Political, eco-engagement underpins creativity for new generation of designers
This year like never before, the collective voice of emerging designers has been heard loud and clear. It is a powerful voice, despite the precarious situation these designers find themselves in, vulnerable to the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. A voice that was almost a cry, ringing out resonantly at this year's leading fashion competitions, from the Hyères Festival to ITS, and focusing the industry's attention on the urgent issues the world is confronting, from protecting the planet to fighting discrimination against minorities. A new generation of fashion designers is taking shape, one that is determined to make itself heard.
Sustainable development is an increasingly ubiquitous, not to say essential, element. Orsola de Castro, founder of the Fashion Revolution movement, a designer who from early on has been an advocate of social engagement, has underlined this evolution: “Year after year, designers are increasingly rigorous in their search for sustainable solutions, through upcycling, the circular economy and bioplastics, because the situation is getting worse and worse. Awareness of the climate crisis, and of the impact the fashion industry has on the planet, have become everyday topics. Highly sustainable solutions are now inextricably linked with fashion design.”
What is surprising is how this theme is becoming fashion’s driving element, one that is embedded in all aspects of the industry, right from a label's inception.
“Previously, we talked about ‘digital natives’," said Luca Rizzi, in charge of the Tutoring & Consulting division at Italian show organiser Pitti Immagine. "Now, it’s ‘sustainable natives’. In the past, sustainability was above all a question of marketing, but now we can clearly perceive a genuine awareness of it in emerging designers."
Rizzi added: “[These designers] are already extremely committed to sustainability, while fashion academies are just beginning to take it on board. The world of fashion is no longer frivolous, it’s a tool for disruptive self-expression, a medium for broadcasting a positive message through which [designers] are able to reach out to other young people."
Stavros Karelis, founder of London concept store Machine-A, this year for the first time a jury member at the ITS competition, said: “Fashion is no longer just a way to make social commentary, but a way to act and change things."
“Those who don’t understand the times we’re living in are destined to disappear”
“Nice products are no longer sufficient. Of course, fashion creations must be attractive, but they are now also the bearers of genuine social statements and political ideas. Many designers are talking about environmental protection, inclusivity, LGBTQ rights and other issues. They are increasingly thinking about the meaning of their efforts, and how to translate this meaning into their collections. Until now, labels used to flag their commitment to this or that issue, but this wasn’t reflected in their collections. Now, these convictions are clearly visible in fashion products,” added Karelis.
The opinion of Stefano Martinetto, CEO of Tomorrow London Holdings, an agency which offers designers a multi-service platform covering production, distribution, marketing and communications, is even more radical. “Those who don’t understand the times we’re living in are destined to disappear. Advertising campaigns with blond top models pictured in luxury shopping streets are a thing of the past. Creative directors must have a political perspective.”
“Yes, this new generation is by no means politically shy. New-style designers are very well aware of our planet's fragility. Things that once were just trendy have now become necessary conditions for fashion design, such as ensuring that the supply chain is sustainable, or being inclusive in racial, morphological and cultural terms,” said Martinetto.
“They're not here to design nice clothes, but to have a point of view on the world”
“While we tend to theorise certain concepts, emerging designers embrace them across the board. Inclusion is something that is very real for them. They feel they are citizens of the world, but stay true to their roots,” said Barbara Franchin, who founded the International Talent Support competition (ITS) in Trieste, Italy, in 2002.
“A sense of community is very important,” said French designer Christelle Kocher, she too a member of the ITS competition jury this year, citing the remarkable work of young British designer Cameron Williams, who zeroed in on his origins and on African identity.
“Young designers are very creative. They’re not content with merely commercial projects. They are well aware of what is going on in the world, they're not here to design nice clothes, but to have a point of view on the world, in terms of sustainability, community and social issues, one that is mirrored in their work. Artisanal products and recycling are signs of genuine goodwill for the planet. In the hands of [these designers], fashion is becoming once again an attractive value, promoting ideas like solidarity,” added Kocher, founder of the Koché label.
Addressing communities rather than everyone
Martinetto also highlighted the idea of community, an element which strongly characterises the way emerging labels function: “Generalist labels that target everyone no longer exist. Contemporary designers must be able to connect with a specific community of consumers, with whom they can hold a conversation and share the same language. It's now time for labels that speak with a singular voice, that have a much more specific, almost political value system.” Rizzi emphasised the point: “[Designers] have very strong links with their communities, they work closely with their consumers.”
Designers who are making their market debut now, like Tom Van Der Borght, winner of the fashion prize at the Hyères Festival with a collection made with recycled materials “no one wants any more,” or Olivia Rubens, winner of the first prize in the fashion category at ITS, heralding very clearly her commitment to social justice and sustainability, seem to stand light years away from their senior counterparts.
“They are extremely mature, much more so than [designers] of the past. Of course, they have their dreams, but they are much more grounded. They know who they are, they all have a strong identity,” said Franchin, who added that “I was surprised by the way this year's [ITS] finalists spoke about their family history, their tribulations and their traumas, which they transformed into creative energy.”
One's life story, pains, struggles and difficulties should not be concealed but risen above
Recent examples about young designers delving into their personal history are by no means scarce. Like Hyères Festival winner Tom Van Der Borght, who is fighting against a degenerative disease, or ITS winner Olivia Rubens, a victim of bullying, or another finalist, who told the story of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
Some think that the Covid-19 pandemic is prompting this unprecedented kind of introspection. Rizzi said: “I was struck by the way in which the virus has lodged itself into the minds of these young people, seeing how much more deeply they are now looking within themselves compared to how they used to do before. This is leading them to work on their emotional values, and results in a truly profound internal analysis, fostering a level of maturity never seen before, and a very high degree of fulfilment."
Concurring, Karelis enthused: “At major fashion competitions, a strong element of creativity is expected. But I'd never seen such quality of execution, of know-how and expertise at all levels, of ideas, of materials research and production techniques.
“If I may say so, lockdowns and Covid have provided a great stimulus. Design-wise, the results are brilliant.”
The collections of the various competitions’ finalists notably showcased significant work on materials, with an emphasis on hand-made products and on experimentation in newly invented textures and techniques. Also, a renewed appreciation of lost traditions, and new thinking on manufacturing processes and how to transform waste and recycle it sustainably.
Knitwear in particular, since it allows greater control of raw material sourcing, has proven to be a fertile ground for explorations of all kinds. It is a sector where innovation is possible, and it is suited to a circular approach.
Another emerging trend is that of protecting and taking care of one's body, through clothes and accessories that promote a degree of well-being. Like the massaging socks devised by Irish designer Rebecca, a finalist at ITS in the accessories category.
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