interview with Amy Powney by Lee Taylor
I think most of us are aware we should be buying less fast fashion and that fashion is not the most sustainable of industries. I had a vague awareness of this when coming to research this feature on the film Fashion Reimagined. Some of the facts though did shock me. Here are two:
“The fashion industry is responsible for 10 % of annual global carbon emissions, more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined.”
“It takes 3,781 litres of water to make a pair of jeans, from the production of the cotton to the delivery of the final product to the store. That equates to the emission of around 33.4 kilograms of carbon equivalent.”
Source The World Bank
Up until now there has been little Government intervention and our appetite for fast fashion is making the situation worse not better.
Fashion Reimagined is the story of Amy Powney of independent fashion label Mother of Pearl. She started at the label sweeping the cutting room floor but eventually became a designer and was awarded Best Young Designer of the Year which came with a big cash prize. She used the money to invest in a sustainable collection. Amy eventually became Creative Director and they then set about transforming the whole label into a sustainable one. The film takes us on this 3 year journey as Amy and the label have to fight the culture in the fashion industry to transform it into what it is today.
Amy had an unconventional childhood. She was brought up by eco-activist parents in a small rural town in northern England. She rebelled as many of us do and got into brands and fashion. She had a personal revelation though and eventually came around to her parents’ way of thinking. Sustainable fashion was not just an empty slogan for Amy – it was a battle cry. In the film she is calling for a revolution in the fashion industry no less. Well, her passion and commitment has changed the way I see fashion. It’ll be fascinating to see what waves it makes in the often closed and opaque world of fashion. I asked Amy a few questions on how and why the film came about.
You were brought up in an unconventional way in a small northern town. So how did the other kids see you and treat you at school?
I had a rather unique childhood as I grew up off grid in Lancashire. My father sunk a well where we got our water and we had no electricity for a while, though later he bought a small wind turbine.
I guess any kid having an alternative life brings attention, I had some good mates but I dreamed of the branded clothing to fit in with the mass.. kids are cruel you know but it also gave me so much drive to go and find success ( albeit a very different type of success than I measure these days).
In reality, and almost without my knowing, it was the grounding in my understanding of how we give and take from the earth and that has become fundamental to my ethos both at Mother of Pearl and personally.
How did someone from this background become so interested in fashion?
My childhood dream was always to work in the creative industries in some way, art was my favorite subject in and out of school and I always knew creativity as a job would be my happy place.
My Mother was talented at drawing and painting and sitting with her making things or drawing when I was little was some of my favorite times as a child.
I chose to study fashion in the end as my passion for art fused with my obsession for branded clothing.
Many kids rebel against their parents at a certain age. How did you rebel against yours?
I think I probably rebelled through clothes, all I wanted to do was spend my money on new items, it gave me street cred at school and got me accepted into the ‘cool’ gang. So I guess my materialism probably went at odds with what they were trying to do.
Otherwise I just did the usual like went to nightclubs before I should!
What did your family think of your pursuit of a fashion degree?
They have always been incredibly supportive and incredibly proud. Even though it might have been slightly at odds with how I was brought up, they have always been my biggest champions and I think since focusing on sustainability we have a lot more chat about work these days!
How did the job at Mother of Pearl come about?
I was finishing my degree at Kingston University and I heard about this junior paid assistant role, which is almost unheard of, and went for the interview and got the job. I started sweeping the cutting room floor.
You rose quickly in the company. How did this meteoric rise come about?
I don’t think there was anything ground breaking in it. It was a small company and I learnt quickly. I was hungry to know more and get involved in all areas of the company. The business side soon started to interest me as much as the creative side.
What was the company’s response when you first approached them about your strong belief the company should follow a sustainable future?
To begin with I was just happy that I had a job and that it was with a small independent company. I took over Creative Directorship around 10 years ago and that was when I really started to think about sustainability more. However it was not until I won the Vogue Fashion Fund in 2017 that I could use the £100,000 prize money to really drive this side of the business forwards.
At the time, and as the subject of the independent documentary Fashion Reimagined, it led to the creation of our first fully sustainable line No Frills. Now sustainability is at the core of everything we do at Mother of Pearl. It is a personal and business mindset for me.
How hard has it been to turn the tide and make the clothes sustainable?
It has been incredibly hard, we set off on a mission to get to the bottom of our supply chain so we could produce a collection which was organic, traceable, socially responsible, considerate of animal welfare, uses minimal water and chemicals and is produced in the smallest geographical region possible.
