Who wants to be on the wrong side of history? Not I. Nor any of the young designers, students, teenagers, and children whom I’m lucky enough to know in London, and up and down the United Kingdom.
As London Fashion Week starts, British antiestablishment activism is on the agenda, from the Brexit conflagration taking place at the center of the democratic system (Prime Minister Boris Johnson has controversially prorogued—i.e., suspended—Parliament) to the Extinction Rebellion movement’s intention to target fashion as a culprit in the global climate emergency. On the face of it, uproar and polarized politics are the name of the game. To say the least, these are distressing times.
But meanwhile, London’s long tradition of collaborative youth-generated do-it-yourself creative resistance is working away on making things better more energetically than I have ever witnessed, certainly more intelligently, resourcefully, and nonconfrontationally than its parents’ generation of punks ever did in the ’70s and ’80s. At the heart of it is Phoebe English, the designer who, on June 4 of this year, invited her peers around to her studio to share all the information she’s accumulated about enacting systemic change, which she’s researched and put into practice—a solution-seeking, conscience-driven self-revolution that places her and her designer friends on the same page as anti-industry fashion protesters who will turn up to demonstrate this weekend.
“The main thing was this realization that there was a such a big appetite for working in this way, that there are a lot of designers working away on this trajectory in their studios, but with no cross-communication,” she says. “But now there’s so much urgency with the climate emergency, and wanting to change the way we’re living, how we’re consuming and living, that it’s really important for all of us to find methods to speed it up.”
What began as a simple, personal show-and-tell about replacements for nonrecyclable hangers, a manufacturer who takes back plastic packaging, and a method of retrieving fabric waste to recycle into intricate patchworks and linings has swiftly escalated into an information-exchanging WhatsApp group, Fashion on Earth, which is daily being joined by designers, students, and young people who are working at bigger brands whose employers are seeking effective ways to shape up their production methods.
Among those pinging in-depth information and contacts across the group are Charles Jeffrey, Bethany Williams, Per Götteson, Rob Jones and Cat Teatum of Teatum Jones, Dilara Findikoglu, Patrick McDowell, and Sadie Williams. Graeme Raeburn, who has been working with his brother Christopher Raeburn on sourcing and repurposing fabric for a decade and has become London’s grand wizard of sustainability knowledge, is weighing in with links to such elucidating articles as “Understanding Plastic Packaging and the Language We Use to Describe It.”
All of them laud English as an inspiration. “More than any designer I’ve met, Phoebe has the mind and heart to instigate change,” says Bethany Williams, herself an advocate for socially responsible production. “She’s a truly generous, interconnected spirit.”
Eighteen months ago, English (who graduated in the same Central Saint Martins MA class as Simone Rocha in 2010) had become so increasingly tormented by her awareness of the impact of fashion production that she took a two-season hiatus from showing to reboot. “The more you read, the more horrendous the realization becomes. For a time I was waking up and saying, “Why am I doing this? What is the actual point of what I do?’” she relates. “It was an experiment—I was like, I’ll try this thing, and maybe I’ll have to close down. But then, I found hunting for the solutions really exciting and reinvigorating.”
Softly spoken, with a rigorous honesty about her, English found herself addressing a mass audience from a stage at this summer’s Glastonbury Festival. “We submitted some evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee on fashion, and they invited me to speak about materials,” she says, still sounding astonished. “I was very nervous, and it was quite hilarious being up there, because I can’t even play a recorder.”
Cometh the time, cometh the woman, though. While English is the exact opposite of the typical push-herself-forward fashion personality, she is nevertheless emerging as a central community leader who is increasingly admired in London. What she’s doing is showing that in fact everyone—young creatives and protestors alike—are on the same side. Her WhatsApp group, a new iteration of a grassroots generational movement, has fast evolved into an unofficial hub for serious brass-tacks knowledge: explaining certification acronyms, pooling addresses, making recommendations for fabric sourcing, and airing facts on whether “compostable” and “biodegradable” have any meaning.
Breaking down the traditionally secretive, competitive hierarchies between designers and generations, she is succeeding in doing a far better job of moving London toward a cleaner, more progressive future than any British politician. On Monday, she will modestly take that one step further by staging her London Fashion Week presentation as an open sharing of her findings with her audience, entitled with typical modesty, “Attempts at Sustainability Solutions.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue