artists or slathering their models in glitter (i.e. microplastics).

There was this rise in sustainable fashion, but there was no follow through on that messaging [for beauty],” says Khandiz Joni, co-founder of the Conscious Beauty Union (CBU), a platform and community which aims to support artists working in a more sustainable way. Sponsors, Joni points out, could go some way to explaining why a designer might send a model down a runway in a carbon-neutral dress and a face full of petrochemicals, which are pushing oil demand, contributing to climate breakdown, and harming the communities (often low income, and communities of colour) in which they’re produced. It could also explain why palm oil-using brands are still on the menu despite the ingredient’s over-cultivation being a major driver of deforestation which is accelerating climate change. The biggest brands who have the biggest impact often have the biggest budgets and it can be difficult for a brand, or an independent artist for that matter, to turn an opportunity down.

“We're not going to change the system if we say yes to every job,” says Joni. “But it has to be a step change. Speaking from a personal standpoint, I don't have a child, I don't have a mortgage, I was able to turn away a lot of work and I think that's where this conversation around sustainability as an artist isn't being had enough.”

An emerging make-up artist or session stylist might not have influence or privilege to say no to certain brands or products but those with platforms that give their opinion some weight are beginning to. One such artist is Crystabel Riley, who works with brands including Chopova Lowena, Acne Studios, and Di Petsa. As well as cleansing with reusable flannels, and using compostable prosthetics, she includes products from Haeckels, UpCircle, Twelve Beauty, and Typology in her kit to create looks that are at once fresh-faced and otherworldly. “For something to be really luxurious or beautiful it needs to have a sustainable or conscious focus,” she told Dazed Beauty in June.

Jen Hunter, the head make-up artist at Lush, who has 15 years’ experience as a make-up artist, agrees. “It’s very much about elevating the category,” she says. “We can show what we can achieve with it and impart knowledge along with it as well.”

To do that, Hunter reached out to Eirinn Hayhow to collaborate on her latest collection, Tree People. Hayhow, who is supported by London Fashion Week and the British Fashion Council, makes her own dyes from food waste and foraged plants and berries, and salvages textiles from charity shops. This season she also made vegan leather from coffee grounds. “For me it is imperative that every element of my collection and presentation of work is sustainable,” says Hayhow. “When Lush contacted me, I was super excited to collaborate with a team of people that are also super sustainable.”

The landscape is shifting but Fashion Week is a big machine, and it will take a while for it to catch up

Hunter used Lush’s colour cosmetics to add a flush to the cheeks and create “weathered, worn-in, lived-in make-up” to reflect the nature-based roots of Hayhow’s collection. While she acknowledges using natural products can require a different approach, Hunter says it’s about the artist’s “internal creativity” and how they can adapt. 

Internal creativity is no problem for Athena Paginton, who uses colour like no other. Her full face, colour clash looks offer no hint at all of the compromise some might expect when switching to sustainable, cruelty-free products as Paginton uses. They’re all impactive, winning her clients including Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Loewe, and Burberry.

The emergence of sustainable make-up artists like Riley and Paginton, as well as Lou Dartford, Katey Denno, Laura Onea, Sjaniël Turrell, Bryanna Angel, and Tahira (another CBU co-founder), means there’s a new era of practitioners out there who can educate the designers they work with about the importance of responsible beauty. Phoebe English, for instance, highlighted the zero waste nature of the beauty featured in the shoot for her CRINKLE collection.

That brands like Weleda, Sunday Riley, and Tata Harper are now sponsoring various fashion weeks is also a step forward, expanding the roster beyond the usual suspects. However, the brands and products make-up artists use, whom designers then tacitly endorse, isn’t the beginning and end of the conversation about sustainable beauty at fashion week. “If a designer is wanting a certain look and a natural or eco product might not be able to deliver that, how can you take a zero-waste approach?” says Joni. “Or can we say that, OK, the red lip is not uniform, but we commit to just using whatever reds are in our artists’ kits?” Because as much as an artist can use natural or organic beauty, a constant churn of freebies from sponsors which are never finished has its own different impact.

The landscape is shifting but fashion week is a big machine, and Hunter believes it will take a while for it to catch up. “It definitely was a slow process for me. I had my ways of doing things. I always knew I had my disposables; I had my cotton pads and my wipes. It was this way of working that you get used to, but I've changed a lot of my work practices as a freelance makeup artist and I know there’s a lot of people that have got a commitment to change the way they do things as well.”

Organisations like the CBU and the Sustainable Beauty Coalition, which was founded after the release of the British Beauty Council’s 2020 Courage to Change sustainability report, can help in creating a more unified approach to better beauty. But it would be helpful for fashion councils to step in too, thinking more carefully about their sponsors and providing guidance for designers. (We reached out to the British Fashion Council but haven’t received a response at the time of writing). “We are reliant on the system, and the Fashion Week system needs to change in order to get more sustainable beauty practice,” says Joni. 

She suggests make-up artists and designers investigate the brands they’re working with, from how they source their ingredients to how much waste they produce. It will help but it’s a stop gap on the way to the system change that’s really needed.