Joshua James Small & Chloe Baines Discuss Fashion’s Sustainable Future

As Fashion Revolution Week pivoted to a digital-first strategy in the wake of COVID-19, the two emerging designers discuss working as young designers during this time.

Image courtesy of Fashion Revolution.

As we enter the 6th week of quarantine, it becomes glaringly apparent that the prospect of returning to the world we left in late February is wholly unrealistic. We now need to find a new constant. As Fashion Revolution Week pivoted to a digital-first strategy in the wake of COVID-19, designers Joshua James Small and Chloe Baines conversed via BRICKS Instagram live stream about working as young designers during this time. They discuss their respective practices and overall sustainability in fashion. 

The full conversation can be read below. 

JS: Hello Chloe, how are you?

CB: Hello! Yeh, I’m good thank you. Happy Earth Day! – Such an apt day for our conversation.

JS: Happy Earth Day indeed! I was thinking earlier; we’ve known each other quite a while now because we met at Gareth Pugh a few years back, it was autumn/winter 2018 if I’m correct in saying. You worked the season before me, and our placements overlapped. We just clicked straight away, and have been friends ever since really. I’ve already seen much of your collection, but talk me through how you work?

CB: Well, like you mentioned the other day, I essentially upcycle waste. I’m currently working with material taken from discarded tents. Having a lot of time has actually been beneficial, as I had a lot that needed to be prepared for manufacture. I’ve been spending the last few weeks washing and fixing the raw material from the tents that I’ve been collecting. 

JS: You work predominantly with this type of fabric if I’m right in saying? 

CB: Yes, this project started for me a number of years ago actually. It was at the end of a festival one summer; I was shocked at the state of the grounds. The area was empty of people, but it looked like no one had left. There were tents strewn everywhere, destined for landfill. So I saw this as an opportunity. I collected as many as I could so that I could use the fabric for my graduate collection. Since then, I’ve continued to experiment with upcycling this type of waste product. 

JS: It’s almost become your design ethos, upcycling the components of these tents, hasn’t it? I think it’s interesting because from knowing you personally, I understand that it’s a very authentic focus. You utilise almost every part of the tent if I’m correct in saying? Even down to the tent pegs?

CB: I try to use as much of the raw material as possible really. For instance, I recently worked with jewellery designer Belle Smith, and we made rings by remoulding the tent pegs. I quite like the original dents and marks, so we kept them as part of the design. It makes each piece unique and gives a story. We’re just working on how to treat the metal at the moment, so it’s appropriate for wear on the skin. Obviously, we’re making sure that anything used isn’t toxic to the natural environment. It’s proving a hurdle, but I don’t believe it’s unachievable. I quite like working collaboratively with Belle. I always wanted to do a jewellery collaboration, because a number of my friends work as jewellers; it was just a case of finding the right opportunity to work together.

JS: Exciting! I mean it’s a vastly different application of fabric to how I work, but similar in the sense of utilising waste product. Just like you, I like the idea that people see my pieces, and firstly appreciate them for aesthetic, but then through further investigation, realise they’re consciously made. I think it’s important that through transparency people are able to understand what my pieces are made from.

CB: So how do you source your fabric?

JB: Well, all my pieces are made to order, so there’s no potential for mass-manufactured waste product. I source the bulk of my fabric from upcycling deadstock. Larger companies tend to have a vast surplus of excess textiles, which I then repurpose, reducing the amount that ends up in landfill. I’ve previously upcycled from Sophie Hallette, Swarovski, and Wales Bonner. Most of the time, I’m shocked that this fabric would have been thrown away because it’s beautiful. It’s far from what I would consider waste. I also use a number of sustainably certified fabrics, such as bamboo silk. I’m very realistic and honest in saying that not every aspect can be manufactured from sustainable fibre, because a sustainable alternative doesn’t always exist. However, I’m always on the hunt for new fabric innovations, and I remain as transparent as possible through listing all garment components on my website at the point of release. 

CB: Yes, transparency is key. That’s really interesting though, so how did you become involved in sustainability? 

JS: It was always ingrained in many aspects of my life, but going back several years, I wasn’t as aware of the negative impact of the fashion industry. It wasn’t until someone important to me made me aware of the negative impact that clothing manufacture was having on the planet. From then on, I’ve strived to be as conscious as I can with how I produce my pieces. I’m not naïve though, and I understand that as soon as you make the product you are unsustainable from the onset. No one can truly produce sustainably, but this is our craft and this is what we do, so it’s about being responsible and finding a balance. What about you?

