Published 05/06/2013 | 14:47
Is it just pity product?
When Katharine Hamnett suddenly stepped down from her position as one of mainstream British fashion's most successful designers, it was because she'd found herself a mission. That was in 1989, and for over a decade - all through the 1990s and beyond - the queen of the slogan T-shirt incessantly banged the drum, telling everyone she could (at remorseless length) about the ecological and social consequences of industrial textile production. And the reaction? To call it muted would be generous.
Eventually, Hamnett said recently, she realised when it comes to clothes, the vast majority would far prefer to look hot than bask in the warm and righteous glow of social responsibility. "You might think people would buy clothes out of pity," Hamnett said, "but they won't. People buy clothes because they want to be excited about themselves. So it can't just be goody-goody clothing; it has to be great clothing that just happens to be goody-goody, too. You've got to put the fashion first."
Today, even after this year's factory disaster in Dhaka, there has been no significant consumer cringe on developed high streets. The Waitrose classes might devour ethically sourced, organic carrots but there's barely any appetite for ethically sourced, organic cotton.
What has changed, however, is that for the small but growing minority of fashion-loving women who do care what their clothes are made of and who made them, there are at last some labels that have learnt the Hamnett lesson. They are not only making some fun, sexy, luxurious clothes - ones you'd consider alongside items from achingly trendy labels that make no moral claims - but they're more circumspect about making those claims. The fashion comes first.
Stella McCartney - whose particular ethical drum is meat-free - was instrumental in this. Her friend and favourite model, Natalia Vodianova, said: "I remember before her brand took off, people were saying: "Really? She's going to do it without leather, without fur, and it's going to sell? How will that work?"
But she's done it - the brand has grown 40 per cent a year for the last five years. And it's pure - it has no violence." And the way McCartney has achieved sales of just under £200 million a year is to focus on the design - without ever shoving her morals down her fans' throats.
A few years ago, the British Fair Trade fashion retailer People Tree recruited the fresh-from-Harry Potter actress Emma Watson as its celebrity designer/spokeswoman. But the clothes seemed as blandly goody-goody as Watson; and when combined, the two sparked critical apathy.
Now though, People Tree's product has really picked up and its output stands comparison with any other on-form, mid-priced British brand. The fact that its ethical credentials are impeccable is a bonus.
The enormous Italian online retailer Yoox.com is the main e-commerce provider for many of that country's most celebrated labels, including Marni, Valentino and Pucci. Now given equal billing alongside them are stealthily sustainable fashion brands such as Yooxygen, which marks each of its punchy, Spanish-designed garments with a traceability tag that identifies every worker in its manufacture chain, from India to factories in Portugal or Italy. Yoox also stocks Esthetica, a British Fashion Council stewarded collection of young UK-based designers, and the ''Eco-age'' collection by the acceptable face of socially responsible fashion Livia Firth (who should have called it DeLivia). Yoox even offers a smattering of Katharine Hamnett.
All of the laudable and lovely-to-wear clothes mentioned above offer attractive fashion that doesn't demand the wearer parade their unglamorous responsibility.
Yet not every ''ethical'' label is equal; there is plenty of ''green washed'' fashion out there, whose marketeers either sing and dance about the heartstring-plucking causes they serve while burying just how small a sliver of profits gets donated, or whose environmentally and socially responsible supply chain is not entirely so.
Maiyet, a newish New York-based label, is on the other side of the scale - and probably the most honed and interesting example of heart-on-sleeve fashion. It was co-founded by Paul Van Zyl, a human rights lawyer who worked as an events secretary for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. After reading about ''associational life'' - the idea that if two ethnically or religiously diverse groups are employed alongside each other the levels of conflict are drastically reduced - he decided to try to found a clothing brand that created such employment. He approached Kristy Caylor, a merchandising expert with stints working for Gap and All Saints under her belt, to help.
Caylor says: "When Paul came to me and said he wanted to make a fashion brand that does some good in the world I thought 'me too'. But the first thing we had to focus on was making beautiful, gorgeous products. Because having seen people try to make things we call pity product is not something we were interested in. We had to create a brand that was covetable regardless of its mission, that people would just walk into a store, see, and say 'wow: I really want that'."
This, going on the evidence of the Maiyet collections stocked in Selfridges alongside the rest of its luxury women's fashion, they have done. The Manhattan-masterminded collections are sleek, chic and not at all gap-year crusty.
"Luxury is built on the idea of artisans and craftsmanship," says Caylor. "But why is it that we only recognise these beautiful skills when they are from France or Italy? So we travelled all over the world and uncovered incredible untapped talent; we found beautiful prints in India, hand-batik in Indonesia, hand-made jewellery from Kenya and Vietnam, hand-knit sweaters in Peru... and this has become our foundation."
Along the way, Maiyet is working to Van Zyl's agenda: the British architect David Adjaye is constructing a new Maiyet factory for Hindu and Muslim silk weavers from adjoining villages in Varanasi, India, to work alongside in.
But casual browsers would know nothing of this, because, as Hamnett eventually discovered, sloganeering can only get you so far: ethical fashion only works when it appeals to our vanity as much as our conscience.
As originally seen on Telegraph.co.uk