Sustainability and Sartorial Subversion: We Met Vivienne Westwood’s Head Designer

As seen in Vilda Magazine.

Fashion stylist and ethical fashion advocate Meg Pirie has previously written about whether all vegan fashion is sustainable, what to do with your pre-vegan clothing and how to preserve your clothing for Vilda.

I think there is a common misconception that Vivienne herself is no longer involved in the brand, but you only have to look at the slogans running through the latest collection, with its undertones of political subversion, to feel her presence.

I made it to the evening fashionably late and on entering was instantly hit with a wave of sartorial eclecticism – old-school punks, label lovers and sustainable shoppers all mingled together, looking somewhat out of place, but joined in the mutual love for one of Britain’s favourite labels. I managed to chat to the head designer Ela Kuester for quite a while before the catwalk show began and found her to be one of the most genuine people I’ve met in a long time and her honesty was refreshing.

When I broached the topic of sustainability, she was incredibly passionate and said this was a consideration in everything they did, which didn’t surprise me. “Vivienne fights for a green economy, ” says Kuester, highlighting that the brand has been driving awareness around the negative impacts of climate change and overconsumption for decades and you can see this running through her latest collection. “Buy less, choose well, make it last,” felt very much at the heart of what Westwood and her team were working around.

Kuester recognised that the Westwood brand is aware of the environmental implications of being a large fashion label, although said that “one of the first things (they’d) looked at was to reduce the size of the collections”. Waste was a key driver and experimental pattern cutting, including zero-waste design is a regular occurrence in the studio. You could clearly see this through the skirts, where even the width had been determined by the span of the cloth and the selvedge had been left, which was very important aesthetically to Vivienne.

Fabrics were key this season and naturally dyed bio linen and cottons were used as a base for Westwood’s green slogans. Up close, the watercolours of Chinese peonies and calligraphy featuring “Dame Vivienne” and “Green Economy” were stunning. The pieces in this print were 100% sustainable and as for the rest of the collection, the 90% acetate mix pieces were made from wood pulp from trees belonging to reforestation programs and there were pieces made from recycled fabrics and hemp and bamboo mixes.

Kuester was very interested to get my thoughts on slow fashion and sustainability and listened with interest to my concerns surrounding waste and the need for a circular fashion economy, concentrating particularly on upcycling and recycling fabrics. She made the comment that deadstock fabric was nothing new to the brand and that the label’s Creative Director Andreas Kronthaler (Westwood’s husband) was an advocate for using more deadstock materials. 

In terms of vegan fashion, the brand is moving slowly in this direction but is not yet embracing the new vegan materials on the block such as coconut wool, orange silk and apple leather. They have however released a vegan, limited edition Mini Yasmin bag, which was launched in collaboration with World Water day this month and it seems they will be focusing on vegan accessories moving forward. Having said that, the majority of the ready-to-wear collection was vegan, with the exception of some wool running through the knitwear. When I suggested some alternatives, the response felt very much like this wasn’t on their radar yet. Given what we know about how polluting the leather industry is, for example, I feel like Westwood is missing a trick here and I can’t help but wonder how exciting this brand would be if some of these new vegan biomaterials were championed – it would be game changing.

To sum up, it was refreshing to speak with a brand who knew their impact and yet were working towards making positive changes. As a brand Vivienne Westwood feels ahead of the pack, particularly in creating systemic change through collaborations with suppliers, NGOs and consumers. However, it is a real shame that the brand still resorts to animal-derived materials and my hope is that they will start to look at alternatives here. All that being said, at the end of the day, having a fierce leader like Vivienne at the helm, who shows no signs of slowing down, particularly in her environmental activism, can only be a good thing.