Interview with Orsola de Castro, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Fashion Revolution

Orsola de Castro is an internationally recognised opinion leader in sustainable fashion. She co-founded Fashion Revolution in 2013, a global campaign to ensure clothes are made in a safe, clean, and fair way. She is a regular speaker and mentor, Associate Professor at UAL, and Central Saint Martins Visiting Fellow.

TW: You founded Fashion Revolution in 2013? Why?

OdC: Firstly, I should say I am one of two founders. Carry Somers and I founded Fashion Revolution as a direct result of the Rana Plaza disaster, which was, in our opinion, predictable and avoidable. We knew the conditions that the majority of supply chain workers were subjected to in the fashion supply chain to support cheap fashion and fast luxury. I was founder and curator of the British Fashion Council’s sustainable area in London Fashion Week. I have been a fashion designer with my own upcycling brand. Carry Somers used to run a multi-award-winning fair-trade, Panema hat brand. So I would say sustainability in the fashion industry is very much in our DNA. We felt that everything we had done as designers and practitioners wasn’t enough. The time had come to do things more intensely, more openly, more angrily. We felt that the time was right to say things and act. 

How would you summarise Fashion Revolution’s aims for readers?

We definitely look for systemic change of the fashion industry. We also campaign for a 360-degree view of the fashion supply chain. So we demand transparency, but we also look to understand how citizens can become an active part of the solution by changing their buying habits to demand better products and keeping them for longer. We are primarily a communications campaign but we have a very strong focus on policy as well. 

You say the same in your manifesto, that ‘the whole fashion industry needs a radical paradigm shift.’ How can we start working on what some might see as an optimistic goal? 

Well, there isn’t one way because if there was one way everyone would be doing it. Look at me, I’ve become a raging campaigner. At the same time, I feel that everybody can do something. For me, one of the clearest visualisations of what we can do is to imagine that our own wardrobe is in the fashion supply chain. We tend to think of the supply chain as being somewhere very, very far away. Producing countries are somewhere else but the reality is that we are in it. So every decision that we take related to our clothes, but related to everything else we own, has an impact on the supply chain whether it’s positive or negative. If we have that in mind, you can start to navigate from your own gut feeling and start to understand which bit of this huge dilemma actually works for you. Some of us get to fashion via things like animal welfare; people who may be vegan or making sure they’re not buying leather. Others come to sustainable fashion because we’re interested in people. We want to make sure that the clothes we buy are made in dignity. 

As well as this different mentality, what can we do practically?

The fact is, the majority of citizens are now sensitive to the fact that we certainly have the right to demand better, and the power to make that better happen – provided we do so consistently and sustainably. And that means not imagining you are going to change the world on your own tomorrow, but having the enthusiasm, knowing that you are part of this conversation. Some people say, ‘each time you open your wallet you are voting with your money’, but equally each time you pick up a needle, decide to sew on a button or mend a zip you are making a very strong statement. These are the actions, the simple starting point, that we talk about. Our mantra is ‘be curious, find out, do something’. To find out at this stage is particularly important. In the age of the Internet, whatever you use to do your research, there is no excuse to claim ignorance because the information is out there. 

That drive to find out was the point of Fashion Revolution Week last month and #whomademyclothes?

Absolutely! The #whomademyclothes is a really good example of a relatively simple question that’s impossible to answer. But it’s given birth to the spontaneous reply which is: ‘I made your clothes’. Then we had the maker’s movement joining in saying ‘I make my clothes’. Then we had the recyclers saying ‘I mend your clothes’. So it’s understanding that it’s part of a journey. We cannot take information in the same way we take fast fashion – it’s there, I’ve got to have it. Information when it regards complex issues needs a bit more time. We celebrate the complexity of these issues and we presume that our audience is intelligent and committed and reaches us when they are ready. Then we can define which areas and how. 

As well as the hashtag, Fashion Revolution Week involved ‘Open Studios’, events like designer talks and workshops. What exactly did they involve?

We had so many different initiatives. Fashion Revolution Week is when they all come together. We work on things like our Fashion Transparency Index all year round. We publish our zines twice a year. The ‘Open Studios’ are part of these initiatives not necessarily just during Fashion Revolution Week. But during that week is when we really measure our impact. In April last year, we had around 700 million impressions on our hashtag, we had a reach of 275 million, we had more than 2,000 press articles. That Week is the moment when everyone gets together to talk about it on the anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster. 

You’ve worked with huge brands and designers as part of these initiatives like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney?

