Once my parents realised that I’m not in fact just cruising through a ‘fake career’ of swanning around fashion shows and ‘playing’ at being a journalist, they’ve both been hugely enthusiastic – nay, insistent that I should go back to Hong Kong more often and in their words, ‘ply my trade’. As in, take whatever supposed expertise I have and flaunt it in my motherland. I, of course am dubious about the idea. As I’ve said before, Hong Kong – whilst spiritually/technically is where my roots are – it isn’t what I really know. Its creative and fashion industry for instance is still, largely an unknown entity to me. The lay of the land seems to change all the time, as the rents in the central areas are so extortionate that any interesting shop/creative endeavour that pops up might disappear the next time you’re there.
Wearing Celine top, Minki Cheng skirt, Nike x Liberty Air Rifts and Loewe bag in front of a deep-rooted tree near Hollywood Road, Central
This time round though, I would have a guiding hand to take me on a very different Hong Kong journey than the short and fleeting trips I have been on before. Redress had invited me out to be on the judging panel for their EcoChic Design Award, a competition now in its fifth cycle that encourages emerging fashion designers to create collections with minimal textile waste. EcoChic taps up either current students or recent graduates at the beginning of their careers and educates them on the fashion industry’s negative environmental impacts and encourages them to take up techniques in zero-waste, up-cycling and reconstruction (a helpful glossary here gives you definitive meanings of these terms). Essentially, it’s about planting the seeds in a new generation of designers to be better equipped to ingrain sustainable practises into their design outlook from the get go. For these designers, it’s not about ticking a green box because it’s the right thing to do, but because they’re genuinely excited about what they can create with the limitations of materials and techniques and will incorporate this way of working into their own labels or even as future employees at design houses.
In addition to judging the ten finalists, I also went along with them to their workshops in the run-up to the final show to also learn about textiles waste, created by both consumers and manufacturing, in a region of Asia, where fast fashion and fleeting trends are fed by an eager customer as well as a hugely profiteering industry. For this five day trip, I had a fly-on-the-wall film crew documenting my every step, that will hopefully result in a video series of some sort but for now, here’s the picture-and-words rundown.
On the first day with the finalists, we all drove up to Sheung Shui in New Territories, near the border between Hong Kong and China to see a textiles recycling facility, where clothes collected from banks dotted all over the city are gathered up, sorted and then bundled up to be sent off to third world countries. That of course in itself, creates its own economic problems, but as a solution, is far preferable to the clothes that go into general landfill, if they’re dumped into the rubbish bin as opposed to designated clothing bins.
In comparison to the LM Barry recycling centre in East London, which I visited a while ago, the scale was a lot smaller here and perhaps more ramshackle in its sorting methodology, as local ladies milled about, sorting the clothes into haphazard piles. It’s a valiant effort to deal with what is an acute problem in population-heavy, space-lacking Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, approximately 106,945 tonnes of textiles were sent into landfills in 2014. That’s approximately an average of 12,000 garments going into the bins, every HOUR. To compare, the UK chucks away 350,000 tonnes of textiles – which is of course insane in itself but Hong Kong of course is geographically smaller and has about a ninth of the population of UK. To throw an even more frightening figure out there, in China the total annual production of pre and post-consumer textile waste is estimated to be around 26 million tonnes.
We were there to visualise consumer textiles waste but also for the EcoChic finalists, they were there to theoretically imagine what they could do to elevate and repurpose the clothes that have been disposed of so casually. Christina Dean, founder of Redress was there to spur on the students as she herself spent a year in 2013, dressing exclusively in found clothes from recycling plants such as this one. The students were paired off and given superbrands like Dior, Chanel and Gucci and asked to recreate the look of these brands with pieces they could find in the warehouse.
I myself jokingly participated by running around the vicinity with last year’s EcoChic Design Award winner Kévin Germanier to create a slapdash J.W. Anderson-inspired outfit, complete with oddball accessory (the plush taxi toy) and weird print (some mumsy top that you might find in Mong Kok’s Ladies Market). I would have totally taken the outfit away to wear if I was allowed.
It’s a simple enough exercise, with the point being that with just a few hours of cutting garments up and picking out interesting details, designers can show you that these clothes shouldn’t have gone into the recycling bins in the first place (even if they are destined to be bundled up for resale). The scary thing of course is thinking of the amount of clothes in Hong Kong that don’t end up in a facility like the one we saw at Sheung Shui.
The competition finalists deftly picked out some choice pieces that didn’t even require much alteration to turn into outfit-ready ensembles, as in the case of Gucci. Funnily enough, some fake Chanel pieces turned up that were ready to be cut up into an ‘ironic’ logomania outfit. The Dior team proposed some clever zero-waste pattern cutting techniques that would have certainly impressed Raf Simons, if he were still helming the house.
