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Designing: A Contextual Heritage

Photography Zoe Ghertner Text Alexandra Marshall

It’s one thing to set a goal. It’s something else to figure out how to reach it. sustainable design requires working with a whole new kind of know-how, and fashion schools are an obvious place to plant an eco-seed.

Today only a few schools offer eco-curricula, among them ESMOD Berlin’s Sustainability in Fashion master’s and the Gucci-funded PhD program in Future Technologies for Sustainable Design at Central Saint Martins, which debuted this September. So what about all the fashion students out there without extended institutional support to develop alternatives to the textile and fashion industries’ toxic norms? With the right incentive, can this next generation start learning to shrink its carbon footprint?

To find out how fresh minds could tackle big problems with evolving resources, EVER and Gucci approached the Institut Français de la Mode, a renowned fashion school without a sustainability program of its own, and laid down this challenge: In four months, give us a design for the most sustainable Gucci bag imaginable. If the company’s ateliers in Tuscany can produce it, the winning piece will go on sale at Gucci flagships worldwide and online. The catch: Creative director Frida Giannini had to think the bag could sell. “Success means it’s got to be real and desirable too,” she says. It’s all very nice to make something eco and ethical, but if no one wants to buy it, who really cares?

She’s right. Sustainable fashion has to compete with conventional fashion. Out in the real world, the majority of consumers don’t care whether something is ecologically sound or not. They just want it to look good. The raw material that inspired this manifesto has awesome potential: The bamboo plant is one of the fastest-growing, has one of the highest rates of photosynthesis, and has an erosion-retarding root structure, making it one of the kindest (and fastest) of renewable resources. But it has had relatively small application in fashion so far. Until recently, bamboo’s progress as a textile has been limited to ultra-absorbent terry cloths and supple rayons that make heavy use of harmful chemicals during processing, says Burak Cakmak, the Gucci Group’s director of corporate responsibility, who has been flying all over the place trying to develop more sustainable fabrics, including many made out of bamboo. The one nontoxic example available today has the look and feel of linen. With more research and devepopment, kinder, more versatile alternatives will surely come. But what about right now?

From a group of IFM’s most accomplished senior students, EVER and Giannini selected three finalists: Fehr Farès, Robby Tjia and Laura Popoviciu. Each would develop their bag hand in calloused hand with Gucci’s in-house artisans. Materials like vegetable-dyed leather, recycled cotton, bamboo fabric lining and the straight, untreated bamboo roots that eventually become Gucci’s bag handles were provided. The rest was up to them.

The Winner

Laura Popoviciu, 25

Hometown

Oradea, Romania

Her Bona Fides

Bachelor’s degree from Ion Andrescu University of Art and Design; currently an intern working on fabrics and concepts for the Innovations Department of Louis Vuitton.

Her Big Idea

Sustainability in materials and production; a simple, unadorned shape to avoid any reference to disposable trends that stimulate overconsumption.

Her Bag

A minimalist, origami-like shopper made of recycled cotton with bamboo linen lining and bamboo handles. The corners fasten together with snaps, requiring minimal cutting and construction time, therefore taxing factory electricity less. Since the bag lies perfectly flat until it arrives at the store it requires less space for transport. Once in the store, it assembles into a boat shape, with two bamboo handles.

Her Learning Curve

The original design was more like a box, with four corners that pointed outward. Giannini revised the shape to make it friendlier to in-store displays, which will mean further refinement in the factories before the final model is complete.

Her experience

“I was really seduced by the process of bending the bamboo. The Gucci factories use a big flame to soften it and get the right curves. I tried to do it at home with boiling water and the raw force of my boyfriend, and it took almost an hour just to get to a right angle.

Runner Up

Robby Tjia, 24

Hometown

Surabaya, Indonesia

His Bona Fides

Winner of 2007’s Lancôme Color Design Award; internships with Alexander McQueen, Giles; currently interning at Balenciaga.

His Big Idea

Using bamboo caging to surround the bag, giving longer life to delicate vegetable-dyed leather.

His Learning Curve

During production, the bamboo cage that surrounded his roomy leather shoulder bag had to be reinforced with metal, adding unfortunate weight and noise. “Growing up in Indonesia,” says Tjia, “bamboo was everywhere but this was the first time I really thought about using it in fashion. Fashion sets trends and luxury brands can persuade the rest of us to be more responsible.”

Runner Up

Fehr Farès, 24

Hometown

Caracas, Venezuela, by way of New York City

His Bona Fides

Bachelor’s degree from Istituto Europeo di Design in Madrid; has a Madrid-based menswear business under his own name.

His Big Idea

A leather carryall with bamboo linen lining covered in bamboo tile starbursts to give a longer shelf life. “Sustainability means making things last.”

His Learning Curve

The hand-application of the bamboo tile, while creating an intricate and beautiful effect, made the piece cost-prohibitive.

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