We don’t work with brands, let me stress that. When it comes to ‘Open Studio’, the initiative at which we’ve heard from big brands, we facilitate their conversation. We facilitate Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood as much as we would the huge amount of young designers and much smaller brands. We are an aggregator of everything that is already happening. We have a very unique tone and reach, so when brands want to say something then they would use us as a loudspeaker. We know H&M  launched a transparency tool this year during Fashion Revolution Week. It doesn’t mean we endorsed it. 

So what were the conversations that brands like Westwood and McCartney were using you to say?

Well Westwood and McCartney are part of Fashion Revolution Open Studio. But the Studio is not about the designers, it’s about the people that are involved in the team. So we were very proud to have a Couture workshop with Brigitte Stepputtis, who is Head of Couture at Vivienne Westwood. We were very happy last year to have a conversation with Claire Bergkamp who is the Worldwide Sustainability and Innovation Director at Stella McCartney. But we are very, very, very, bottom up. We are about the people that make the brands. We are about the people that work in the organisations, the people that are on the ground – the unionists, the garment workers, and all the participants in a fashion brand however big or small. For us, what is really important is to understand who makes our clothes, in what conditions, what are they made of, and what does that world look like, the invisible, uncelebrated world of the people inside the brands. 

You can see that bottom up approach in your British Fashion Council initiative Estethica, the first ever curated eco fashion area at London Fashion Week. What did that involve?

OdC: That was between 2006 and 2014. We actually started the careers of designers like Christopher Raeburn (who won Emerging Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards in 2012), but we promoted many such as ‘People Tree’. It really was the very first sustainable fashion initiative that was very design led and within the heart of a main fashion trade show. 

You mentioned the ‘invisible, uncelebrated’ people in the supply chain. Most of us know that many people who make our clothes are not protected by human rights. How can we make sure that changes?

The most important thing is to keep asking questions. We are anti-boycott. We don’t believe boycotting is the right way forward. But asking questions and ensuring that you only buy clothes that you know are made in dignity is the first step. Transparency and public disclosure is the beginning. It means absolutely nothing if we don’t scrutinise as citizens. Ensure that you know who makes your clothes, if you don’t then you can ask. Make sure that you double check that what a brand says is actually true. And that means ensuring brands are being transparent by publically disclosing their supply chain. But above all is to commit to ensuring your community is aware. We can start this conversation the same way we did with food. Food is not necessarily a better supply chain than fashion. But the conversation around food is far more understood by the public. So it’s just as important that we talk about fashion with the same kind of interest. That we have the same opportunity to make informed choices when it comes to fashion as when it comes to food. That’s what we can all do as people. 

Aside from the ethical side of Fashion Revolution, another is environmental sustainability. You say in one of your zines that ‘waste in fashion can be redesigned and minimised’. What do you suggest?

This is something that needs to be done by brands, by governments and by citizens. The reality is that fashion isn’t about sustainability on the one hand and ethics on the other – the two things are married. You cannot look after supply chain workers unless you look after their environment and you can’t look after our environment unless those clothes are made in safety. Re-designing waste is a large conversation. There’s a massive investment in circularity, closed-loop systems – all of that is part of redesigning waste. But above all, we know for a fact, that we’re producing over 100 billion garments per year globally, and we’re discarding about 78% of those clothes. We know 8/10 of the average woman’s clothes is going unused. We know that we chuck things as soon as a button breaks. The first and most sure thing we can do as citizens is to keep our clothes and wear them for as long as possible. And in many ways it’s about changing the word ‘sustainability’ to actually mean ‘efficiency’ – because this system isn’t working and it’s not ethical. 

Your career started with your upcycling label ‘From Somewhere’. It’s very interesting you came from a designing background. How does your work from then inform your work now?

Completely. I’m a very creative person. I couldn’t have arrived at this point from a non-creative point of view. For me, it was really putting my own ideas at the service of something new – a new system, not just new clothing. It just so happened that my journey started at the mid-to-end of the nineties. That was very much when cheap fashion and fast luxury started to make a big dent. And so I witnessed it: the waste, the closure of amazing factories which decamped (at that time) to China. I saw it all, so I went from being interested in this because it was about efficiency and poetry. I loved the concept of reusing what people didn’t want. But then it became an environmental necessity. I had a solution, which was upcycling, and I’m delighted to say it’s just about the most popular thing now with young designers – unpopular as it was when I started it. It’s working wonders now and I’m very, very proud of that. I’ve created a little generation of rubbish collectors. My approach was creative first and campaigning after. 

