LONDON — Mother of Pearl creative director Amy Powney wants to see the fashion industry modernize itself, and is taking the lead in a heated industry conversation: Sustainability.
For more than four years she has been working towards making every step of the Mother of Pearl supply chain more sustainable, from ensuring that cotton suppliers do not use pesticides during the farming process, to keeping production local in a bid to reduce a garment’s carbon footprint.
Powney is now ready to start sharing some of her findings with the rest of the industry, starting with a panel discussion to be held Saturday in association with the British Fashion Council, and broadcast by BBC Earth.
“All of the work that we have been doing around sustainability is not just about changing our own brand, it’s about helping or inspiring others to change theirs, too. Mother of Pearl is a drop in the ocean. Our brand alone can’t change the way the industry operates, but if we all come together then we can have a bigger impact,” said Powney.
Her ultimate goal is to achieve a gold standard for production, having taken a “360-degree view” around sustainability.
“When you use the term ‘sustainability,’ I don’t think you can use it lightly, you have to consider everything. Otherwise, you should pinpoint the area you are working on. For instance, some brands only care about fair trade while others concentrate on recycling,” she added.
Some of the priorities the brand has set for itself include working with fewer wool suppliers and only those that can ensure high animal welfare standards; ensuring its offices are plastic-free, and cutting out polyesters from its production line.
“We only work with cells that are natural, meaning wood-based and natural fibers. Circularity isn’t anywhere near where it should be, and more than 70 percent of what you put into your recycling bin never gets recycled, so until the infrastructure is there I’m not prepared to work with plastics,” added the designer.
As much as Powney sees changes in the supply chain as a crucial part in fixing the fashion industry’s destructive environmental impact, she argues that responsible consumption, education and a slower fashion cycle are also key factors to consider.
“Suppliers have to work towards making sure that they are farming correctly. As brands, we have to work to make sure that we are creating the right product and then the consumer has to ensure they are not consuming too much and that they are consuming correctly. We have to work as hard in the supply chain as we do in the communication: There is no point in me creating a sustainable product if no one knows about it and there is no point talking about sustainability if we are not practicing it.”
She has responded to the pressing need for a shift in consumer habits with the creation of the “No Frills” collection, a range of brand classics that is produced 100 percent sustainably and will be available season after season.
Her idea is to prove that a collection can remain relevant for more than one season and that a seasonless, classic item need not be boring: “No Frills” features denim or basic T-shirts with pearl embellishments attached to the sleeves, oversize striped shirts with playful, frilled trims or little black dresses adorned with fringes and pearls.
“We have a huge problem with sales culture and nothing staying on the shop floor for long enough. Consumers are inundated with product through influencers and the press and feel like they need to keep up with the trends each season,” said Powney. “We wanted to make a line that doesn’t put that pressure on you. It doesn’t go on sale and you can just style it differently season after season. I’m sure I could use that collection again next season, style it completely differently and have everyone thinking it’s a different collection.”
The production practices of “No Frills” are gradually being integrated into the brand’s mainline, too. Its fall 2019 collection will be more than 40 percent sustainable, while spring 2020 is set to be up to 80 percent sustainable.
Powney presented the “No Frills” line as part of Copenhagen Fashion Week, having found that both the brand’s quirky, feminine aesthetic and its commitment to sustainability resonate well with the Scandinavian audience.
“Mother of Pearl has always been about the product but I have really been integrating the sustainability story into the business the last few years. Entering the Scandinavian market, it’s great to see that the customer is interested in both,” she added.
Powney is also sticking to her decision to shift the brand’s production to two see-now-buy-now collections per year, even as other big luxury players such as Burberry and Tom Ford have moved on.
Her reasoning? Just as fashion labels have to rethink the way they produce their product, they also need to adopt a more modern outlook in the way they do business — even if the current structure of the industry might not always be equipped to accommodate it.
“When we say see-now-buy-now isn’t working, it’s not working for the wholesale companies or because our industry hasn’t been moving. But if you think about new brands that are entering the market and taking a sustainable approach, like Reformation, they’ve had incredible growth and they do not show their customer products that they cannot buy,” said Powney.
She has always been a pioneer: Mother of Pearl, which was originally founded by Maia Norman, has long been a leader in the U.K. contemporary market thanks to Powney. It was among the first labels to adopt a see-now-buy-now format and focus on digital initiatives and consumer-facing events.
“If we don’t change to become more like the modern businesses that are engaging with their consumers, I think our industry is not going to survive anyway. I’m not going backwards. As a consumer myself, I don’t want to wait nine months to buy a product,” she said.