From consumer waste, we moved on to manufacturing waste, as the next day, we headed up to Dongguan, one of the epicentres of manufacturing in Guangdong. As soon as you neared the edges of Dongguan, you’d pass by vast factory complexes everywhere, accompanied by uplifting slogans, as befits a city that is China’s third largest exporter of goods, behind Shanghai and Shenzhen. We were there to visit TAL, a Hong Kong-based manufacturer that supplies the likes of Burberry, Brooks Brothers and J.Crew with polo shirts, outerwear, suiting and primarily what we saw, dress shirts. In fact, TAL are responsible for manufacturing one SIXTH of USA’s dress shirts. This was certainly a level of mass volume and efficient manufacturing, which I’d never seen before.
I have though had some childhood awareness of Dongguan’s reliance on clothing manufacture. My ancestry can be traced back to a village in Dongguan and ten year old me remembers vaguely visiting a few smaller scale clothing factories in the region that at the time in the late 90s were already expanding rapidly. You of course come to understand the contrasting fortunes of clothing manufacturing versus say, the more arduous and traditional agriculture industry that prevailed in the region.
Therefore I’ve long known that Made in China doesn’t necessarily equate to the sweatshops or inferior quality that perhaps people think of when faced with the label. TAL is perhaps a stellar example of “innofacturing” – using data to drive their quest for quality and speed, as well as taking their own CSR seriously to aid productivity. We weren’t there specifically to inspect worker’s conditions but just one look at the staff canteens, on-site dormitories, worker’s incentive charts on the walls and regular sirens for worker’s breaks, demonstrated a safe and healthy working environment.
With the finalists, we toured the factory to look at how TAL are tackling textiles waste at each stage of production. For TAL, it of course makes business sense to save energy and resources wherever they can, to the point where fabric scraps are used to make worker’s aprons, bins and chair covers. The factory is decked out in shirting checks and stripes. The real savings are made at the pattern layout process where technicians are awarded monthly for their ability to fit all the pattern pieces of a garment into a length of fabric, and reducing fabric waste to just under 10%. When I, along with the finalists tried to complete the task on the computer, we couldn’t even fit all the pieces in, let alone reduce waste. Geometry fail.
Our failed attempt versus the pattern perfect minimal-waste pattern cutting solution.
In addition, water used to wash and steam fabrics along the way is recycled back through to the water systems of the dormitories and textiles waste from the cutting process is sent off to be reprocessed into another fabric. Quality checks are firmly implemented at several stages of the process, to ensure that there aren’t any product ‘rejects’ at the end of the manufacturing line. If there are for instance, any defects found in the fabric, then they are mended or turned into seams/pockets to prevent any wastage.
At the end of the day though, the finalists were given the opportunity to present further proposals to minimise waste to the people at TAL. Specifically in the packaging process*, which sees most of TAL’s shirts wrapped up in a mass of tissue paper, cardboard, ribbon and plastic. Simple solutions such as rolling the shirts, as opposed to folding them, could reduce energy and waste in packaging. On the part of TAL, there seemed to be a genuine intent to listen to suggestions, especially when it came to the dealing of waste in energy and materials.
*By the by, I now know why it is I’m so rubbish at ironing Steve’s shirts. It’s because I’m not an obsessive crease-freak like the packers at TAL, who get every seam and box pleat super sharp.
When it came to judging the finalists’ collections, it seemed that sustainable practise had really taken hold so much so that veteran judges of the EcoChic competition noted the impressive nature of the ideas that we were being presented with, and the way that these ideas could be implemented on a larger scale in the industry. As a newcomer judge, I was just impressed full stop at the breadth of techniques and approaches, within the main areas of zero-waste, reconstruction and upcycling. And on the emphasis on the power of the hand and what a personal touch can craft.
Cora Belotto, who hails from Italy but now resides in Spain, produced a sentiment-filled collection entitled ‘Love Endings’ that gave a second life to wedding gowns and bridal trousseaus filled with lovely linens and bedding fabrics. Silks and chiffons are tightly handwoven into decorative panels and vintage linens are bleached and quilted to create jackets. It’s a collection that asks the wearer to treasure these textiles and it made you wonder how many dusty wedding trousseaus out there could benefit from the same treatment. Belotto was awarded the second prize of being mentored by Orsola de Castro, who has judged EcoChic right from the start.
Wang Di from Beijing decided to deal with the waste produced at the beginning of a designer’s career by looking at the discarded calicos and foam fabric from her fellow students at the Beijing Fashion Institute. Iron burns and sharp creases feature heavily in Di’s collection that deals with stains in a graphic way by either clever patchworking or making flaws more pronounced so that they become a design feature. She also used zero-waste cutting to create the knitted foam pieces and indigo dyeing to contrast with the unsightly brown, which Di sees as beautiful.
