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Fair fashion: designers making a difference

KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Image courtesy of KITX KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Courtesy of KITX

Clothes for the fashion conscious with a conscience.

“There are too many clothes in the world.” It’s not a statement you’d expect to hear from a fashion designer, but Kit Willow Podgornik is emphatic.

“I didn’t want to make more clothes the world didn’t need. I wanted to make women look and feel beautiful, but I also wanted to have a positive impact on the planet, and I knew in my heart that my customers wanted that too.”

Podgornik is talking about KITX, the fashion brand with a sustainable and ethical focus that she launched in Sydney in 2015 after much soul searching about the state of the industry.

“I love creating, but I thought: I don’t want to keep doing this unless I am creating positive change,” she says. The veteran designer is certainly right about overconsumption.

Each year, Australians consign $500m worth of clothing to the tip, and the quest to manufacture more clothes more quickly and cheaply is also polluting our waterways, air, land and seas. The human impact can also be devastating − 1,133 people were killed and more than 2,500 injured in the Rana Plaza factory disaster in Bangladesh in 2013 and nearly 800 people were injured in fires in other Bangladeshi textile and the garment factories that year.

“The cost of fashion to humanity, the environment and the planet can be huge,” says Podgornik. “I knew there had to be a better way.”

And she has found it. From working with Varanasi weavers and sourcing organic cottons to making bodysuits from recycled plastic and using buttons made from spent bullet cases in Cambodia, Podgornik is trying to make KITX as sustainable as possible.

But if you think that means it’s “hippy-dippy”, think again. On a Tuesday afternoon in her Paddington, Sydney boutique, well-dressed women browse racks of diaphanous dresses, boxy blouses and split-front skirts. The designer herself is fashion with a capital F, in a pussy-bow draped blouse with cut-outs at the shoulder, knee-high gladiator boots and black pencil skirt. Her fingers flash with chunky rings as she cuddles her constant companion, Chops the Hungarian Vizsla, and explains why style and substance aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I’m not saying, ‘Buy it because it’s sustainable.’ I’m saying, ‘Buy it because you love it,’” she says. “Primarily, I design to give my customers a beautiful garment that they love, but there is an authenticity to that desirable product because it is sourced consciously and manufactured mindfully.”

KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Image courtesy of KITX KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Courtesy of KITX

Podgornik is not alone. Other designers are employing principles of sustainability, anti-cruelty, fair pay and fair working conditions. Outerknown, Mimco, Ginger & Smart and Tome are among the brands with ethical values and responsible manufacturing practices coming together to create positive change for the planet.

“When you have items in your wardrobe that you never wear – or have only worn once – that is overconsumption and we all are guilty of it,” says Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) founder Simone Cipriani. “We want to go back to fashion as it was: unique, gorgeous, beautiful and, most of all, responsible because it is made by people for people.”

Her organisation is a flagship program of the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. It creates ethical production hubs to enable the fashion industry to work with marginalised artisans in Africa, with brands involved including Mimco, Vivienne Westwood and Camper.

“We produce luxury which is sustainable and responsible,” says Cipriani. “A consumer should be proud to be wearing something that was made beautifully with love and care.”

Mimco banked on this philosophy when it began working with the EFI in 2014 to employ artisans in Haiti and Kenya to make beading, embellishments and trims for its bags and accessories.

“It’s really exciting to be able to have a positive impact on communities in developing countries by providing them with income and introducing training, to build on existing skill sets with traditional cultures and move them into income-generating opportunities and employment opportunities,” says Mimco head of design Ailsa Roe.

“We are able to empower women to have enough income for food for their families and education for their children, which isn’t often possible in developing countries where incomes are low.” Mimco receives Impact Assessment reports from the EFI that show exactly how many artisans from each community have worked on its products, and how that work has affected them personally.

“It might be a mother of five and from the work opportunity Mimco gave her she might have been able to undertake training and provide education opportunities for her children,” says Roe. “I love that we can really trace back to the impact it’s having on individuals and their families.”

KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Image courtesy of KITX KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Courtesy of KITX

Where the UN has the EFI, our nation has Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA), an accreditation body which promotes ethical manufacturing and encourages fashion companies to have legally compliant and transparent production practices. ECA accreditation and its labelling system applies to garments made in Australia and is a powerful initiative in terms of encouraging greater responsibility around the manufacturing process.

Carla Zampatti, Veronika Maine and Ginger & Smart are among the companies that have received accreditation by opening up their supply chains to independent audits to ensure they meet minimum legal obligations to their workers under the Textile, Clothing, Footwear and Associated Industries Award. Accredited brands can display an ECA trademark on Australian-made products, providing consumers with a way to support ethically-produced garments.

“It’s important for us to know the workers making our garments are being properly paid and the conditions are fair,” says Ginger & Smart co-founder Genevieve Smart. “Our staff are really proud of that and our customers appreciate it too.”

Her sister and business partner Alexandra Smart says achieving accreditation delivers a unique selling point when it comes to connecting with consumers.

“Customers increasingly want to know where garments come from and how they are made, so the ECA accreditation is a great tool for communicating with them,” she says.

Tome takes a powerful approach to communicating ethical values to customers with its White Shirt Campaign, which raises funds and awareness to emancipate women from human trafficking and sex slavery. Tome designers Ryan Lobo and Ramon Martin launched the charity initiative in 2014 after meeting Freedom For All Foundation head Katie Ford at a fundraiser for her global organisation that fights trafficking and modern-day slavery.

“Katie goes on missions around the world and saves women in bondage by taking them to safe houses, then helping them find employment,” says Lobo. “The work she’s doing is so essential, yet very few people know about it because she is too busy doing it to promote it, so we wanted to find a way to bring attention to the cause and to her life-transforming work.”

To this end, each year Tome produces a series of white shirts for sale, modelled by leading women in a high-profile campaign with all proceeds going to the foundation. Isabella Rossellini, Amal Clooney and Carolyn Murphy are among the high profile women who have lent their support to the White Shirt Campaign, starring in a shoot wearing the shirts and promoting the campaign on their social media channels.

And it doesn’t stop there. Tome’s new denim collection is made entirely from upcycled product. It also uses recycled water and works with factories that pay living wages as part of its ongoing commitment to improving its ethical credentials.

“One thing leads to another − you start doing the right thing and, at the same time, you get great product and great design,” says Lobo. “It’s a really good thing for us to be sustainable because it’s an exciting new challenge and, for a designer, solving problems is what it’s all about.”

KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Image courtesy of KITX KITX COLLECTION N° 6 | Courtesy of KITX

Also concerned about the environment, especially the sea, is Kelly Slater. The 11-time World Surf League Champion founded his brand, Outerknown, with menswear designer John Moore with the intention of manufacturing quality menswear in the most sustainable way.

“I was sponsored by clothing companies for most of my life, but never knew where my clothes actually came from,” says Slater. “I wanted to know more about the whole process and use it as a means to communicate deeper values.”

A little research led the duo to Italian company Aquafil. It makes a fibre called Econyl from recovered fishing nets and other nylon ocean detritus, which Outerknown recycles into luxury outerwear.

“As surfers... naturally we think about cleaning up the seas, but we go so much further, making sure we do not use any harmful chemicals in the development of our raw materials or the manufacturing of our clothes,” says Moore. “We aim to make clothing we want to wear with a process we believe in.”

The market for ethical textiles, clothing and footwear is growing. As successful brands continue to lead the way, others are sure to follow. On the home front, David Jones is passionate about becoming the ethical choice for consumers, with a robust five-year Ethical Sourcing Strategy and a growing stable of brands in-store known for their sustainable and responsible sourcing practices. J

Ginger & Smart, KITX, Tome and Outerwear all available at David Jones.

Words by Georgina Safe

Photography by Mick Bruzzese