By now, we're all deeply aware of the irreversible and damaging impact the fast-fashion industry continues to have on the environment. Here in Australia alone as consumers, we commit more than 500 million kilos of unwanted clothing to landfill every year; a fact that should ignite urgent conversation. But being aware, and taking real action are of course two very different things. The last year, however, has inspired some hope for the future of sustainability in the industry; with some of the leading change-makers in made-to-order fashion right on our doorstep.
While for local, small boutique businesses, shifting to this model presents a unique set of risks; Sydney-based designers Eloïse Panetta and Natalija are proof that made-to-order is the way forward in Australian fashion. For Panetta, who operates entirely from her retail store in The Rocks, creating custom garments was a practice she learnt early on.
"I started learning about sewing and garment construction from the age of two and three. I would go to my grandmother's place every day instead of preschool, and I would just watch her," Panetta shares of her childhood.
"I had such a vested interest in pattern-making from very early on and I truly believe it stemmed from the exchange of skills between myself and my beautiful grandmother."
It was this early introduction that inspired the resourceful and environmentally-conscious approach that is intrinsic to the Eloïse Panetta brand. The label has become renowned for its ethically sourced silk pieces, which Panetta hand-dyes in small batches; using a botanical technique that involves wrapping leaves, flowers and berries in the silk and steaming. From here, the one of a kind unique silks are transformed into bespoke camis, slips, dresses, blouses and scarves; a process that takes place entirely in her boutique.
"My hands are the same hands that dye the fabric, cut the pattern and then sew it. It's a process I manage entirely from start to finish. Anyone can be a fashion designer, but what separates my product is that each piece is embedded with memory, poetry and an undeniably unique narrative."
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As for how Panetta first became acquainted with natural dying, she shared that it was a technique that she was introduced to while she was studying. But just like any experiment, there are always variables – a factor Panetta entirely embraces throughout the dying process.
"A key step for me in the natural dying process was understanding the chemistry behind the technique and slowly building a catalogue of botanicals that I knew worked. Even though I am quite thoughtful in my application, like any artist is, the botanicals and materials sometimes have a mind of their own. You can buy the same bundle of flowers two days in a row and still get a slightly different shade each time. For me, there's magic in that sense of unpredictability."
Many of the roadblocks that prevent businesses from operating more sustainably are systemic
When I ask Eloïse why she believes many fashion businesses struggle to operate more sustainably, her response is simple. Change must come from the top. "I think a lot of designers set out with the intention of doing the right thing, but the roadblocks that prevent them are systemic. For example, for brands who can't quite adopt a made-to-order fashion approach but are still trying to reduce waste, it's almost impossible to find a manufacturer who will lower their minimum order."
For Natalija, her shift into a more sustainable model was actually inspired by outdated manufacturing requirements, rather than hindered by it. "Because my background isn't in fashion, I came into the industry with no hang-ups or pre-established ideas about how things should, or have to be done. I think this definitely allowed me to be more open to taking risks."
"I had to make the decision to reject the unsustainable pace of fashion and shift out that relentless growth model into a more responsible one. As a result, not only am I thinking more carefully about the way I operate, but I can tell that my customers are also being more intentional with their purchases."
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Reflecting on her transition to a made-to-order fashion model, Natalija shares that it was the growth of her label that allowed her to adopt a more sustainable approach. Her story is somewhat the opposite of what we're used to hearing; where growing businesses often lean on mass production as a way of streamlining labour-intensive work. For Natalija, this growth instead gave her the confidence, independence and freedom to continue developing her brand's sustainability pillars.
"From the beginning, I've always been sustainably conscious in some way. I've used always natural fabrics, I've never used any manmade fibres, I stay away from materials like polyester and viscose. I've also always had an ethical consideration towards the way I've designed the pieces; ensuring that they are versatile and can be an enduring staple in any woman's wardrobe," she shares.
"But what sustainability means to me now, is certainly different from what it meant when we first launched as a brand because we're continuously evolving with this industry. We recognised we were now in a position to do things differently, especially if we wanted to make some changes in this industry and the future of fashion."
One of her key starting points was with her team. Upon deciding to make the change to made-to-order fashion in 2018, Natalija recognised that it was important that the team behind her label shared her values. Starting almost entirely fresh, (save from her pattern-maker); she switched her manufacturing process to Australia, began working with family, or independently-run suppliers and partners and now runs a supply chain that is not only entirely local but is a team that is 90% women.
"People always ask me, why fashion? For me, I've always looked at myself as being in the business of improving women's confidence and celebrating women at all levels. This also means including them as an integral part of my business model; the fact that we can make beautiful clothes together for other women to wear is just a bonus."
Where is the made-to-order industry heading next?
While both Eloïse Panetta and Natalija are testaments to how small businesses can operate sustainably and successfully, the question I'm most curious to know the answer to is where they see the future of made-to-order fashion heading. For Panetta, she believes change is deeply dependent on education, which is something she is personally passionate about. As for Natalija, she sees technology as an integral factor in encouraging more businesses and fashion labels to consider the approach; suggesting that 3D printing and laser cutting will become the made-to-order industry's answer to 'on demand' production. For her own brand, the future is about broadening personalisation options.
"I strongly believe women deserve better fitting clothes, and made-to-order fashion allows for this. Being able to adjust a hemline, lengthen a sleeve or add small design details will be integral to how we continue to move forward," she shares.
"Do I see more brands making the switch? Fashion is a tough business and margins are lean, which makes innovation really hard. More than anything, made-to-order fashion calls for radical thinking, revolution and reinvention. So while more consumers are asking for it, I don't think it's a natural fit for all businesses."
If there's one thing we know with certainty, the coronavirus pandemic has inspired a significant change in the fashion industry on both a local and international scale. We've seen luxury fashion Houses like Gucci and Saint Laurent leave the traditional fashion calendar behind, with more brands simultaneously adopting a pre-order model to reduce wastage.
With change happening so close to home, there's hope that the best is yet to come.