We had to get down onto the ground for ourselves and see first hand what it takes to piece this huge puzzle together. It was not easy. The fashion industry is a system which simply does not allow itself to be naturally transparent and so we had to do that on our own through sheer determination and hard work. We often hit roadblocks but I was adamant that if I could not make Mother of Pearl a sustainable brand which was grounded in its ethics and offered full transparency, then I would not do it.
When I launched Frills at London Fashion Week in 2018, it was the only collection that talked about sustainability which tells you something.
Did it change your customer base?
We still have our original customer base that has grown year on year but I think in the last few years we have definitely added more ethically focused customers to the mix. Sustainable fashion should still be about great design and should still make the person wearing it feel amazing. It is still one of the biggest compliments, when someone tells me they feel good wearing my clothes.
What was the response initially from the wider fashion industry?
You can see in the documentary how it was rejected by buyers at the time who did not understand it and did not think that their customer would understand it. That really hurt at the time, as your collections are such a personal thing, but it also made me more determined to continue to do what I am doing.
Has this response changed over time?
Thankfully yes though I would say it has still not gone far enough. At a basic level it is still an industry driven by profit and loss and so people and the planet often end up becoming the victim of that business model.
Many people feel that sustainability is out of reach, out of their budget? How do you counter that argument?
We need to be realistic, we are living in a cost of living crisis which puts pressure on so many people in different ways. However I would still argue that we can always make better choices.
Firstly we can buy less and to buy better, the late Vivienne Westwood was a huge champion of this approach to our wardrobes. We should where possible be investing in forever pieces, items which will last and last and we will love for years to come, not throw away fast fashion which is impulse led.
Secondly, I think we’re so lucky to be living at a time when we have so many other options open to us, such as vintage shopping, rental, resale. You don’t need to buy new things all the time, there are some incredible platforms for both adults and children, from Vestiaire to Dotte, which have amazing finds at reasonable prices.
How do your family see your fashion career now?
I think they are incredibly proud and I would not be where I am today without them all.
We’re in a strange time. Many people want to be more involved but we’re all a bit confused as to how. This isn’t helped by some companies making claims of sustainability that are often marketing mere ploys. How does this muddy the water?
There is definitely more attention and bigger conversations happening around this area, it’s the ‘fashionable’ term, however I think sustainability as it stands has been used too widely and too loosely to the point it has lost its real meaning. I’d like to see ‘transparency’ become the main vocabulary and an industry where brands are open and honest about their journey. Where they give real insight into the progress they have made and where they want to improve, putting knowledge and choice back into the consumers hands.
There is a lot of greenwashing and consumers need to be careful of that. If a brand is talking about it all the time you know it is at the heart of what they do. If it’s one off marketing moments, it’s being used for a different purpose.
Governments seem to be taking baby steps towards being environmentally responsible when it seems we need more of a revolutionary approach. Is it like that too in the fashion industry?
Yes it is, the industry is huge and multifaceted and very complex which means that every single issue we raised and tried to address in the documentary is so important. They are all interlinked and so for the system to truly work sustainably we need to address all of them.
Sustainability isn’t a one-dimensional issue that can be solved by opting for a fabric with green credentials. Supply chains are not straightforward and social, environmental and political factors must be taken into account too. The industry needs a basic knowledge of each of these areas and it is our responsibility to do our due diligence and keep up with what is going on in the world.
As a society it’s important to educate ourselves on all issues. Many of the issues in fashion are the same as they are in other industries, such as agriculture, cotton is agriculture and the global issues are often political. It’s a mind field to navigate but there isn’t anything more important right now then ethics within business and these should sit higher than anything else for business owners in the fashion industry and beyond.
How did the making of the film come about?
When I won the Vogue Fashion Fund back in 2017, I pledged to use it to create No Frills, our first fully sustainable collection. Becky was filming the interviews with the winners and runners up. She asked me ‘what was next?’ And I told her what I was about to embark on and she knew there and then this was her calling to follow me. She had been on her own personal sustainability journey in her life and wanted to use her talent as a filmmaker to story tell to create change. I have learnt along the way that making independent films is a labour of love and she and the team have worked as hard to make this documentary as I have been making mother of Pearl more sustainable!
Fashion Reimagined is out now in cinemas across the UK and Ireland.