Seditious knitwear

| 1st September 2007
Graduate Fashion Week offers the single biggest opening for students to secure a job in the highly competitive, international fashion industry. Award-winning recent grad Lilli Rose Wicks despairs at the missed chance to put ethics into mainstream aesthetics

I’m a designer with issues. I oppose profit-hungry corporations, ‘fast fashion’ trends, polluting clothing manufacturing, and sweatshop labour. This view of the industry may sound naïve and pretentious coming from a 22- year-old Fashion and Textiles graduate, but I believe designers can play a huge role in shaping the industry they work in.

I made my debut at Graduate Fashion Week (GFW) with a collection created from charity shop treasures, organic yarns and natural dyes. Winning GFW’s Visionary Knitwear Award has been a double-edged sword, though: I’m having to bite the hand that feeds me, by saying no to commercial notoriety.

In 2004 I started a BA (Hons) in Fashion and Textiles at Somerset College of Arts and Technology. This is when I realised that putting my work ethics into practice was going to be a struggle. The facilities available for natural and environmentally-friendly approaches to design were virtually non-existent, and I felt that, despite the fees I was paying, I wasn’t being given the freedom to experiment with alternative processes.

I fought hard not to abandon my principles at this stage: buying my own domestic knitting machine, sourcing organic yarns on the internet and making my own natural dyes. It wasn’t cheap, but by buying materials from charity shops, I managed to keep the cost of my final collection down.

Shortly after Graduate Fashion Week, I received offers of freelance design work from two major high street labels, but I turned both down.

I responded to an offer from New Look, outlining my chief principles, and they responded with a polite email explaining that currently they are looking towards changing their sourcing practices, but in the immediate future it’s not within their capacity. However, they were quite receptive to my ideas. On the other hand, during an interview at River Island HQ, when I told them of my interest in sustainable design, their response was not very encouraging. I got the impression that they had no intention of changing their current practices.

I’ve had offers for more worthwhile causes as a result of my final collection, including taking part in Glastonbury Festival’s ‘I Count’ installation for the Stop Climate Chaos coalition. Although the installation didn’t make it to the end of the festival, because of the mud, it was an exciting concept and I was thrilled to be approached by Greenpeace for the event.

Finding organically sourced yarns is still quite difficult and the range is limited, so as a result, I have to be as creative as I can with what I can source. It’s hard to make a point ethically without having political slogans emblazoned across your garments, but ethical design can be intrinsic, not obtrusive.

It would be great to see a graduate network set up to help those with sustainable interests, putting like-minded people in contact with each other to build up a positive community. I will be approaching smaller, more cooperative organisations, because I don’t think big businesses can do eco design. I think a lot of the companies that are starting up sideline ecofashion projects are doing it to cash in on the trend, not because they intend to make it a long-term commitment.

Ideally, after completing an MA specialising in knitwear, I’d like to work for a charity such as Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development, to collaborate with like-minded people and challenge the industry’s preconceptions. As to the future, I’d like to teach people my knitwear skills, or coordinate community-based projects: sharing my skills and empowering people with the ability to create things for themselves.

I see my work as a form of activism, not just a design statement, and in the future I see myself campaigning on broader issues as well as within the fashion industry. I hope that working in the industry will open my eyes to the full reality of the fashion world, and I can try to push for changes within.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

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