Fashion Brands Let Their Sustainable Fabrics Tell a Story

Polyester, polyester everywhere, and not a stitch to savor? If cheap synthetic fabric blends currently dominate clothing racks, they may not be de rigueur for much longer. As Racked pointed out last month, growing calls for supply-chain transparency mean that materials are no longer the immaterial concerns they used to be.

Call it a side effect of our social media–obsessed era. With brands jockeying for attention in an increasingly crowded marketplace, the narrative behind a product has become nearly as relevant as the product itself. And what better proxies for intangible concepts like authenticity and quality than materials you can touch?

A number of brands, in fact, are not only positioning fabrics at the fore, but they’re also allowing themselves to be defined by them. Allbirds, for instance, wouldn’t have the same zing if it made its sneakers from something other than New Zealand Merino wool. Outerknown’s message of ocean conservation might have fallen flat if it didn’t spin its jackets and swim trunks from nylon derived from reclaimed fishing nets. And perhaps EILEEN FISHER would be less effective in its green messaging if it didn’t dedicate a section on its website to better-for-the-planet choices such as organic linen, fair-trade cotton, undyed cashmere, and Bluesign-certified silk.

Image: Allbirds

Anyone familiar with the food movement would have seen this coming, said Giulio Bonazzi, CEO and president of Aquafil, which supplies its regenerated nylon to Outerknown, Speedo, and Volcom, among others.

“Similar to how organic, non-GMO and gluten free foods have graduated from trends to categories, consumers are increasingly concerned with what their clothes are made with,” Bonazzi said. “Mindful consumption can be inspired in many ways, and it’s particularly powerful when it comes from the brand.”

For Christina Dean, founder and CEO of Redress, a Hong Kong not-for-profit that promotes the reduction of textile waste through an annual design competition, a spotlight on fabrics isn’t surprising.

“Fabrics have always been on fashion’s chopping board,” she said. “For comfort, they are the closest thing that rubs up to the consumer. For function, they are one of the first things consumers notice will fail. For ethics, textile production causes a hefty environmental impact. So focusing on the importance of fabrics in fashion is really nothing new.”

Like Bonazzi, Dean also sees parallels between fashion and food.

“There are now thousands of specialty coffees and home-brew beers, each with magical stories of where the beans were grown, how they were shipped, how they were roasted, and so on,” she said. “These same quasi-romantic quasi-transparency stories about fabrics in fashion are just now cropping up.”

Christina Dean, Redress

As with food, the product narrative around clothing almost always segues into discussions about craftsmanship, which in turns casts a spotlight on sustainability. And that’s a good thing, said Benita Singh, founder and CEO of Le Souk, an online marketplace that connects designers with mills and tanneries.

“We’re in a very exciting fashion moment right now in which brands are boasting both about where their materials come from and why those materials contribute to an end product that has greater longevity,” said Singh. “And products with greater longevity are inherently more sustainable.”

“I’m personally very encouraged to see the new—and successful—brands tell the stories of where their materials come from: the mills that produce them, and why they chose to create their end products with those materials,” she added.

But altruism aside, designers also have to love the fabrics they work with, noted Tara St. James, founder of womenswear label Study NY, as well as production coordinator and research fellow at Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator.

Image, Le Souk

“Designers have to have their own motivation to share a fabric’s story from crop to finished product,” St. James said. “We’re starting to see more and more designers talk about their supply chain, and while most focus primarily on the design and sewing process, some have started to research the origin of their materials.”

Indeed, brands and designers, and in particular educated brands and designers, wield the most clout, especially when it comes to deciding what textiles to employ.

Therein lies their superpower, according to Annie Gullingsrud, director of textiles and apparel at the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute, whose Fashion Positive initiative seeks to accelerate a circular economy where clothing is recycled instead of thrown away. More so in a closed-loop system, where health of the material input is critical.

“Designers and brands have so much power in influencing the materials and their resulting garments to influence people and planet in a positive way,” Gullingsrud said. “Because if the intention is constant cycling of materials, we want to be cycling materials that have optimal chemistry and safe ingredients—good materials.”

Brooklyn Fashion +Design Accelerator Textile Library

Even so, brands would get nowhere without the support of their clientele.

“I think considered consumers have always cared about yarn pedigree and the textiles made from them,” said Celeste Lilore, Marketing and Community director at the BF+DA. “To me, it’s a critical part of buying better and buying less.”

And even if consumers are notoriously finicky, Lilore doesn’t think the surging interest in fabrics is a trend. “I think it takes time for roots to become established,” she said.

Dean from Redress takes an equally sanguine view. Cruelty-free “peace” silk or deforestation-free rayon may not draw glances of recognition the way a pair of Yeezys or a Mansur Gavriel bucket bag might, but their bona fides go deeper than conspicuous consumption.

“To me, much of the sincerity, innovation and transparency that many of these ‘new’ fabrics are touting are to speak to the wearer, as opposed to their admirer on the street,” Dean said. “Yes, people are inherently self-centered and their egos want them to be admired, for who they are and for how they look. But these values that we’re talking about are more about massaging inner values and expectations rather than showing off externally.”

To learn more about how brands are taking on sustainable strategies, check out the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator’s Sustainable Fashion Roadmap tool.