Esther Lui from Hong Kong already witnesses textiles waste, working for a local bridal label. She confronts it head on by placing the excess of clothing care labels into the patterns of her collection, creating three-dimensional raised textures as well as panelling it on the bias on floor-sweeping gowns. It’s an interesting way of approaching immediate waste from her previous collections and local factories and tailors.
Tsang Fan Yu is a fan of Japanese wabi-sabi and zen culture. It shows in his red-centric, free-flowing collection that is made up of organic hemp and pineapple fibres, that are themselves the product of end-of-roll textiles. But it is Yu’s pattern cutting techniques that impresses with a vest dress with a webbed opening, cut out from fabric that means only 8% of fabric is discarded. His thinking is that simple pattern cutting and free sizing can tackle textiles waste, which incidentally chimes in with his zen-like approach towards fashion.
Amy Ward believes that sustainable fashion can be fun and need not lecture the end consumer. Her vibrantly-hued knitwear and abundance of pom poms certainly spell out fun. But it’s the making of them that impresses, as she sourced her yarns from unravelled knitwear and cut-up end-of-rolls of jersey. They all then underwent a painstaking trail and error of natural dyeing techniques that resulted in shades of yellow, duck egg blue, terracotta and pinks by using age-old-tested things like tumeric, red cabbage and onion skin. Ward thought about the ways in which perhaps she could work with the bi-products of the food industry to further her use of natural dyes. The results are pretty breathtaking as a cacophony of colours come together in harmony, perhaps because the raw materials are all derived from nature.
Belle Benyasarn looked at the immediate waste in her hometown Bangkok and came up with ingenious ways of dealing with say, excess textiles used in Playboy merchandise or Sanrio products. With an awareness of the local craft of handweaving, Benyasarn creates artisanal handwoven textiles out of cut-up strips of factory waste from leather goods manufacturers, that aren’t unlike the work of Faustine Steinmetz in London. It’s definitely an impressive level of transformation from lining fabrics that were once marked with the logos of big corporations.
Pan Wen from China wanted to contrast animal skin against a human one by collating leather off-cut scraps and felting them with wool to recreate the textures of a 15th century tapestry that depicts a hunting scene. There’s a deliberate rawness to Wan’s collection that emphasises perhaps the needless waste in the fashion industry and with scraps and off-cuts, she’s able to create a delicate painterly textile effect.
Annie Mackinnon’s collection is right up my aesthetic street what with her Kandinsky-esque paintings and free-hand illustrations that grace cut-up second hand bed sheets, patched and ripped to avoid pattern cutting waste. Her work really centres around the hand and the ability to see a new lease of life in unwanted textiles. Like many of her fellow finalists, Mackinnon doesn’t want to pigeon hole sustainable fashion into a beige and basic box. Her cut-and-paste approach may not be for everyone but I personally like the unapologetic warts-and-all show of where the fabrics came from.
Sara Kiani was the third finalist to use old bedsheets but her idea has legs to be taken further as a fully fledged business idea as she looked at the discarded bedsheets of luxury hotels in London, contacting a laundry contractor that takes care of London’s hotel laundry to source her supply of cotton sheets. They were then made up into an all-white collection of shirts and dresses, inspired by traditional cheongsams. She also cut up sheets into balls of yarn that was then knitted up into a new textile. The point was to remind onlookers of the fact these clothes came from hotel bedsheets but Kiani did say that you could transform the sheets further with dyeing, embellishment or more advanced fabric transformations. It’s certainly an innovative way of dealing with an area of textiles waste that most of us don’t even think about, and as the rest of the judging panel noted, an idea that could actually be implemented on a larger scale.
It was perhaps a shame that there was only one big prize winner as I felt all the finalists had something to bring to the table and each contributed quite sound ideas. Perhaps what made Patrycja Guzik‘s collection stand out was the complete transformation from the source materials to the final garment. None of the textiles looked like end-of-rolls waste or unwanted textiles. The vibrant purple colour palette was so deliberately artificial looking that it took you away completely from the upcycling techniques that Guzik employed. From her native Poland, Guzik found damaged tweed from a local textiles factory and end-of-roll polyester, that was reprinted with a distinctive graphic. Tufted knitwear made out of unravelled yarns added another dimension to this texture-heavy collection. It was perhaps the most visually well-rounded collection of all the finalists and didn’t take on any of the aesthetic aspects of what we have come to associate with upcycled or sustainable fashion.
From observing the finalists in the various workshops though, it’s clear that the taking part really did matter more than the competition itself. It’s an opportunity for like-minded young designers to come together, exchange thoughts and trade experiences, given that the finalists have come from all over Europe and Asia. Some have still got BA’s to complete or MA’s to embark on. Some are already working designers or in the process of setting up their own labels. They will all be going forth into the industry with the belief they can propel change. Only now, with our collective changing attitude towards sustainability in fashion, it’s not a distant hope, but a distinct reality.