Fashioned by Nature - Inspiration and Innovation

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From the psychology of fast fashion and marketing, to complex production chains which allows companies to deflect responsibility over their impact, and the use of technology and science to tackle issues surrounding sustainability in fresh and innovative ways, there are as many potential solutions as there are issues.

Over the past couple of years, thanks to well-known sustainability advocates such as Vivienne Westwood, Stella McCartney and Emma Watson, as well as campaigns such as Fashion Revolution (#whomademyclothes) and the Clean Clothes Campaign, sustainable fashion has slowly trickled into mainstream culture. Cornerstones such as the recent Stacey Dooley documentary on BBC1 (Fashion’s Dirty Secrets) and a government report on sustainability within the fashion industry to be released next year, shows it to be an increasingly important issue on both a public and legislative level.

‘Fashioned by Nature’

In line with this environmental shift is the major exhibition ‘Fashioned by Nature’ currently held at the V&A Museum. Documenting Fashion’s relationship with nature, from feathers and foliage, crops and canes to textile developments, the exhibition thoroughly explores and educates on fashion and the environment at each stage of the production chain, delving into the past and projecting into the future, from the growing of crops to the impact of wearing and washing.

The exhibition itself was the setting for a recent Houses of Parliament event, where MPs were able to question fashion designers, upcyclers and innovators about how to fix the fashion industry, cut waste and improve conditions for garment workers.

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The exhibition which is held in the two-tier fashion circle, begins on the ground floor by looking to the past, each installation showing examples of individual materials and processes, each accompanied by an informative blurb. Silk, wool, flax and cotton were all prominent fibres used, particularly between 1600-1800, and raw materials were increasingly imported from Asia, Africa and America. Due to the mechanisation of the textile industry also happening during this period, it meant that for the first time, luxury fashion was more readily accessible, however garments were still respected, mended and adapted where possible. Around this time of global trade, there was a fascination with all things exotic, with botanicals and animals providing a wealth of inspiration for prints and embroideries. In some ways, fashion was more sustainable. The scale of production was much less, crops were grown using responsible methods and dyes were natural up until the mid 1800’s. However the ethics were problematic, with several exotic species almost hunted to extinction due to their beauty, and industries such as the rubber trade revealing issues for the Peruvian farmers including starvation, torture and even murder at the start of the 20th century.

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Heading up the spiral staircase to the main part of the exhibition, I was immediately greeted with the famous recycled-plastic Calvin Klein dress made for Emma Watson, the first time a major celebrity has chosen to make a statement on fashion sustainability on the red carpet. A little further into the room, and I spotted iconic pieces by Alexander McQueen, Christopher Raeburn, Stella McCartney and Jean Paul Gaultier to name a few, all showcasing their inspirations and incorporations of nature in their designs. An installation of activist Vivienne Westwood showcased her message loud and clear surrounded by placards, and there were many examples of lesser known brands and artisans with a sustainable slant including Suitcase, Katsuya Kamo, Vegea and Katie Jones.

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As well as the stunning items on display, I really appreciated the mix of content, which included mini-documentaries, photographs of how the Earth has been impacted by fashion industry practices, diagrams of how different fabrics are made and also descriptions of new innovations. These included ‘Bolt Thread’, which mimics the structure of spider silk using a modified mixture of yeast, sugar, water and salt, ‘Colorifix’ which uses synthetic biology to create a low-water, pollution free dyeing method, and Gold standard ‘Cradle to Cradle’ certified denim by G-Star RAW. It’s incredible and inspiring to see so many innovators using their skills to create more sustainable practices that bring in creativity, that work with designers who see sustainability as a challenge to take on rather than something that limits their creative choices.

All in all, there is something in this exhibition for everyone, whether you’re a lover of fashion and appreciate great craftsmanship, whether you’re interested in technology, science, history or the environment. Even if you just love plants and nature, there are some gorgeous illustrations and interpretations of a wide range of sources! There is also something for everyone to learn, and I was quite surprised myself at some of the facts such as pineapple silk being invented in the early 1800’s (who knew?!). This all encompassing exhibition on fashion and the environment, which also touches on ethical practice, leaves you with a sense of inspiration and responsibility. It doesn’t shy away from the impact of fast fashion on the environment, and in our ever-increasing awareness of our impact on this planet, as consumers it has already been shown the power in numbers through purchasing and pressure, and it’s up to us to embrace the challenge in informed and creative ways.


This article was written by Melanie, who is the director of Melanie Kyles. She is a contemporary embroidery artist based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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