Image courtesy of Loom Weaving's SS21 campaign
Despite the potential grim outlook on this year’s London Fashion Week SS21 digital-only shows, a few young designers took it upon themselves to advocate for a change in the fashion industry with their sustainable collections presented in a series of films and photo stills that went live on Fashion Scout’s website on the 18th September.
Sprouting from a single event in 2017, FDC Armenia grew into a collective of over 200 talented designers, companies, and artisans, who have displayed their work in Mercedes Benz Kyiv Fashion Days, and now, thirteen of them at London Fashion Week.
Each designer has their own unique style, from Armenian heritage weaving and biodegradable materials, to original printed photos on denim jackets. For some, it is their first time displaying their collections to the public. But unfortunately, due to current pandemic restrictions, the designers were unable to join the celebrations in London, but instead their own homes in Armenia.
Speaking in-between the digital shows about some of their designers with Fashion & Design Chamber (FDC) of Armenia president, Vahan Khachatryan, and Elen Manukyan, co-founder of Loom Weaving, we explore the future of fashion in the next generation of Armenian designers through ways of sustainability and ethical manufacturing, and how they feel about the digital Fashion Week.
2020 has obviously been a difficult year for many around the world. How have the designers coped with the pandemic?
VK - I guess everyone in the world is going through the same problems now. For us - as an organisation, we had a lot of physical events that were either cancelled or postponed to next year. We were supposed to be in London right now, but we’re sitting in our office in Armenia. We're glad that at least in digital format, we're still able to participate in this amazing event.
As for the designers, it's been really tough. It's a very big blow for the industry here [in Armenia] because it is still very young. It's just starting to grow and, in this stage, to get a blow like this, it's almost like going back to square one. Even those who have been in the industry for a long time and had some financial means to support themselves are facing big problems - a lot of shops closed, which is a very big loss, because I think that it's important to have the physical service. That's why we're really hoping that even though we have the digital platform [of LFW], this will help them open some new markets, attract new buyers, anything that can help them in this situation. We launched an online e-commerce shop today. The first 13 designers participating in Fashion Week are already represented on the e-commerce platform. So, people who watch the videos, they can directly go to the e-commerce website and buy the collections now.
We hope this is going to help. This is also a part of our support programme, where we help them with their sales. Hopefully, in February for the next season, things will go back to normality and we will come to London.
You've mentioned the digital aspect of Fashion Week. So how do you feel about Fashion Week being digital and do you think/want it to continue after the pandemic?
VK - The good side of the coin is that we're learning how to present our goods in a different manner, something we haven't done before. Of course, we've always been doing photo shoots, and videos, but this is completely different. We’re used to touching the clothes and looking inside, how things are made, what's the quality. It's really difficult to show these things in a photo or on a video. So, this makes us come up with new solutions. Obviously, it's pricey. I've seen some really exciting ideas which we couldn't afford because virtual reality is getting really big. So, the VR shows that people are doing, it's a lot of investment that we don't have at this moment. But I think that in the future, it will be a mix. Obviously, not everyone will want to stay in the digital format, but I'm sure that this is going to become a part of fashion reality in the future. I'm seeing so many brands who started doing digital clothing - you don't even buy the clothes anymore; you just buy the digital version of the clothing and you get it photoshopped on your avatar or in your photo.
I don't know if it's too early for this because I think we're still living in a quite normal world, especially in Armenia. We're really not that technological. I see some Russian designers, like Alena Akhmadullina, already selling digital clothing on her website, as well as the founder of Mercedes Benz Kyiv Fashion Days, Daria Shapovalova (Paskal). They work with different designers around the world and have an online shop where they also sell digital. I think that's the future, but it's a bit further from where we're standing right now. I think it's good because you learn, you're seeing all these possibilities, and especially with our sustainability programme and trying to introduce sustainable fashion in Armenia. Obviously, digital fashion is much more sustainable, and it's less waste. But it's going to be a long way before we get there.
One of the main concepts for FTC Armenia collective was 'sustainability'. So, what does sustainability in fashion mean to you? And how important is it for the future of fashion?
