© Boyish

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The top themes at Milan’s first all-sustainable fashion trade show

By Vogue Business
14 Jan 2020

Key takeaways:

  • White Milano’s WSM Fashion Reboot is Milan’s first industry trade show showcasing only sustainable fashion, launched in response to the industry’s contribution to climate change.
  • Top themes from the show included circularity and waste management, transparency and material innovation, led by sustainability-focused designers and startups. 
  • White founder Massimiliano Bizzi hopes the event will become “a reference point for sustainability” and that the larger maisons will attend future editions.

For Wråd co-founder Matteo Ward, creating sustainable fashion means more than using organic cotton or recycled polyester. “It’s the mindset of the designer — of the entire company — that needs to shift,” he says.

Ward is the creative director of White Milano‘s WSM Fashion Reboot, Milan’s first industry trade show dedicated exclusively to sustainable fashion. Held on 11 and 12 January at BASE Milano, the event featured 80 contemporary designers, including Vivienne Westwood and Bethany Williams, 20 startups and a handful of fashion schools. Ten workshops were also held over the course of the weekend, including sessions on mending, recycling and upcycling. The show’s startup contest awarded startups in categories like products and service.

The aim was to bring institutions, such as Italy’s Ministry of Economic Development, the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, the Italian Chamber of Buyers and Confartigianato, Italy’s association for artisans and small businesses, together with innovative brands to show there is both demand for sustainable fashion and a wide array of designers ready to pave the way forward. Key themes dominating the show were circularity, material innovation and transparency. More than 4,000 people visited over two days, including Italy’s Undersecretary of State for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Ivan Scalfarotto.

The new meaning of newness

Circularity and waste management were presented at the show as sustainable solutions that offer an alternative approach to newness and luxury. Sicily-based Orange Fiber, which creates silk-like fabric out of citrus juice byproduct that would otherwise be thrown away, showcased the potential of upcycling. Launched in 2013, the company has collaborated with Salvatore Ferragamo and H&M. Helen Kirkum, a designer who handmakes bespoke shoes from recycled sneaker components, ran a workshop on making keychains out of recycled shoe scraps. Kirkum, who sources materials from recycling centres in London, says she wanted to “challenge people’s perspectives on newness and whether they could invest in sneakers that were already loved”.

“I like the texture of [recycled materials],” says Kirkum. “Also, the stories. There’s something very personal about a pair of sneakers.”

Vivienne Westwood is one of the 80 contemporary designers showing at WSM Fashion Reboot. © Vivienne Westwood

Brands that are repurposing and reducing waste in fashion were also on display. Selfi, a South Africa-based womenswear brand, donates leftover materials to a home for abused women and children who make and sell dolls for profit. To reduce the use of chemicals, Selfi’s mostly Rami linen pieces feature embroidered designs rather than ink printing.

ACBC, a Milan-based footwear company and winner of Fashion Reboot’s startup contest in the product category, is reducing waste by expanding the lifespan of its zip-off shoes. ACBC customers only buy one sole, but any number of detachable alternative shoe tops, allowing them to change styles without buying new ones. Once the soles wear out, they are donated to a company that recycles them into anti-shock mats for children’s playgrounds. Customers, meanwhile, can continue to use the same tops with their next pair of soles. 

The brand has collaborated with Moschino and Armani, but designer Edoardo Iannuzzi says he wants to make the products less expensive, and thereby more accessible. He would also like to collaborate with more mass-market brands such as Adidas.

“If sustainability is not accessible — if it’s luxury — it’s not impacting,” he says.

Material innovation

Elsewhere at the show, designers incorporated natural materials and components into their collections, rendering their products better for the environment. Ward’s label Wråd has developed a natural clothing dye out of graphite powder — a byproduct of automotive and aerospace manufacturing — sourced from factories in Turin. The casual wear label includes clothing made from organic cotton and hemp, using natural beeswax for protection. The Italian label Fili Pari uses patented microfilm created from marble powder sourced from Italy that creates natural red, grey and yellow dyes. The brand’s collection of skirts and rain jackets are also water, flame and abrasion-resistant.

The Italian denim brand Candiani, meanwhile, showcased a new, 100 per cent natural elastic alternative inspired by the mesh netting used in delicatessens. Designer Alberto Candiani spent four years developing the material in his vertically-integrated Robecchetto con Induno-based mill. He also uses organic and Better Cotton Initiative-approved cotton, and is working to incorporate more recycled materials into his designs.

Denim is among the industry’s least sustainable fabrics, with one pair of jeans using up to 9,000 litres of water, according to Fashion Reboot’s organisers. To tackle that problem, Los Angeles-based Boyish Jeans has developed a manufacturing process using one-third of the typical amount of water and recycling old water to avoid pollution. It also uses recycled and upcycled fibre combined with wood pulp and recycled metal hardware, and uses less indigo dye. During the garment-washing process, Boyish uses cold water and enzymes to reduce environmental impact.

Adapting to new consumer patterns

Returns and consumption patterns also present “a huge problem for retail”, according to Ward. He says one major question facing the fashion industry is how to better serve customers’ evolving needs. As customers prioritise experiences over products, that means figuring out how to meet their needs without simply selling more.

DressYouCan has answered that question with its gown and accessory rental service, which provides a longer lifespan to the clothing itself and a cheaper option for consumers looking for newness. The Milan-based company works with emerging designers as well as private individuals looking to rent out items from their own collections.

As consumer behaviour shifts, customers are also demanding more transparency from brands. In an effort to help people shop in a more conscious way, Berlin-based Staiy, another winner of Fashion Reboot’s startup contest for the services category, has developed an online platform ranking brands based on sustainability factors. It assesses designers based on their water usage, emissions, materials, working conditions and overall commitment. 

“It’s a more comprehensive view rather than just simply the materials because materials matter but also all the other aspects of the value chain matter, said co-founder Ludovico Durante.

But transparency is hard to achieve without traceability. “Fashion supply chains are so complicated,” says Ward, adding that they are built on a system dating back some 40 years. That makes it difficult to know what human and natural resources have been used in the creation of an item, or what its overall impact might be. He highlighted service-providers like 1TrueID using blockchain and other technologies to create a digital DNA for clothing. 

White founder Massimiliano Bizzi says the weekend demonstrated what the sustainable fashion market could offer. He hopes the event will become “a reference point for sustainability” and that the larger maisons will attend future editions.

“We are delighted, as we have managed to engage all the players and the institutions to launch a message of change,” he says. 

This story is sponsored by White Milano.

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