Dame Zandra Rhodes and Safia Minney, Founder and CEO of People Tree, did an inspiring talk on the future of sustainable fashion at Pure London.
Safia: We’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with Zandra Rhodes on three different collections. Last year, we even got to travel to India to meet our organic cotton farmers and tailors.
Zandra: That was wonderful, I loved it!
Tell us, how did that trip change how you feel about fashion and our collaboration?
Zandra: I was really impressed by the whole trip. The cotton farmers showed us their harvest and the way they work around climate change. I loved that they have a special seedbank in the middle of town where they check which seeds grow best in their particular soil.
Safia: Yes, and that’s amazing isn’t it? You get to see how these small farmers use Fair Trade to convert from conventional to organic cotton farming, which isn’t an easy thing. Many farmers are living absolutely on the edge!
When you look at Fair Trade and organic farming and the benefits of it, what do you think are the real barriers to make it mainstream and get other big fashion companies behind it?
Zandra: Honestly? The biggest barrier is probably greed. It influences so many people; you just have to hope that others see there’s a future in doing things the proper way. If you look at the harm that conventional cotton farming does, we have to think how we can create a world that is going to be sustainable for future generations. Clothes have to be wonderful to wear! Even if clothes are ethically made, people still have to be excited about the designs.
Safia: The whole Fair Trade movement is the antithesis to this idea of greed: It’s a vibrant network where incredible social businesses are working together. Not just to buy a BMW or a bigger house, but to bring the benefits to all their members and the wider community. More designers are beginning to learn about what it means to design sustainably these days.
Tell us about the upcoming Zandra Rhodes with People Tree collections!
Safia: The next collection we’re working on is the Autumn-Winter 2015 collection landing June 2015 on 100 % Fair Trade and organic cotton. I went through Zandra’s archive of prints to find comic, birght loveable prints that made me laugh. There’s something about fast cars and shining stars.
Zandra: I’ve been very lucky in the early eighties I was taken to India by the Indian government. I’ve seen the looms being set up in people’s backyards and I’ve seen hand-blocking. I’m really looking forward to using these different traditional skills in a new collection with People Tree soon. I’m lucky enough to have a friend who lives in India and who spends his whole life keeping these handcrafts going so they don’t get replaced by machinery and lost to the world.
Safia: Why do you think it is important to revive and promote craft skills? Some people would argue that they are irrelevant in our IT age.
Zandra: How sad to think of everything being produced on a computer. Although the computer might be superficially quick, it doesn’t always produce things with the same sort of quality. I mean, in my studio in London, we still handprint everything and it has a lovely different quality to when it is just done on a computer. It’s very important to know the difference.
What are your plans for the next ten years?
Safia: Zandra, this is a really big week for you, it’s the week you become a dame. There is so much you have contributed to our world in terms of prints and textile, you have been a real innovator right from the beginning.
Zandra: I can only say that I hope I keep coming up with original ideas! I find it’s such a pressure these days with all sorts of other things hitting you. You can only hope that you still come up with something different that isn’t run-of-the-mill. Getting away like on our trip to meet Fair Trade producers in India, plays a huge part in finding new inspiration.
Is there a way around certifications like Fairtrade or Soil Association, to make the products cheaper and therefore more people buy them?
Zandra: I think a certification is something that has to be done, just to hold people accountable to what they are doing. There is a danger in watering down and green wash otherwise.
Safia: I don’t think the problem is the expense of it, but more that fashion companies have become more and more lazy with planning and looking at long-term innovation. We’re talking about 2015, with very robust supply chains in Turkey, Egypt, in the US and even Japan. The innovations are there, the supply chains are there and the fabrics are there. It’s really more that fashion companies need to start operating and planning for sustainability.
Do you think the High Street can be influenced into producing more sustainably?
Zandra: I don’t know that it’s up to the designers. You might be able to guide the company you are working for to say ‘why don’t you try something else’.
Safia: There are a lot of examples where people at fashion companies, buyers or designers even merchandisers have made a huge difference to the practise of their company. What we need in the fashion industry is for more people to drive through a sustainable agenda. If we got twenty years to change everything – the way we do economics, the way we relate to each other and our systems are set up – a lot has to happen very quickly on many different levels – on a business level, with the research institutions and the government. That pressure is has to come from the public like after the horrific Rana Plaza incident where the factory collapsed in 2013. I’ve seen that friends are caring more and more: People are demanding transparency. There’s a really great energy and everyone has got a valuable part to play.
Zandra: Yes! The world has changed in the way that people don’t just accept things, they care about their clothes are produced. The worst thing in life is when people think: My little effort won’t matter. You always have to think that even if you’re only playing a little part, it is of big value for a change in the fashion industry.