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Clothing with a conscience: Three Brussels initiatives making fashion fairer
You might be familiar with the Locavore movement, in which people make an effort to eat food that is grown, raised, or produced locally. This is to reduce the environmental impact caused by long-distance shipping and to encourage local production - which often means access to heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables, which despite their superior taste have been abandoned by agribusiness for varieties that ship and package well.
Now there is the Locawear or Slow Fashion movement in which local designers use either local or - at the very least - organically produced fabrics or they upcycle to produce clothes that are sewn locally.
Up and Down Hill
Up and Down Hill is a Belgian e-shop launched by Mia Charlier (pictured above) who was frustrated when she tried to find local designers. She thought that if she was searching for them, then maybe others were also.
"We have designers from Ghent, Liège, Mons, Namur and Tournai on the site," she says. "We will be adding a few more for a maximum of 20 designers but we want to keep it small so that each designer gets plenty of visibility.
"Some of the designers use upcycling, which in this case is the repurposing of old clothing or fabric to create something new and of higher value. Others use Asian organic cotton, and then there is the use of local fabric such as Belgian linen. And everything is cut and sewn in Belgian workshops."
In addition to the website, Charlier is planning popup stores so that customers can actually touch the clothing. The first one was in Namur and the next ones will be in Ghent and then in Brussels.
She is also using a variety of photographers, models and musicians for the website that she finds in such varied places as Instagram or through word of mouth. "We want to create a community across Belgium," Charlier adds.
Up and Down Hill popup store, 4-9 February, Hilton Grand-Place, Brussels
Wonderloop is a new store in downtown Brussels that is also part of the Locawear/slow fashion movement. Located on the trendy Rue de Flandre, the store carries 20 designers/labels from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Portugal and the raw materials are organic cotton mostly from India, repurposed vintage clothes and upcycled canvas and polyester.
"What we sell is casual chic with prices as reasonable as is possible," says one of the founders, Héléna Van Aelst. "But with all our suppliers and their suppliers adhering to ecological and social criteria and certification, everyone in the chain of production is properly paid and one can't expect cut-rate prices.
"We also have different levels of products. Our three Brussels designers all make unique pieces or limited runs which are all sewn in Brussels at various workshops including Recréart which specialises in socio-professional reintegration of its workforce. The prices are higher but then these pieces are not necessarily everyday wear. For everyday wear we have our other lines which are less expensive."
The store was designed by a local architectural firm and is 95% made from recycled materials - so the business is sustainable in both its wares and in the store itself.
The remodel cost €36,000, one third paid for by a City of Brussels fund for innovative retail (called Open Soon), one third by the business, and - they are hoping - one third from a growfunding campaign which ends this week.
"We’re just asking for €10 from each person and we hope that the campaign will not only help the bottom line but also that contributors will feel a personal connection with the store," Van Aelst adds. "With their name on the wonderwall they will be at home in the store."
Free Design Initiative
While modern day fashion may mean buying trending clothes exported from far-off factories for low prices, others see it for what it truly is: wasteful. After graduating from design school, Brussels-based fashion designer Sia Rosenberg saw the negative side to the fast-fashion industry.
“Basically I was super-disgusted by this whole industry,” she says. "I think a lot of people are simply unaware of how brutal it is. The fast-fashion industry is the second-most polluted industry in the world. It comes right next to oil and gas."
Rosenberg saw the problem of pollution and felt it was her responsibility as a designer to consider this, and many other aspects of the fashion industry, when creating her fashion line, the Free Design Initiative.
The clothing line tackles a multitude of issues both in the fashion world and beyond. The line was inspired by classic men's suits. She said part of her inspiration came from seeing notable female politicians being confined to uncomfortable and unflattering skit suits. "For women, it seems like the only appropriate option available is the typical Angela Merkel, bulky skirt and jacket," she says.
Rosenberg was tired of seeing the pattern in women’s fashion of trying to distort the body’s appearance. The male suit has stayed essentially the same since its creation almost 200 years ago - and she decided it was time to give it a feminine touch.
“We work with the suit as the base and really deconstructed it and implemented it with more female perceived objects,” Rosenberg adds. By adjusting the suits to fit a feminine flair, Rosenberg she says she has created a new type of freedom in a world that is opening itself to the idea of gender fluidity.
"If you think of unisex clothing, it’s very flat. It’s very uninteresting,” she says. “You have no colours, no expressions in a way. So, I found it very interesting to make these contrasts of women and masculinity sort of merge together.”
However, Rosenberg knows fashion is far more than just the garment itself. She saw production quality as a way to tackle another issue: the current migrant crisis.
"In the world, borders are breaking down," she says. "We have a lot of refugees coming here to Europe and a lot of them are very skilful and I think it’s something we don’t consider. Maybe it’s because it’s too difficult because we come from different cultures and it is a long process to build up other relationships.
"It’s really about finding a common path and building relationships. That’s something I really want to do, I mean, we’re all human beings so why not make the best of it and help each other?"
She began working with an Afghan textile designer, Shamsia Ahmadi Nijat, who focuses on embroidery. Rosenberg hopes to eventually hire up to 10 female refugees to help her with her clothing line. She aims to make the wages fair and the hours flexible in order to accommodate mothers.
In order to get her clothing line started and funded, she began using a Belgian-based crowdfunding site called Growfunding. The campaign ran for three months but was ultimately unsuccessful.
"It’s either you make it to 100% of your goal or you don’t and you get nothing," Rosenberg says. “So, it set us back a bit because there are a lot of costs that come with doing a campaign like that.”
However, this hasn’t deterred her from moving forward. Rosenberg decided to apply for government funding. “I’m waiting for a reply from the Fédération Wallonie Bruxelles,” she says. “They have these funds you can apply for and I applied for one where I can have samples of my collection produced.”
In the meantime she plans to improve her business model and keep designing.