Fashion exhibitions sell tickets and pull in the public, and the V&A knows how to do them beautifully. How refreshing to see them combining history into the relevant topics of the fashion business today with the current Fashioned From Nature exhibition.

The discussions around sustainability have been circulating for decades. I remember even 15 years ago the introduction of biodegradable plastic carrier bags and cups. This was one of many incentives that were implemented then reversed. It all came down to one thing – the alternatives were more expensive and there were no direct channels for the public to voice their opinion. So, these debates around solutions simply remained that – talk.

That is until Sir David Attenborough suddenly spoke some harsh truth to a new and concerned millennial generation in his series Blue Planet II,  and everything changed. If there is one benefit from our attachment to social media and our obsession with technology, it’s the sharing of information. For many, this was a first encounter with the reality of sustained plastic pollution, and the impact on our environment. As soon as the issue of plastic hit the headlines, again, the 2nd most polluting industry on the planet, namely the fashion industry, has suddenly come under scrutiny. Our connectivity has meant change is on the horizon.

The exhibition is divided into two parts and it examines the relationship between fashion and nature, spanning a time period from 1600 to the present day. It looks at the past, highlighting the harmful effects of the fashion industry on the natural environment, asking the question: “What can we learn from the past?”

At the same time, the exhibition is also telling a story of the era it is staged in, showing the inspiration fashion draws from nature and successful sustainable innovations, asking the question: “How can we design a more sustainable fashion industry?”

“Choose carefully: look good”
“Wear wisely: feel good”
“Recycle: be generous”

The first part of the exhibition, which takes place on the first floor, showcases various floral pattern, from French waistcoats from the 1780s, realistic portrayal of flowers of the late 1890s, to the history of silk and international exotic material trade. However, the most astonishing pieces are those featuring animal usage – a dress made of 5000 beetle wings, with the wings constituting the petals of embroidered flowers, as well as honeycreeper birds made into fashionable earrings. Another great example of this is a riding crop made out of baleen, taken from a whale’s upper jaw whose flexibility allowed the use of the shafts of riding crops in the 1750s.

Sustainability in Fashion - Beetle wings

Source: Natural History Direct

The second part of the exhibition showcases Mass Modernity. Namely, it explores how fashion designers started to use fashion to raise awareness of the damage caused to the environment and how new environmentally friendly practices have been developed.

The most interesting are the developments in new and more sustainable textiles. Stella McCartney, for example, has developed the first prototype handbag made of mycelium leather, reflecting the designer’s commitment to material innovation. This special leather is derived from the underground root structure of a mushroom and from a bio-engineered fabric developed by bolt threads, mimicking the structure of spider silk.

Another interesting material is the animal-free leather Vegea. This alternative leather is made from residues of grape seeds, skins, and stalks from wine production.

Rather dubiously the exhibit included an H&M dress almost entirely made from recycled ocean plastic. If only all their ranges showed the same level of sustainability.

Sustainability in the fashion industry

The exhibition shows great examples of past and present and opens the lid to the public on the cycle of fashion. It lets them see behind the smoke and mirrors. It also tempts us with solutions that are yet to hit the mainstream. That a fashion exhibition leaves the public with questions, concerns and curiosity is a great move forward.

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The Fashion Switch

Joanne Yulan Jong a Creative Director, Fashion Writer, and Author of the bestselling book THE FASHION SWITCH ‘The new rules if the fashion business’. She has been invited to be a regular columnist for WWD magazine.


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