Nature inspires fashion. Fashion’s industry spoils nature. Then fashion begins to care for nature. This special relationship is detailed in an extraordinary exhibition opening April 21, 2018 at London’s prestigious Victoria & Albert (V&A) museum. The exhibition can be seen until 27 January 2019.
The V&A is well known among style fanatics for blockbuster exhibitions such as recent retrospectives on Balenciaga and on Alexander McQueen. Vivienne Westwood’s intimacy with the museum’s archive has powered her work for decades.
Denim is one of the most polluting fabrics, even bog-standard jeans.
“V&A: Fashioned From Nature” is the first exhibition to explore the complex relationship between the fashion industry and the natural world. Exhibits date from 1600 to the modern day. A Calvin Klein gown, made from recycled plastic bottles and worn by Harry Potter actress Emma Watson at 2016’s Met Gala, is a noble contrast to the pair of earrings made from the heads of two honeycreeper birds, or the muslin dress decorated with the green wing cases of jewel beetles. Among the 300 objects, pieces from Dries van Noten, Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Giles Deacon demonstrate how designers draw on the beauty of nature to develop exquisite and memorable garments.
Stella McCartney mens- and womenswear pops up to represent sustainable design; a Christopher Raeburn “upcycled” dress shows how recycled fabrics can enjoy a luxurious second life. Nike and Patagonia provide examples of progressive production in sportswear. A Ferragamo ensemble made from orange fiber sourced from the Italian citrus industry is testament to a fresh and imaginative use of fabrics, as is the H&M Conscious dress made from recycled shoreline plastic. More progressive still: a dress grown from plant roots by the Amsterdam-based artist Diana Scherer; a bioluminescent genetically engineered silk dress created by Sputniko, the MIT Lab and South Korea’s National Institute of Agricultural Science; a tunic and trousers made from synthetic spider silk from Bolt Threads x Stella McCartney.
Curator Edwina Ehrman has shaped the new exhibition to spark a conversation about how people think about clothes and their sources. Mankind’s impact on the planet, and the oceans especially, have become recently a mainstream issue in the UK, due in part to the BBC documentary series Blue Planet 2, which aired late 2017. The final episode contained shaming footage of plastic in the ocean, filmed in gorgeous high definition and accompanied by a moving appeal to change our dirty habits by nonagenarian naturalist and national treasure David Attenborough.
This exhibition has changed me. Personally I try to stop going out to buy when I feel fed up or when there are new clothes in the shop; I limit what I buy, buy more assiduously, don’t just buy cotton.
“For years I wanted to do an exhibition on the way fashion is inspired by nature–the materials, patterns and construction. I first proposed the idea in 2014 but now there is more awareness of the impact of fashion and other industrial processes on the environment. Blue Planet drew attention to our hideous problems with plastic waste. China has said it won’t accept low-grade waste anymore. Fashion houses and designers, colleges and students, are implementing sustainability from the start. The timing is serendipitous,” says Ehrman.
Campaigns from activists including Fashion Revolution, Katharine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood highlight the impact of fashion’s processes and the drain on resources. The exhibition explores fashion’s original raw materials: silk, flax/linen, wool and cotton, plus now-controversial whalebone. International expansion and man-made fibers are flagged for air and water pollution. The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC), organizational body for linen, is principal sponsor: 80% of the world’s supply is grown in northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and the wholly natural fabric comes across here as one of the good guys.
Denim, oops, is one of the bad guys. “Denim is one of the most polluting fabrics, even bog-standard jeans. Cotton is thirsty. Synthetic indigo releases polluting effluent into the waterways and into the ground. From raw material to finished fabric there is a lot of waste. In the past we [consumers] only had two pairs of jeans, but when the whole idea of designer jeans was introduced [people started to] buy more and more,” says Ehrman. The curator, whose previous V&A show was 2016’s “Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear,” adds: “We are showing Tortoise wiser-wash jeans, which look more fashion but use 80% less water. We have a pair of G-Star Elwood jeans, which are Cradle to Cradle Certified and use 70% less chemicals and no salts.” The G-Star denims are created via partnerships with Barcelona-based Eco Intelligent Growth, Pakistan weaver Artistic Milliners, Singapore-based Dystar for color and the Saitex factory in Vietnam. Reduced environmental impact across the entire production process results in jeans built from organic cotton grown without synthetic fertilizers or toxic pesticides, dyed with the cleanest-available indigo and finished with recyclable components and sustainable washing techniques that ensure no water waste.
The Centre for Sustainable Fashion (CSF) at London College of Fashion acted as a special adviser to the exhibition. The CSF presents two interactive installations: Fashion Now and Fashion Future. Fashion Now assaults visitors with special sensors that reveal the unseen impact of the construction, making, wearing and discarding of five iconic and common fashion pieces, including a pair of trainers, a pair of jeans and a wrap dress. Fashion Future invites questions on what fashion means and extrapolates clothing consequences yet to come.
“I want people to leave feeling positive, not bash them on the head but raise debate,” says Ehrman. “Fashion has been polluting for centuries. Anything that involves dyeing is polluting. But fashion was more sustainable in the past because fewer people could afford large wardrobes. The real problems began as it scaled up.”
Having extensively researched mankind’s damage to planet Earth, Ehrman began a one-woman crusade to lower the Kensington-based museum’s eco footprint, for example, by outlawing paper cups in the staff canteen and acknowledging sustainability when acquiring new objects. The enlightened environmental attitude will be noticeable in a future exhibition planned for the V&A, on the subject of food. Ehrman says: “This exhibition has changed me. Personally I try to stop going out to buy when I feel fed up or when there are new clothes in the shop; I limit what I buy, buy more assiduously, don’t just buy cotton. Enjoy it. Mend it. Alter it if you get bored. Dispose sensibly. I agree with Vivienne Westwood’s mantra: buy less, wear longer, discard wisely.”
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