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REIMAGINING FASHION SUSTAINABILITY WITH SILVIA STELLA

@silviastella_

October, 23rd 2020

Need inspiration for sustainable fashion? Want to know what comes next for the sustainable fashion industry? You’ve asked for it, and now you have it, delivered to by a textile designer and sustainable fashion consultant, Silvia!

Words By Natsumi Amano

Silvia is a textile designer, consultant, and advocate for sustainable fashion based in Milan, Italy. With twelve years experience in the industry, her prowess has been channeled into education, previously holding a position at IED, the Istituto Europeo di Design, as a visiting professor teaching Surface and Pattern Design. Currently, she devotes part of her time to mentoring design students and providing creative professionals with expert advice on their portfolios, drawing from her insider perspective. 

@silviastella_

Could you tell us about your background in design and consulting?

Silvia: In the past, I designed for international brands, mostly within fast fashion, such as the Inditex group which includes Zara, Adidas, Armani, Topshop, as well as other brands in apparel, homeware and interior design At the moment, I work as a textile designer consultant, focusing on sustainable design. My experience in the fast fashion industry earlier on in my career was great because it allowed me to gain perspective on the main issues within the industry, which later helped me think about alternative ways in which the industry and its stakeholders can move forward. I underwent a huge shift in my mindset, with a voice in my head screaming at me, calling me to do something that aligns with my ethics and values. It led me to open my own design studio in Milan. 

Meanwhile, in 2013, I met a girl from Finland who wanted to launch a sustainable fashion start-up. At the time, there was a huge gap in the market for contemporary sustainable fashion brands, especially in Southern Europe. We felt there was a lack of conscious design in existing labels so that’s why we created the start-up. It went well! We started by crowdfunding and within a short period of time, we created a special collection for YOOX Net-a-Porter Group, and were featured in VOGUE Italia in the talents section. These experiences helped me to refine my work as I had to reassess the entire design process to minimize waste and be more selective about the materials I used, for instance. In fact, some researchers argue that 80% of a product’s environmental impact over its life cycle is determined during the design phase.

This new idea of taking the whole life cycle into account when designing a garment was an important step in my career because now, I get to consult designers about sustainable design using my hands-on experience. Some of my customers have a relatively conventional mindset and do not know that sustainable materials are an accessible option. They tend to think it is too complicated or unaffordable. Therefore, my job is also to demonstrate and help them realise that nowadays it is absolutely possible to implement sustainable practices while meeting the demands of the brand.

How has adopting the idea of sustainable fashion changed your personal life?

The transition of becoming more environmentally conscious was far from being confined to my professional life; my growing awareness began seeping into my daily habits. I started researching a lot about sustainable brands and companies, buying more mindfully, reusing and repairing my possessions to extend their lifespan, and donating to charitable causes. On Instagram, aside from posting content about my studio, I began sharing through IG posts and lives everything I had learned from years of research about sustainable fashion and interesting, relevant brands. I wanted to tell people, especially fashion lovers, that there’s no excuse for not shifting to sustainable fashion because there’s so many alternatives out there which are still aesthetically pleasing. During lockdown, my Instagram grew from 25k followers to 32k, which just goes to show that people are seeking stylish and refreshing alternatives. I think there is a lot of confusion about where to get the right information, how to spot a red flag for greenwashing, knowing how to read garment labels for fibre composition and the likes. I’m grateful that I can use my page as a way of sharing insight into this emerging culture of conscious fashion.

@silviastella_

The sustainable fashion industry has come a long way and even big players in the market are increasingly transitioning to being more sustainability-conscious through the use of eco-friendly materials, increased transparency in the supply chain, and ensuring the well-being of factory workers. What do you think are the industry’s next steps?

I think that leather is a key issue the public should be paying more attention to. The tanning process for real leather has long been a topic of controversy as it has a detrimental impact on the waterways and soil health, and consequently the livelihoods that depend on them. On top of that, there are leather substitutes being invented, including synthetic leather and vegan leather, which uses plant-based sources such as cactus, fruit-skins, and mushrooms. Despite leather being one of the most popular materials for fashion items, making leather production more sustainable shows slow progress. The word “sustainable”, if used in the context of consumption, is rather an umbrella term that encompasses animal welfare, conservation of ecosystems and securing adequate working conditions. Additionally, there is often confusion among consumers as to what it means for leather to be sustainable. For instance, although being “sustainable” can mean “vegan”, not all vegan products are necessarily sustainable (the majority of vegan leather is made from virgin plastic!). However, leather manufacturing in general can be done in a more ethical way, such as using vegetable tannins and recycled materials. At the moment, I think products made from these materials lack interesting and elegant designs, leaving a gap in the market for innovative designers.

Moreover, I am often asked on Instagram whether a certain brand is sustainable. What I always tell them is that there are so many aspects to sustainability and you have to consider all of them. It is not a simple yes or no. It may be that a brand is young and cannot yet afford to make large-scale changes, but are planning to augment their sustainability efforts further down the line. When we launched our start-up, many of the fabrics we wanted to use were out of our budget, and sometimes the suppliers did not even reply to our emails because we were too small! Consumers need to understand that just because a brand is not “perfect” does not mean that they are not doing their best to improve. We want to support these brands to diversify options available to consumers and help incorporate sustainability as a fundamental part of the fashion industry. Which areas of sustainability individuals choose to prioritize is very personal so I think intentionally focusing on the causes that are most important to you would be a great start.

Another point to note concerning the industry’s steps towards sustainability is the reduction of manufacturing itself. I am personally tired of those “eco-conscious” collections from fast fashion as their rate of mass-production remains the same, fabricating clothes that are thrown out as soon as the next trend drops. Slowing down production is the most sustainable option, at least environmentally speaking. Economically speaking, this complicates matters as the industry creates many jobs and slowing production would have a massive impact on the economy. Therefore, an industry-wide shift to “quality over quantity” has to take place joined by the forces of consumers.

@silviastella_

Finally, what are five things that our readers can start doing from today to enjoy fashion in a more sustainable manner?

One thing that I usually recommend is to use curatorial platforms like Staiy or Good On You. Here, you can trust that each brand has been vigorously evaluated for their sustainability-consciousness, as well as catering to your aesthetic preferences, saving you heaps of time from having to do your own research. It is also useful to follow people on Instagram whose styles are similar to yours and who are making conscious choices. Both of these can be especially useful for those with busy schedules, but if you do find the time, I recommend digging deeper into the whys and the hows of sustainability. If you are reading this, you are already on the right path. Keep reading other informative articles on Staiy, and if something peaks your curiosity, dig deeper, because the world needs people like you to adopt and advocate a sustainable lifestyle.