Circularity in the apparel industry is beginning to make economic sense. Having said that, the transition from a linear model of operation is fraught with challenges due to how the system is optimised for the take-make-waste approach.
In today’s sustainability discourse, fashion is either classified as fast, an embodiment of the industry’s adverse social and environmental impacts or slow, an antidote to fast-fashion. For a brand, to take time off the daily treadmill to ideate and test out new models of a supply chain isn’t easy either. Which begs the question, could the limits of fast and slow fashion be pushed to the extreme?
Circular Economy Fashion, Pushing Fast, Pushing Slow
Sustainable fashion brand, Filippa K decided to invest time and resources behind research project, ‘Circular Design Speeds’ (CDS). The Swedish brand brought stakeholders from industry, academia, science and research to the same table which resulted in a two-year collaborative effort between Filippa K, research body Mistra Future Fashion and University Of The Arts London (UAL).
What CDS set out to explore was a relationship between slow and fast. In that, it scoped around for a potential balance where some garments were better off designed for a short life but fully recoverable as raw material. Others could well be long-lasting. The outcome was three garment prototypes and one market-ready product that also incorporated perspectives from Filippa K’s operations and store teams, voices usually far-removed from such experimentations.
Fast: The Throw Away Dress
In the last 25 years, Filippa K has single-mindedly focused on creating garments that last. Having to design a garment that gets binned after 2-3 wears was a massive shift in perspective. To move forward, they drew inspiration from nature which doesn’t define speeds to be either good or bad- offering as much space to short-lived Cherry Blossoms as say the Peepal tree.
Filippa K’s objective was to explore whether the oxymoron, circular fast fashion, could be a reality. Since the garment needed to be 100% bio-degradable, the design team opted for an unusual fabric: non-woven tencel. The stiff fabric was further dyed in food waste. With much experimental handwork, Filippa K designer, Emilia Castles arrived at a dress that ticked the boxes of aesthetics and functionality. The Throw Away dress is 100% compostable, one of the more sustainable methods for end-of-life garment disposal.
“The Throw Away dress is 100% compostable, one of the more sustainable methods for end-of-life garment disposal.”
In theory, such a garment, if high on appeal, would satiate fashion-led whims and then disappear, only to be remembered in our Instagram feeds. Behaviourally though, the concept seems a bit hard to reconcile with, given that we are gunning for an elimination of single-use products from our lifestyle.
Fast: Paper Leather Jacket & Striped T-Shirt
Paper-based fashion dates back to as early as the 1960s when trend-obsessed women bought into the concept of paper dresses. A qualitative survey conducted by Mistra Future Fashion revealed that the consumers are ready for a paper-like fabric and showed appreciation towards the concept.
“This project reflects the idea of material longevity which is supported by multiple loops of efficient recovery at the heart of the sustainability focus.”
Two prototypes; paper leather jacket and striped paper t-shirt, were created. The bio-based non-woven material (mix of pulp, cornstarch etc.) was co-developed by scientists at Research Institute of Sweden(RISE) and UAL researchers. Crushed or rolled to achieve a wearable texture, the prototypes were coloured in natural dyes and constructed with laser techniques. The final output looked like a fashion product.
On how the project explored the merger of design with science and production to make paper convincing as a textile Dr Kate Goldsworthy, Co-Director, Centre for Circular Design (CCD) said: “We are literally at the start of this journey. However, this project reflects the idea of material longevity in short-life products, enabled through efficient recovery. This is at the heart of the ambition to find a sustainable direction for future fast-forward fashion. The use phase for these paper-based products is intentionally short, anything from 6-12 wears without laundry before being returned for recovery and reprocessing.”
Slow: The Eternal Trench Coat
Here, the end goal was to design a fully recyclable cum commercial garment. Based on feedback from sales teams at Filippa K, the choice of product was a trench coat. To reverse engineer the design process; new partnerships were struck. Learnings from recyclers, Wolkat and Philtex, enabled the team at Fillippa K to use 100% recycled polyester from PET bottles and make design adjustments for easy disassembly. Swedish startup, We aRe SpinDye® created a dyeing process that reduces water and chemical usage by up to 90%. Backed by a 10-year repair service, the £ 270 product has gone live.
The choice of polyester was a tricky one. The brand acknowledged the problem of microfibre shedding that comes with the use of plastic. However, by using recycled polyester, Filippa K’s fabric specialist, Jodie Everding pointed out that process led to the reduction of the amount of plastic going into landfills and oceans as well as less use of virgin polyester.
“The project stakeholders are hoping for polyester to enter a closed loop and be recycled over and over again.”
At a broader level, the CDS project is calling for a change of perception around polyester, which takes millions of years to create (oil-based origin) and then 200 years to biodegrade. This slow material source is ironically used the most in fast-fashion. In future endeavours, the project stakeholders are hoping for polyester to enter a closed loop and be recycled over and over again.
Slow: The Service Shirt. A 50-Year Fashion Statement
The project explores the circular business models of tomorrow where a fashion product is in use for much longer than usual. It also maps out the complexities, challenges and opportunities thrown up by such scenarios. The future is made tangible through a 50-year journey of the prototype, a recycled polyester silk shirt.
The shirt gets passed around between a mother, daughter and her friends in the first 18 years, including trips to an imaginary Filippa K Re-Fashioned centre that facilitates overprinting on the garment. And in that process, the shirt changes colour from summery white to jet black. In the last 30 years of its existence, the shirt goes back to the brand and changes form to become a jacket lining and finally an accessory.
Project lead, Prof. Becky Earley, Co-Director, CCD says: “If you can make a garment last through the process of reinvention in reasonable, commercially available and viable ways, you replace the purchase of a new product. The lifecycle assessment of the service shirt against a standard polyester blouse showed significant climate change savings.”
“If you can make a garment last through the process of reinvention in reasonable, commercially available and viable ways, you replace the purchase of a new product.”
As the project itself labels the timescale of 50 years a ‘deliberate extreme’, for now, a 5-year cycle sounds comprehensible. Perhaps a product owner could return to their favourite brand’s flagship on Oxford Street, choose from a menu of patterns that turn the old garment into something new to take back home. An endeavour like this would mark the entry into the service phase of the fashion industry.
Elin Larsson, sustainability director, Fillipa K explained: “I believe the future wardrobe will be a multi-diverse wardrobe, with a mix of short-life and long-life garments, a mix of new and second hand, and a mix of owned, rented or borrowed. A beautiful wardrobe that changes and evolves at different speeds depending on the user without giving us a bad conscience.”
CDS prototypes are a starting point. Going from conceptual to commercial might take from 2 to 5 years. Interestingly though, others apparel brands are taking note of this project because the sector operates in an environment where regulators, watchdogs and to some extent, customers, are seeking an overhaul of existing models and the impending resource scarcity is a given.
Molshree is a fashion consultant and researcher based in London. With a background in fashion retail, she is currently focussing on projects that propel the sustainability agenda into the mainstream.