Eco couture: The rise of London’s sustainable fashion scene

·9-min read
Josephine Philips (Lucy Young)
Josephine Philips (Lucy Young)

“I honestly had no intention of it even becoming a side hustle,” says Freya Rabet of her upcycled clothing brand Freya Simonne, which stormed onto the fashion scene earlier this year. “I had this pile of clothes I’d been carrying around with me for an embarrassing amount of time, so during the first lockdown I decided it was finally time to make those alterations.”

Rabet, who cut her teeth designing at ASOS before a stint as lead designer for sustainable fashion brand Omnes, gradually moved from upcycling her own clothes to sourcing second-hand materials to make her now signature statement styles of voluminous dresses and quilted coats. “I did the first duvet coat and it went a bit berserk. I remember thinking ‘oh my god, there’s definitely a market for this’,” she says.

Some of Rabet’s pieces have since been sold at Selfridges, although the majority can either be purchased online or borrowed via rental platform HURR, which she describes as a bit of a no-brainer. “Keeping things in circulation for as long as possible – it just makes sense.”

Freya Rabet, whose pieces have been sold at Selfridges (Samm Todd)
Freya Rabet, whose pieces have been sold at Selfridges (Samm Todd)

Whether it’s bedroom-based upcyclers like Freya Simonne or big business brands like Stella McCartney, London’s fashion landscape is getting seriously sustainable. With COP26 underway and fast fashion labels being held to account for their poor practices, customers are now hyper aware of the impact their wardrobes could potentially have on people and the planet. For fashion businesses, therefore, there’s arguably never been a better time to put their sustainable hearts on their stylish sleeves.

Like Rabet, Kelesi Anim and Jaymie Johnson hadn’t intended to start a sustainable fashion brand. But reducing waste and reusing unwanted items is ingrained in the two south-east Londoners, whose friendship blossomed over needle and thread as they customised clothes handed down to them by their parents.

Jaymie Johnson and Kelesi Anim of Aff&Jam (Lucy Young)
Jaymie Johnson and Kelesi Anim of Aff&Jam (Lucy Young)

After meeting when they were both studying illustration at the London College of Fashion, the pair had careers in healthcare and education before pivoting back to their first loves of art and second-hand clothing, and resurrecting a brand name they had thought up at university, AFF&JAM, which combines Anim’s African Ghanaian heritage with Johnson’s Jamaican one.

Their hand-painted pieces featuring the AFF&JAM signature minimalist line drawings are marketed as wearable art. But by using pre-loved clothes they are able to keep prices far more affordable than their appearance suggests.

“We really want to make our clothing more accessible to those who probably think that sustainable fashion is out of their price range,” says Anim. And as each piece is unique, it encourages the owner to cherish it for years. “That’s really important to us,” says Johnson, “because clothes represent our identity, our personality, so we wanted it to be something that you’re not going to see everywhere.”

Returns are a financial, logistical and environmental burden so being able to have a way you can tailor instead of return helps

While some have the skills to be able to make something beautiful out of something old, not everyone can do it themselves, a point not lost on Josephine Philips, founder of Sojo, an app for clothing alterations and repairs.

“I realised that fast fashion was exploiting women of colour and I didn’t want to shop at those brands anymore, so at university I made a move to second-hand clothes,” says Philips. “But when I was shopping I would find amazing unique pieces that weren’t my size and I had no idea how to alter them.”

Through market research, Philips discovered that almost 90 percent of second-hand shoppers found that sizing was a frequent problem and more than 80 percent didn’t own a sewing machine. “That was when I was like, ‘this is a solution that could be at young people’s fingertips’,” she says of the app, which launched in January.

Josephine Philips,  founder & CEO at Sojo (Lucy Young)
Josephine Philips, founder & CEO at Sojo (Lucy Young)

After downloading Sojo, users enter their postcode and the item they want to have altered or repaired to enable them to find a seamster in their area. One of Sojo’s team of women cyclists then picks up the item and drops it back three to five days later. As well as zones 1 and 2, Sojo has just expanded to also cover zone 3.

Most exciting for Philips is Sojo’s move to working more directly with fashion brands. “As of this month we’re in 15 second-hand shops in London including all Traid stores and Beyond Retro,” she says.

“Beyond that we’re hopefully going to be able to announce some online brand partners soon which will offer customers the opportunity to tailor an item through Sojo instead of returning newly purchased items that don’t fit. Circularity is such a big thing for brands at the moment. Fundamentally, returns are a financial, logistical and environmental burden for them, so being able to have a way you can tailor instead of return helps from a business development standpoint as well.”

