Former fashion designer Sass Brown got her start by creating collections for large manufacturers and some small women's artisanal cooperatives in Latin America. Today, she's on a mission to promote sustainable fashion. In Eco Fashion, Brown showcases the work of some talented designers. You'll see some striking examples taken from Eco Fashion in the interview below.
Please tell me how you define 'sustainability in fashion'.
The definition of sustainability in fashion is a production of a product that does not deplete non-renewable resources, does not pollute through production, and can be absorbed harmlessly back into the environment at the end of its life. The closest we have come to that is Patagonia’s recyclable base layers where the company melts down the polyester mono fibers and turns them into new fabric.
Giuliana Testino: Peruvian inspired label offering handcrafted knitwear and accessories, using crochet, hand knitting, macramé, and embroidery
Alternatively, there are quite a few companies that work exclusively with organic fabrics, buy and produce locally to keep their carbon footprint low. Because their garments are made with organic fabrics, they are biodegradable. It is a bit more complex than that of course as there are a lot more components that go into a garment than simply fabric. The labor that produces the garments is also a non-renewable resource, so, they must not be exploited either.
How did you get involved in this issue?
I initially became interested in sustainability in fashion by working with women’s cooperatives. I had been working as a designer in the industry for many years with my own label and at various labels either in design or merchandising.
By chance, I fell into teaching, which opened the door for me to do research and pursue related interests. I became interested in sustainable development through a women’s cooperative in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and started volunteering, then working, then consulting for them and other cooperatives over several years. That directed my academic research and developed into eco fashion in all its aspects.
The North Circular: hand knit scarf with diamond pattern made of ethical wool from rescued sheep from Izzy Lane's sheep sanctuary in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Did anything in particular inspire you?
My interest started many years ago when I read an article about Carlos Miele in Brazil and his work with a women’s cooperative in the Favelas of Rio. It happened that I read the article before making a trip to Rio to a conference on textiles. My interest led me to reach out to both Carlos Miele in Sao Paulo and the cooperative he worked with in Rio called Coopa-Roca, which I visited. I instantly fell in love with Rio, the founder of the cooperative, Maria Teresa Leal, and the Favela.
I returned to New York and wrote a grant to volunteer with them the following summer. I spent a summer with them doing anything they asked from answering English language emails to calculating volumetric weight for international shipping. I ended up returning every summer for 3 months and every winter. It took some time for our relationship to develop, but I started to work with them on creative development, while at the same time making connections to other groups and working in more of a consulting role.
Ursula Suter: Swiss label offering handmade felted clothing, accessories and jewelry
I taught design development workshops in Peru, lectured in Rio and Sao Paulo and designed collections for other craft-based co-operatives, working with multi-talented artisans and reinterpreting their incredible skill sets to a sophisticated global market. Although I am no longer able to commit the same amount of time to these groups, they still hold a special place in my heart. Coopa-Roca and its founder, Tete, remain dear friends of mine.
Is your work in South America what inspired you to write your book on eco fashion?
I was inspired to write my book as a result of my research. I knew so many different companies and groups that were doing amazing things. At the same time, the eco fashion industry still had this granola stereotype attached to eco fashion, and I wanted to showcase the work of some really talented people with sophisticated products, and help blow that myth out of the water.
All of this came initially with my work in South America, as it was the beginning of an entirely, new phase in my life which took my work in a different direction. Looking back, it all makes sense. So the seeds were always there, growing quietly in the dark...
Of Handmade: Italian label specializing in hand knit and crochet women’s wear and accessories
How did you identify the artists for your book?
I did my masters very late in life. The basis of my thesis was eco design, so I did a lot of research for that, which in turn led to the development of my book, Eco Fashion, published by Laurence King. One of the refreshing things about the 'green fashion' scene is that everyone wants to promote everyone else. This is still a fledgling industry that wants to see everyone succeed, and where everyone realizes that their future is dependent upon everyone else. So every time I met one designer they led me to another who leads me to another. A very lovely organic process that continues to this day through blogs, websites, etc.
The Wearable Art Blog is about handmade fashion. There's often overlap between handmade and sustainable fashion. Is handmade by definition the most sustainable kind of fashion?
Handmade is certainly sustainable by definition. It values quality, tradition and slow design, which is vital. However there are other variables at play here, and the materials play an important part in whether something is sustainable as well, not only the process.
Pero by Aneeth Arora - handmade fashion inspired by the ancient textile and clothing traditions of India. The textiles are handmade in various parts of India, and each collection incorporates at least five traditional techniques from the country.
It seems like eco fashion/sustainable fashion is a niche market. Do you think that it will become more main stream?
It must become more mainstream. The fashion system as it stands is not sustainable. We cannot continue to bury ourselves in throw-away fast fashion that doesn’t bio degrade, is not made to last, pollutes the environment, and depletes the non-renewable resource of human capital. I dare say denim, once considered a niche market, is something most of mankind can’t imagine life without.
There are some inherent challenges with eco fashion becoming mainstream however. The current fashion system is by definition not sustainable, so new systems need to be developed, new values applied to fashion. This takes time, but the most sustainable trends are those that take time in developing.
Michelle Lowe-Holder: London-based label making sustainable accessories collection, produced from reclaimed and vintage ribbons, trims and recovered hardware
Is sustainability becoming part of the core of fashion curricula? How quickly have fashion schools adopted sustainability into coursework?
Sustainability has become vital in production, logistics courses etc, as well as courses in architecture, cosmetics and fragrance, packaging design etc. But, sustainability is not yet in fashion design, although more and more schools are adding it to their majors and their curriculum. Some schools have adopted it quicker than others, in part due to their ability to develop and approve new curriculum.
As a teacher and author who writes about sustainability in fashion, what are your biggest challenges?
Going viral. Getting information out to the masses. The eco fashion scene is a self- supporting system, but breaking out of that and getting the exposure market wide is still challenging.
Elena Garcia: London-based label making handcrafted clothing in their studio or by using small local manufacturers and social enterprise units, giving something back to the community
What projects do you have planned for this year and going forward?
I have another two books in the early stages of approval with my publishers, Laurence King. One of which may I hope may include a documentary film. The website and blog continue to grow and there are plans for further developing them.
The challenge is how to do that without depleting my own financial resources, getting investment and not selling out or watering down the content. We have discussed doing a touring gallery exhibit to accompany the book, but that, too, is in the early stages. Anything that promotes the amazing work being done out there is by definition under consideration!
I appreciate that Sass Brown shared her expertise and insights and look forward to seeing the new designers she brings to us through her blog. You can see works by more talented designers at Eco Fashion.