It is estimated that the fashion industry produces 92 million tons of textile waste each year, within that number it may seem simple to blame consumerism, which certainly plays its part. However, the fashion industry itself has some bad habits when it comes to textiles.
The most common method of fashion design is the cut-and-sew, whereby the design is cut out of fabric and then sewn together to make a garment. This method is estimated to waste 10 - 20% of the total fabric used. As the textile industry is the second biggest polluter in the world, we need to change attitudes about textiles - they are not disposable and treating them as much is harmful to the environment.
Textiles have long been seen as disposable because of how inexpensive they are, however when looking at the process of creating and then disposing of textiles, there is a problem. Cotton is one of the most popular fabrics and generally seen as innocent, however, the production of growing cotton amounts to 24% of intercedes and 11% of pesticides used globally in agriculture. Cotton, and many other fabrics, arrive at the fashion designers with, already, a large ecological footprint.
When textile waste is disposed of, some natural fibres may decompose but release harmful chemicals - in the U.S. landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions. To summarise, textiles are precious and fashion should reflect that.
The number of new garments being made each year has doubled since the year 2000, and, for the first time, reached 100 billion in 2014; there now is more waste than ever. Consumers and brands are committed to the idea of ‘new’, so there needs to be a method of creating something new, without waste.
The guidelines of zero-waste design might stun some designers into feeling limited. However, there are many styling features and details within Rhodes’ garments that help to elaborate on how zero-waste design can be achieved and still produce garments of beauty and high quality.
The need to use all the fabric can refresh a designer’s usual routine or style, allowing them to experiment with unique ideas. When exploring these examples of garment construction within Rhodes’ career, we can see fashion becoming an art form once again, rather than an industrial process. We need to change the fashion industry for the environment to survive, but maybe we also need to change things up so creativity can survive.
Throughout this article ‘The Jubilee Collection’ SS20 and ‘The Jungle Of Eden’ AW20 of British fashion and textile designer Dame Zandra Rhodes are showcased. Rhodes, amongst many other accolades, is considered a contemporary pioneer of zero-waste design. Her fifty-year career is a legacy of such design methods and her latest collections continue to show the best in zero-waste within luxury fashion today.
The Jubilee Collection, available now at Liberty London, is a celebration of Rhodes’ fifty-year career and holds within it beautiful references to her bohemian styling, silk-screened textiles and signature pleated looks - such as the stage costume worn by Freddie Mercury in 1974. But, it is also an example of the unique and beautiful garments being created with zero-waste design methods.
But how did Rhodes’ create this collection? And, what makes it different from other fashion collections? We shall now showcase the method that Zandra, and an increasing amount of other designers, use - zero-waste pattern cutting.
The method of zero-waste pattern cutting is quite self-explanatory - there must be no fabric waste; all the fabric must be incorporated into the garment. This can be achieved in two main ways, firstly to plan your design like a jigsaw puzzle, where pieces fit together and interlock on the fabric, as to utilise every piece. Or, secondly, to drape the fabric over a mannequin, and then shape it into a garment - having no preconceived idea of what it might create.
Both of these require you to know your fabric before designing the garment, and that is the primary difference between this method and the traditional design method of the fashion industry. Textiles become part of the design process rather than just manufacturing.
We have showcased Rhodes’ new collection and explored zero-waste design through that and previous collections. However, we were also privileged to speak to Rhodes and ask her a few questions about being a textile designer, how she makes this design method work, and her opinion on waste culture in fashion…
How and why did you start with the zero-waste?
I am a textile designer. It was whilst I was at the Royal College of Art (RCA) that I fell in love with how I could design magical prints to be worn on the body - similar, but away, from the 60's trend of furnishing fabrics, curtains and wallpaper. Designing is an art form - zero waste was always an ideal.
Can you explain your specific zero-waste design technique?
Originally I designed things on paper and I would try the printed paper design on myself - before I had finished working out the textile print - and look at myself in the mirror. Since I was totally sponsoring, designing and creating my own collection one should always be as economical as possible. Waste is expensive and wrong! It should not have a place in fashion.
In, the case of the Chinese Squares Dress, I went to China in 1979, I knew nothing about China, what I saw was inspirational especially their amazing trellis pattern on furniture or on the top of walls. This led to my textile design Chinese Squares, which led to many new shaped garments. Especially notable is the magical Organza Blouse where all the Chinese squares are cut out and joined together but their outsides become pagoda sleeves. My designs were nearly always invented when magic shapes would appear that could become collars or sleeves etc! For me, the theme of every collection starts with the Zandra Rhodes textile print.
You’ve been designing this way for 50 years now - what, do you think, made this design technique work so well for you?
As an individual designer, waste and extravagance is not my repertoire - I have to work the way which is best for me and honest to my own style. I feel very lucky and honoured to be a designer that has survived 50 years!
What’s your opinion on the fashion industry and textile waste right now?
The fashion industry has become a land of immense contrasts. There are large companies who don't care and operate only for a profit with masses of waste and on the other side is the complete opposite of newcomers with no budget and no backers who are experimenting with what they have. Zero-waste is where they could concentrate their energies. The field needs the concentration of young minds.
What brands inspire and excite you in zero-waste design?
I think the zero-waste design is a real enigma in luxury fashion. However, in terms of eco-friendly brands, I love Stella McCartney's fabulous use of sustainable materials, respect for renewable sources and her use of recycled materials.
I would advise designers who want to try out a zero-waste that, to myself, the most important question is: am I being honest to myself? Would I wear this? Do I believe in what I am doing? If you believe, you are halfway there!