LONDON — Continuing her mission to champion sustainable practices in fashion, Livia Firth is spearheading a new collaborative project, which is uniting artisans and designers from the 52 countries of the Commonwealth.
Dubbed the “Commonwealth Fashion Exchange,” the initiative aims to act as a showcase of design and artisanal talent across the region and demonstrate what can be achieved through collaboration and the use of alternative resources.
Emerging and established names are taking part, including Burberry and Stella McCartney from the U.K., Karen Walker from New Zealand and Bibi Russell from Bangladesh. They were asked to source an artisan from a country they’ve never worked with before and collaborate to create a gown.
“We put them a little outside their comfort zones. Some of them went off piste but everything looks beautiful,” Firth said. “It shows that fashion can be a huge weapon, we are all connected by the clothes we wear.”
Firth added that by putting the spotlight on small businesses and handmade product, the project also aims to be an answer to the unsustainable concept of fast fashion and the “overwhelmingly female” low-wage economy it’s based on: “The Fashion Exchange utilizes the Commonwealth’s reach to address some of the pressing issues of today and showcase the potential of artisan fashion trade that can have a positive impact on female empowerment and poverty reduction.”
The completed works will be unveiled on Feb. 19 during London Fashion Week with a reception at Buckingham Palace, attended by the Duchess of Cambridge and the Countess of Wessex. They will be showcased as part of a public exhibition at Australia House in London, curated by American Vogue’s Hamish Bowles. The show will move to additional locations in London and go on to tour the world.
“The Commonwealth is like the world’s ideal pilot, we have every culture, religion and economy. So what we do is more likely to be replicable,” said Patricia Scotland QC, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, explaining that the project offers the opportunity to create a set of tool kits for the countries to work sustainably and educate the consumers of the power of their choices. “We are coming together, across disciplines to make an inroad to sustainability. It’s a holistic system, [utilizing] all of the ecosystems that we have. The power of the market is huge, if we inform individuals how they can make sustainable decisions.”
The collaborative nature of the project drew multiple partners, including the likes of Matchesfashion.com, Google, Swarovski and Woolmark, whose varied expertise and resources aims to add new dimensions to the project.
Matchesfashion.com will stock a selection of the garments produced as part of the Fashion Exchange, as of September. It is also bringing Google on board to create interactive content that will promote the products on a global scale.
“The idea is to amplify the story on a global scale with Google,” said Ulric Jerome, chief executive officer at Matchesfashion.com. “We are known for spending quite a lot of time to source the best emerging designers, so it was natural to give a platform for sustainability through talent, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit.”
Jerome added that Matches chose to participate in the project and establish a longer-term partnership with Livia Firth’s consulting agency Eco-Age because of an awareness that “more needs to be done” in terms of sustainability in fashion. At the moment, 10 percent of the 450 brands the retailer stocks work in a sustainable way and Matches buyers are using their influence to increase that figure through the power of asking questions and “putting positive pressure” on the brands.
“Some of our customers are in fact more educated than our fellow industry peers and they are constantly pushing us. It’s not only about the product, but about education and bringing content and commerce together,” said Jerome, pointing to plans to publish content dedicated to sustainability as part of its weekly online magazine, The Style Report.
Google is also working with the Commonwealth Fashion Council to host a virtual museum of the Fashion Exchange and produce the first directory of all the artisans and suppliers across the 53 countries.
“This creates a big legacy for the project. People will be able to understand and make contact with the fashion council if they want to produce something in Kenya or anywhere else within the Commonwealth,” said Firth. “Artisanal fashion is in the spotlight and we really have to support it. Especially because the more sophisticated we get in our communication, the more sophisticated the high street gets appropriating ideas such as the circular economy. But if you really look at how much they upcycle, the numbers are so low.”
Swarovski was another participant in the project, providing nine designers with upcycled crystals to incorporate into their designs. It also brought along the nonprofit organization Nest, which works toward supporting artisans in developing countries by developing a set of standards that protect those working from their homes and allowing them to have equal market access.
“From a consumer perspective, there is an increasing desire and craving for authenticity and storytelling — and the artisan can offer that to you. But one of the things to acknowledge is that a significant portion of production is actually taking place in homes or small workshops. So, as we create policies, procedures and processes that are bringing environmental and social sustainability to factories, we need to make sure that they are being carried over to the homeworker,” said a Nest representative. “Craft is the second-largest employer of women in developing economies, so we are talking about empowerment for women when we talk about allowing women to be a part of the global economy, when for them it’s unsafe for them to leave their homes.”
Other collaborators include stylist Rebecca Corbin Murray and model and sustainability activist Arizona Muse, who will work together to put some of the pieces created as part of the project on the red carpet.