Q&A with Stella
What does sustainable fashion mean to you?
I design clothes that are meant to last. I believe in creating pieces that aren’t going to get burnt, that aren’t going to landfills, that aren’t going to damage the environment. For every piece in every collection I am always asking what have we done to make this garment more sustainable and what else can we do. It is a constant effort to improve.
Our philosophy is that it is better to do something than nothing. For me, it’s about the basic principles: Sustainability is important, as is recycling. Everyone can do simple things to make a difference, and every little bit really does count.
It’s really the job of fashion designers now to turn things on their head in a different way, and not just try to turn a dress on its head every season. Try and ask questions about how you make that dress, where you make that dress, what materials you’re using. I think that’s far more interesting, actually. I think that the way to create sustainable fashion is to keep asking these questions while making sure to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing and accessories that women want to buy.
It is well known that you don’t use any fur or leather in your products. Why did you decide to create your collections this way?
I was brought up as a vegetarian on an organic farm in the English countryside way, so it kind of came very naturally to me. However, the decision not to use leather or fur is not just because I don’t eat animals or that I think that millions of animals each year shouldn’t be killed for the sake of fashion. It’s because I also believe in the connection between fur and leather and the environment. There’s a huge connection.
Many people claim that leather is okay to use because it is a by-product of the meat industry, however, livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. Tanneries are listed as top polluters on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “Superfund”list, a list that identifies the most critical industrial sites in need of environmental cleanup.
Ethical fashion covers a range of issues such as working conditions, child labour, fair trade and sustainable production. Do you address all these issues?
First of all, we are not perfect. We have always been committed to ethical production and we recently joined the Ethical Trading Initiative. We are also working with the National Resources Defense Council on its Clean by Design program. We are the first luxury brand to team up with them and we are working with them to improve the environmental impact of our textile mills. By working with organizations like these and by working directly with the people making our products, we are trying to improve our overall sustainability as a brand.
What are some of the obstacles to creating more sustainable products?
We don’t make our own fabrics, so we have to use what’s available on the market. Colours can be very limited in organic ranges – often there’s not the same richness of texture. We are always looking for more sustainable material options, but we often find that the market hasn’t caught up with the demand. It would be amazing if we were able to create luxury fashion out of 100% sustainable materials, and although that isn’t really possible today, I hope that suppliers will continue to move towards more sustainable options. New techniques and supplies are discovered each season, but they have to be tested before we can use them. I am always on the lookout for naturally sourced yarns, and the cotton we use changes almost every season. We try to use organic fabrics and low-impact dyes, but we won’t do so unless we can achieve a high-quality product.
Many people still think of eco/sustainable fashion as baggy clothes made of hemp – what are you doing to change that perception?
I don’t think that ‘eco’ should be a word that immediately conjures up images of oatmeal-coloured garments or garments that are oversized or lacking in any sort of luxury or beauty or detailing or desirability. I don’t think that things have to look ugly because they’re organic; why can’t they be beautiful as well? You can’t ask a consumer to compromise. I don’t think you can say “Here is this jacket that looks terrible but its organic, and here is a really beautiful jacket that’s cheaper but don’t buy it because it’s not organic.”
My job is to create beautiful luxurious things. I love that people come into the store and don’t even know that something is organic or in faux leather. That’s the biggest challenge, having people not notice. We do great knitwear, which is where organic is most successful – you can get very delicate natural dyes. So many friends turn up in my knitwear and say how much they love it, and when I say it’s organic it’s a little added bonus to them, rather than a choice. I prefer it that way.
In working with the NRDC what have you found to be most alarming about how textile mills produce fabric?
Although we are still in early days of the project, so far we have found that the mills in Italy are significantly better about monitoring their impact on the environment than the mills that NRDC previously worked with in China. However, there is always room for improvement. The dye process can be a very inefficient use of resources and can be incredibly damaging to environment. In some of the extreme cases in China mills were turning entire rivers red with clothing dye. Water is an increasingly vital resource, so to think that an entire water source could be ruined because of fashion is just awful.
Do you think that ethics and sustainability are just a trend for the fashion industry?
Anything – this subject or in general – is in danger of becoming a trend or a one-off. The important thing is that everyone keeps an interest in it, and there is a vested interest because we live on this planet and we need to look after it, as without it, we have nothing. So it’s just not the fashion industry, it’s every single industry.
It seems to me that fashion is the last industry on the planet to address ethics. That’s something I hate about my industry. Sometimes you get the idea that all these designers are up on their high horses looking down on mere mortals, saying, “F_uck it, it’s fur, it’s beautiful darling!” Those people are out of touch. The high street is actually much more in tune because they are trying to get fair trade and organic products. At least they’re trying to cater to a need in the market.
What little things do you do in your everyday life to improve the environment?
I’m not perfect, I travel on airplanes, I drive a car but I recycle and the electricity in the house comes from wind power. However, to be a true environmentalist you would have to live off the grid. I‘m aware and I ask questions. I shop in health food stores. I live in a nice house and I have electricity, but I turn the light off when I leave the room. I am definitely not perfect and I don’t think I’m perfect in my job. If I were, I would have 20 things in 20 shops in England and I wouldn’t sell them abroad to keep it local and I would live on my farm. When we can make things better, we do it. We do things on an achievable level in order to make it happen. If we were too extreme it would get in the way of my job.
Your fragrances are made by L’Oreal – how are you able to work with a company that is known to test on animals?
None of our products are ever tested on animals. We have been very clear on this issue even though it means that we are losing money by not entering the Chinese market with our perfumes. Every large fragrance/cosmetic company states that they only test on animals when it is required by law – however we have stated that that isn’t good enough for us, and we are willing to wait until the law catches up with science. There are plenty of in vitro tests available now that can replace outdated and cruel animal tests.
You are often questioned about how you can claim to be animal friendly company while still using silk and wool in your collection. How do you address these questions?
The issues with using silk and wool are something that I struggle with. We have asked all of our wool suppliers to make sure that none of the wool that we use comes from sheep that have undergone inhumane mulesing practices. Mulesing when done without anesthesia is a brutal practice of cutting off skin and flesh from the hindquarters of sheep. However, when done correctly, with anesthesia and careful wound treatment, it can save the animals lives by preventing a gruesome death caused by infection and toxic shock. We work closely with our suppliers to assure that all of our wool comes from farms that care for their animals in a kind and honest way.
When it comes to silk there are unfortunately fewer options. We use peace silk when possible, however we have had problems with quality and quantity. We are always looking for new suppliers and would love to someday be able to use 100% cruelty free silk – but it really just isn’t possible at this time, but we try.