VK - Again, for me, personally, everything started I think, three years ago. I have been in the industry for so long, and I do consider myself a more traditional designer. I like a lot of handcraft and artisans, upcycling and recycling, I use old materials or curtains, tablecloths, whatever, can be channelled into a dress. I’ve never given labels to the sustainability process until a few years ago. I found out about the Green Carpet Fashion Awards (GCFA) competition organised by Eco-Age UK, where I was in the semi-finals and invited to go to Milan. I met a lot of designers, other semi-finalists, who were working in sustainable fashion. It was a completely new world for me! I learned things I had never heard of before like pineapple leather or recycled fishing nets. I was blown away by everything that has been done in sustainability – the part of fashion I didn’t know much about. So again, when we got the grant from the UK embassy, we thought that we should really focus on sustainability. The UK has such a big experience in recycling and climate change. We teamed up with Eco-Age UK and tried to focus on the biggest problem that we have now in the textile industry, which is waste management. So, we’re trying to organise the recycling, fabric waste. Hopefully, in the future, we will also start dealing with other aspects of sustainability.
And do you think that pandemic will change the way we produce and consume fashion?
VK - I hope, but we can never tell until the time will show. Hopefully, people will be more aware of what they're buying, and how they're spending their money. But people have the tendency to go back to the easy ways. There has been so much talk about sustainability, especially among the fashion society now [during the pandemic]. To educate the customer, we should first educate ourselves. It is important that the designers hear about these things to start realising the importance of sustainability in the industry, and then they can educate their customers. So hopefully, at least, they've used these months sitting at home with some use and participated in online talks. I hope that they've really been engaged and that things will start changing, at least among the designers, and then for the general public.
Loom Weaving has deep connections in their Armenian Heritage. Does she ever feel pressure to design for a more kind of 'Westernised' audience?
EM - I'm not a designer, I have been working in the business sector within the Ministry of Economy for a long time and working with start-ups. My sister – she's the designer, and she was trying to open a business, for like six years. I supported her because she couldn't do anything apart from creating clothes! Maybe this was my purpose when I entered the business sector. From her perspective, when she [Inga] started her business, she was always thinking to do something that has never been done in Armenia before. And for a long time, she was doing her research on how to start it. I think it was the best idea that she could propose because, at that time, no one in Armenia was using the old Armenian weaving techniques – which was the key idea that we used to establish the business. We started with handmade workers, who are in their 60s (about our mother's age), who are knitting and who know the techniques, but they don't use it in fashion. There is the added value that we put in making these old clothes fashionable. Her niche technique and product are what she is famous for.
VK - It's always difficult when you have a niche product for the market. When we were in Milan, anticipating one of the trade shows, there was a big interest from Germans and Latvian buyers, because I think it was something they would use throughout the year.
Also, in Armenia, things are changing slowly. Before, knitwear was considered something your grandmother would wear or make, so it wasn't considered 'cool'. But times are changing. It's becoming something that is trendy, and that young people wear. But it's not just knitwear, I think every niche product is going through the same path.
Images courtesy of Loom Weaving's SS21 campaign
Damian (aka. Damink) is basically a one-man show. He does photography, art, film designs - he's doing so much! How does he keep up with everything?
VK - That's, again, a big problem for most of the designers and I don't think it's just a problem in Armenia. You have these designers trying to do everything because they cannot afford hiring other people to work for them - which is good because you learn, you grow. But on the other hand, you cannot do everything. Just one person is not capable. And at some point, some of the aspects start limping. He's a photographer, who started using his photos on T-shirts. And then from t-shirts, he went to jackets, denim, pants and it became something more serious than just memorabilia.