Katie Walsh of The Re-Pete Project (Karim Nuyttens)
Katie Walsh of The Re-Pete Project (Karim Nuyttens)

Circularity was front and centre of Katie Walsh’s mind when she founded The Re-Pete Project, which makes gender neutral one-size-fits-all anoraks from recycled plastic bottles – 29 of them for each coat.

“With the circular economy, you can design from waste, keep it in perpetual use and allow ecosystems to regenerate,” says Walsh. “As I learned more I was like ‘okay, this is a proper answer to production’.”

By designing one single piece that works on all shapes and sizes, Walsh has not only been able to reduce waste but can also focus in on the detail, using a recycled fabric by German company Sympatex that can also be accepted back, rewoven and remade into a new item at the end of its life. Sympatex uses no harmful chemicals in the making of its fabric and has engineered an end product which doesn’t release microplastics in the wash.

Even Re-Pete’s toggles, which are made in London from recycled milk bottles collected from cafes in Hackney, can be recycled. And in the unlikely event that a customer wants to send their anorak on to its next life (they’re built to last), Walsh has made the process as simple as possible, even if it doesn’t get returned via The Re-Pete Project, because the recycling instructions are printed with environmentally-friendly ink in the back label.

Rejina Pyo (Dave Benett)
Rejina Pyo (Dave Benett)

It’s perhaps easier to start a brand’s sustainable journey from scratch, but established label Rejina Pyo, named after its founder, has spent the past four years pivoting to a more responsible model, for example through the adoption of water-based inks and a switch to alpaca wool, which is believed to be a more sustainable fibre compared to the company’s best-selling cashmere.

“Rejina was driving the decisions and, to be honest, having worked with many brands, if you don’t have that desire from someone in leadership it just doesn’t happen,” says Renée Cuoco, the brand’s MD and head of sustainability, who believes adopting more sustainable practices is not just good for the planet but for the business, too.

“The initial change is quite hard because it can be quite a big [financial] increase. But over time it starts to settle and then the response kicks in from the customer and the sales increase,” she says.

“It makes sense from an employee perspective more than anything because everyone on the team feels happier and more inspired to go to work knowing that they’re doing things better.”

Five ways to make your fashion business more sustainable

1. Take in an expo

Tackling sustainability can feel overwhelming, so get out there and do some learning. For designers Katie Walsh and Freya Rabet this meant heading to the Future Fabrics Expo, Europe’s largest dedicated showcase of sustainable materials for the fashion and textiles industry. It features more than 5,000 commercially-available fabrics and materials from over 150 suppliers offering innovative solutions with a low environmental footprint. Alternatively, for digital learning you can sign up to Common Objective, an online platform with handy learning resources that also acts as a social network between sustainable businesses.

2. Hire an expert

For more established and larger companies it makes sense to hire a dedicated expert, like Rejina Pyo’s Renée Cuoco. “It can be so overwhelming. It’s almost like there’s too much information now,” says Cuoco. “A bit of help and guidance on understanding the best strategy for you as a business is key: where your biggest impact can be made; what you can achieve now and what you might have to work towards.”

3. Focus on fabrics

If you’re not already upcycling or using leftover fabrics, switch to environmentally-friendly fibres. “One of the biggest priorities for us from an environmental point of view was shifting our materials matrix,” continues Cuoco. “With SS22, three quarters of the collection is what we would classify as responsible and more sustainable, so more organic cotton, more recycled fibres, more FSC certified cellulose fibres. Cementing relationships with suppliers that can develop the aesthetic and textures that Rejina likes to work with. You can’t really achieve a pleated skirt with anything other than polyester, for example, so by using recycled polyester our swimwear is recycled, not virgin nylon.”

4. Design out waste

Make use of your waste by creating more products out of it instead. Freya Rabet makes hair scrunchies from her small fabric cuttings, while Katie Walsh uses a panel of material that would otherwise go to waste to make reusable waterproof shopping bags. It’s also good to collaborate with other companies when it comes to waste. E.L.V. Denim, which turns unwanted jeans destined for landfill into unique new pairs of jeans, continues its zero waste ethos by using factory offcuts from east London leather company Tura London for branded leather patches and belt backing.

5. Find like-minded people

The more you get into sustainable fashion, the more you’ll find people who want to share ideas and collaborate. It’s a great way of getting your product to a new audience. “Working with other sustainable designers, we can share and create something really beautiful,” says AFF&JAM’s Kelesi Anim. “It pushes and challenges us in the right direction.” Katie Walsh agrees: “I’m so proud of everyone I’m working with. It’s a lovely community and everyone’s so willing to share information.”

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