CB: Well I’ve always preferred working with found materials, but as I learnt how to sew and how to make clothing, I had a new found respect for the time and skill that went into a garment. It was this that drove me to be a more conscious designer, because I understood that clothing had another level of value. I think understanding that what you purchase can have longevity, is much to do with how we’re sold clothing. Styling is really important. It’s about making the consumer realise that what you already have in your wardrobe, can be re-worn and reworked. We need to understand that clothing has longevity and that you can wear the same piece time and time again. 

JS: Oh, definitely. Orsola De Castro actually discussed something similar to this yesterday. She was talking about the idea of localisation, in that we would become less dependent on mainstream avenues of consumption. Everyone would buy locally, and we would place greater emphasis on what we already have. We would repair, re-wear, and make it last. But this isn’t a new thing, though. I was asked recently where this industry will be post-pandemic, and honestly, I don’t think it will be too dissimilar to what we had many years ago. We’ll go back to an industry of smaller bespoke brands, and garments will be bought to last, as opposed to once-wear pieces. People used to cherish clothing, but through a capitalistic society, we’ve lost the ability to recognise value and craft and favoured a disposable mentality. 

CB: Absolutely! I mentioned this the other day actually, as I was discussing the relevance of re-wearing and reselling clothing. I think a simple way of purchasing more responsibly, is by swapping and redistributing pieces, so to give them another life. You only have to look at the popularity of DEPOP, to understand that people are adapting to more responsible ways of consuming. 

JS: My friend Patrick McDowell has recently been working with Patrick Duffy on the Swap Chain initiative, which runs on the premise of swapping garments to extend their lifecycle. If you’re interested, I’d definitely advise you check it out. 

CB: Ah, fantastic, I will do actually. There’s a distinctive gap though between the accessibility of similar rental schemes. A lot of current schemes tend to be quite expensive because of the high value of the designer pieces. At the other end of the scale, more accessible clothing from high street retailers isn’t built to last and can’t realistically be re-worn by multiple rented owners.

JS: It’s highly problematic because these high street chains are criminal in how much they produce each year and how poorly it’s made. A piece of clothing manufactured and available to purchase within a matter of days is just not built to last. However, I do understand that the average working-class person depends on these retailers to be able to buy affordable clothing. 

CB: Yes, which is why I definitely think the rise of swap shops and affordable rentals, could be quite pivotal in making conscious choices accessible to the average person. 

JS: It is quite interesting thinking about mass consumption and high street retailers at the moment because there are a lot of changes happening to the way people are consuming. Many retailers have recently announced that since lockdown, very little or no money has been made from sales. Now, this could benefit society long term, because it means that these companies will have to reconsider how they work post-pandemic. I would like to think it will result in more responsible practice. Speaking of the changes under lockdown, what are you working on at the moment?

CB: I’ve actually been fixing a lot of my friends’ clothing over that last few weeks. It’s something I haven’t previously offered to do, but I’ve had quite a lot of people interested, which proves that there’s a demand for that sort of service. We need to make people realise that you can fix and repair pieces that you already own. I would say that this time now is perfect for that sort of thing. 

JS: Absolutely, this industry can be so insanely fast-paced, so it’s good to use quarantine as a refresh. It’s actually a great time for people to understand the importance of craft and slow fashion. Fashion Open Studio is a fantastic way of understanding that through promoting transparency. How did you become aware of Fashion Revolution?

CB: I was in my second year of University, and I saw their hashtag on social media. I just remember thinking it was really impressive that this company was un-wavered in highlighting industry faults and promoting positive ways to change them. How about you?

JS: Well I was already interested in their work. But a short while ago I was introduced to Orsola through my friend Mathew Needham. Then at various other events, I got to know other members of the team. Are there any Open Studios or discussions you’ve been looking forward to watching this week? 

CB: I actually need to catch up on the Christopher Raeburn talk yesterday with Orsola, but I’m trying to watch as much as I can, to be honest. It’s fantastic how accessible all of the events are because of the digital shift.

JS: It’s great isn’t it, because the negative impact of lockdown has actually turned out to be quite positive. Emphasis on digitising the events has made them more accessible to a wider audience.  

With thanks to Joshua James Small, Chloe Bains and the entire team at Fashion Revolution.

To explore further work by Joshua James Small, Chloe Baines, and Fashion Revolution, visit their websites.