On the other hand, because he's doing photography, cinematography, and short videos for advertising, and he does his own videos for Fashion Week. But when it comes to administrative stuff, he does nothing, really. So, we try to help him with that fragment. But even if you go on our e-commerce website, you know, all the designers have uploaded their prices, they're ready to sell, and for Damian, you only have the pictures, because we didn't receive any pricing or a description of the items. You really have to sit him down to do it. But he has no time, he’s taking photos and doing a million other things. So, there is this problem of creative people when they have a lot of creativity they want to work with. They need a businessperson right next to them to help them with that part. And that's something we're trying to teach. In fact, you don't have to do everything yourself because sometimes it's more damaging than doing good. Hopefully, they will start listening.
Image courtesy of Damink's SS21 campaign
Z.G.EST has raised a lot of attention during this Fashion Week…
EM - Yes, Alla Pavlova is the owner of the brand. She’s from the finance sector – she worked in banking for a long time, but she was very interested in fashion and she’s running a good business. She’s not a designer, but she is a good manager and one of two founders that are working on the collection. She sells very well in our media and now she’s doing an international online shop and works with different online platforms.
I think she will succeed because she knows all the management of business and art. Now she has taken the road of sustainability, which is the key, she puts a lot of emphasis on these materials she uses.
VK - She’s very clever. Even if you don’t call these ‘designer’ pieces per say, these are pieces that almost every woman can buy and have in every wardrobe on daily basis in almost all body shapes, so it’s a very good sellable product.
She’s obviously very rooted in sustainability and ethics in fashion. How does she source her up-cycled materials?
VK - When she started, she would turn shirts into dresses that would be quite versatile, which lead to bigger collections. The idea of having an element of a shirt in almost every piece has always been the philosophy of the brand.
Image courtesy of Z.G.EST's SS21 campaign
Is she intending to eventually source materials from Armenia to completely minimise her carbon footprint?
VK - It’s not possible to source the materials because we don’t produce materials. That’s a big problem. So, if we’re talking about raw materials, and we always have to buy them from somewhere. If we’re talking about upcycling stuff, it’s obviously possible to buy stock pieces from Armenia. It’s very sad, but we have zero production of any kind of raw materials. The easiest way to make the footprint less is to buy from Turkey, which is our neighbouring country. But we have a bad history with Turkey. Also, Turkish materials are not really considered very high quality, and many of them don’t have the certification of sustainability, because they source their materials from Pakistan, which come with child labour, forced labour and all the other negativity. So that’s why we try to focus on European made fabric. That’s the least that we can do. Maybe in the future, things will change.
It’s hard at the moment. Even though sustainability has been around for so long, it’s only just starting to be really acknowledged in fashion. Do you know if any of the FDC designers plan to expand to the UK?
VK - That's the ideal, the dream! But it depends on how things will work out. For example, I was talking to one of our designers, who's Iranian-Armenian. She sells both here [Armenia] and in Iran. I was talking to her and she said that there has been great interest from the UK media, some of which is paid media, and some are for free. But she said that she's going to advertise in Vogue UK and Tatler UK soon.
There was another designer, who said that she hopes this, together with a showcase at Fashion Scout, will really help her to get into the market. Some people are really taking this seriously, while for some it's the first time, so they don't really know what to do or how to do it. They're in the very beginning of their own career. So, this might be a good showcase, but business-wise, it's very different. We hope that at least a few of them will really use this opportunity to grow the business.
EM - Z.G.EST is currently selling with Wolf&Badger in the UK, an online store. As far as I know, it's selling very good. Last month she sold about 20 pieces through them. Pretty good, considering she's presented with them for only about three months.
Do you think the future of fashion can be truly sustainable?
VK - Can the future of fashion be truly sustainable? Completely, 100%, No. But if we're being realistic, even if it's 50% sustainable, that's already a very big achievement, because it's going to be almost impossible to be able to be 100% sustainable in this industry. I mean, even in Armenia, there has so much production, which is underground, let's say in that small workshops, which are not sweatshops, these are still places where people get paid, but just avoid paying taxes, which means they're not registered. This makes it almost impossible to measure how they work, whether they are working in a sustainable way or not. And if you go to countries like China or Bangladesh, it's the same but on a much bigger scale. You may be able to monitor the official part of fashion, but the dark side is always going to stay in the shades.
All photo credits are courtesy of the designers.