Creativity is a big part of Fashion Revolution’s manifesto. It ‘recognises creativity as its strongest asset’.

We believe creativity is important also for supply chain workers. Right now it takes three days to train a garment worker to make a piece of clothing. But consider ‘Made in Italy’ for instance. The industry didn’t move to Italy because it’s pretty, they moved to Italy because it was cheap. After the Second War, we were as cheap as Bangladesh basically. But our workforce became skilled because speed wasn’t the order of the day. That created a very dignified system and the whole of ‘Made in Italy’. It created a lot of wealth. At one point, the Vento region – which produced the majority of fashion – created an enormous amount of jobs. It was richer than California. So we do know that we can create decent and dignified jobs, and that clothes can be made competitively by people that are safe and skilled. This is what an ideal fashion industry looks like. It’s an industry that gives as much back as it takes out, where we place respect before every process. That’s where we need to get to. Now, the majority of the time, we are wearing clothes made in misery. And this is the something the fashion industry has an obligation to change. 

You can see in the media that people are starting to listen. You’ve recently been profiled by British Vogue. Are you happy about that?

When it’s well-written. It’s a disaster when it’s not. I sometimes feel that the press, on one level, have been very supportive. They have certainly been very supportive of me personally. I’ve had very close relationships with some brilliant journalists who really have advanced the conversation. But I find it very frustrating when people write about it like it’s the latest trend without having gone further into the conversation. I am in a very privileged position because I hang out with very young people. I’m an educator, I lecture at Central Saint Martins, I’m a mentor of young designers, but also students of media communication. So I feel the level of conversation is getting better and better. We need that level of participation from the media to penetrate as far as we can go. I was really, really proud when we were in the Mirror, because we need to go way further than the fashionista’s niche. 

With your work with young designers, do you see sustainability becoming ingrained in their way of thinking? 

It’s so ingrained that we don’t even bother calling it ‘sustainability’ anymore. We use other words. Some designers will be ‘upcycling’, others will be working mindfully with their local community. We don’t really talk about ‘sustainability’, we just talk about ways to make good fashion. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. I probably would have found a decent sized hole to crawl into had it not been for the younger generation who are innovating. Excitingly, they’re not just innovating when it comes to their collections, they’re innovating when it comes to their systems. That’s what’s encouraging. They’re really questioning. It’s come back to where it was for me. I was attracted to this because to me it was a creatively valid point of view. I wouldn’t have known how to make clothes with a brand-new piece of cloth. My challenge was making it was an old piece of cloth. And this is what I’m seeing now – students from all walks working with this conversation as a way to maximise their creativity. As if creativity is enhanced by limitations, rather than the other way around. 

You also got back from the Copenhagen Fashion Summit only yesterday. What came out of talks there?

Unfortunately, what came out is nothing new. I have been going to Copenhagen since it started (ten years ago), and I never have gone for the speakers. The speakers to me are always quite predictable. They’re a good mirror of where the industry is, but they’re not where I find my inspiration. My inspiration is the crowd. Because really, brands are made of people, like the people who attend Copenhagen. What’s exciting is the warmth, all the conversations that happen during lunch, in the toilets, or whatever. Of course, there are amazing nuggets of wisdom that some of the speakers do share from the audience, but overall for me it’s about the audience. And this year more than ever. Copenhagen used to be every two years. Now it’s every year. To be honest, between this year and last year not much has changed. But I’m not the right person to speak on Copenhagen. I don’t mean to sound patronising because when I say ‘I heard it all before’ well no wonder I have, this is my job. And I also have to consider that so many people haven’t. People arrive in fashion from various different sectors and for many this conversation is very new. 

Hopefully this interview will start conversations at Oxford. What can students here do to support Fashion Revolution or further your aims?

The great news is that fashion affects 100% of the population unless your students go around as raging nudists. So everyone can do something. One thing that interests me personally, particularly in my role as educator, is intersectionality. I believe fashion designers will have a need to employ marine biologists. Whether you’re studying Chemistry, the Law, Business, there is something you can do. It’s not about one section of society being more responsible than the other. We all are collectively. So whatever your studying, whatever your thesis is on, you’re doing it while wearing clothes. To have a thought of that is the first step. What is really important is to make those connections. If you don’t know enough, find the people that do and offer your services. We all need to have deep conversations about the industry. Fashion is an industry that needs to be dissected and changed but it is not the only one. All students can make a difference, whatever they’re chosen fields.