Hong Kong Fashion Makes Sustainability Chic

Illustration by Alex LeauWan & Wong Winter 2015/16 collectionAlex Leau - Women Winter 2015/16Kelvin Wong & Joyce Wan founders of Wan&WongAlex Leau - Men Winter 2015/16Alex Leau
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Illustration by Alex Leau

With Hong Kong Fashion Week around the corner, five alumni of the EcoChic Design Award – run by Hong Kong-based NGO Redress – are set to show their Autumn/Winter 2016 collections. They will bring with them some answers to fashion’s most important and perhaps most controversial question: sustainability.

Fashion consumers have never had more choice – or lower prices. We are increasingly savvy, expecting a personal and, thanks to social media, accountable brand experience. But the rush to create masses of cheap, stylish clothes has had serious environmental consequences. “The clothing industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to oil,” said American designer Eileen Fisher last year. “It’s a a really nasty business – a mess.”

Redress is out to change that situation, not only by introducing eco-friendly standards to the fashion industry, but by cultivating young designers who build their practices around an ethic of sustainability. Established in 2007, Redress aims to reduce textile waste, pollution, water and energy consumption through exhibitions, seminars, research and education. It also has a secret weapon: the EcoChic Design Award, a sustainable fashion design competition open only to emerging fashion designers with up to three years of experience, including study. “You don’t even have to be a fashion student – we don’t restrict entry in that way,” says Christina Dean, founder of Redress. “Graphic designers and self-taught designers can also apply.”

Redress has previously worked with well-established designers like Diane Von Furstenberg, providing waste fabrics and sustainable business guides. But the focus on emerging designers reflects a shift in Redress’s approach. “If we work with emerging designers, sustainability can become part of their core DNA,” says Dean. EcoChic is an experience that lasts several months, like an off-air Project Runway. In each cycle, designers learn the harsh truths of the industry before looking at theory around sustainability and zero waste, and learning practical techniques like reconstruction and up-cycling.

This year’s contenders fought off competition by applicants from Berlin ESMOD, London Central Saint Martins, but also from Israel and Kazakhstan – places that aren’t typically on the sustainable fashion map. “We attract those who care about sustainability and make their education accessible,” says Dean. The highlight of the programme is the Standout Sustainable Design competition in which the winner designs and produces a special collection for a well-known brand. This year, Shanghai Tang will carry the competition’s message to the consumer, along with the winner’s name.

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Alex Leau Winter 2015/16 collection

While it’s logical for Redress to invest in the future leaders of fashion, it’s more than just an effort to cultivate new talent. “You’re a dinosaur in the fashion industry if you can’t see that we need to change,” says Dean. “I have witnessed a positive movement in the younger generation – they want more from the industry, they want to move towards something better, to be part of something new – they are inspired. They have the heart for this and increasingly, they have the skill.”

Alex Law, the designer behind local startup brand Alex Leau and a 2013 EcoChic Design Award finalist, has been concerned about sustainability for a long time. Using zero-waste design and up-cycled end-of-roll textiles, Law’s style is minimalist and modern, with functional tailoring creating loose and often A-line cuts. Zips and print details add flourish.

Alex Leau

Alex Leau

“I just love nature and the environment,” says the 26-year-old Hong Kong-born designer. “Fashion is wasteful and bad for the environment, so I use sustainable techniques and I make it my concern whether the fabric is sustainable, because I think that responsible fashion can help to rebalance the environment.”

For Kelvin Wan, who won the Most Promising Student Award in 2012 and is now the designer behind Wan & Wong, the EcoChic contest is what made him concerned about sustainability. After studying graphic design and advertising, Wan felt a calling for fashion. “I didn’t know how to use a sewing machine and my parents weren’t supportive of it, but I didn’t want to lose out,” he says. “I love to overcome challenges, so I worked hard at the techniques, learning the software and sketching.”

His next move was to enter a number of competitions. “We used to make mock ups waste a lot of fabric. I would take it home because I didn’t want to waste it. My parents would beg me to throw it away,” says Wan. (He eventually won them over.) “I’m interested in techniques, and I learned a lot of new skills with EcoChic. In a way, sustainability is what made me so interested in fashion. Few people in Hong Kong are being sustainable.”

Inspired by Chinese culture, old buildings and agricultural spaces, Wan & Wong presents a chic uniform-like style with paneling and seams to create shape and effect. A lover of both graphics and patchwork, Wan has learned to cut and sew to create a design that he likes, saying that he gets ideas about layering from city and country landscapes. Working mostly in blue and white, dark wash denim is a strong feature in Wan’s work – not to mention an easy-to-find waste fabric.

Wang & Won Winter 2015/16 collection

Wan & Wong Winter 2015/16 collection

To be a sustainable designer in Hong Kong is still niche, so EcoChic is acting as an incubator for emerging designers who want to take this more ethical approach. For Dean, the most significant part of EcoChic is its alumni network. “Over the last six years we have generated a talented group of startup designers who pioneer and who care,” she says. Redress continues their support by helping to generate collaborative projects through industry events like Hong Kong Fashion Week. Both Alex Leau and Wan & Wong will be on display in the EchoChic Design Award booth this year. “They send sponsors to me, they send my collections to potential buyers and they have introduced me to new contacts in the industry,” says Law.

Kelvin Wong & Joyce Wan founders of Wan&Wong

Kelvin Wong & Joyce Wan founders of Wan&Wong

Even as they get more attention, though, the day-to-day grind faced by sustainable fashion designers can be wearying. Sourcing waste fabrics is a particular challenge, even though it seems advantageous for a factory to minimise its waste. “I kept asking factories for their waste rolls but they weren’t interested,” he says. “I realised there had to be a benefit for them so I solved the problem by trading with them – they give me the fabric for free, and I give them my production business.”

Dean says if anyone has a chance to make inroads in Chinese manufacturing, it’s designers in Hong Kong. “They are well positioned to take the pick of the waste, sometimes for free,” she says. “For the rest of the world it can be very hard to access China, but local designers have the language, the proximity and the network. They can be top up-cyclers who can scale their production easily too.”

Unlike most consumers, Wan believes that a shirt should be wearable for five to ten years, because it is good quality. “People usually look at the garment and the price,” he says. Dean says these kinds of consumer expectations make life difficult for designers. “The real challenge is drawing the consumer into that [higher] price point – and most the people in Hong Kong are very price conscious.”

Wan says attitudes are slowly changing in Hong Kong. More and more second hand clothes are available through shops like The Closeteur, an online business started by two Hongkongers who wanted to pass on their high quality but barely worn outfits. The site now features a range of items from local celebrities. Online business might be a way for young designers to establish themselves without having to deal with Hong Kong’s high rents. Even the government is getting in on the act, pledging HK$500 million in a three-year pilot program that promotes fashion designers and brands, offering incubation for start-ups and helping graduates with overseas internships and study opportunities.

With that kind of help, Hong Kong designers might just have a chance to lead the pack in sustainable fashion. Dean says that the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese markets are ahead of the fashion curve, looking for what’s unique and special. “I think that zest helps Hong Kong designers,” she says. “It’s something to shout about because it’s cool to wear local and cool to stand out.”

Ecochic Design Award Alumni will show their works at Hong Kong Fashion Week A/W 2016 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hall 3C&D, from January 18 to 21, 2016. Find out more about the EcoChic Design Award.

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