At the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum 2012, Digital Development Debates organised a workshop on the topic of education for sustainable consumption.
Imagine ethical fashion on the catwalks of Paris: the elegant setting, exotic models, glamorous designs – and an all-embracing spirit of change. Since Isabelle Quéhé founded the Ethical Fashion Show in 2004, designers from all over the world have gathered regularly in the world's fashion capital to present their new pieces. Good bye hippie hemp sack, hello haute couture!
When the Ethical Fashion Show (EFS) was founded in 2004, fair trade fashion was still in its infancy, in particular in France. What made you decide to present ethical fashion in Paris?
My main inspiration came from meeting two designers who had a different vision of fashion: Oumou Sy from Senegal and Bibi Russell from Bangladesh. Both had this idea of turning the fashion industry into a driver of development for their countries. Oumou Sy figures among Africa's most important fashion designers; Bibi Russell became famous as a fashion model, but when we met, she had also already been creating fashion for more than ten years. She calls her label the "fashion for development" project. Oumu and Bibi really changed my mind.
I realised that there are huge problems in the production of textiles. Pretty much everyone involved in the textile production chain suffers a great deal, from the initial stage where the cotton is grown to the final stage of delivery. But Oumou and Bibi showed me that this could all be quite different. People invest a lot of money in fashion, so the fashion industry could actually promote local development if it focused on respecting the workers, their communities and the environment. At that time, a lot of fashion designers in developing countries were working with this idea. So I got the idea of organising a fashion show in Paris with those designers who we would otherwise never see. They needed access to Europe in order to maintain and develop their production.
"Oumou Sy and Bibi Russell showed me that the fashion industry could promote local development."
The Ethical Fashion Show is now a well-established part of the Paris fashion scene and it has become much more than just a show. It's also a trade fair.
When we founded the EFS with the Universal Love association, we realised that a show wasn't enough to help the designers promote their collections. So we added a business component to the event and began offering sales opportunities to professionals. We also decided to open our doors to the public on the last day. They are after all the ones who will buy and wear the clothes, and as such the ones who will bring about change.
Fair trade clothes are produced according to certain social and ecological standards. "Fairness" in this case is a component of the commercial exchange. Ethical fashion is more than that. It's the will to foster local development. This includes respecting people's human rights and improving their lives, and protecting the environment, as well as preserving and transmitting local know-how. Fair trade is just a small part of ethical.
We mainly presented some African and a lot of English designers. Only three or four were French, among them the French-Peruvian "Misericordia" label, quite well-known today. I wanted to show that it is possible to create fashion that is ethical and fashionable at the same time. Since there weren't many French labels that lived up to this ideal back then, I focused more on England.
Unfortunately, ethical fashion is still burdened by this image of green and hippie-hemp style. Even most people who are into fashion, like those working for the big multi-label stores or fashion journalists, still have this image in mind. But this is slowly changing thanks to events like the Ethical Fashion Show or reports in fashion magazines.
The new generation of ethical and ecological brands really presents fashion lines that are trendy; they are produced with high quality and style at the same time. The brands are aware that they have to be fashionable, because the simple logic of selling fashion is: if people don't like it, they won't buy it.
"The simple logic of selling fashion is: if people don't like it, they won't buy it."
Representatives of shops that specialise in ethical fashion always come to the EFS, of course. The big stores like Galeries Lafayette or Bon marché also attend. The only ones still missing are the multi-label stores.
The production of fair trade coffee started at the beginning of the nineties, so it's been in the shops for about 20 years now. It is much better known than fair trade fashion is. But the main problem is linked to distribution: while fair trade coffee is sold in almost every supermarket, people who want to buy ethical clothes often don't know where to find them. We don't have many shops that sell ethical fashion and although you can find some on the internet, it is not enough by far.
"While fair trade coffee is sold in almost every supermarket, people who want to buy ethical clothes often don't know where to find them."
So wouldn't it perhaps be better to present ethical fashion at the general fashion shows rather than to create separate events?
That's actually the reason why the Ethical Fashion Show is held at the same time as other important prêt-à-porter fashion shows like "Who's next" or "Salon du Prêt à Porter".
Many ethical designers – among them Bibi Russell – incorporate local cultural elements into their fashion lines. Is traditional art an integral part of ethical fashion?
It doesn't have to be, but yes, ethical fashion is often traditional in some way. The production principle is to preserve local know-how, and this tends to influence style too. Anyway, the true art of fashion is to use these traditional components to design creative fashion – fashion that appeals to people's taste.
"The true art of fashion is to use traditional know-how to design creative fashion."
How can you adapt traditional art from developing countries to suit the taste of European consumers?
Haute couture has always incorporated traditional or artisan elements, as you can see in the collections of Jean-Paul Gautier or Saint Laurent. This year, for instance, African batik and wax are in vogue. Burberry presented a whole collection of African designs combined with European styles.
Why is it so important to preserve traditional knowledge? The world is moving on; wouldn't it be better to look ahead?
People around the world are suffering the loss of their traditional know-how. In France, for instance, a country with a rich couture culture, only very little local know-how still remains. Due to the crisis, people have recently started talking a lot about local production again, but they have come to realise that they are unable to do it for the most part. Either the machines or the people with the skills have disappeared. It would be good for people from every part of the globe if we regained a good understanding of local know-how in order to preserve our culture and roots.
Every moment is special for me. But of course, the catwalks are the most fascinating. The designers come from every part of the world and it's very special for them to present in Paris.
"The catwalks are the most fascinating. The designers come from every part of the world and it's very special for them to present in Paris."
I've learned that things always move ahead, even though they sometimes move slowly. In 2004, for instance, after the first EFS, I was so enthusiastic: I had succeeded, with very limited means, to turn my idea into reality. But when the second show rolled around, we had to start all over again, and that really discouraged me. Our work today still seems quite complicated, but it will go on.
Why is it complicated? The Ethical Fashion Show has been successful for years, and the French seem to be much more aware of ethical fashion today.
It's true that the French are willing to go ethical today. But we are experiencing an economic crisis and their pockets are empty. They don't like to be reminded of this issue either, because they don't want to feel guilty. But I am sure these difficult times will turn into something positive. There will be far-reaching change soon, because we simply can't continue acting the way we have up to now. We will have to change our perspective, our way of living and of consuming.
"The French are willing to go ethical. But we are experiencing an economic crisis and their pockets are empty."
I don't think that we will eradicate "fast fashion" completely, but I am sure that in time more brands will adopt ethical production values. Ethical fashion will definitely develop and be further integrated into mainstream fashion. Furthermore, more fashion will be developed on a local level. Today fashion trends tend to be developed in Europe from where they are exported abroad. Outside Europe people don't use their local skills anymore. Instead they adapt to European style. I believe that in future the important designers will come from all parts of the world, and they will be motivated to employ their local communities.
We are on the right track, although it's complicated and difficult, and we still have a ways to go.