Can Couture Collections Lead the Way in Sustainability?

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PARIS — For all the pandemic talk about changing the fashion calendar and downscaling shows, Paris Couture Week was back in full force with 30 on-calendar shows and dozens of other runways, presentations and parties. Nothing felt “slow fashion” about the four-day frenzy.

However, some designers took issue not only with the pace, as fashion ramps up production once again, but set out to push forward the notion that haute couture, with its custom creations meant to elevate craft and stay above the trendy fray of fast fashion and ready-to-wear, can lead the conversation on sustainability. After all, what is more sustainable than garments made to last a lifetime (or two)? They moved to strengthen that argument this season through both methods and materials.

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The always playful Viktor & Rolf displayed that ethos on the runway with their transformable coats, which entirely changed shape and feel with the pull of a few strategic strings, giving every piece more than one use, while Iris Van Herpen presented another collection of her otherworldly creations all made with her technologically advanced sustainable textiles.

New house ArdAzAei launched its first collection using certified materials, Dutch designer Ronald van der Kemp returned to the runway with his upcycled creations, and Aelis debuted textiles created in collaboration with the University of Siena.

Iranian Swedish designer Bahareh Ardakani launched ArdAzAei with a runway show at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, using the Global Organic Textile Standard for certification. A trained engineer, Ardakani came to couture while taking a technical look at the supply chain combined with an old-world French craftsmanship.

“I’m coming in with new eyes, so it’s a challenge for me — and it’s a challenge for them. Sustainability is all about having a network of people that collaborate. And for us, when we really got into the certifying process, we learned so much. Like how do we do this? How can we do things better? So I think it’s really challenging each other and combining different techniques and experiences,” she said of working with artisans.

While she has plans for rtw, Ardakani says that line will “eschew trend-based consumption” — tackling the overconsumption problem of multiple “must-have” collections a year — and be released in small, in-season drops. “It’s just the way to choose better,” she said. “When it comes to organic textiles, and so on, it’s obvious for us. It’s not only having the certified dresses, but also the manufacturing process and the French savoir-faire. To me, the combination means quality.”

She is working through the supply chain to have more textiles certified, while building a network of suppliers from fiber on up. Her target customer is the young, aware client that wants to seamlessly integrate environmental principles into their purchases.

Still, the price point of couture can make it unattainable for the average consumer. Van der Kemp said couture has intrinsic value, and can lead the industry and inspire. The longtime sustainability advocate issued a manifesto back in 2017, and has taken his message to social media and university talks demonstrating how to recreate looks or explain how something was constructed.

This season, he not only used the deadstock and found fabrics he favors, but also recycled his own old pieces, notably a dress that had been previously worn by Naomi Campbell. It’s all about perspective, he said.

“If you present clothes in a different context, they become new again. I think this is the lesson to learn for everyone: we don’t always have to make a trenchcoat every season,” van der Kemp said. “It’s so much about spending, so much about business and more and more and more, but this growing is really killing our world.”

For all their fantasy with floral collars, sharp shoulders and sculpted hips, Van der Kemp is clear that his creations are made with a message. “It’s not about the metaphors, where you create your own reality. Now it’s about facing reality. I think it’s very important right now that we see what’s going on in the world,” he said. “New stuff is a problem, and I think we all need to realize that we just need to wake up. That’s the reality of it.”

To tackle overproduction, he’s built a network of suppliers, including using leftovers from local knitwear brands to avoid textile waste. Van der Kemp said a new wave of young clients seek out his collections because of his singular focus — a sentiment echoed by Aelis designer Sofia Crociani.

“More and more people are coming to us because they like the entire idea. They are very interested in something that does not pollute the planet,” she said. This season, Crociani expanded the range from her signature gauzy gowns to include long-sleeved, almost Elizabethan full-coverage looks in response to customer requests. They want more durable, versatile looks with sustainable credentials.

Aelis used recycled cashmere as lining on puffer jackets, and this season, worked with Italian factories to blend together silk threads to create a shimmering, fluorescent effect without using additional dyes. Crociani is also working with the University of Siena in Tuscany to create a soft hemp-based French terrycloth fabric that can work as a water-saving substitute for cotton.

“We are trying to find something that is technologically evolved, that is consuming less land and less water, and evolves the way people are dressed,” she said. The line’s first sweatshirt was offered up this season, embroidered with vintage beads and charms.

“The principle of ours is always to give some input that can serve to became something accessible for other people that interact with us. So if we can arrive at that kind of achievement, then we are happy,” she said. The new textiles will be made available to other brands.

“With couture, we don’t have the input that we have to be commercial, we are just focused on beauty, on taking time to try new things,” Crociani said. “I am very, very convinced that couture can really spread the message — the most positive message.”

— With contributions from Alex Wynne

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