Among the topics the 2020 applicants addressed none was so widespread and relevant as sustainability, in all its forms: environmental, social and, in its deepest sense, human.
A constant thread implied across all the trends and all the choices, unraveled along various paths – upcycling, recycling, zero-waste, natural colors and dyeing, organic textiles – like a recurring element: the research and the reuse of objects and materials that young creative talents have sourced in their surroundings or have looked for, tell a story that comes to the fore again through this regenerating process, with new, vibrant, unique meanings and interpretations.
"Let's first of all start from the idea that it is impossible to define emerging designers as unsustainable." says Orsola de Castro, Founder and Global Creative Director of Fashion Revolution. "Their social and environmental impact isn't strong enough to provoke damage. At the same time, they can't solve the problem on their own. But we're here to celebrate their way of thinking, their will and most of all their coherence and research." "For many young designers" continues de Castro "sustainability is the DNA of their creative methodology anyway. They show a curiosity for innovative materials and they work on re-use and upcycling. But often they lack the ability - or the confidence - to present these principles clearly and eloquently. The result is that many good ideas remain hidden or not fully developed."
At ITS we have been witnessing responsible creativity approaches since the beginning. Teppei Sugaya back in 2003 developed his entire collection sourcing & upcycling fabrics and garments from flea markets. Yael Ben-Ari in 2007 was upcycling plastic and fake hair from dolls to develop entire outfits. And Tabitha Osler's womenswear in 2011 was both a sustainable manifesto bringing mother nature to the catwalk, as well as a study on the use of innovative biomaterials such as tree bark. There has always been someone bringing the topic to the plate. They were, indeed, few.
We really decided to analyze sustainability and understand it in 2016, when we noticed the theme had finally exploded and carried out an extensive survey on the ITS applicants. It was then that we realized how young designers were finally conscious of the huge impact that sustainability would have on their future as professionals and human beings. It wasn't some kind of a cool trend anymore. It had turned into necessity, something that had to be faced. They were focusing on two main visions. There was a more philosophical and political one: they wanted the entire industry to slow down, to stop its devastating effects on the environment and on human beings by producing less and in a much better quality that would provide a long life to the garments.
And then there was a more pragmatic one: they wanted real sustainability, with the whole fashion system taking part in the action transparently. They also asked for more education. "Knowing how to communicate one's own sustainable practice with clarity of view and determination is very important" says again de Castro. "And usually, such clarity of view derives from knowledge. We must be aware that a large number of those who apply have received no specific education on how to be sustainable in fashion. The actual fundamentals are simply not there. Many students for example use the word 'circularity' without actually knowing about circular technology and associating it with re-use and recycling. But vintage and second-hand, just to make things clear, have nothing to do with circularity."
In our 2016 survey (41% of that year's applicants) respondents declared that no initiatives on sustainability had been implemented in their school. And there was another 47% not answering the question, which possibly included others who would have probably answered no. Sustainability was being discussed superficially in several classes, but there were only a mere 11.6% specific courses on the subject. Many were eager to learn about it (“it should be mandatory” - answered Sana, American, 23 years old). Some were trying to catch up studying by themselves.
Four years on, what does sustainability mean for our young creatives? How has its perception and concrete application evolved for the young generations of fashion and design? We may again observe this by comparing the 2016 report, which clearly shows how the power of communication was at the time distorting their opinion: going against fast fashion, applying fair working conditions and traditional techniques were being pointed out as actions that need be taken by the same respondents labelling H&M as a sustainable brand (4th overall among brands perceived as sustainable...). It proved the effectiveness of advertising, influencing even those who claimed to have a clear idea of what sustainability should be.
In 2020 things have changed radically, and sustainability has turned into an individual and collective civic deed, where each one of us does its own part daily. This is the era when the actors are the single individuals, and one’s concrete, measurable commitment is the only thing that truly counts: a deeper awareness about the urgency of such commitment entails, as a consequence, also a stricter judgment towards those who honor it more honestly.
The evidence lies in the very concepts of the young designers' collection. In 2020 responsible creativity is the starting point, the backbone from which their ideas develop. It informs all of the following steps, from the pattern cutting to the overall aesthetics. It looks at renovating traditions using manual techniques and collaborating with local networks of artisans. It establishes rules on what kind of materials to develop or how to source them, where to look for innovation and how to develop long-lasting, meaningful and multi-purpose products. We've also witnessed outstanding results in the research & development of innovative biomaterials, embracing plastic as something that has to be recycled and re-used as much as possible (and most importantly, not produced anymore) and the use of technologies like 3D-printing as tools to achieve zero-waste.
Sustainability in all its incarnations – economic, social, environmental – will also be one of the mainstays of our new ITS ARCADEMY project which will launch in 2021. It will realize that concept of circularity and regeneration on which ITS is based and for which it has always fought. The former finalists, jurors and all of the ITS global network will have an active role in the creation of what aims to be a new home to creativity, arts and culture. Their knowledge will kindle an ongoing dialogue on responsible creativity and solutions to pressing topics in sustainability.
What does the future hold in the long run? It does sound like a very awkward question while facing the covid pandemic. But if there is one thing this crisis is providing us with, that certainly is a window of opportunity. Never before have young designers shown such a strong awareness on responsible creativity as they do today. They have set it as a flag from where every following process will be defined and developed. "The most important thing is to demonstrate knowledge and the will to learn always more" says again de Castro. "We have to celebrate and champion the commitment, the originality, the desire to dig deeper into this topic as much as possible. Ambition cannot take into consideration only expansion and numbers but value, purpose and quality." The more students show an interest in placing sustainability as their top goal, the more the education system will inevitably tag along. And we have strong hopes - and indeed some proof - that the big brands in the industry are truly realizing sustainability is not a communication tool anymore. Times of change are exciting times if knowledge, intelligence and awareness are at play.